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'I felt violated,' frisked teen tells jury in Bullskin church lawsuit

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Connellsville woman and her daughter tearfully recalled before a federal jury on Wednesday how the teenage girl was searched by the Fayette County Drug Task Force in 2009 while camping at a “Funk Fest” sponsored by a controversial church.

Kimberlye Keefer and her daughter, Ashlye, now 18, who said they were members of the nondenominational Church of Universal Love and Music in Bullskin, testified they thought the search was inappropriate and unnecessary.

“I felt violated,” said Ashlye Keefer, who told jurors she was 14 at the time.

The church, the Keefers and several other members of the now-defunct congregation are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the county alleging the raid during the three-day music festival violated their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and protection against illegal search and seizures.

New York attorney Gregory Koerner, who represents the church, is arguing the raid was ordered by county officials in retaliation for an out-of-court settlement on a similar freedom of religion lawsuit in 2008, when the church received a $75,000 settlement from the county.

Ashlye Keefer said she and her mother were camping on the 147-acre church property during the Aug. 1, 2009, drug raid, and she needed to use a portable bathroom.

Because of the ongoing search of the property, Kimberlye Keefer said she accompanied her daughter and while Ashlye was in the facility, she was approached by three armed policemen who ordered the pair to go to an area near the stage.

“I really didn't know what was going on,” she said.

Kimberlye Keefer said she was frisked first by a female officer and was “patted down” outside her clothing. Her daughter was searched, she said.

The teenager testified the officer patted around her thighs, checked the waistband of her pants, lifted her shirt above the waistband, “then reached up, pulled out my bra and shook it.”

“I didn't think it was an appropriate way to treat a minor,” Kimberlye Keefer testified as she wiped away tears.

She said her family joined the church after checking out several traditional churches and attended potluck dinners and Sunday services there as well as music festivals.

Under questioning by Koerner's co-counsel, Dustin Picken of Pittsburgh, the younger Keefer said she was “embarrassed” by the incident. She added there were so many people around she was not sure whether her chest had been exposed to nearby concert-goers who were waiting to be searched.

She said she became a recluse after the incident, shutting off friends “and staying by myself.”

The Keefers had no drugs, according to testimony.

Under cross-examination by one of the county's attorneys, Jeff Cohen, Keefer admitted she did not mention in a 2012 deposition on the incident that her body may have been exposed to others during the search.

“There were over 100 people around the stage. ... Not everyone was looking at me at the time,” Keefer said when questioned about the prior testimony.

The church rested its case against the county after the Keefers' testimony.

Marie Milie Jones, counsel for the county, opened the defense by calling Connellsville Police Sgt. Ryan Reese, a member of the drug task force.

Reese said the raid was not retaliatory, but was suggested by First Assistant District Attorney Mark Brooks. Reese said Brooks told him the office had received numerous complaints about drug use during the church-sponsored concerts.

“Informants had told me it was an open-air drug market. But I had never been there before and had no preconceived opinion about it,” Reese testified.

Reese testified he and another undercover officer attended two concerts on May 16 and July 4, 2009, before acquiring a search warrant for the Aug. 1 raid.

During those concerts, Reese said he and the other officer were able to purchase marijuana, mushrooms and LSD, and saw people “smoking marijuana.” He said some vendors sold glass pipes for marijuana smoking.

Reese described a woman selling a tray of marijuana-laced “Rice Krispies treats” that were forwarded to the state police crime lab for tests.

The Aug. 1 raid netted 76 bags of marijuana, 20 bags of hallucinogenic mushrooms, nine hits of LSD, two bags of hashish, six tanks of nitrous oxide and drug paraphernalia, according to testimony. The raid resulted in 23 arrests.

In September, U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose ruled the county's “all persons” search warrant for the church property was unconstitutional, but said a jury would have to decide whether the county conducted the raid in retaliation. The church has since closed.

The trial resumes Thursday morning before Ambrose.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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