CLEARING HER NAME
Oct. 2, 2011
Darcie Pickren’s conviction has been set aside, but the bad feelings have not
Darcie Pickren, in court with her attorney James Hunt and Antrim County Prosecuting Attorney Charles Koop, on the left.
Darcie Pickren recently got something she’s wanted for 20 years -- a felony conviction for attempting to hire someone to beat up her ex-husband was expunged.
As far as the police and the courts and the prosecutors are concerned, from now on, the case never happened. Go to the courthouse and ask to see the case file. They won’t give it to you. They won’t even acknowledge the file ever existed. The case, by order of a judge, has been erased from history.
But Pickren is not content to leave the matter alone. She wants to talk about it at least one more time. She believes the fact she won the fight to make her conviction vanish is a vindication.
When the charges were filed in 1991, she was embroiled in a bitter divorce with her thenhusband, Mark Fleet. Things got ugly. There were accusations back and forth.
Amid the turmoil a child accused Mark Fleet of sexual abuse.
But it was Pickren who stood trial after an undercover police officer posing as a hit man said Pickren offered to pay him to kill Mark Fleet.
She was convicted of a lessor charge and her children were removed and placed with the estranged husband.
Now, 20 years later, Mark Fleet is in prison, serving a long sentence for criminal sexual conduct.
And Darcie Pickren is free. And her record is clean.
BACK IN COURT
The expungement hearing happened in the circuit court for Antrim County in Bellaire, the same room where, two decades earlier, Pickren stood trial under her married name, Darcie Fleet, and the same place where her ex-husband later stood trial himself.
During a short, uneventful hearing this August, Pickren’s conviction was expunged.
Afterward, Pickren hugged a dozen or so friends and family members and exchanged high fives. She stood outside the courthouse and held up the piece of paper that said her record was clear.
It would seem the case is over. That felony hung over Pickren’s head in so many different ways -- it got her fired from jobs, it prevented her from getting jobs, it got her fired from volunteer positions. It meant 20 years of menial labor, struggling to pay bills and having her family worry about her.
She had attempted to have the conviction set aside a decade ago and was turned down, so while this is a victory for Pickren, she feels like it’s come too late.
Her family didn’t need to worry, though, she said.
"I’m just grateful God picked me for this to happen, because I made it." she said. "I’m strong enough."
And all along, Pickren has maintained she was wrongly convicted.
She might have wanted to hurt her exhusband back then, Pickren acknowledges even today, but she had good reason -- her ex, Mark Fleet, was a child molester and she wanted to protect her kids.
"You’re damn right I wanted revenge - - because he was sexually assaulting my children," Pickren said.
"˜GOES BACK 25 YEARS’
This is a story about how things that happen at one time can reverberate through decades. "This is very convoluted," Pickren says. "It goes back 25 years."
Despite the victory, Pickren remains angry at Charles Koop, the Antrim County prosecutor today and 20 years ago.
Most of all, Pickren is angry because she believes Koop turned his back all those years ago, ignored allegations that Mark Fleet was molesting her children, and saw to it the children were placed with her husband.
Although at the hearing Koop did not oppose the expungement, he filed a brief in opposition to it a few days before. He leveled some of the same accusations that he did in her felony trial two decades earlier.
Koop said at the hearing that while no one disputes Pickren has turned around her life in the past 20 years and is now an upstanding, law-abiding citizen, he didn’t want to allow her to revise history.
For Pickren, it reopened a wound. "If someone would have taken a knife and just twisted it. That’s what he did," she said.
Koop maintained in the papers that Pickren did try to hire someone to kill her husband and that she also wanted to have his girlfriend at the time killed, even though the girlfriend never did anything to Pickren’s children.
"The Defendant’s goal in the solicitations was not about protection of her children, but about getting Mr. Fleet to agree to a property settlement and to stop the harassment she perceived was coming from Mr. Fleet, his family, and (Mark Fleet’s girlfriend)," Koop wrote.
TWO SIDES TO STORY
Koop also argued Pickren was willing to tell the man she thought was a hit man to harm her own children to get her way in the divorce.
"She told the undercover officer to "˜stick a gun in his face and tell him you will kill his kids’ for the sole purpose of getting him to sign the divorce papers," Koop wrote.
Pickren denies that ever happened. Koop can no longer comment about the criminal case against Pickren that was expunged, he said, but he was able to discuss the investigation and prosecution of Mark Fleet.
Pickren claims that Koop only made those arguments in his brief because he took her exhusband’s side so long ago and now that Mark Fleet has been proven to be a child molester, he wants to cover his tracks. She said she believes even today that Koop knew her husband was a child molester.
"He has had this passionate disdain for me," Pickren said. "All the while Koop knew what was going on. I don’t care what he says."
Koop stands by his record and says Mark Fleet was investigated and he didn’t have the evidence to try him for child sexual abuse until several years later.
"˜STORYBOOK WEDDING AND ROMANCE’
The decades-old dispute began with a nasty divorce. And the divorce, like all of them, began with a wedding.
Darcie Pickren says she met Mark Fleet in Bellaire one day when she was playing softball.
He appeared behind the fence near home plate and he watched her. She immediately didn’t like the looks of him. There was something wrong with him. But there was also something else about him. And she couldn’t help notice he was good looking.
After the game, she was eating popcorn and a hand appeared from behind her, reached into the box, and took some. It was Mark Fleet.
Months later, in 1984, they would be married.
Darcie and Mark Fleet had two children together. Mark also adopted two children Darcie had from an earlier marriage. At first it was a happy relationship. Pickren says she and Fleet looked like a happy, prominent couple around Bellaire. He was blond and good looking. She was tall and athletic and attractive.
"It was a storybook wedding and romance," she says.
Together the couple started a trash hauling business and the future looked bright.
After a couple of years, however, the couple began to grow apart. Darcie suspected infidelity. She says Fleet grew distant and found excuses to get away. She heard a rumor that Fleet had been spending time with someone much younger. A girl in high school.
The marriage dissolved when Pickren confronted him about his new teenage friend.
"He told me he liked her, I said, "˜Really?
What’s that supposed to mean?’"
The break-up quickly spiraled out of control.
There were confrontations between Pickren and her ex and the new girlfriend that led to criminal charges against Pickren.
In March of 1990, Pickren said she visited the home where the 29-year-old Fleet lived with his teenaged girlfriend. She said she told the girl to stay away from her husband and the girl attacked her, shoved her to the ground and hit her, tearing her leather jacket and pulling a gold chain from her neck.
The next day Pickren was charged with assault and battery against the girl.
A day later, when she went to the couple’s business and saw Mark Fleet there, she said he physically restrained her when she attempted to remove property and he later slipped on ice.
Fleet filed an assault complaint against her, alleging that she attempted to run him over with a truck.
While charges were filed against her, Pickren says the sheriff’s department would take reports about complaints she had against Fleet for trespassing and violating a restraining order, but he managed to avoid charges.
Pickren maintains that Fleet was too wellconnected in Bellaire for the police to take her word over his. His mother had been editor of the local paper, he was friends with the police chief, and he taught Sunday school, she said.
Koop said Mark Fleet was not treated with favoritism. "Truthfully, I don’t know who Mark Fleet’s powerful friends were in the community," he said.
None of the cases against Pickren from that time ended in conviction.
That July, Pickren said she was at a park with her children and Fleet showed up and drove away in her van, using an extra set of keys. She said she tried to stop him and he punched her as he drove away.
She says she suffered a broken nose in the incident, filed a police report, and that, again,
charges against Fleet were never brought.
One of Darcie Fleet’s supporters at a hearing in August where a judge expunged her record. Photos by Patrick Sullivan.
She said he already had a Corvette she had purchased, and now she had no vehicle and no way to get her kids around town.
Pickren said Fleet and his girlfriend followed her and prank-phone-called her, apparently trying to rattle her.
"They did this systematic harassment of me because they wanted me to look crazy," Pickren said.
Mark Fleet did not respond to a letter requesting comment sent to him in prison on Sept. 1.
SEX ABUSE ALLEGATIONS ARISE
If the relationship was acrimonious then, it would soon reach new levels.
In the fall of 1990, Pickren’s son, one from an earlier marriage who Mark Fleet had adopted, made allegations that Fleet had molested him.
The boy was around 11 at the time. "I was next to his bed and he was crying," Pickren said. "He told me that Mark had been playing with his privates and doing bad things. I could hardly breathe."
Pickren told her son’s therapist who reported the allegations to authorities, but no charges were filed.
Fleet was interviewed in December and he passed a polygraph. Pickren said that led authorities to believe her ex over her son, who later took a polygraph which the police investigator said he failed.
The prosecutor at the time the allegations arose, Bryan Graham, did not bring charges and decided to step down at the end of the year. Koop was appointed to take over.
During this period, the divorce was still unfolding and Pickren said she was under a lot of stress.
"I was distraught, confused. I couldn’t believe what was happening," she said.
Pickren wrote in one of her legal briefs in support of her petition that she believes the allegations of sexual abuse led to the murderfor-hire case against her.
"Mark Fleet knew he better do something drastic when confronted by (me) about the abuse allegations," she wrote. "He told (me), "˜The best way to get the focus off of a criminal is to make someone else look like the criminal, and you are going down.’"
Koop said Pickren’s behavior at the time undermined any chance of a case being made against Mark Fleet.
For example, before the solicitation charges were filed, she was caught by police following Fleet and his girlfriend at Metro Airport in Detroit, Koop said. She was wearing a disguise and came to the attention of police at the airport because they thought she looked like a prostitute, Koop said.
Pickren said she was at the airport to make sure Fleet didn’t leave the state with the children, something he could not legally do.
Koop said there were problems with the case against Fleet. He said he is not allowed to disclose polygraph results -- Fleet took three of them -- but when he reviewed them, it was clear he had no case.
"At one point I told her and her family, because of their behavior, you know, no one is ever going to believe those kids," Koop said. "Any good defense attorney would just say this is a divorce issue."
In a civil lawsuit that spilled out of the case, Court of Appeals judges echoed Koop’s point -- Darcie Pickren’s outrageous behavior diminished the accusations she and her son made.
"The initial complaints were made in the context of a bitterly fought divorce between Darcie and Mark Fleet, who had taken up with a third party," the judges wrote in an opinion. "For good or bad reasons, Darcie Fleet had no credibility with most, if not all, of the public officials involved. Allegations were investigated by other agencies and no charges were ever brought or substantiated against Mark Fleet until 1996."
Pickren believes she should have been taken seriously.
"That is absurd. That is absurd. I will never forget the day I walked into Koop’s office. He wasn’t even prosecutor. It was Dec. 14. ... That will stick in my mind for the rest of my life," Pickren said. "I walked in and I said, "˜Hello, I’m Darci Fleet.’ I shook his hand and I said, "˜I want you to know that Mark Fleet is a pedophile.’ He looked at me and said, "˜You know, you might be right, he might have molested his adopted step children, but he won’t molest his biological children.’" Koop remembers the meeting differently.
He said he recalls warning Pickren that her behavior could enable Fleet to get away with sexual abuse because she was undermining her own credibility.
"The first person who came to me for an appointment was Darcie Fleet, I think it was the middle of December, 1990," Koop said. "Miss Fleet outlined the problems they were having with their divorce, ... there was childish stuff going on between the two of them. ... I told them I’d arrest either one of them (Pickren or Mark Fleet) if they didn’t knock it off."
HIT MAN COMES TO TOWN
Around that time, Pickren was put in touch with a mystery man who offered her some help.
Pickren said she learned if she could prove Fleet and his girlfriend were living together, the Friend of the Court would prohibit the girl from being present during weekend visitations with the children.
"My only concern was my children," Pickren later wrote in an account she prepared about what happened.
What happened next is she met the man who would introduce her to a hit man.
"A guy from town who was always in trouble, because of "˜the system,’ approached me saying he had heard about how I was being treated "˜by the system’ and wanted to help," she wrote.
Pickren said she asked the man to help get her photographic proof that Mark Fleet and the teenager were living together.
The man returned two weeks later and said he tried to get the pictures but he was spotted by Fleet, who ran after him and broke his camera.
"He said he had a friend that could help me," Pickren wrote.
That led Pickren to the hit man, to whom she told her story -- that her ex had beaten her, stolen her van and Corvette, and had molested her son.
"This man said, "˜If I were you, I’d kill him.’ I was baffled," Pickren wrote. "I said, "˜What, are you crazy?’ Then he consoled me and said I was a pretty lady and he would help with whatever I needed."
Mark Fleet, a prisoner at the Cooper Street Facility in Jackson, is serving a 20 to 40 year sentence with the Michigan Department of Corrections after he admitted he molested his children.
JUST SEEKING PHOTOS
She says while the mystery man repeatedly talked about killing Mark Fleet, she insisted that all she needed were photos to prove he was living with the teenage girl.
At the time Pickren worked two jobs, nursed a baby in between, and barely slept, she said. She worked at the post office in Central Lake and at the postal distribution center in Traverse City.
"And to tell you the truth, I thought he was just a guy who was hanging out," she said.
Then he asked for some money for expenses and he called repeatedly and harassed her for expense money.
A close friend advised her to give him some money to make him go away, she said. She gave him $200.
On June 21, 1991, while Pickren was at work at her TC post office job, she received a call from the mystery man, who she would soon learn worked as an undercover state police officer. She met him outside, where she was surrounded by police and arrested. She faced two counts of solicitation of murder among other charges.
Mark Fleet would wind up with custody of the couple’s children after Koop filed an abuse and neglect petition against Pickren.
PICKREN ON TRIAL
Although her court file is no longer public, it’s possible to piece together an account of her trial from media accounts from the time.
Testimony at trial, which took place a year after her arrest, mirrors much of what Pickren says.
The solicitation case began when Pickren asked a man who had been in trouble with the local criminal justice system to help her. She wanted the man to take photos of Mark Fleet and his girlfriend.
The man agreed, but instead of doing what he was asked, he went to the police, where he and an undercover state police officer concocted a story: they would say the man had tried to take the photos but had been attacked by Mark Fleet. The man would then introduce Pickren to somebody who could help her, the undercover officer, who would pose as a parolee willing to do anything for her.
When Pickren and the undercover officer met, there was talk of threatening Mark Fleet and his girlfriend and talk of killing them, but at a critical juncture, according to the reports of the testimony of the state police officer, Pickren backed down and said she didn’t want to go that far.
He alleged she came back to him later wanting to beat up Fleet and agreed to pay $200 toward that plan. That’s apparently what the judge and the jury believed, because the judge threw out the solicitation to commit murder charges and the jury convicted her on one count of solicitation to commit great bodily harm.
Pickren disputes the testimony of the state police officer, saying he put words into her mouth: "He knows it, too. Everything he said in court, that he said I said, was what he said to me."
Pickren said she was prohibited at trial from testifying about molestation allegations against Fleet.
The judge sentenced Pickren to time served, which had been around six months.
MARK FLEET GOES TO PRISON
But for Pickren, there was little solace in the outcome because she now had a felony conviction and she didn’t have custody of her children.
And as the years passed, there were more allegations of sexual misconduct against Mark Fleet.
After the son came forward, a daughter, while at church camp in 1993, revealed that she had been sexually abused. There was talk about Fleet and underaged babysitters.
TC attorney Robert Steadman, who represented Pickren in the 1990s, accused Koop at the time of looking the other way as evidence mounted.
"When Darcie Fleet, in her desperation for action, was convicted of hiring someone to assault Mark Fleet, you took the position that she was entirely wrong in her continued assertions that Mark Fleet had been abusing his children," Steadman wrote. "...You maintained your trust in Mark Fleet for six, long years in the face of mounting evidence of his criminal actions while his minor children and others suffered unspeakable assaults and permanent psychological injuries."
Koop defended his treatment of the case and says he only brought charges against Fleet when it was possible to bring them.
Koop said he doesn’t have any regrets about the way he handled the case, even in light of the fact that it turned out Fleet was molesting the children.
"I’m talking 20 years later and I have a lot more experience. Would I have handled it differently? I don’t think so," Koop said.
He said the case did leave him skeptical about polygraph exams.
"I’d never trust one. I’d never take one," he said.
In 1996 Fleet was finally prosecuted for child sexual abuse. It was when a younger child came forward and a new girlfriend witnessed abuse that the police and Koop’s office were able to make a case.
"I was up in the U.P. when I got the call from the state police," Koop said.
They set up a call between Fleet and one of his children and recorded incriminating statements. After that, Fleet admitted to molesting all four children, Koop said.
"Frankly, the only way you could ever get a conviction, based on all that went on, was for (Fleet to make) a confession," Koop said.
Fleet pleaded guilty to first- and seconddegree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison in 1997.
His earliest parole date is Nov. 19, 2012.
Without parole he could be in prison until 2029.
Pickren plans to oppose his release. "I’ll be there," she said. "He is not getting out."