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Drug informant brutally beaten in Linn County Jail before testimony
Federal and state authorities are investigating assault involving murderer Drew Blahnik and another cellmate
CEDAR RAPIDS — An Oelwein man testified in a wheelchair against a drug dealer in federal court only days after being brutally beaten when he was transferred into a Linn County Jail cell pod with the dealer’s former cellmate — a convicted murderer — and another inmate recruited for the attack, records and interviews show.
The informant, Ethan Palmer, 48, was set to testify against Justin Michael Buehler, 39, also of Oelwein. But 12 days before the trial, Palmer was “sucker-punched” May 27 by inmate Drew Blahnik as he came out of the bathroom into the pod’s commons area, Palmer’s wife, Laurie, told The Gazette during phone interviews.
The attack, in which Palmer was kicked, punched and hit with food trays, came within 24 hours of him being moved into the same pod as Blahnik and Gregory Sills, 49, who also testified against Buehler.
Blahnik, 35, of Marion, was convicted in July 2021 of killing Chris Bagley, 31, of Walker, in 2018. He was sentenced to 57 years in prison. He remains in the Linn County Jail awaiting sentencing on a federal conviction of being a drug user in possession of a firearm. He faces another 10 years in federal prison for that conviction.
The beating resulted in Palmer sustaining two orbital fractures — broken bones around his eye — torn retinas, a broken nose and teeth, seven fractured ribs and a fractured knee cap, according to Palmer’s medical records Laurie Palmer provided to The Gazette.
Ethan Palmer, after being treated at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, was moved to a different county jail. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating anxiety and depression.
Laurie Palmer’s statements about the incident have been verified through court documents and emails she exchanged with jail and law enforcement officials. The U.S. Marshals Service and First Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter told The Gazette two investigations — federal and state — are ongoing into the assault.
“I didn’t learn about the assault until the next day,” Laurie Palmer, 52, said. “I didn’t see him until four or five days later. I couldn’t find out what was going on. Nobody would tell me anything. He didn’t remember everything at first. He couldn’t see well, had headaches and some memory issues.”
Laurie Palmer said she had to fight for her husband to receive follow-up visits to UIHC for his eye injuries.
Buehler’s federal trial
According to court documents, Palmer testified at Buehler’s trial June 8 while in a wheelchair because of his injuries. He briefly spoke to his wife before testifying and told her he was in pain from “head to toe,” she said.
“Ethan got lucky because he could have died,” his wife said, noting she’d read about Blahnik, who changed his name to Johnny Blahnik Church after his conviction, in news coverage of his murder trial.
Buehler subsequently was convicted in U.S. District Court on two counts of distributing methamphetamine.
U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams, in his order denying a new trial for Buehler, said evidence at trial showed Buehler knew the “informant” — Ethan Palmer — had been arrested and would be taken to the same jail pod where he previously had been in custody before being transferred to another jail.
Before Buehler was transferred, he told Blahnik that Palmer might be moved into the pod and asked Blahnik to assault him. Buehler wanted Ethan Palmer to look “f---ed up” and not testify for the prosecution, according to the judge’s order.
According to court documents, on the day of the beating, May 27, Blahnik, who’d served in the military, told cellmate Sills, “I’m gonna ride. You got my six?” — which is military jargon for “got your back.”
Sills said he understood that to mean Blahnik was going to beat up Palmer and that Sills should help him. Sills said he knew about Blahnik’s murder conviction and was afraid to say no and become Blahnik’s next “victim.”
Judge Williams noted in his order that federal prosecutors had no agreement with Palmer that his testimony against Buehler would lead to a “favorable resolution” of Palmer’s state charges. Palmer is facing charges in Fayette and Black Hawk counties for drugs and theft offenses, according to state court documents.
Laurie Palmer acknowledged her husband’s previous convictions and pending charges and said both of them are “recovering addicts.” She also received a deferred judgment last month for interference with official acts because she provided a false name for her husband during March traffic stop because he had outstanding warrants in Fayette County at the time.
She said she doesn’t care about the judgment of others or any retaliation they might suffer. What she wants is for the jail and the U.S. Marshals Service to be held accountable and take more precautions to protect inmates who are in protective custody and helping law enforcement by testifying.
“We already have a target on our backs,” she said.
Laurie Palmer said she has already experienced some intimidation. At the end of June, she said, she was outside in Oelwein when a truck went by and a person yelled, “Snitches get stitches and so do their b------,” as someone threw water on her. She said she was caught off guard and didn’t know what was being thrown at her.
“It happened so fast, and I didn’t really see who it was,” Laurie said. “I couldn’t identify them.”
She knows nothing can change what happened to her husband, but still wants to know how the assault could happen in a “government facility where’s there’s 24/7 monitoring.” Her husband said none of the jail staff responded to the assault until he was able to get to a call button afterward to ask for help.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said none of the jail staff witnessed the assault. But in reviewing surveillance video, jail administration said that “from the time the assault started until the time Palmer was removed from the cell block was just over three minutes.”
Gardner said there are surveillance cameras in each cellblock, but because of the “sheer numbers of cameras in the facility, they are typically rotating through the monitors. Staff did not witness the assault, and no one made staff aware of the assault until Palmer pushed the call button.”
No order against contact
Gardner said jail staffers aren’t “privy” to which inmates are testifying against whom in court. They receive only a remand, placing detainees in the county’s custody, and any no-contact orders between inmates, Gardner said.
The U.S. Marshals had not sought a no-contact order between Palmer and Blahnik before the assault, he said.
Laurie Palmer said she understands law enforcement has a difficult job. Her father, who died many years ago, was a former police chief in Waverly and Shellsburg and retired from the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office. She believes there are a lot of “good officers out there,” but she feels law enforcement in this instance failed her husband.
While she was glad the sheriff answered some of her questions, “I wish I could explain how hard it is, as a lifelong back-the-blue person, to now question any and every one of them. I still want a public apology from law enforcement.”
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