crime

The Twisted Case of a Dean Who Hid His Role in Killing of Student's Mother

After Megan Mengelt's mother was killed by a drunk driver, she sought counseling at her school—not realizing that her counselor was in contact with the man who took her mother's life.

Molly Oswaks

Molly Oswaks

Rich Herrmann via flickr

In 2013, a bishop who was allegedly driving drunk and texting on his way to a church ceremony killed Megan Mengelt's mother. Megan, a student at University of Wisconsin–Madison, was devastated but found some small solace in an assistant dean, Tori Richardson, who reached out to her after the accident. What Mengelt didn't know: The dean had played a role in her mother's death. Now, Megan is suing him.

On April 7, 2013, Mengelt's mother, Maureen, 52, was out running near her home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, when she was struck and killed by the bishop, 59-year-old Bruce Burnside, who had been involved in a "lengthy exchange of text messages" at the time of the accident.

According to Mengelt's lawsuit, four days after her mother was killed, Richardson emailed Mengelt to offer condolences. Richardson also told Mengelt that he'd be reaching out to her instructors on her behalf. What Richardson failed to mention was that he was the person Burnside was texting when he struck Mengelt's mother. According to the suit, over the following months, Richardson and Mengelt developed a "counseling relationship" that included multiple meetings and discussion about her feelings regarding the criminal charges against Burnside—as well as a potential civil suit Mengelt was considering filing against Burnside for her mother's death. Throughout all this, Richardson never disclosed his connection to Mengelt's mother's death.

Twenty months after the accident, however, Mengelt and her family were given access to various police reports related to the case, which is where she learned the truth about Richardson.

Mengelt's suit accuses Richardson of acting negligently in his relationship with Mengelt by failing to disclose his true motives and soliciting information regarding the ongoing criminal and civil litigation—information Mengelt would have kept confidential, had she known her counselor's motivations and his role in her mother's death. Mengelt claims to have to have incurred medical expenses due to severe and permanent emotional distress caused by Richardson's actions. She is seeking damages. Last summer, before the lawsuit was filed, the University of Wisconsin suspended Richardson for 30 days with no pay for his actions regarding Mengelt.

Mengelt and her attorney Eric Ryberg, of the law firm Habush Habush & Rottier, declined to comment for this story. Attempts to reach Dean Tori Richardson by phone and email went unanswered. A representative from the university's office of communications, Greg Bump, issued the following statement:

University of Wisconsin–Madison employee Tori Richardson is being sued because of acts allegedly committed while carrying out the duties of his job. Richardson is an assistant dean in student academic affairs in the College of Letters and Science; his primary job duty is to advise students. While the university is not a party to this lawsuit, the law provides that the state will defend this type of claim against an employee. The university was made aware of some of these allegations last year. An outside investigator conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations against Richardson. The investigation found no evidence that Richardson shared student records inappropriately. However, it was determined that while his actions were within his job duties, Richardson's conduct was not in line with our expectations for employees. As a result of not meeting the university's professional standards, Richardson received a 30-day, unpaid suspension. Richardson has continued to work with students but has been under extra supervision. Extra training on the topic will be added to the unit, and the general issue has been discussed with the campus Director of Undergraduate Advising. Because the allegations pertain to Richardson's conduct in his role as a state employee, he will be defended in the case by the state Department of Justice. The university will have no further comment on this matter at this time.