MADISON, Wis. — Student Megan Mengelt thought it was a compassionate gesture when a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant dean reached out after a driver who was drunk and texting killed Mengelt's mother.
What Tori Richardson, College of Letters and Science assistant dean, failed to mention even as the two continued to meet to discuss her grief and academic needs is that he was the one texting with that driver, a Lutheran bishop named Bruce Burnside.
The lapse of judgment is the subject of a lawsuit that Mengelt filed this month in Dane County Circuit Court against Richardson.
"If the plaintiff had any idea whatsoever that Richardson was a person with whom Burnside was engaged in a texting conversation at the time of Maureen Mengelt's death, the plaintiff would not have chosen to have any contact whatsoever with Richardson," said the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.
On the afternoon of April 7, 2013, Maureen Mengelt was running near her home in Sun Prairie, Wis., when a sport-utility vehicle that Burnside was driving hit her.
Burnside was on his way to church to deliver a sermon. His blood-alcohol level was 0.128, well over the legal limit.
And while driving, he was exchanging flirtatious text messages with Richardson, just days after the two men met at a party. Richardson twice tried to ascertain if Burnside was on the road while they texted.
"You will need to be scolded if this is the case," Richardson texted.
Richardson learned of the accident from a TV news report, and four days later sent an email to Megan Mengelt offering condolences and whatever assistance she might need.
In a deposition for another lawsuit that the Mengelt family filed against Burnside, Richardson said other members of his administrative team could have helped the freshman student. But he chose to do it himself, even though he and Megan Mengelt had never met.
They communicated by email and in person.
Not until 21 months later, in January 2015, did the Mengelt family obtain police reports identifying Richardson as the person texting with Burnside just before the accident. This caused Megan Mengelt severe emotional distress, the lawsuit claims.
The suit contends that Richardson was negligent in counseling Megan Mengelt and in failing to reveal his connection to Burnside.
It also alleges that Megan Mengelt trusted Richardson enough to confide in him about her feelings and revealed information Richardson sought about the ongoing criminal case against Burnside as well as the wrongful death suit the family planned.
In depositions, Burnside and Richardson have said they did not discuss these matters though they remained in touch after the accident. The civil suit against Burnside is scheduled for trial in July.
Richardson did not return a call nor email seeking his side of the story.
Richardson received a 30-day unpaid suspension beginning in May 2015, according to a UW-Madison statement. He is under extra supervision as he continues advising students.
By law, the state will defend him in this lawsuit. The statement went on to say an outside investigator found no evidence that Richardson shared student records inappropriately but that his conduct "was not in line with our expectations for employees."
Burnside, 62 and now a former bishop, pleaded guilty in May 2014 to driving drunk and killing Maureen Mengelt. He received a 10-year prison sentence.
He had served the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
In Richardson's deposition, he was was asked if he ever thought about the emotional consequences for Megan Mengelt if she were to learn of his role the day her mother was killed.
He asked to have a private word with his lawyer and then answered, "The quick response will be no."
He explained that he thought his interaction with her would be brief, "and she would go."
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