FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — From Aug. 21 until Oct. 12, Teresa Culpepper was locked in the Fulton County Jail.
And all that time she insisted she was not the woman police wanted for throwing hot water on Angelo Boyd — a man she had never met, a man who said he had never met her either.
At any time during those 53 days, the various entities in Atlanta's and Fulton County's justice systems could have saved her from the cracks she had fallen through.
But day after day they ignored protestations that "you've got the wrong person," something most of them hear all the time.
Even with things that "didn't add up," police and prosecutors moved forward with a case against Culpepper. The case continued even though Boyd told police and the Fulton County district attorney's office several times Culpepper was not the woman who attacked him.
The system's checks and balances simply did not work for Teresa Culpeper.
Aimee Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, said arrests based on mistaken identities are common. "I think it's a rare occurrence when people find out about it," she said.
As in Culpepper's case, mistaken arrests usually can be traced to similar names.
"There's kind of a domino effect of indifference to the fact that this is happening," said Gerry Weber, senior staff counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "There are a lot of steps along the way where the misidentification can be determined. Nevertheless, the innocent sit in jail."
Accounts of other instances of wrongful arrest suggest, however, the length of time Culpepper spent in jail is unusual for those who are not eventually convicted. Bright said most of the time the mistake is recognized within a few days of going into jail.
Culpepper reported her pickup stolen by her boyfriend on Aug. 21 and police Officer Jaidon Codrington responded.
Later that morning Boyd also called police, complaining that his girlfriend, Teresa Gilbert, had thrown boiling water on his back, according to the Atlanta Police Department's Office of Professional Standard's internal investigation.
Again Codrington was dispatched, this time to pick up Teresa Gilbert at an Ashby Circle address. He went instead to Culpepper's boarding house on Hawkins Street, after telling the dispatcher he already had been to the woman's house on a stolen pickup report.
Records and radio transmissions memorialized subsequent discussions between Codrington and other officers about discrepancies.
The addresses were different; the call came from Ashby Circle, but Culpepper was picked up more than a mile away on Hawkins Street.
Gilbert was described as 41 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a gold tooth and wearing her hair in a bun. Culpepper, now 47, is 5-6 and she did not have a gold tooth nor was her hair in a bun. Several people on Hawkins Street saw Culpepper at the boarding house at the same time Boyd was doused.
In the phone conversation about charges, the officers and a prosecutor in the Fulton County district attorney's office "complaint room" had similar discussions, according to Culpepper's lawsuit against APD, the Fulton County Jail, the DA and several individuals.
Boyd also told the police and the DA's office several times that they had the wrong woman but no one followed up.
And Gilbert remained free.
"What scares me is it's not just one agency," Maxwell said of the Georgia Innocence Project.
District Attorney Paul Howard declined to discuss Culpepper's case because of the suit.
Still, Howard said, "almost every part of our system depends on people doing their jobs."
The APD also declined to comment because of the suit. But the department disciplined a supervisor and two officers by suspending them without pay for 10, 14 and 30 days, respectively — a total of 54 days and one day longer than Culpepper was in jail.
Culpepper has no family in Atlanta. Her mother in LaGrange could not afford the cost of collect calls from the jail, so Culpepper had no one on the outside to advocate for her until a public defender was appointed to represent her when she was indicted last October for felony aggravated battery and misdemeanor assault.
Culpepper was brought to court Oct. 6, the day after she was indicted, to enter a plea.
Boyd was there. "No, that's not her," Boyd said, according to the transcript of the court session.
The felony charge was dismissed and then the judge apologized to Culpepper. "We'll get you out as soon as possible today," Fulton Judge Henry Newkirk said Oct. 6.
Still, Culpepper was held in jail another week because the misdemeanor assault charge was not dismissed at the same time as the felony aggravated battery charge and jail officials would not release her with any charges remaining.
Culpepper was released from jail on Oct. 12 to find she had been evicted, all her belongings stolen and her truck sold for parts to cover the towing company's costs.
Culpepper had to repay the federal government the $1,000 disability payment for her medical condition that was deposited in her account while she was in jail; the law does not allow for disability payments to be made to anyone in jail even if they have not yet been convicted of committing a crime.
"Everything was gone," Culpepper said.
Her landlord let her stay at the boarding house for four months, until she found a room at another place. "I didn't have nowhere else to go," Culpepper said.
Her arrest remains on her otherwise clean record. She has replaced the Ford Ranger that was sold for parts with a 1994 Toyota. She said her disability benefits have been restored.
She is trying to move on, but "I haven't got it [her life] back together yet," she said.
Meanwhile, Teresa Gilbert was indicted and was sentenced to five years' probation after she pleaded guilty last month to aggravated assault on Boyd.
"It was very frustrating," said Boyd, who was seriously burned when Gilbert threw boiling water on his back. "And she never spent a day in jail."