Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lake County law enforcement officers sue colleagues in federal court

Posted by on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 12:17 PM

For months a handful of law enforcement officers in Lake County have been denying allegations of misconduct. Now they’ll be defending themselves in court.

The plaintiffs: Ben Woods, Terry Leonard, Levi Read, Steve Kendley, and Mike Gehl
  • The plaintiffs: Ben Woods, Terry Leonard, Levi Read, Steve Kendley, and Mike Gehl

Five current and former officers in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department filed a lawsuit in federal court today (PDF) alleging that four of their colleagues, including the sheriff and undersheriff, retaliated against them for bringing forward evidence of wrongdoing within the department, ranging from a deputy’s lies about serving as a U.S. Marine to several officers’ involvement in a poaching group known as the “Coyote Club.”

The plaintiffs—Detective Mike Gehl, Detective Steve Kendley, former Deputy Terry Leonard, Deputy Levi Read and Deputy Ben Woods—have been “reprimanded in their employment, have suffered demotions, have been denied promotions, and have been subjected to a hostile work environment by the leadership of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department because of the exercise of their First Amendment constitutional rights as well as the exercise of their duty as Montana Peace Officers,” the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs claim that the defendants—Sheriff Jay Doyle, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin, and officers Mike Sargeant and Dan Duryee—“have formed and continue to operate an organization of officers the purpose of which is to engage in illegal activities and the covering up of such illegal activities by retaliation against officers who ‘don’t go along’ with this group.”

“These gentlemen did not want to file this suit,” says the plaintiffs’ attorney, Rich Buley, of Missoula. “However, because of the total inaction of Lake County officials, as well as state officials, including the attorney general’s office, they had no option.”

The lawsuit further alleges that the defendants, “acting in concert and with criminal purpose,” violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by attempting to prevent plaintiffs from providing evidence of the “unlawful killing, poaching and interstate transportation of illegally taken game.”

As the Independent reported in December, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in September 2010 began investigating the so-called Coyote Club, a circle of Lake County law enforcement officers who’d allegedly been poaching game animals for years. The investigation, which is ongoing, has centered on former reserve deputy Jesse Jacobs and Jason Nash, an officer with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, but the dozens of interviews conducted by Game Warden Frank Bowen also implicate the defendants, specifically Sargeant and Duryee.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that defendants Doyle and Yonkin violated Leonard’s civil rights when they searched his home and confiscated his computer in September 2010. Earlier that year, with the sheriff’s election upcoming, Leonard had created two websites to disseminate information about the alleged misconduct in the sheriff’s department. Suspected of having committed the misdemeanor crimes of “election materials not to be anonymous, and criminal defamation,” his home was searched. The lawsuit claims Yonkin downloaded the data on Leonard’s computer even though the search warrant didn’t allow for searching the computers themselves. Leonard’s property wasn’t returned to him until February 2011. No charges were filed against him.

Leonard told the Independent late last year that the Lake County Sheriff’s Department “had no intention of seeing justice done or even conducting a proper investigation with due diligence. It was simply a strong-arm tactic to send a message of fear and intimidation... Basically, ‘Don’t question what we are doing here in Lake County. Don’t bring attention to us. Don’t point out the corruption—or we will come to your home, search it and seize your property.’”

In the lawsuit, Gehl, Kendley, Read, and Woods all claim to have been reprimanded for attempting to expose misconduct in the department. Kendley reported that Duryee had altered a rifle registered to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to make it a machine gun, a violation of federal law. Read complained that Duryee fabricated his tales of Gulf War combat. (That purported experience earned Duryee command of Lake County’s Special Response Team. He later admitted to lying about his military service.) The plaintiffs all made complaints about Doyle, Sargeant and Duryee’s belonging to the Coyote Club, and about officers stealing ammunition that had been donated to the department.

Gehl, Read and Woods were suspended without pay. Gehl and Kendley were also demoted, punishment, they claim, for taking their complaints to Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock in January 2011. The demotions, the suit states, came as a “direct result of their exercise of their constitutional rights of free speech.” Sheriff Doyle has denied that the demotions resulted from meeting with Bullock.

Doyle didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. “Everything they are alleging has already been investigated—fully,” he said of the allegations late last year.

“These aren’t the only actions of wrongdoing or breaking of laws that we intend to present at trial,” Buley says. “There’s much more.”

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