To serve and deflect 

Lake County cops mostly avoided punishment after being accused of abusing their power. The investigators who went after them weren't so lucky.

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"I tried to go out and talk to these witnesses and I couldn't find anybody that could testify to anything I could use to prove a case to take their licenses," Coker said. "Do I believe some things were going on? Yeah. But I got to have some solid evidence to make a charge."

Coker said that since the Coyote Club investigation began, poaching in Lake County has dropped off. "Whether it was law enforcement or not...a light had been shown on the hunting violation issues and they kind of died down to nothing," he said.


•••

On July 16, in a room at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena, Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth and his attorney, Ted Chester, sat before the POST Council waiting for it to decide Wadsworth's fate. POST had accused Wadsworth of a slew of falsifications going back nearly a decade, but the case boiled down to Wadsworth's son, Trevor. In late 2010, Wadsworth signed Trevor's MLEA application certifying that Trevor had met all of the requirements to attend the academy, when in fact Trevor had not. POST argued Wadsworth knew Trevor did not meet the necessary conditions.

The requirements to attend the academy include being an employed, sworn peace officer. While Trevor Wadsworth was attending basic training—something every Montana officer must do within 12 months of being hired—POST discovered that Trevor was neither employed nor had he taken the oath of office. Trevor Wadsworth then left the academy.

MLEA Director Kevin Olson subsequently suspended Dan Wadsworth's ability to enroll students at the academy because of "several years of a willful pattern of deceit and deception enrolling people that were not law enforcement officers." At least twice before, in 2004 and 2005, Dan Wadsworth had committed similar offenses.

click to enlarge Former Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Former Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth

After Trevor left the academy, as Sarah Hart told POST Council, "Trevor went back to the city of Ronan and continued to operate as a police officer—badge, uniform, gun." As POST investigated Dan Wadsworth, the City of Ronan produced a document in May 2011 indicating that Trevor had legitimately been hired and sworn in. POST, based on Wadsworth's inconsistent statements in his deposition, believes this document was also falsified.

Regardless, Trevor Wadsworth didn't complete basic training, and he still hasn't—yet he's still working as a cop. As of this week, Ronan dispatch confirmed Trevor remains an officer in the department.

"[Dan Wadsworth is] putting officers on the street who have no authority to be police officers," Hart said.

POST can't take action to revoke Trevor Wadsworth's certification because he doesn't actually have one. Attorney General Tim Fox's spokesman, John Barnes, said in a statement that the attorney general's office hopes the situation "can be resolved amicably and at the local level," but that the "Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that only properly trained and credentialed individuals are serving as law enforcement officers."

One of POST's counts against Dan Wadsworth was "willful violation of the code of ethics." His attorney argued that because the code of ethics was updated in 2008, well after Wadsworth received all of his law enforcement certifications, that "Chief Wadsworth may not be charged with violation of an oath he never took."

Hart responded: "To say that he gets off of a charge because ethics don't apply to him, based on his age, is unacceptable and...would set a very difficult precedent for POST going forward." Chester's argument suggests that the code of ethics shouldn't apply to any Montana officer certified before 2008.

Hart said that Wadsworth is guilty of "multiple, multiple falsities," and that there were "so many lies and problems that piled on top of each other that it was truly overwhelming."

Those falsities affected a different POST case against former Lake County Undersheriff Karey Reynolds, who was accused of committing perjury. To be eligible for undersheriff, Reynolds couldn't have a break in his law enforcement service exceeding three years. Wadsworth provided documentation showing that Reynolds had worked for him. Then-POST Director Ternes decided that Wadsworth's history of falsifying documents justified further investigation into Reynolds' work history. POST couldn't verify Reynolds' record and ordered him to go back to basic training.

It was suspected that Reynolds perjured himself on a search warrant affidavit he signed that claimed he had "20 years prior law enforcement experience." Assistant Attorney General Brant Light, in a May 2012 letter to Lake County Attorney Mitch Young, wrote, "It is clear that Karey Reynolds did not have 20 years of law enforcement experience," and his statement in the affidavit "was in fact false or misleading." But because the statement was immaterial to the case—the judge said she would have granted the search warrant regardless—Light believed Reynolds could not be charged with perjury.

POST dismissed its case against Reynolds in December 2012. He had already resigned from the Lake County Sheriff's Office, in January 2012.

At the Montana Law Enforcement Academy last week, Dan Wadsworth fidgeted as POST Council deliberated over how to punish him. Sarah Hart had recommended a 15-year suspension of all of his law enforcement certifications. Wadsworth is 55 years old, and such a lengthy suspension would be "tantamount to de facto revocation," as Chester had said.

The council voted unanimously to suspend Wadsworth for 15 years. After the vote, Wadsworth stood up and told the council, "I appreciate what you folks do."


•••

As POST proceeded through its cases against the seven officers, a separate civil case was filed in February 2012 in federal court in Missoula. The plaintiffs—former Lake County Sheriff's officers Terry Leonard, Mike Gehl and Steve Kendley, and current officers Levi Read and Ben Woods—accuse Sheriff Jay Doyle, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin, Lt. Mike Sargeant and former Sgt. Dan Duryee of organized crime.

The plaintiffs allege that the defendants "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." By "acting in concert and with criminal purpose," the defendants violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the plaintiffs argue.

click to enlarge Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle
  • Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle

The retaliations, including demotions and dismissals, resulted from the plaintiffs' attempts, they claim, to expose allegations of misconduct by their colleagues.

Leonard, after former Sheriff Lucky Larson let him go before the end of his first year as a deputy, anonymously launched Concerned Citizens of Lake County and created two websites calling attention to the allegations ahead of the 2010 election that would determine the next sheriff. Jay Doyle, who went on to win that election, filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleging that Leonard's website violated election laws and defamed Doyle. Lake County Attorney Mitch Young obtained a search warrant for Leonard's residence. In October 2010, Leonard's former colleagues raided his home and seized his computers. More than a year later, Leonard was exonerated of violating election laws.

When Leonard graduated last year from the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, his peers elected him as their class representative, honoring him with the Don Williams Award. Leonard also earned the Joe May Leadership Award. After Leonard graduated, the Pondera County Sheriff's Office hired him as a deputy. Last month, the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association presented Leonard with its "Lifesaver Award." In September 2012, Leonard, with the help of an off-duty firefighter from Phoenix, used a tire iron to pull a man from a crumpled vehicle engulfed in flames.

Leonard and his fellow plaintiffs will not likely see their federal case go to trial. On July 9, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch recommended dismissal. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen is expected to make the final decision in the coming weeks.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Rich Buley of Missoula, says it's difficult to prove organized crime, but his clients had no other course of action.

"In fact," he says, "we knew going in that almost never does anyone succeed in either getting to trial or winning...But since there really isn't any state remedy other than appealing to the attorney general to do something, that's what we had to try."


See also:
It's not over: Lawsuit naming Indy awaits resolution
The "To serve and deflect" companion reader


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