Police chief suspends anti-crime team, reassigns officers after judge tosses case over false statements
Dec. 17, 2021 Updated Sat., Dec. 18, 2021 at 10:02 p.m.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has suspended his department’s Police Anti-Crime Team and reassigned all of its officers after a federal judge last week dismissed a drug trafficking case against a Spokane man after determining the statements by his arresting officers were false.
Meidl said the order by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson was among the factors of his decision regarding the PACT team. He has ordered an internal investigation into the activities of the officers.
Peterson dismissed multiple criminal counts against Jody Lee Wallette, that included distribution of the illicit opioid fentanyl. Among the drugs involved in the case were so-called “Mexi-blues,” pills that have killed people and become a focus of drug agents.
She made the decision after suppressing evidence brought forward by Spokane Police Officers Scott Lesser and Winston Brooks. The two officers are part of the anti-crime team that has come under fire by people within and outside the police department because of discrepancies between officers’ notes and official reports.
The 10 or so officers who are members of the PACT will be reassigned to patrol, Meidl said, in part because of Peterson’s ruling, and because the department needs its traffic unit officers back to working collisions.
“When we’re looking at the concerns that were brought forward in this (order), it really reinforced that the landscape has changed, in terms of what officers are able to do and not able to do,” Meidl said.
The court record shows that Lesser used a confidential informant who had been arrested for possessing heroin and methamphetamine to buy fentanyl last February at a northeast Spokane home.
But the phone the informant used to set up the drug purchase using text messages belonged to another person, and Lesser’s partner, Brooks, testified that he identified Wallette at the scene of the drug buy, even though it was dark and the handwritten notes by the officers did not confirm Wallette was at the scene.
A witness later told police that Wallette wasn’t at the drug buy. The evidence in court showed receipts and cellphone data that put Wallette in Bellevue at the time.
“The search affidavits in this case may contain false statements or omissions made with reckless disregard for the truth and the false statements were necessary to the finding of probable cause,” Peterson said.
Lesser had arrested Wallette about 10 days after the arranged drug buy, an arrest Peterson ruled was made without probable cause considering the evidence.
She tossed all evidence in the case collected by Lesser and Brooks, and on Thursday approved a motion to drop all charges against Wallette in the case.
Meidl said the department launched an internal affairs investigation into the arrest and investigation following Peterson’s order. But he repeated that the order was not the sole reason for suspending the PACT, a unit established in 2011 that focuses on pursuing repeat offenders and other serious crimes.
“If this was the only concern we had, this document, we would not be rotating PACT teams back to other positions,” Meidl said.
Concerns about officers’ testimonyUnder a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors must turn over any evidence to a defense team that might exonerate a suspect. That includes any evidence that could call an investigating officer’s testimony into question.
Sandy Baggett, the attorney for Wallette, said Peterson’s finding and dismissal of the case should cause local prosecutors to determine whether Lesser and Brooks fit that description.
“I think they should be,” Baggett said of whether the two officers should be on what’s known as a “Brady list” – a group of officers whose testimony should be questioned.
A copy of officers fitting that description provided by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office on Thursday did not list Lesser and Brooks.
Spokane Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell said in an email that his office received a copy of the federal court ruling earlier this month. Lesser was given until Feb. 1 to respond to the finding in the court’s judgment.
After his response and the internal investigation by the department are received, the prosecutor’s office will conduct an officer review board, which will “consider all facts and circumstances, findings and conclusions” before a decision is made whether to place Lesser on the list, Haskell wrote.
The court did not make findings regarding the conduct of any other officer that would cause the process to be initiated, Haskell said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern Washington did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding whether the two officers were on their list of “Brady” officers.
The allegations of discrepancies between handwritten notes and official records was raised in a whistle-blower complaint by former Spokane Police Detective Lonnie Tofsrud.
In 2017, Tofsrud, then a Spokane police detective, noticed discrepancies between the official report and notes that PACT members Cpl. Jeffrey McCollough and Sgt. Kurt Vigesaa entered on a confidential informant’s arrest, according to a complaint for damages Tofsrud filed in federal court. Tofsrud was concerned that the prosecutor’s office would have issues with the discrepancies due to Brady list implications. Tofsrud called McCullough and urged him to address the discrepancies.
He then went to a Spokane County prosecutor with his concerns, who dismissed the case.
Tofsrud was later disciplined by the Spokane Police Department for going outside of the chain of command by going directly to prosecutors rather than internal investigations.
An internal affairs investigation into Tofsrud that he alleges in court documents was improperly conducted determined he knowingly made false claims to harm or destroy the reputation of another department member, and that his complaints against McCullough were not consistent. Tofsrud denied being untruthful.
He was then put onto the Brady list and therefore was placed on a desk assignment due to his inability to testify in court on future cases.
In 2019, Tofsrud filed a complaint for damages in federal court over claims of retaliation. Judge Peterson ruled in June that Tofsrud’s statements about McCullough were not protected under the First Amendment because he was acting as a public employee. The case was dismissed.
Jeffry Finer, who’s handling Tofsrud’s appeal of his case, said the finding by Judge Peterson vindicates his client’s concerns.
“Lonnie and others have been concerned about PACT,” Finer said Friday. “Their concerns went unheeded.”
This is not the first time Lesser has faced complaints of unethical policing. He was investigated by Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue for his role in the violent arrest of Lucas Ellerman in 2019.
Lesser, and his uncle Dan Lesser, were assigned to PACT when they arrested Ellerman. Dan Lesser was reprimanded by the department for his use of profanity against Ellerman while both officers were found justified by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office for their use of force.
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