The Spokane Police Department is standing behind two officers who a federal judge said may have made statements with “reckless disregard for the truth” during a drug investigation, leading to the case being dismissed in December 2021.
According to an internal affairs investigation obtained this week by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request, a panel of high-ranking police officials disagreed with U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson’s ruling and determined the officers made an honest mistake when presuming the identity of a man they saw during an undercover drug buy in northeast Spokane.
The investigation also showed support for the officers from U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutors in the case against Jody Lee Wallette. Police used Wallette’s presence at the drug buy to obtain a warrant to search his car, where they found more than 1,000 fentanyl pills and one handgun, based on reports filed by officers Winston Brooks and Scott Lesser.
Brooks wrote in his reports that he saw Wallette open the door to a residence and usher a confidential informant inside to buy drugs. But during testimony in a federal court hearing, Brooks said he “believed” it was Wallette who opened the door after seeing him outside the home and not observing anyone else at the residence.
Brooks and Lesser were part of the Police Anti-Crime Team that was disbanded shortly after Peterson’s ruling in 2021. The team had been coming under fire by people within and outside the police department because of discrepancies between officers’ notes and official reports. Police Chief Craig Meidl said at the time the decision to disband the unit and move its officers to patrol was made in part because of the judge’s ruling, but also because the department needed officers to work traffic collisions.
Meidl ordered an internal investigation into the case after a citizen’s complaint from Wallette’s lawyer, Sandy Baggett. The investigation looked at two potential violations, including one of a department policy against making false or misleading statements on official documents, and the other of a department standard requiring truthful statements in all official matters.
Meidl, who has the final say on internal affairs investigations, exonerated Lesser on both counts, according to department documents. Brooks was exonerated of the policy violation but found to have violated the department standard. He was required to undergo documented counseling on how to improve in the future. The department now requires a supervisor to review warrants before they’re served as a result of the case.
In her ruling from the federal bench, Peterson dismissed multiple criminal counts against Wallette, ruling that evidence presented by the defense proved Wallette may not have been at the house during the undercover drug buy and that the subsequent search of his vehicle was unlawful.
Multiple federal prosecutors in that office indicated their support for Lesser and Brooks in text messages released as part of the internal affairs investigation.
Immediately after the court hearing but before Peterson issued her ruling, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caitlin Baunsgard indicated her support for Lesser in a text message before asking the officer to call her to discuss the case.
“We have a good record for appeal if we need to do that,” Baunsgard wrote.
An appeal was never filed. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement this week that its staff reviewed the case and determined there was no basis for appeal, while also expressing support for the department.
“Our office has a close working relationship with the Spokane Police Department, and while we may not agree with all of the findings in the Internal Affairs Report, we will continue to work together with each of our law enforcement partners to protect our communities,” the statement reads.
Following the ruling, Lesser expressed concern about testifying in federal court again on other cases because of what happened with Wallette. Lesser was placed on a list of officers whose testimony should be considered questionable by attorneys. The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office keeps the list, which is referred to as the “Brady List.”
Brooks was not placed on the list because his identification of Wallette as a person involved in the drug buy was not sworn before a judge. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said in an email he had to place Lesser on the list because his name was on the affidavit, while Brooks only provided the information on which the affidavit was based.
Baggett declined to comment on the findings of the internal investigation. Wallette has since been indicted on new drug charges. This time, he is accused of selling meth and fentanyl, and is awaiting trial in federal court.
Lesser and Brooks continue to work for the Spokane Police Department and are assigned to patrol.
Messaging app used by officers scrutinized
The PACT team, which focused on repeat offenders and drug cases, has had its truthfulness called into question before.
In the aftermath of Peterson’s ruling, federal defense attorney Andrea George made a complaint regarding PACT.
Through a “whistleblower,” George learned of a meeting involving the PACT Team, where leadership asked team members to delete records from a communication app they used called “Zello.”
She reported the allegations to the police department in January 2022, and that opened an internal affairs investigation.
The investigation found that at least five PACT team members did discuss Zello and the amount of time it stores messages before deletion in the aftermath of the ruling in the Wallette case.
Police Sgt. Brian Eckersley told investigators that officer Mark Brownell came into the PACT team’s bullpen area shortly after the ruling and mentioned that officers could change the settings on how long data was recorded on the app, but there was no direction to change those settings.
Brownell said he couldn’t remember that conversation specifically and there was no formal meeting.
Sgt. Kurt Vigessa said he wasn’t part of any formal meeting and didn’t hear Brownell’s alleged comments.
Lt. Rob Boothe told investigators he was part of an impromptu meeting regarding the Zello app in the PACT bullpen area. Boothe said at the meeting he told officers “not to touch their phones, to make no deletions.”
After that, the team was advised by department leadership to stop using the app, he said.
Sgt. Brent Austin also acknowledged a meeting took place to discuss how long the messages should be kept, but that there was no direct order to delete or keep the messages.
Despite the conflicting statements from officers, investigators found there was no formal meeting about the app, just an impromptu conversation. There also was no evidence of a data purge on the team’s Zello apps.
There was, however, a “general lack of awareness and/or technical proficiency in regards to how Zello maintains records.”
All five officers were found to have violated the department’s public records management program policy and were required to complete more training.
Previous PACT complaints
Concerns about PACT team members were also raised prior to the Wallette case.
Discrepancies between handwritten notes and official records were raised in a whistleblower complaint by former Spokane Police Detective Lonnie Tofsrud.
In 2017, Tofsrud noticed discrepancies between the official report and notes that PACT members Vigessa and Cpl. Jeffrey McCollough entered on a confidential informant’s arrest, according to a complaint for damages Tofsrud filed in federal court.
Tofsrud was concerned that the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office would have issues with the discrepancies because it could mean officers would be placed on the Brady List. Tofsrud called McCullough and urged him to address the discrepancies.
Tofsrud then brought up his concerns to a Spokane County prosecutor , who requested the case be dismissed.
Tofsrud was later disciplined by the Spokane Police Department for flouting the chain of command by going directly to prosecutors, rather than internal investigations.
McCollough has since died from injuries sustained in a crash involving a golf cart in Bonners Ferry in July.
This also isn’t the first time Lesser has faced complaints of unethical policing. He was investigated by the ombudsman’s office for his role in the violent arrest of Lucas Ellerman in 2019.
Lesser, and his uncle Dan Lesser, were assigned to the PACT team 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.
Emma Epperly can be reached at (509) 459-5122 or at email@example.com.