Lake County Attorney Mitch Young has refused to comment on the reasons for the seizure, beyond offering the predictable and perfunctory observation that the matter is an “ongoing investigation.”
|Sheriff Lucky Larson|
“Lake County has sent a clear message,” Leonard told the local press. “The message that they’re sending is don’t question us, don’t accuse us of wrongdoing, don’t even look at us sideways. Or, we will come take your stuff, and try to make you be quiet.”
“I was an officer for seven years, six of them in the reserve force,” Leonard told Pro Libertate. “This is a huge county — we’re in Montana, which is a huge state — and we often had just a few officers to cover this vast territory. There is a real disparity between regular officers and reservists, in terms of what they’re permitted to know and the level of access they have. So it wasn’t until I was hired to be a full-time officer that I discovered how bad things have become.”
“I’d be sitting around with members of my team and my sergeant, and they’d be telling me things that I’d have to call a litany of criminal behavior,” Leonard recalls. “Some of it involved violations of department policy, or petty acts of everyday corruption. But more than a few were actual crimes,” such as allegations of poaching by department personnel, which are currently under investigation.
|How they see themselves: Detail of an SRT t-shirt.|
Of particular concern to Leonard was that he described as the pervasive attitude that the “badge lets [law enforcement officers] to do whatever they want. They think it’s OK to bully citizens and other officers. They think it’s OK to take ammo from the ammo locker for their personal use without permission, even though the taxpayers paid for it…. They think the badge on their uniform means they don’t have to answer to anybody.”
Many of Leonard’s most serious allegations focus on the Lake County Special Response Team (SRT), a SWAT-style paramilitary unit.
Last March 19, Leonard alleges, an SRT exercise involving an Army-issue M-117 roadside explosive nearly cost the life of a local woman, who literally stumbled on the device while out walking her dog. “Jay Doyle’s SRT team left the device unattended and unwatched,” he complains.
Leonard’s website also offers photographs of a commemorative t-shirt distributed to SRT officers by a team member who was re-deploying to Iraq. The black t-shirts contain a movie-style “advisory” warning that “Use of this team may result in broken doors, windows, heads; along with the risk of live fire injuries and possible death. When using this product please use extreme caution: Strong violence/gore and some language may occur.”
Those t-shirts — which bear more than a passing resemblance to commemorative garb issued by other police departments — were not the only tangible illustration that the SRT viewed itself as part of an army of occupation.
“Right now the ATF is investigating a case involving an unregistered machine gun that was used by one of the deputies as a duty weapon,” Leonard pointed out to Pro Libertate. “The base weapon was an AR-15 owned by the department” — which, of course, had been provided to the Sheriff’s Office through a Pentagon program. “This deputy — who claimed to be an ex-Marine, and told all kinds of bogus combat stories — purchased an auto-sear kit and converted it to full-auto,” Leonard continues. “All he had to do was register the weapon, but he refused to do so this. Like others on the force he believed that the rules didn’t apply to him, because of his badge. He had this same SRT kick-in-your-door mindset. `I’m a cop — I can do whatever I want.'”
The accumulating evidence of institutionalized corruption in the Sheriff’s Office “created something of a moral conundrum for me,” Leonard recalls. “I liked my job, of course, but more importantly I have a wife and two kids and a house to pay for. But I couldn’t just ignore what was going on.”
“Look, I don’t claim to be the most moral individual I know,” Leonard concedes. “I’m an old Navy man, and I’ve been arrested before, with good reason. I’ve made my share of mistakes, been in my share of scuffles, and I’m not particularly proud of it. As I’ve gotten more mature, I’ve learned to hold myself to a higher standard, and not let testosterone dictate my response to situations. So when I left for work every morning I would literally look at myself in the mirror and remind myself to use my head, do what is right, and make good decisions.”
A week after being expelled from the force, Leonard — whose “hands were no longer tied” — created his website. It was ignored for about eight months “until last week,” he observed just a few days after the raid. The same County Attorney who signed the complaint that led to the raid, Leonard relates, “signed one of the many letters of recommendation that led to the decision to hire me in the first place.”
The raid “was a simple bullying and intimidation tactic,” Leonard observes. He remains on friendly terms with active-duty deputies who agree that the department is in need of an ethical overhaul. “Four other deputies traveled with me to Helena and testified to the POST [Police Officers Standards and Training] Council regarding the problems in the Sheriff’s Office,” he points out. When contacted by Pro Libertate on October 6, Leonard was on his way to meet with a current deputy who was providing a signed affidavit for an anticipated lawsuit arising from the September 30 raid.
“Whatever happens in the election on November 2, we’re still going to be pressing for accountability,” Leonard maintains. “If the department and the County want to go to court, that’s fine with me; I’d love to be able to depose those people under penalty of perjury. The citizens of Lake County demand the truth about what’s going on in their Sheriff”s Office.”
A campaign pitting incumbent Lake County Sheriff Rod Mitchell against Deputy Frank Rivero has churned to the surface detailed allegations of internal strife and malfeasance similar to those Leonard found in Lake County, Montana.
Rivero, a 10-year veteran LEO who joined the Lake County, California Sheriff’s Office in 2007, has accused Mitchell of running a department rife with “mismanagement, cronyism and racial discrimination,” notes one local press account.
Whatever the merits of theracial profiling charge, the public record is replete with evidence that the department is a festering puddle of corruption. Five deputies have been cashiered over the past year, including one charged with stealing from the department’s armory, one accused of conducting illicit surveillance, and another who used money from a federal marijuana eradication grant to take helicopter flight lessons.
The most serious scandal to emerge from the 200-member department involves former Chief Sheriff Deputy Perdock, who killed 51-year-old Lynn Thornton in an April 29, 2006 boating accident at nearby Clear Lake. Perdock had been operating his 385-horsepower, 24-foot powerboat at speeds in excess of up to 60 MPH on the gloomy, moonless night when it struck the stern quarter of the sailboat containing Thornton and her companion, Bismarck Dinius.
|“I’m a victim”: Former Chief Deputy Perdock|
Dinius, who was at the tiller of the sailboat at the time of the accident, was prosecutedfor causing the death of Thornton and a felony charge of boating under the influence of alcohol.He was acquitted on all charges following a trial in which the defense utterly annihilated the prosecution’s case. Perdock, Sheriff Mitchell’s second in command, was never charged; he was kept on the payroll for a year on paid vacation (aka “administrative leave”) before being dismissed from the force.
In a “notice of claim” filed in anticipation of a wrongful prosecution suit against Lake County, Dinius charges that Sheriff Mitchell, working with “numerous LCSO officials” and Lake County District Attorney John Hopkins, “concealed, manipulated, and/or suppressed material inculpatory evidence” against Perdock. This accusation is buttressed by an account offered by one of the deputies who played a central role in the case.
Former Deputy James Breland, who investigated the fatal accident, was ordered by his superiors not to administer a preliminary alcohol screening to Perdock at the scene. In a court deposition Breland later testified that he expressed his concerns over this order to a deputy district attorney prior to Dinius’s trial. Rather than investigating Breland’s complaint, the prosecutor attempted to suborn perjury from the deputy by instructing him “to use words to describe the `order’ as a `discussion’ … when testifying at the preliminary hearing of Bismarck Dinius.”
Unfortunately, Breland did as he was told, only to find that this gesture of tribal loyalty was inadequate. Within days he found himself “subject to a continuing barrage of investigations for acts which Sergeant Breland did not do or for acts which everyone else does but are [for which they] are not disciplined,” he attests. In retaliation for expressing his misgivings to the deputy DA, Breland’s reputation was destroyed and he was eventually fired.
According to Breland’s deposition, the department maintains “a system of discipline where favored officers are given mild treatment for extraordinary offenses” — a form of “patronage discipline” in which the internal affairs process is used “to attack the credibility of deputies who fail to adhere to the unwritten code of conduct of the Sheriff’s Department.”
In his deposition, Breland lists two dozen cases in which deputies involved in criminal behavior or serious misconduct “were disciplined lightly or not at all.”
The cases include several potentially fatal episodes in which a firearm was improperly discharged; one instance in which a deputy “aimed his duty revolver at another deputy while in a highly intoxicated state”; a physical assault on a female deputy by a male colleague; a SWAT team member responding to a call while intoxicated; a deputy who “used his taser in an off-duty incident involving alcohol”; and several allegations of sexual misconduct, including one involving a minor.
Whether or not Frank Rivero is more ethical than Sheriff Mitchell and his claque, Rivero performed a significant service to Lake County by mounting a campaign against the incumbent, who had previously run unopposed.
After Rivero peeled away the LSCO’s facade of probity, Mitchell retaliated against the whistleblower by following the precise formula Breland described: Rivero suddenly became the target of an Internal Affairs probe alleging sexual assault against a woman who was arrested in December 2008.
The sexual assault charge against Rivero appears to be devoid of merit. The timing certainly seems to validate Breland’s charge that the LCSO uses Internal Affairs investigations to retaliate against officers who speak ill of the county dictator — the same “offense,” in a different guise, that may lead to the spurious prosecution of Terry Leonard in another Lake County nearly 1,200 miles away.
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