Local organizations regroup after Ken Johnson arrest | CraigDailyPress.com
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Local organizations regroup after Ken Johnson arrest

Collin Smith

Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta and commanders Jerry DeLong and Bill Leonard said there is no chance they will ask the court for leniency in sentencing if former detective Ken Johnson is convicted in his ongoing felony case.

“For me, it’s somewhere between zero and zero,” Vanatta said of the chances he would put in a good word for Johnson. “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘burning bridges?’ He blew up all his bridges.”

The chief told the Craig City Council and local media during separate meetings Tuesday that evidence uncovered against the former detective has jarred the entire police force.

Johnson resigned in early September and was arrested later that month.

On Oct. 2, the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office filed three felony charges against him: attempting to influence a public servant, a Class 4 felony; as well as accessory to crime and embezzlement of public property, both Class 5 felonies.

All charges relate to a sexual relationship Johnson is accused of having with local woman Tausha Merwin while he was a police officer and member of the All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force, and alleged crimes that occurred during that replationship.

“This has had such far-reaching implications on our agency, not only from public perception, but internally with people who were very, very good friends of his who he lied to right along with everybody else,” Vanatta said.

“That trust is all shattered. So, I think internally, you’ve got a whole bunch of people who are going, ‘God, who do we trsut?’ If you can’t trust your best friend, who do you trust?”

That said, police officers have not let issues surrounding their former colleague affect their working relationships or their duty to the community, the chief added.

“I think in this particular case, it’s really not so much a hindrance because everybody is so angry with Ken,” Vanatta said. “They all understand he lied to everybody here. We’re all embarrassed. What we told them all is we have a job to do. We had one bad person here. We’re going to recover. We need to keep acting professionally, do our job professionally.”

Evidence collected by the District Attorney’s Office that led to Johnson’s arrest also raise concerns about internal policies of a variety of local organizations related to law enforcement.

Vanatta said the Police Department has started to address some issues, such as the ACET computer system.

Johnson is suspected of deleting and altering ACET evidence records pertaining to a case against Merwin. A special forensics lab in Centennial is examining the equipment to try to determine if there is proof of who changed the files.

If the lab concludes Johnson tampered with the files, there could be additional charges filed in his case, Vanatta said.

However, the chief added he doesn’t know if there is much chance for concrete evidence because the ACET computers were not set up to track specific users.

Law enforcement has spent $3,000 to install a new recording system so all ACET users and their actions are kept on file, Vanatta said.

In the specific case of Merwin’s records, the District Attorney’s Office had the original files and the missing information was restored.

The Police Department also plans to coordinate a new agreement with the Moffat County Probation Department regarding Drug Court.

The police code of conduct states officers should not associate with convicted felons outside family members, but Vanatta said he thinks officers should be allowed to help people who are trying to get help through the intensive Drug Court Program.

“I think we all realize just arresting people and putting them in jail is not the answer,” he said.

Police and probation officials will have to work out a set agreement that allows officers to be involved with Drug Court clients without violating the code of conduct, Vanatta said.

The hope also is that set guidelines will allow officials to keep officer relationships above board, which will help officials differentiate between what is acceptable and inappropriate.

For instance, Vanatta said no one with his department knew Johnson was helping probation do home checks for clients. Johnson also is accused of helping Merwin violate her probation for two separate drug charges.

“We probably don’t need to be doing home checks,” Vanatta said.

A major portion of a special Craig City Council meeting Tuesday also addressed concerns the council had for continued funding of ACET in light of Johnson’s alleged actions.

As part of the charges against him, Johnson is alleged to have divulged confidential information about surveillance technology, ongoing investigations and names of confidential informants.

The city of Craig is a major financial contributor to the task force, and there is some worry among city leaders that Johnson’s alleged actions compromised the agency’s ability to function.

“As you know, I’m an extraordinary supporter of what you do,” Councilor Terry Carwile told ACET and other law enforcement officers in attendance. “I despair the organization is at some peril.”

Both Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz and Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Snow gave impassioned speeches to the council Tuesday about why shutting down ACET would hurt the community.

“The only way we’ll stop convicting people is if we stop supporting ACET,” Snow said. “The only way drug dealers win is if we stop supporting ACET.”

The District Attorney’s Office has handled about 62 drug distribution cases since he started in 2007, Snow added. Of those, 60 came from ACET investigations.

The thought that ACET is crippled by the Johnson investigation is false, he said. The agency has brought in the same number of cases as before.

The belief that people will be too scared to become confidential informants is likewise untrue, Snow said.

“People come because they’re afraid of going to prison,” he said.

In the grander scheme, the council’s worry that Johnson’s case has brought about a crisis of faith among the community in local law enforcement, government and the justice system also is wrong, Snow added.

He recently had to poll potential jurors about their ability to trust testimony from a police officer. Every one of them, he said, said Johnson was one bad apple.

“As a whole, people still believe in our law enforcement, and I think that’s a credit to their effort so far,” Snow said.

The ACET board, which includes regional law enforcement agencies and the district attorney, also met for its regular meeting Wednesday and started working on a list of possible improvements to the agency’s internal policies and procedures.

That list has yet to be finalized, Vanatta said, but will be presented to the City Council once completed.


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