Police ‘fooled’ during internal probe | CraigDailyPress.com

Police ‘fooled’ during internal probe

City Council questions Police Department investigation into former detective

Collin Smith
Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta gives a report to the Craig City Council during a special meeting Tuesday night regarding an internal affairs investigation into alleged misconduct by former police Detective Ken Johnson.
Shawn McHugh

Craig City Councilor Ray Beck told Police Chief Walt Vanatta he was “concerned and disappointed” in the way the Craig Police Department handled its investigation of former Detective Ken Johnson.

The City Council had a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss issues surrounding Johnson’s arrest and ongoing felony prosecution in Moffat County Court.

Johnson resigned from the Police Department on Sept. 8, was arrested Sept. 29 and was charged with three felonies Oct. 2.

He is charged with 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.

Although the Police Department conducted an internal investigation into Johnson’s behavior in March, it was a later criminal investigation by the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office that led to Johnson’s arrest and the filing of formal charges.

The department’s investigation was deemed inconclusive, though Johnson was suspended for one week without pay.

During the council meeting Tuesday, Beck said he could not understand how police officials did not discover Johnson’s alleged criminal actions or his relationship with local woman Tausha Merwin, and how they continued to employ Johnson six months after their investigation began.

“Is it with all your combined years experience that you cannot tell me one of your employees is lying?” Beck asked.

Vanatta answered almost immediately.

“There’s times you get fooled,” he said. “We got fooled.”

Beck also wanted to know whether Police Commander Jerry DeLong was qualified to handle internal investigations.

Vanatta answered that he was, in his opinion, but he said there are no official certifications for internal affairs work.

Finally, Beck asked how it came to be that the police department found no evidence of Johnson’s criminal actions.

“I don’t think that’s a fair statement,” Vanatta said, and then he described how the police department’s and District Attorney’s investigations differed.

Police investigation

All charges against Johnson stem from an alleged sexual relationship he had with Merwin while he was a police officer and member of the All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force.

Prosecutors allege Johnson lied to his superiors during their internal investigation, helped Merwin violate probation for drug crimes, shared information about confidential law enforcement investigations, released names of confidential informants and gave her a laptop computer and other equipment owned by law enforcement.

Before the night’s council meeting, Vanatta spoke at length Tuesday afternoon with local media about his department’s investigation.

He said his department investigated an alleged relationship between Johnson and Merwin, and at the time, there was no indication he had done anything criminal.

The department’s inquiry began after ACET Commander Garrett Wiggins filed a complaint about Johnson’s alleged relationship with Merwin, Vanatta said.

According to Wiggins’ report, he thought the relationship was affecting Johnson’s work and had crossed the line of what is acceptable under the police department’s code of conduct. Merwin is a convicted felon and was on probation at the time for drug possession.

Vanatta said his department interviewed Johnson and Merwin, as well as made Johnson take a polygraph test administered by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.

Although the polygraph report did not state Johnson lied, it did state he attempted to manipulate the test by controlling his physical reactions to the questions asked.

When the polygraph report came back in April, Vanatta said he was ready to fire Johnson.

But he had another piece of evidence to consider.

Johnson’s doctor wrote a letter telling police officials that it was impossible for Johnson to be involved with Merwin because of a medical condition. The doctor reasserted the conclusion during an official interview with police.

“That, in my mind, made it inconclusive,” Vanatta said about the investigation.

During the council meeting Tuesday night, Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz defended his colleague’s handling of the case.

“We’re human beings, too,” Jantz said. “We want to believe in the people we hired. Sometimes we get duped. So be it. I’ll take that risk to believe in the people.”

Different investigations

The police department’s investigation differed from the District Attorney’s in two ways.

First, the District Attorney’s Office investigated Wiggins’ suspicions that Johnson tampered with evidence in one of Merwin’s cases; and second, the District Attorney was able to subpoena Merwin’s cell phone records at UBET Wireless and receive a log of text messages sent between her and Johnson.

The text messages are the basis of nearly every criminal allegation Johnson faces.

Vanatta said his department was unable to obtain a copy for two reasons.

Police officials could not obtain a copy of Merwin’s phone records because they did not have probable cause to think she or Johnson had committed any crimes, Vanatta said.

He added that his department did request a copy of Johnson’s phone records, as he was using an ACET phone to communicate with Merwin, but the provider, Verizon Wireless, does not keep a database of written texts as UBET Wireless does.

Although the Verizon records showed Johnson texted Merwin thousands of times, there was no clear evidence of a sexual relationship.

The police department had a report from Wiggins that he thought Johnson had tampered with or deleted information from a Merwin case file, which could have led to a criminal investigation.

The chief said the department took the allegations seriously, but at the time, Wiggins said there was no way to tell who tampered with the evidence.

Because of that, police officials did not press further.

In addition, the police department gives all criminal investigations of its employees to outside agencies.

In the Johnson case, the District Attorney’s Office investigated all criminal leads.

In the District Attorney’s investigation, officials asked K.C. Hume, chief investigator for the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, to examine the computer system. Hume could not definitively say what happened but said Johnson “probably” altered the files.

A final forensic analysis of the computer equipment is pending from the Rocky Mountain Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory in Centennial.

Vanatta said the lab’s conclusions could lead to additional criminal charges against Johnson.

Shouldered burden

The City Council had mixed reactions to the police department’s account of its investigation.

Councilor Gene Bilodeau said he was not comfortable with asking the police chief personnel questions in an open meeting. He added that he intended not to read Johnson’s court records, but did read some to prepare for last night’s meeting.

Through it all, Bilodeau said he hopes the fallout from Johnson’s arrest and court case will not have major ramifications for law enforcement.

“I have the utmost respect for the law enforcement community, and cooler heads need to prevail,” he said.

Councilor Byron Willems agreed somewhat. He added that Johnson helped his family during a crisis, and he was still appreciative, but the facts of the case suggest he acted alone.

“I think you have to keep in mind there is someone here who chose to deceive lots of people, and that person is very good at it,” Willems said.

Councilors Joe Herod and Jennifer Riley were less convinced the department did all it could during its investigation.

Herod said he thought the department uncovered plenty of evidence to fire Johnson this spring.

“You’re telling us you don’t have any proof,” he said to the police chief, “and I’m reading this, and I see proof everywhere.”

Johnson’s polygraph results alone should been enough to fire him, Herod said.

At the end of the meeting, Beck addressed the room once more and said he would hold the police chief personally responsible for ensuring his officers are held to the highest standards of conduct.

“I accept that responsibility,” Vanatta said. “The responsibility is mine. All I’m telling you, Ray, is I’m not perfect. Am I going to be as trusting or lenient the next time? Absolutely not.”

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User