Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trial Set for Officer Richard Woodruff

A jury will decide the fate of a former Fond du Lac Police Department officer accused of a crime.

Richard C. Woodruff, 467 Rockrose Drive, appeared in court Tuesday morning for a hearing that resulted in Fond du Lac County Circuit Court Judge Richard Nuss scheduling a two-day trial.

Washington County Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hanson said all requested documents about the alleged theft of two Wal-Mart gift cards from the Cops for Kids Foundation were delivered to the defense.

Before Woodruff's attorney, Kirk Everson, left the courtroom, he told Nuss he believed he did not receive all discovery information from the prosecution. Nuss said if the Fond du Lac Police Department is withholding any information about the case, that information would be excluded from a jury trial.

Woodruff is accused of using a $100 gift card to partially pay for a power washer June 27 and a $50 card to purchase food on July 5, according to the criminal complaint.

Surveillance videos show a man — identified as Woodruff by a Police Department employee — using the cards, the report states.

Six BP gift cards were also reported missing or had been cashed, according to the complaint.

The criminal investigation was handled by the Sheboygan Police Department.

Washington County District Attorney Todd K. Martens made the charging decision.

Rules Don't Apply to Them

In some states, the sordid downfall of George "Chris" Ortloff might be the year's biggest scandal.

Not in New York.

When Ortloff, a former state Parole Board member and longtime Plattsburgh-area assemblyman, admitted on Christmas Eve that he tried to entice two preteenage "sisters" into sex at a Colonie hotel, his guilty plea in U.S. District Court was not even the latest scandal at the Division of Parole.

In a year in which Americans faced an economic crisis and elected a new president, an assortment of politicians in the Empire State added new pages to an ever-increasing story leaders and lawmakers who break the law.

It is a story that spans the state from Buffalo to Queens and that is without former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who avoided criminal charges after being toppled in a prostitution scandal. His departure followed the exit of former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who was forced to resign in 2007 after defrauding the government.

The continuing legal troubles in state politics raise a simple question: Why does this keep happening?

"Far too many elected officials think that the rules don't apply to them," said Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Because of their 'exalted status,' they are outside of the normal restrictions that apply to everyone else. This rogues' gallery should spur action on legislation to create truly independent ethics oversight entities."

The Times Union reported last December that nearly one-fifth of elected legislators in New York had, by some measure, broken a law in recent years, ranging from traffic violations to bribery and theft.

A year later, the Ortloff case arguably makes them all appear tame.

When the 61-year-old tough-on-crime Republican quietly pleaded guilty to online enticement of minors Dec. 24, it was while facing charges he tried to arrange sex trysts with girls, ages 11 and 12, through their "mother," an undercover police officer. Ortloff had acknowledged to the undercover officer that he not only had a fondness for "toddlers," but had previously molested at least one child.

Five days before the Ortloff plea, on Dec, 19, state Sen.-elect. Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat, was charged with slashing and beating his girlfriend. A day earlier, Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a longtime Queens Democrat, pleaded not guilty to fraud charges. He is accused of illegally accepting payments from groups with business pending before the state.

As it turns out, Monserrate took the seat of former Sen. John Sabini, whose own political career survived an alcohol-related driving arrest.

Meanwhile, Seminerio's arrest is said to have stemmed from cooperation from disgraced former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, another Queens Democrat, possible mayoral candidate and former president of the New York City Central Labor Council convicted of stealing money and perks in March.

The cases go beyond Queens. Among the year's other highlights (or lowlights):

On Dec. 19, an investigation by state Inspector General Joseph Fisch revealed that Division of Parole Chairman George B. Alexander of Buffalo took home a $1,700 government computer in 2007 and did not return it until anti-theft software traced it to his home. He tendered his resignation.

When Rep. Vito Fossella, a Staten Island Republican, was charged with drunken driving in Arlington, Va. ,on May 1, he told police he was headed to pick up his sick daughter. But the arrest revealed the married lawmaker had an out-of-wedlock daughter with a retired Air Force lieutenant. He chose not to seek re-election, then was convicted of driving under the influence.

Assemblywoman Diane Gordon, a Brooklyn Democrat, was convicted last year of trying to have a private developer build her a $500,000 home for a dollar in exchange for arranging a $2 million land deal.

Sen. Efrain Gonzalez, D-Bronx, had been under indictment on allegations he funneled nearly half a million taxpayer dollars through a charity to finance his cigar company, purchase Yankees tickets and pay tuition for his daughter.

As the year drew to a close, it was unclear what new cases might arise, though at least one top name made headlines without facing any charges. A federal probe into former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno's business dealings was said to be nearing an end, with criminal charges being contemplated. The Brunswick lawmaker, the Legislature's most powerful Republican before he stepped down in July, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Officer Max Etienne Accused of Hit and Run


An Albany police officer suspected of losing his department-issued handgun during the city's LarkFest in September is now accused of crashing his personal vehicle into three parked cars and leaving the scene on Sunday.

The off-duty cop, Max Etienne, 37, was driving a Chevy sport utility vehicle when it struck a Honda sedan, a Chrysler and an Acura on Colatosti Place, said Detective James Miller, a police spokesman.

Officers were notified about 10 a.m., Miller said. No injuries were reported.

Chief James W. Tuffey declined to discuss the matter further Tuesday evening, citing department policy regarding personnel issues.

"We're doing an internal investigation now," he said. "We don't comment on internal investigations."

Miller said Etienne was issued two tickets, one for failing to keep right, another for leaving the scene of a property damage accident.

Etienne, who has not been suspended or put on leave, was identified in September as the officer suspected of losing his semiautomatic service pistol while off duty at the LarkFest event on Sept. 20.

The weapon was said to have been dropped in front of Justin's restaurant on Lark Street. Detectives determined it was his pistol, according to two people familiar with the incident.

Police never publicly identified Etienne as the officer who lost the gun. It couldn't determined where that case may stand.

The crash happened in the early morning hours Sunday. The officer then went to his home in a nearby apartment complex. Police later determined he was the driver and he was ticketed, authorities said.

While he is on active duty, the department's Internal Affairs investigators are probing the crash.

Officer Jeff Vernatti Has Faced 3 Prior Civil Rights Lawsuits

The Belleville police officer being sued after arresting a man wearing a T-shirt printed with the word "Police" has faced three prior federal civil rights lawsuits since 1999 -- two since he's worked for the Belleville Police Department.

Both of those suits resulted in settlements for the plaintiffs.

Last week, Adam Weinstein, of Missouri sued Belleville police Officer Jeff Vernatti, who is president of the police officer's union, after Weinstein's arrest at a Christmas party on Dec. 23, 2006, at Crehan's Bar in Belleville.

Weinstein's lawsuit accuses Vernatti of abusing and falsely arresting Weinstein.

Weinstein, 36, was wearing an undershirt with the word "Police" on it.

The officers asked Weinstein, an emergency medical technician and licensed security officer, for his police credentials and when Weinstein told them he didn't have any, he claims Vernatti, 39, placed handcuffs tightly around his wrists, twisted his wrists, then shoved him against a police car and into the back seat.

Weinstein was ticketed for impersonating a police officer, but that charge was later dropped.

Belleville Police Capt. Don Sax declined to comment on the suit on the advice of the department's lawyer. He also said he couldn't comment on whether Vernatti ever faced discipline at the department because it was a personnel issue.

Weinstein's suit was filed in circuit court in Belleville, but the three other suits were filed in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis.

In 2005, a Belleville man sued Vernatti after he alleged Vernatti used a Taser on him after a rollover accident. Bryan Joseph Schmittling's suit alleged Vernatti failed to provide medical attention for Schmittling's broken shoulder after the one-car crash on Dec. 20, 2004.

The suit further alleged that Vernatti, then the department's Taser trainer, called Schmittling obscene names, then used the Taser on him three or four times until Schmittling, who stated he was not resisting arrest, lost control of his bowels.

Four years earlier, Arben Milleson, of Mascoutah, filed suit, alleging he was beaten by Vernatti and six other officers after an arrest on Feb. 15, 2000.

Milleson and Schmittling settled their cases and signed a confidentiality agreement not to disclose the terms of the settlement.

Vernatti also was sued in 1999 when he worked for the Shiloh Police Department, but that suit was dismissed after the plaintiff, Tommy Lee Maxwell Jr., failed to file an amended complaint.

Vernatti has worked for the Belleville Police Department since 1999.

More information:

Trooper Bruce Wrzosek Drunk At Taco Bell

One year after he graduated from the Maryland police academy state trooper Bruce Wrzosek, 22, found a strange way to celebrate.

The off-duty state trooper pulled up for some fast food and found big trouble on the menu instead. During the incident, police say Wrzosek was dressed in plain-clothes but was driving his police car.

According to WJZ news station, Baltimore County Police were called to Taco Bell by employees, who said they were being disturbed by a drunken trooper turning on his siren and trying to pull people over in the drive-thru lane.

Before police arrived the off-duty trooper Wrzosek had thrown a 20-year-old man into the front seat of his cruiser. That man said while in the drive-thru, the trooper yelled, “Get the [expletive] out of the way.”

After county police smelled alcohol on the troopers breath he decided to make a hasty retreat and drove off with the man he had previously arrested in tow, telling him: “They can’t do [expletive] to me.”

County police proceeded to chase the trooper into a residential area to Tilmont Avenue before he surrendered and was administered a heel-to-toe sobriety test, which the trooper failed. During the test Wrzosek said, “That’s great, I’m drunk.” Then before finishing he said, “I’m done, lock me up.” Which they did!

Wrzosek is in the Baltimore County jail on $500,000 bond. The county’s investigation showed the 20-year-old man forced into into the troopers car was falsely arrested. The trooper is charged with DUI, false imprisonment and eluding police.

And since the trooper was still within his two-year probationary period, he was also swiftly fired.

More information:

Deputy Jose Avinael Lopez Charged with Stealing Bobcat loader

A Watonwan County sheriff's deputy is facing a felony charge after investigators allegedly found a stolen Bobcat skid loader at his home.

A criminal complaint filed Monday says the Bobcat was reported stolen in 2004 by Crow River Rental in Otsego. It says the loader was found in a pole barn during a Dec. 8 search at the home of Deputy Jose Avinael Lopez in rural Martin County.

Citing data practices laws, Watonwan County Sheriff Gary Menssen declined to comment about Lopez specifically but did say a deputy was on paid leave pending a criminal investigation.

Lopez, 33, is due to make his first court appearance Jan. 13.

He's the second Watonwan County deputy to face felony charges this year. Joe Dahl retired in April after being charged with theft for allegedly lying about hours worked. He is scheduled to go to trial in March.