Time To Consider ‘Becky’s Law’

                                                                Rebecca Anne Denchfield Stone
                                                                      July 6, 1978-June 21, 2003

By Lee White

Rebecca Anne “Becky” Denchfield Stone died of a gunshot wound to the head from her sheriff’s deputy husband’s 40 caliber Glock service weapon around 11 p.m. June 21, 2003, at 1110 N. Ohio Street, Augusta, Kansas. Her death was ruled a suicide (click here to view the autopsy report). Investigating agencies included the Augusta Department of Public Safety (ADPS) and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI)

Acting on a tip from a former Butler County Sheriff’s deputy, I learned on June 21 — the 14th anniversary of Becky’s death — that her then-husband, Michael Anthony Stone, had been convicted of a misdemeanor violation of California Penal Code 273.5 (A), Inflicting Corporal Injury on a Spouse, in 1995. Click here to view the court “minutes” from the California case.

Although the case was dismissed in 1997 under California Penal Code 1203.4, the dismissal did not restore Stone’s federal gun rights because he was convicted of violating a state domestic violence statute (municipal violations no longer strip a citizen of gun rights due to this 2017 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling). In addition, the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Act prohibits anyone with a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from serving as a police officer even if the conviction was expunged (click here and see (d) on Page 6 of the document).

So on that first night of summer 2003, Becky Stone died of a shot fired from a gun that never should have been there. The Butler County Sheriff’s Department was required to certify to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (Kansas C-POST) that Stone met the requirements to be a deputy. Stone was hired in 2001 as a jail deputy, then later promoted to road patrol both while Stan Cox was serving as sheriff. In 2006, one of Stone’s ex-wives filed this protection-from-abuse order in Sedgwick County District Court. Because Stone resided in Douglass, the Butler County Sheriff’s Department served him with the paperwork.

Although the order was ultimately dismissed because Misty Stone, the ex-wife, didn’t attend a hearing, it is important for two reasons. First, Misty was the victim in the California domestic violence case and detailed the circumstances of that case in the affidavit for the order. Second, it represented yet another opportunity for the sheriff’s department to discover and report to Kansas C-POST the existence of the domestic violence conviction. By then, Craig Murphy was sheriff. Cox resigned as sheriff in December 2003 to go on active duty with the U.S. Army. The current sheriff, Kelly Herzet, was not connected to the Stone case in any way that I’m aware of.

The investigation of Becky Stone’s death also either failed to uncover the domestic violence conviction or the investigating agencies failed to report it to Kansas C-POST. ADPS Chief Tyler Brewer, in this Butler County Times-Gazette story, detailed the agencies that had looked into the Stone case. The KBI and ADPS have yet to respond to my e-mails concerning when or whether they discovered the domestic violence case and whether they reported it to Kansas C-POST. The California court minutes contain several mentions of actions being entered into CJIS. The FBI operates a computer database known as Criminal Justice Information Services that virtually all state and local law enforcement agencies have access to.

Despite all these opportunities to discover the domestic violence case and report it, Michael Anthony Stone remained a cop until August 5 when his resignation from the Marion Police Department became effective as a result of my July 10 complaint to Kansas C-POST.

Perhaps officers who learned of the conviction would have reported it had a law been in place mandating that cops report to Kansas C-POST any disqualifying violations of law that they discover about other officers. Such a law would be similar to ones requiring educators, nurses, and doctors to report child abuse to the authorities. It should include language protecting officers from civil or criminal liability or employment retaliation for filing a report in good faith.

The vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people who do a dangerous and thankless job for which they often aren’t adequately compensated. There exists in that profession, however, a “code of silence” concerning officer misconduct. Even members of the news media are afraid to write stories questioning the behavior of law enforcement because they fear officers will no longer give them information if they do.

I’m certainly not advocating for a law that forces cops to think twice before defending their own lives or the lives of others. What I am asking the Kansas Legislature to consider is a law that gives officers permission and incentive to report misconduct they discover during the course of their employment.

There’s no guaranteeing that such a mandate will prevent what happened to Becky Stone. The sheriff’s department was, after all, required to certify his eligibility to Kansas C-POST under penalty of perjury and either failed to discover the conviction or covered it up. It might, however, prevent such cases from slipping through the cracks for years on end as this one did. It might also help strengthen Kansans respect for the badge and remove a bit of tarnish.

When Journalists Won’t Cover The News

By Lee White

I try to be as transparent as I can with what I do here on Watchdog. There are times when I can’t run something because I don’t have the information confirmed and don’t want to harm somebody’s reputation. There are other times, such as in the case of a sex crime or an incident involving a minor, when I don’t use names. But if I have documented proof, I believe I have an obligation to report a story even if it makes someone I know and like look bad. This is apparently not the case with some members of the mainstream media.

Largely because my source on the Stone case (click here for background on it) had already been working with a couple of large Wichita news organizations, I provided them in mid-July with documentation concerning Michael Anthony Stone’s California domestic violence conviction and the paperwork from Butler and Sedgwick County District Courts that confirmed his identity.

I believed it was important to involve the media because law enforcement had multiple opportunities to discover and report the existence of Stone’s conviction which, although partially expunged, disqualifies him from serving as a police officer in Kansas, according to the Law Enforcement Training Act. Those law enforcement agencies — the Augusta Department of Public Safety, The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and the Butler County Sheriff’s Department — either didn’t discover the existence of the conviction or chose not to report it to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (Kansas C-POST).

One of the documents I sent these two news organizations I haven’t shared publicly until now. It’s a protection-from-abuse order that Stone’s ex-wife, Misty, by then a former Wichita police officer, filed in Sedgwick County District Court in 2006 (click here to view it). In the affidavit in support of the protection order — which was ultimately dismissed because Misty didn’t show up for a hearing — she describes the California domestic violence incident and gives the city and county where it occurred. Click here to view the California court records, which corroborate parts of the following statement.

“One night it was so bad I called his father for help. His father, Andrew Stone, called the police and fire dept. Mike Stone left and they issued a warrant. They took myself and my 1 1/2 year old son down to the station to take pictures and to take my statement. He was charged and convicted of DV assault in 1995, while we lived in Rosamond, Kern County, CA.” — Misty Stone, in sworn affidavit for 2006 protection-from-abuse order

The Butler County Sheriff’s Department, where Stone was employed, served the paperwork on Stone because he resided in Douglass at the time. He continued to work for the department until 2010, according to a response to a Kansas Open Records Act request. He then became police chief in Florence and later went to work for the Marion Police Department where he remained until Saturday, August 5.

On Friday, July 28, I learned from a Facebook page belonging to one of Stone’s friends that Stone was going through a difficult time. Sources told me he had left the Marion Police Department and that my complaint to Kansas C-POST was the reason. Late Monday, July 31, the confirmation came when Stone posted a link to a GoFundMe page where he sought money to attend a police dog training course. The page characterized him as a “former police officer.”

I notified the two Wichita news organizations of this information via e-mail, which included screenshots and links. I also notified the Marion County Record. David Colburn, news editor of the Record, was on the phone to me within minutes. He interviewed me and requested further documentation, which I sent him. The weekly newspaper’s deadline was the next day, so turning a story of this magnitude presented quite a challenge. Nonetheless, the Record had the story (click here to read it) in its Wednesday, August 2 edition. The two Wichita news organizations have yet to do the story. KAKE-TV ran The AP’s story on Friday, August 4.

With all due respect, I would be ashamed if the Marion County Record “scooped” me on a story I’d had access to for weeks. I can’t think of a valid reason for those two Wichita organizations not to do the story. Sure, it might anger law enforcement, but the little ol’ Record manages to survive and thrive and it does controversial stories about its cops and other public officials all the time. When people in power expect to be held accountable, they act accordingly.

The two news organizations involved are KSN-TV and The Wichita Eagle. I hope they’ll do the right thing and run stories about this matter. I continue to post links to their content on my Facebook page. Every time I do, I help boost their web page statistics just as their material helps draw “likes” and “shares” to my page.

Both these organizations do good work, but these errors of omission need to stop and not just in these two newsrooms. The local media in general need to do a much better job of holding public officials accountable. Perhaps part of the reason Wichita has stagnated and lost big-name corporations such as Boeing, Pizza Hut, and Rent-A-Center is that its leadership never felt the heat from a vigorous press and became too complacent and entrenched.

Awhile back, a friend of mine — a sister of the fellow who gave me my start in the news business many years ago — shared the photo, above, to my Facebook timeline. It is as true now as when George Orwell wrote it. If you are a journalist and you don’t like controversy, you’re in the wrong business. If you think you are doing your viewers or readers a service by passing up a controversial story just so you can get easy sound bites at car wrecks and shootings, you are sadly mistaken.

The Arkansas Gazette lost $2 million in an advertising boycott because it backed the Little Rock Nine, who were fighting for school desegregation. Here we are, 60 years later, and the cowardly Wichita news media won’t even turn a story because they’re carrying water for law enforcement. Pathetic! And it must change now!

Former Butler Deputy Resigns From Marion Police Department

By Lee White

The Marion County Record (click here) and The Associated Press (click here) have reported on a complaint I filed with the Kansas Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training July 10 against a former Butler County sheriff’s deputy, Michael Stone. I may write a bit more about the matter later and share some of the public documents I found, but given that there are public agencies, news agencies, and individuals still looking into the case, I’ll leave you with links to the stories that the good and capable reporters for the Record and The AP have filed. Thanks for reading!

Watchdog Files Open Records Requests In Augusta Threats Case

By Lee White

((UPDATE 4/25/2017: The Butler County Sheriff’s Department reports that it has no such complaints on file.))

((UPDATE 4/28/2017: The Kansas Bureau of Investigation reports that it hasn’t yet received any such complaints.))

I filed written requests today under the Kansas Open Records Act with the Augusta Department of Public Safety, the Butler County Sheriff’s Department, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The requests, filed by certified mail, seek the front page of any Kansas Standard Offense Report filed between April 13 and today by Augusta Department of Public Safety Chief Tyler Brewer or anyone from Augusta with the same last name.

Under the Open Records Act, the agencies have three business days to respond in writing to the request by providing the requested record, declaring that the record does not exist, or citing a state law that closes the record to public inspection. The front page of a Kansas Standard Offense Report is known to be a public record. That fact is clearly printed on the form, as one can see by clicking here.

I made the request because Brewer asserted in two media reports, including this one from KWCH-TV and this one in The Wichita Eagle, that he and his family had been the subject of a death threat following an ADPS officer’s shooting of a dog. I chose to send requests to these agencies because one is Brewer’s own department and the other two — the KBI and the sheriff’s office — would be departments a law enforcement officer might call upon to act as a neutral third party in an investigation. As of this writing, I have not received a response from any of the three agencies.

A death threat against any law enforcement officer and his family is serious business. Anyone who is desperate or crazy enough to pick up a telephone and make such a threat knowing full well that technology exists to trace the call needs to be hunted down and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Lives of others in the community could be in jeopardy should one of these nut cases try to make good on a threat. The public needs to know that an investigation is, indeed, underway and providing a copy of basic information about the case is the best form of reassurance.

Andrews Wins Watchdog Facebook Poll

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Click on image for a larger view

VOTING IS CLOSED. Here are the results of our Facebook poll concerning the Butler County Sheriff race conducted on July 14-15. Remember, this is an UNSCIENTIFIC poll of Facebook users who chose to answer. Walker Andrews, 124 votes; Mike Holton, 90 votes; Kelly Herzet, 53 votes; Curtis Cox, 32 votes. Thank you to everyone who participated in the poll. Be sure to vote in the upcoming Republican primary August 2 and click here for advance voting options.

 

DANGEROUS TURNOVER: Sheriff’s Department, EMS Struggle To Keep Employees

By Lee White

If you dial 911 needing an ambulance or a sheriff’s deputy, chances are good that the people responding haven’t worked for Butler County very long. A Kansas Open Records Act request reveals that employee turnover   — subject of this recent jail deputy retention initiative by county commissioners — is by no means limited to the detention facility. There has also been significant turnover among road patrol deputies and emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Watchdog requested the number of new hires and terminations at the jail, sheriff’s department, and emergency medical service for 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 to the date of the request, May 17. Click here for the document showing new hires and terminations in the three departments.

Trouble At The Jail

Butler County intentionally built a larger jail than it needed expecting to fill the beds with overflow from other counties. When that overflow didn’t materialize, the jail lost money. In more recent times, jail occupancy hasn’t been an issue thanks to contracts with federal law enforcement agencies and other counties, but keeping qualified staff has been a problem. Sheriff Kelly Herzet, who is finishing his first full term in office, has blamed the turnover on low pay and the fact that the jail was designed for guards to have direct contact with prisoners rather than monitoring them from secured command centers such as the ones used in the Sedgwick County jail.

The jail has been the target of lawsuits concerning inmate deaths and sexual abuse. During the 2012 sheriff’s race, Herzet’s opponent, Carl Enterkin cited the case of Kasie Ducharme, an inmate who died at the jail in 2007, whose family won a settlement after suing the county for failing to provide adequate medical care. Click here to read the Wichita Eagle story.

Jail deputy Charles Chaney III was fired and charged with having consensual sex with a female inmate in 2013. Click here for the Butler County Times-Gazette story. In a federal lawsuit, however, the victim claims she did not consent to have sex with Chaney. Click here for the story from Courthouse News Service. That case was dismissed on motion of both parties, but was re-filed on July 28, 2015, and is still pending in U.S. District Court.

Jail Employment Numbers

The number of new hires (red) and terminations (blue) at the jail is significant. During the three-and-a-half-year period covered by the above chart, 54 new jail deputies or supervisors and one new receptionist were hired and 57 jail deputies or supervisors, and two receptionists and an information analyst either quit or were fired. The department website indicates there are positions for 60 full-time detention deputies.

It is interesting to note that county commissioners took action to slow jail turnover only last month — after it became clear that Sheriff Herzet had significant opposition in the August 2 Republican primary. That opposition includes Curtis Cox, a current road patrol deputy; Mike Holton, a former road patrol supervisor who has expressed concerns about turnover; and Walker Andrews, a retired Wichita police lieutenant whose father, Butch, is a retired Butler County deputy.

Turnover Not Limited To Jail

“When I left the Butler County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done,” Holton said in this Times-Gazette candidate profile. “After spending nearly 25 years with an organization, it’s never easy to walk away. However, at that point it was the best thing for me as well as for my family. I’d never seen the morale as low as it was then and as a result there has been unprecedented turnover.”

Sheriff Patrol and Court Security Employment Numbers

The numbers support Holton’s and the other candidates’ allegations of low morale and turnover not only at the jail but among road patrol deputies. During the three-and-a-half-year period covered by the above chart, 18 new patrol deputies, three court security officers, and one detective were hired. Sixteen patrol deputies, three court security officers, one sergeant, one lieutenant, one civil process officer, and one clerk either quit or were fired. The department website states that there are 37 state-certified deputies in the road patrol division.

Shiny New Faces At EMS

Something big happened at Butler County EMS in early 2014. Chris Davis, who runs the county 911 dispatch center and is a former EMS paramedic and supervisor, appeared at a commission meeting as interim EMS director seeking bids on new ambulances. Davis was flanked by Butler County Emergency Management Director Jim Schmidt, himself a paramedic and former Sedgwick County EMS supervisor. Apparently lost on the Times-Gazette reporter who wrote this March 11, 2014, article was that the real story wasn’t ambulance bids.

“Last week, the last of the EMS administration gave me his resignation,” said Davis. “He was offered a job in the private sector that dealt directly with his master’s degree.”

Although the newspaper never followed up with a story about why the entire management team of an important county department had suddenly left, it is clear from county records that this is exactly what happened. What’s more, many of the EMTs and paramedics who provide patient care on ambulances have left, as well.

EMS Employment Numbers

For the three-and-a-half-year period covered in the above chart, there have been 47 new paramedics and EMTs hired, as well as an EMS director and a clerk. Thirty-five EMTs and paramedics quit or were fired during the same period along with one EMS director, one administrative assistant, one operations captain, one clinical operations major, one operations major, one personnel development coordinator, one assistant to the medical director, one logistics coordinator, and one training officer. Official county budget documents show that total authorized full- and part-time EMS employment has gone from 41.73 in 2013 to 43 in 2015 and 2016.

EMS Director Grant Helferich, who had led the department since 1990, resigned on April 26, 2014, according to county records and his Linked-In profile. Chad Pore took the same position on May 12, 2014. Click here for the Times-Gazette story announcing Pore’s arrival. Turnover among street-level EMTs and paramedics has accelerated since Pore took the helm — 25 have quit or been fired while 33 have been hired.

The Big Question: Why?

Money is often the answer, but with turnover this drastic, can it really be the only one? Probably not. Butler County’s emergency services have long been a stepping stone — critics would argue a dumping ground — for those who couldn’t catch on with a larger department in Wichita or the Kansas City metro area. No doubt about it: Bigger cities offer better pay and benefits. Nonetheless, examination of available data on kansasopengov.org and hrepartners.com reveals that Butler County’s gross wages are probably in line with smaller departments.

Starting pay for a Butler County jail deputy is $13.99 an hour, according to hrepartners.com. It’s $14.05 in Sedgwick County, but only $13.26 in Saline County, where Salina is located.

According to data from kansasopengov.org, 2015 gross pay for the top 10 jail deputy earners in Butler County ranged from $28,885 to $49,252. In Sedgwick County, it was $78,694 to $121,866. Ellis County, where Hays is located, came in slightly below Butler County with a range of $24,709 to $47,939. The figures include overtime but not benefits.

Butler County’s top 10 sheriff deputy earners brought in $40,219 to $67,123 in 2015. Sedgwick County’s range was $69,890 to $85,631. Cowley County, where Winfield and Arkansas City are located, had top 10 deputy earners pulling in $34,781 to $44,240.

The top 10 Butler County paramedic earners grossed from $41,913 to $53,581 in 2015. Sedgwick County’s top 10 earned $53,318 to $69,505. In Ellis County, the top 10 earned from $47,961 to $57,912.

County commissioners control the purse strings for all departments and the management and work culture of departments such as EMS that are not overseen by other elected officials (sheriff, clerk, treasurer, etc.). Commissioners themselves earned anywhere from $28,633 to $29,833 in 2015 depending upon chairmanship duties, according to kansasopengov.org. Commissioners attend one morning meeting a week, as well as workshops and public appearances. County Administrator Will Johnson, who manages day-to-day operations, made $121,953 last year.

Voters will ultimately decide in the August 2 Republican primary whether Commissioner Ed Myers and Sheriff Kelly Herzet have been getting the job done. They’ll also select a new commissioner to replace Peggy Palmer, who is retiring from her District 2 position.

Voters would certainly be justified to question why there has been so much turmoil and turnover at the sheriff’s department and EMS and so little done to address it. How much importance voters place on having a bunch of newbie first responders on the streets is definitely something the Watchdog will be interested in measuring.

If you are a current or former sheriff’s deputy or EMS worker, the Watchdog would like to hear your experiences and ideas about how to address turnover and morale. Feel free to leave a comment either below this story or in an e-mail by clicking on the contact link at the top of the blog. We also maintain a Google phone number you can call or text 24 hours a day at (716) 288-5373. If there’s no answer, be sure to leave a detailed message. You can always remain anonymous. And thank you for your service.