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June 16, 2019

10/5/2017 7:29:00 AM
Gunfight at the Not OK Corral

There's trouble brewing at the Oneida County Sheriff's Office, and, if what we hear on the street turns out to be true, next year's sheriff's election might take the brew to an outright boil.

Let's call it Gunfight at the Not OK Corral.

The troubles involve reports of intimidation, fears of retribution, kangaroo internal investigations, and a steady departure of long-serving officers. Our stories are far from finished, but we fear that even those are merely the tip of the iceberg in this dysfunctional and mismanaged law enforcement agency.

Nowhere has that dysfunction and mismanagement come into clearer focus than in the controversies surrounding former detective sergeant Sara Welcenbach. The grievance committee hearing convened to judge her conduct, as well as her fight to obtain justice in the alleged rape she suffered in 2011, have at last lifted a veil that has long covered and protected the sheriff's department.

What is being revealed is a landscape despoiled by fluttering red flags. It's time to examine each and every one of these red flags.

First, a few words about Ms. Welcenbach. Whatever one thinks of her conduct or accusations, Ms. Welcenbach has unquestionably performed a valuable public service in forcing some transparency onto the sheriff's department.

It is telling to us - to cite just one example - that Ms. Welcenbach chose to have her grievance hearing in public. Except for her request, it would have been in closed session.

That is to say, all the testimony about the sexual assault charges, all the horrible things the department accused her of, from making up rape allegations to being a dirty cop - she could have kept all that behind closed doors if she wanted to.

She did not.

Rather, in what we know has been a painful experience for this long-serving officer, she chose to endure the public spectacle, both to clear her name and to shine some light on what is actually going on in the sheriff's department.

Because of Ms. Welcenbach, a lot has been exposed, and there is more to come. For that act of courageous transparency, she deserves a thank you. Her decision did not tarnish the law enforcement badge; it brightened it.

As for the charges themselves, well, the county never provided any direct evidence of any guilt, and even the circumstantial evidence was either shaky or happened to circumstantially fit others who had the opportunity to do the things the county says Welcenbach did.

The county never proved a thing, in other words, so it's no small wonder that the criminal charges were dropped.

We suppose she might have been fired for sloppiness, as her own attorney admitted, but in that case so should others have been, just as others ought to be brought up on civil-service charges.

More troubling is chief deputy Dan Hess's assertion that it was usual practice for people in the drug unit to put their own money in if they were short in their money box, a policy we believe would only encourage petty theft, or "borrowing," as a more polite term might be.

Assuming the worst then, and it can only be an assumption, that Ms. Welcenbach took some money and never got around to putting it back, it would seem the sheriff decided to prosecute her for following accepted policy and practice.

Perhaps the grievance committee made the right call, but in that case we ask, where's the axe for all the others?

In the sexual assault case, this newspaper cannot and will not make any judgments. Both Ms. Welcenbach and Mr. Lech deserve their day in court, and a judge and jury will make the legal determination.

What we can say is that the record we have and that was presented to the public so far does not point in any way to an allegation that can be so completely dismissed and rejected as it has been by the Oneida County Sheriff's Department.

Readers today can read for themselves an examination of the records and testimony surrounding these allegations, but suffice it to say there are many, many reasons to justifiably have brought charges against Lee Lech.

We don't know if Lech is guilty, and in the end a court will make the call, but we do believe strong probable cause existed to have brought the charges.

And that brings us to what concerns us most about the sheriff's department these days: It seems to be a rogue agency, even within the law-enforcement orbit.

It's not so much that the department is part of a broader Brotherhood of Justice that is uniformly sinister. It's that the department is an outlier even within the brotherhood. Its judgments are not aligning with others in the justice system.

And that's especially true in the Welcenbach case.

First, the department argued to keep the Lech investigation records sealed, in part to protect Lech's reputation, saying the allegations were unfounded. It was uncorroborated hearsay, the county argued. The allegations were unsubstantiated, untrue, it asserted.

But the judge in the case, Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen, strongly disagreed. He found consistency and corroboration. He found it unlikely that Welcenbach would make up her statements, given that some of them were unflattering to her.

Nielsen noted the severity of the allegations, but ordered the records released.

The department has still not changed its tune. At the grievance hearing, with the records case behind them, agency officials and the county's attorney dismissed the likelihood of any prosecution of Lech. Captain Mark Neuman disparaged Welcenbach's statements, saying the story didn't make sense and he did not believe there was probable cause to bring a prosecution.

And yet, Dane County prosecutors did find probable cause enough to charge Lech with two felonies.

So over here there's the judge and Dane County prosecutors, and over there is the outlier, the Oneida County Sheriff's Office.

Then, the department brought charges against Welcenbach, only to see prosecutors dismiss them, a decision that Hartman said at the grievance hearing he disagreed with.

Again, the department was an outlier.

No law enforcement agency is going to have a judge or a prosecutor always agree with its assessments but in this instance the incongruity of the situation can hardly be ignored:

Alone in its assessments, the department hoisted an alleged rape victim on a petard filled with unsubstantiated circumstantial evidence, and effectively put her on public trial, while exonerating an alleged rapist in a whitewash of sworn testimony and court documents.

One, they pronounced guilty in pre-trial press releases; the other, they went to court to protect.

That's more than an incongruity; it's an outrage, and further investigation is warranted. It's coming.

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