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Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 01:51 pm

Pants on fire

Cop keeps job despite fib

A Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy lied on the witness stand in a 2010 drug case but was never charged with a crime and is still on patrol.

During the 2010 hearing, Deputy Travis Koester testified under oath that he received a tip via Crime Stoppers that led him to investigate and arrest Gregory Roberts, who was charged with three drug offenses plus being a felon in possession of a firearm. Koester told the court that he didn’t know whether the tipster was paid for the information.

But Koester’s testimony wasn’t true, as the deputy later admitted. Koester told an internal affairs investigator that he received a tip about Roberts not via Crime Stoppers, but from someone he had pulled over who didn’t want any money for his information.

“He’s a gem,” said Mark Wykoff, Roberts’ attorney, referring to Koester. “It was my understanding that Deputy Koester was less than entirely forthcoming and frank at the…hearing, which is synonymous with ‘lied under oath.’”

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Roberts after Koester’s false testimony came to light, but the deputy suffered no serious consequences, receiving only a written reprimand after an internal investigation determined that he had falsified a report and discredited both himself and the department.

Sangamon County state’s attorney John Milhiser said the decision not to file charges against Koester was made before he was named state’s attorney in 2010.

“I’m not going to speculate why charges weren’t filed at the time,” Milhiser said. “We have filed charges against police officers and they are not above the law and each case is treated differently on its own set of facts.” Milhiser confirmed that the case against Roberts was dropped as a result of an internal affairs probe into how Koester’s courtroom testimony jibed with the deputy’s investigation of Roberts. Despite the lack of criminal charges against Koester, Wykoff said that a single instance of untruthfulness on the stand is fair game for jurors in future cases who can use such information to assess the credibility of a witness.

“I’ve put the state on notice…in cases where I’ve had Mr. Koester, that they’ll have to deal with that issue,” Wykoff said. “It certainly gave me some leverage on negotiated dispositions. … I’m surprised the sheriff’s department hasn’t said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to hit the highway.’”

Sheriff Neil Williamson downplayed the deputy’s fib, even though Koester ultimately admitted that he had gotten information via a traffic stop, not Crime Stoppers, and department records show that the case was dropped as a result of the deputy’s false testimony.

“It’s a matter of semantics, I think,” Williamson said. “His statements (on the witness stand) were not found to be unlawful. Having said that, we also felt, after reviewing it, that his testimony was ambiguous, to say the least. It did warrant some corrective action, some corrective measures, we feel have been a success. Since that incident, the deputy has performed up to my standards.”

A history of issues
Just two days before Koester fibbed on the stand, Capt. Joseph Roesch sat the deputy down for a counseling session, according to a memo on the meeting that documented inadequacies in the deputy’s policing skills.

It was the fourth counseling session in as many months between Koester and superior officers. At that point, Koester had been a deputy for more than five years. Problems ranged from reports that didn’t state the amount of money seized from suspects, to documenting where currency was found, to disregard for constitutional rights.

One month before Koester lied under oath in the Roberts case, he obtained a search warrant for a home where a marijuana growing operation was suspected. Roesch, who was going to help serve the warrant, discovered that Koester had used an infrared heat-detection device to compile evidence against the suspected grower that could be used to get a search warrant for the home.

But Koester had not obtained a search warrant before using the device, contrary to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that police can’t use such equipment absent a warrant. John Schmidt, who was then state’s attorney and is now a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge, told Roesch not to serve the warrant on the suspected grower because Koester hadn’t first obtained a warrant to use the infrared device.

Koester, however, believed that he knew more about the law than Schmidt or the Supreme Court or Roesch, who is an attorney.

“I explained the constitutional violation and told him (Koester) we would not be able to serve the warrant,” Roesch wrote in his memo to Jack Campbell, who was then chief deputy of the department and is now undersheriff. “I clearly told Koester that I believed that this was an honest mistake and that I believed he was not intentionally violating someone’s rights. Koester questioned my interpretation of (the Supreme Court decision) and said ‘I know the law.’ Koester thought he should still be able to serve the warrant.”

Roesch wrote that he tried to show Koester a copy of the Supreme Court’s decision, with relevant portions highlighted, but the deputy didn’t want to see it. Instead, he told the captain that he had seen a television show in which federal agents served search warrants based on evidence gathered with infrared equipment. When the captain again said the warrant couldn’t be served, Koester had an idea.

“Deputy Koester suggested that he could rewrite the (search) warrant (application) and remove the constitutional violation from the text before taking it to a judge,” Roesch wrote. “I told Koester that omitting a constitutional violation from a search warrant is highly unethical, not to mention illegal, and that I would not condone such behavior. I also explained how omitting material conduct, including exculpatory information, violates Illinois and federal law. I went on to explain how omission of material facts and not telling the full truth could result in losing evidence.”

The message still didn’t sink in, according to Roesch’s memo.

“Koester said he did not understand why we were not going to serve the search warrant and indicated that he disagreed with me,” Roesch wrote. “I explained again the various legal and ethical issues referenced above. … I told Koester that he was not to obtain any search warrants on his own without first notifying his direct supervisor and getting guidance and approval from a detective supervisor prior to seeking a warrant from a judge.”

Two days after Roesch told Koester about the importance of telling the full truth, the deputy fibbed on the stand in the Roberts case.

Koester might have also violated the rights of Roberts’ girlfriend, Roesch concluded in his memo written before the deputy fibbed in court about how the case got started. After being invited into the woman’s home, Koester read Miranda rights, told her that she was being detained, then asked for permission to search the premises. That may have constituted an illegal search, Roesch wrote, and so drugs and money that were subsequently found could have been ruled inadmissible evidence. Furthermore, detaining the woman in her home might have been an illegal arrest, the captain determined.

Koester, Roesch wrote in his memo, should not conduct searches without a supervisor’s approval and the deputy should receive training in constitutional rights.

“I do not think that Deputy Koester has the knowledge or experience at this point in his career to independently work complex criminal investigations,” Roesch wrote.

A cop who keeps insisting that a search warrant be served even after a lawyer several times explains that it would be against the law? The sheriff chalks it up to youthful exuberance.

“Of course that’s a concern,” Williamson says. “I think that almost every department of every size in this country, when they get very young, intelligent, bright, aggressive officers, the first couple years they’re on the department, they have this vim and vigor, and they want to solve all the problems of the world. They know the law, but they think they can take it into their own hands sometimes.

“All he (Koester) wants to do is do a good job and put the bad guys in jail.”

Shaky testimony and lawsuits
A year after Roesch’s critical assessment, Koester became the department’s designated DUI officer.

He lasted less than two years on DUI patrol. Sheriff’s officials who eliminated the position say that it had nothing to do with Koester’s performance. Rather, the department says that it couldn’t afford to keep a deputy on full-time DUI enforcement after the state, which had paid Koester’s full salary and other costs, reduced funding last fall.

Koester compiled an impressive arrest record while a DUI cop, busting suspected drunks at the rate of one for every 2.11 hours of patrol. He also earned a reputation as being shaky on the witness stand. At least two judges called him out last year for less-than-believable testimony, with one saying that Koester had not provided “one iota of credible evidence” in a case that was dismissed and another saying that he believed that Koester was “making it up as he goes along.” That case, too, was dismissed. Both defendants sued the county for false arrest, and their lawsuits remain pending in federal court.

Koester is also a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by Tamara Skube, a passenger in a car driven by a man that the deputy pulled over on suspicion of DUI in 2011. The deputy used his Taser on Skube after she objected to him searching her purse. The sheriff’s department has defended Koester’s actions, pointing out that Skube did not turn around and put her arms behind her back when told that she was under arrest.

Skube’s lawsuit was the second filed in federal court by someone who claims that Koester was overzealous with a Taser. Paul Moriconi, a former tavern owner, says that he wasn’t breaking any laws in 2009 when Koester tased him; rather Moriconi says he was trying to break up a bar fight. Internal affairs investigators found no wrongdoing. Moriconi wasn’t charged with a crime, but he was convicted in an unrelated incident of obstructing justice and aiding a fugitive for hiding a suspected drunken driver in his bar after a fatal hit-and-run accident.

Koester has also been the target of a lawsuit from Kenneth W. Foster, a man with a criminal history that includes convictions for theft, illegal weapon possession, witness harassment and battery. Acting as his own attorney, Foster sued Koester and the county in 2007, alleging that the deputy roughed him up. A judge dismissed Foster’s lawsuit, but attorneys’ fees and other legal bills cost taxpayers nearly $34,500. Taxpayers so far have spent more than $45,000 to defend the other pending lawsuits involving Koester.

Koester is now a regular patrol deputy. Sheriff Williamson acknowledges complaints against the deputy, but defends Koester as a cop who has learned from any mistakes.

“He is a very aggressive, high-profile deputy who makes hundreds, if not thousands, of citizen contacts,” the sheriff says. “Some of those contacts aren’t always happy. I don’t think I’ve had anything on him in the last year or year-and-a-half, at least.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy Travis Koester didn’t tell the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth during a 2010 drug case that was dismissed due to concerns about his false testimony. Here’s what Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy Travis Koester said in sworn court testimony under questioning by defense attorney Mark Wykoff:

Q: (W)as it a Crime Stoppers tip, sir?
A: Yes.

Q: And that Crime Stoppers tipster. Had they ever made a Crime Stoppers tip previously?
A: They don’t ask for information on those things as far as I know.

Q: Do you know what the reliability was of that tipster?
A: As far as those Crime Stoppers tips, we don’t put any reliability on it until we have substantiating evidence or something that makes us believe that.

Q: Do you know if that tipster was compensated for their good deed financially?
A: No, I do not.

Here are excerpts from a memo that Koester wrote to a sheriff’s captain less than three weeks later after the department discovered there had been no Crime Stoppers tip.

On 3/20/10 I conducted a traffic stop and investigation at the intersection of Douglas and Junction Circle. … In the course of my investigation, I spoke with a subject who was identified as (redacted). (Redacted) spoke with me about the drugs I recovered during the investigation and gave me a tip to stop crime. … (Redacted) told me he didn’t want any compensation for his cooperation and didn’t want there to be any record of our conversation. … I apologize for any confusion this may have caused if it is believed that when I said I received a “crime stoppers tip” that it was comprehended as being from the Crime Stoppers organization which rewards people for information. This tip was from information I received on patrol.

Here’s what Koester told an internal affairs investigator five months after writing the memo. Koester spoke under the provision that anything he said could not be used against him in court but could be used as the basis for disciplinary action. He received a reprimand.

Q: Was there, in fact, a Crime Stoppers tip on Greg Roberts?
A: No.

Q: Were you asked to write a memo to…explain this?
A: Yes.

Q: In that memo…did you say that there was no Crime Stoppers tip and that you were given a tip to stop crime by (redacted)?
A: That’s correct.

Q: OK, did (redacted) tell you that he was giving you a tip to stop crime?
A: No.

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