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By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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By Ray Downs
The burglar smashed a glass pane in the rear door, reached in, flipped the lock and quickly slipped inside the small brick house.
He went straight to a front bedroom. Ignoring jewelry and other valuables, he opened a closet door and grabbed a cardboard box with a Ruger .357 Magnum and a Colt .45 tucked inside. The intruder took the two guns, part of a collection of firearms in the house, then left.
While his house was being burglarized, Chris Sarros was at a ball game, on a date with a neighbor. It was "beer day," Sarros would later recall. When he returned home and discovered the theft, the elderly widower was shaken.
Somebody knew about his guns, and Sarros worried that the thief would return. So he went to the police chief, a personal friend and hunting buddy, and asked a special favor. The chief agreed, and the two men compiled a list of the weapons, recording each serial number. The guns -- including a Winchester 42 pump shotgun, a sought-after collectible -- were put under lock and key at the Overland Police Department.
The guns remained there, Sarros believed, until one rainy afternoon in March of 1995 -- nearly 14 years after the burglary -- when he paid the police a visit. No one really expected him to come back and collect the weapons he had left behind, but there he was, all of 75 years and pretty insistent.
It was then that Sarros learned that two of his guns, including his prized Winchester, had disappeared from what should have been the safest place in all of Overland, Mo.
That discovery -- something the old man refused to accept -- triggered a series of events that later would turn the department inside out. Because of his persistence, a wide-ranging internal investigation was launched, an investigation that would raise unsettling questions about the actions of high-ranking police officers and city officials. Accusations were made, records seized, careers ended. Other law-enforcement agencies were drawn into the probe, threatening to expose the small municipality's dirty laundry. Then, abruptly, the investigation ended and the questions stopped.
Now, years later, records and interviews shed a revealing light on how one small police department handled firearms. This was a department that traded hundreds of guns, bought and sold dozens of semiautomatic pistols that were never issued to its own officers, bought machine guns and large quantities of ammunition it didn't need, misplaced or allowed guns to be stolen, and lost or destroyed key firearms records.
Clearly, police business in the small city of Overland wasn't just about protecting and serving.
For most of his career as Overland police chief, Eddy L. Williams looked to be piloting a tight ship. Four times, voters elected him to the top job, and his relationship with other Overland officials, at least on the surface, was harmonious. In 1991, aldermen bought the chief a $22,373, top-of-the-line Mercury Grand Marquis; in 1994, just after the filing deadline for that year's city election, the aldermen boosted Williams' annual salary by 27 percent, from $47,064 to $59,850.
Then, in 1995, the Overland Police Department began to fall apart. Two of the department's top-ranking officers became embroiled in an ugly dispute involving a female city employee. The woman had dated Capt. Bill Turner, but as that relationship deteriorated, she began confiding in Maj. Richard Kessler, the assistant chief. She said Turner had made threatening statements. Kessler decided to help. Kessler, Turner later alleged in a complaint, gave the woman a department gun for protection and used his official position to obtain sealed court records to use against Turner. Williams put his close friend Kessler on paid administrative leave and asked the Missouri Highway Patrol to investigate Turner's charges. But the chief turned the tables on Turner and announced he was opening a separate investigation into an allegation that Turner had harassed a department secretary. Ultimately, none of the accusations stuck to either officer; after hearings and suspensions, charges and countercharges, both men submitted to polygraph tests, bringing the investigations to an end.
For most of 1995, the Turner-Kessler feud took centerstage even at City Hall, where aldermen, officers and residents lined up into factions behind the two men. Turner's supporters turned their ire on Williams, who, they felt, was protecting Kessler. Frank Munsch, mayor since 1984, worried that the problems were beyond Overland's ability to fix. At one point, when Munsch ordered Kessler back on the job, some officers threatened to walk. Munsch responded by threatening to let the St. Louis County Police take over the department. Instead, he moved to end the feuding by reassigning Kessler to a City Hall job, putting him in charge of police records.
Within the police department, the wounds didn't heal. Williams, who wasn't up for election again until 1998, was still police chief. Kessler wasn't working at police headquarters, but he was still a police officer and on the city payroll. Turner, whose relationship with the chief was strained, was second-in-command. And many Overland police officers had picked sides.
That's the department Chris Sarros walked into when he came to collect his guns.
Bill Turner was on duty when Sarros called one cold December day, asking whether police had any information on his guns. Turner didn't know what Sarros was talking about, but the old man was happy to fill him in. This is Sarros' account, based on a report Turner prepared on Dec. 7, 1995: