Blue-Light Special

When it came to guns, the Overland cops weren't just playing around

After his home on Lackland Road was burglarized in 1981, Sarros -- a former chief engineer for KMOX (1120 AM) -- asked Police Chief Ray Poeschel to keep the rest of his guns at police headquarters. Poeschel agreed, and the two men prepared a list of Sarros' guns and their serial numbers. When Poeschel lost his re-election bid in 1982, Sarros ran into the new chief, Eddy Williams, at the Overland Moose Lodge and asked him whether he could continue to keep his guns at the department. Williams agreed.

Sarros was spending more and more time at his Arizona home. By late 1994 or early 1995, Sarros was planning to sell his house in Overland. He wanted to collect his guns and leave them at a friend's home in St. Charles. In late March 1995, he and John Stillman, whose wife had been a longtime friend of Sarros', drove to police headquarters, where they met with Williams. The chief called Cpl. Ronnie Wilhoit, the department's armorer (the officer in charge of weapons), and asked him to bring Sarros' guns. When Wilhoit returned with the guns, Sarros discovered that two of his shotguns -- the prized Winchester .410-gauge and a Remington 12-gauge -- were missing. The chief appeared visibly angry. He promised a police investigation, promised to report the missing guns as stolen, even promised to administer a polygraph test to anyone who had access to the guns.

Several days later, Wilhoit went to Sarros' home and asked the elderly man for his list of gun serial numbers. But Sarros didn't want to surrender his only copy. Instead, he read the serial numbers to Wilhoit, and Wilhoit said he'd have the guns entered into the police computer as stolen property. On April 26, 1995 -- a few weeks after Wilhoit's visit and just two days before 47-year-old Wilhoit retired -- Sarros' home was burglarized. Among the stolen items was the handwritten list of serial numbers, which Sarros had placed under a lamp in his living room during Wilhoit's visit. (A police report on the burglary noted a lengthy inventory of items Sarros identified as stolen but did not include the list of serial numbers.)

Sarros spoke again with Williams a week before Thanksgiving 1995 and asked the chief about the status of the investigation into his missing guns. The chief said there was no investigation. That answer wasn't good enough for Sarros, so here he was, telling his story to Turner, the very same officer on the outs with Chief Williams.

Turner verified key details of Sarros' story. The guns were kept in one of three metal storage lockers in the department's basement armory, and Wilhoit had told range officers that the only key to the locker was kept in the chief's desk. But other officers had seen Wilhoit with Sarros' guns: Det. Mike Blair, who had been a firearms instructor, later would tell investigators that Wilhoit showed him the Winchester in 1993. Blair recalls the shotgun was "skeet grade" -- which put its value at more than $1,800.

Turner was unable to locate any records to show that Wilhoit ever filed a police report on Sarros' missing guns or initiated any investigation, as both he and Chief Williams had promised Sarros. (It's unclear whether Wilhoit ever intended to report anything -- later police files include an interoffice memo from Wilhoit to Williams saying that he was convinced that Sarros was "a little senile" and that Sarros probably gave or traded a missing gun to former chief Poeschel. Oddly, Wilhoit's memo was dated Nov. 16, 1994 -- several months before Sarros claimed to have gone to the police department, suggesting either the date was in error or Sarros had been confused about the timing of his meeting with the chief. Chief Williams told investigators he never saw Wilhoit's memo.)

There was more than enough information, Turner concluded, to warrant a deeper probe. At the very least, somebody had been derelict in his duties. At worst, there was a thief in the department. Turner concluded in his report: "Due to the accuracy of the information provided by Mr. Sarros, it is believed that his firearms had been stolen from the Police Department. It is also believed that Cpl. Wilhoit was aware that the theft had occurred and was negligent in his duty to report and investigate the incident."

Given the seriousness of the allegations, Bill Turner asked for an immediate meeting with Mayor Munsch, Chief Williams and Lt. Mike O'Brien. At the meeting, held in the chief's office on Dec. 7, 1995, Williams said he believed Sarros was "suffering from senility," but the chief nevertheless ordered O'Brien to conduct an official investigation -- something Sarros said the chief had promised him earlier that year. O'Brien began collecting records of the city's gun transactions, as well as Wilhoit's private gun sales (Wilhoit was a licensed gun dealer who handled private sales in the 1980s and '90s). But O'Brien's tenure with the department ended in January 1996, when he took retirement after 20 years on the police force.

With O'Brien's departure, Munsch assigned the investigation to two veteran officers: Rick Brown, then a corporal, and Donald Gault, a former sergeant who had been demoted after a car wreck. The mayor authorized the two officers to review and seize city records and the investigation expanded. Gault says O'Brien had warned him there was a lot more to the investigation than just Sarros' complaint. "O'Brien told me, 'I just scratched the surface on this thing,'" Gault recalls. Brown and Gault began developing a lengthy list of leads, witnesses and records.

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