Blue-Light Special

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

Overland's population -- nearly 18,000, 10 years ago -- is aging; its property-tax base is stagnant; sales-tax receipts, a gauge of economic activity, are down. Voters have twice rejected a tax increase in the past year, and the city recently adopted an underfunded budget.

Maybe because some people fight meaner when the pie is small and shrinking, Overland has a longstanding reputation for political hijinks, characterized by wicked partisan mud-slinging, anonymous poison-pen letters and the occasional criminal investigation. Just two years ago, city officials were served with federal subpoenas seeking pension records and information about land deals; those records were returned last fall. For the office of the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, charges of corruption and dastardly deeds in Overland are nothing new.

"There was just a constant stream of allegations of 'this and that' and 'this and that' and 'this and that' that came out of that city," says a county official familiar with the Overland investigations. With Brown and Gault's probe and subsequent findings by county-police detectives, the "this and that" boiled down to three issues for prosecutors:

"Overland was buying and selling guns.... So they were in the gun business. That's the bottom line." - Don Gault, former Overland police 


officer
"Overland was buying and selling guns.... So they were in the gun business. That's the bottom line." - Don Gault, former Overland police

officer

"Overland was buying and selling guns.... So they were in the gun business. That's the bottom line." -- Don Gault, former Overland police officer
Geoffrey Grahn
"Overland was buying and selling guns.... So they were in the gun business. That's the bottom line." -- Don Gault, former Overland police officer

¼ Did the Overland Police Department violate a court order to destroy evidence guns? The answer was "yes," but the effect seemed benign. Two shotguns were pressed into police service, then later destroyed; other guns, which the city said had been rendered inoperable, were donated to the state for hunter education. The revelations forced J.D. Evans, assistant county prosecutor, to advise Judge Robert E. Campbell that his order had been violated. "I am somewhat at a loss to adequately explain how these shotguns were confirmed by the police department as 'destroyed,' later held as 'spare parts,' and finally discovered in service," Evans wrote Campbell on Nov. 3, 1995, a year after Campbell signed the destruction order.

· Were payroll records altered in order to justify a large payment to Williams upon his retirement? County prosecutors took this question to a St. Louis County grand jury in 1996. When they learned of the grand-jury probe, Overland aldermen suspended Kessler, who had been in charge of the records; he resigned shortly thereafter. After hearing from Mayor Munsch, the grand jury did not find sufficient evidence for criminal charges against anyone. In effect, the payout to Williams, about $55,000, could be construed as an agreed-upon severance package -- whether or not the chief had actually accumulated comp time.

· Did somebody at the Overland Police Department steal Chris Sarros' guns? The answer was "probably," but who took the guns was still a mystery. The Overland investigation focused on two possible suspects, Wilhoit and Williams, largely because they were believed to be the only individuals at the department with access to the guns. Wilhoit, who was long gone, and Williams had both denied taking the weapons. Any evidence was circumstantial, and no one had located the guns. Ultimately, there wasn't enough to build a case against either man. "Basically, the police talked to both these people -- Eddy Williams and this armory guy -- and both of them said, 'I didn't take them' -- so that was the end of it," says the county official familiar with the investigation.

Today, Wilhoit tells the RFT he has only a vague recollection of Sarros' guns and no knowledge that any of the guns were missing. "I don't know how many was there," Wilhoit says. But the former armorer says he believes Chief Williams was the last person to handle the guns. "Eddy Williams put 'em up in his office for a couple of years, and then after that he brought 'em down and brought a lock down and put them in a wall locker that was in the armory," Wilhoit says. "And they were there, I guess, in the neighborhood of six years. And I don't know what was in 'em -- Eddy Williams come down one time in those six years or whatever it was, and myself and Blair and there was somebody else, we cleaned 'em and gave them and put 'em back in the locker.... And he had the key to the locker."

When Rick Brown first called him about the Sarros investigation, Wilhoit says, he told Brown he didn't know anything about any missing guns. When investigators called back, Wilhoit says he turned the matter over to Gerard Nester, his St. Louis lawyer. That was the last Wilhoit says he heard of any investigations. Except for Brown's call, Wilhoit says, "Nobody's talked to me about it -- you're the first one." Eddy Williams did not respond to several messages from the RFT.

As their investigation unfolded, Overland police officers conducted a trace on Sarros' missing guns through the ATF and came up empty-handed. They also consulted with FBI Special Agent Joel Beaudean. According to an Overland police report, Beaudean told Gault he'd advise the U.S. Attorney's Office of the officers' findings but believed the criminal case was a state matter. (What the FBI did in this investigation -- or any other concerning Overland -- is unclear; the bureau refuses to release any records on the city, which are included in a file at its St. Louis office, titled "Corruption of State & Local Public Officials: Local Level.")

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