Blue-Light Special

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

The investigation into Chris Sarros' guns, which in three short months had grown into an open-ended probe of Williams and guns in the department, was over. There was no criminal case; there were no charges; there were no answers.

The bigger question -- whether Overland crossed the line in gun purchases and sales -- never was addressed. "As far as us putting guns on the street, the way that we did ... somebody had a responsibility to look at that issue and do something about it, and they didn't do it," Gault says. "The feds didn't do it, and the local government didn't do it. They just let it go away."

Eddy Williams was out as chief and Bill Turner was running the department in June 1996, but Mayor Munsch and the aldermen wanted someone else in charge, someone who kept his head down while the fighting was going on. Sgt. Russ Coffell fit the bill. "I didn't want to accept the position," Coffell says, but the mayor and board pressed him hard. "They came to me and said, 'You're not really tied in with anybody -- and the place is going to pieces, and we need some help.'"

"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

Though only 41, Coffell had 20 years of law-enforcement experience, beginning as a Kirkwood cop. He joined Overland's department as a patrolman in 1980. As a cop, Coffell earned a master's degree in management -- his wife was urging him to go into private business. In 1984, he left the police force to work as an investment counselor, but, he says, he wasn't happy: "I love being a police officer." In 1986, he hired on as the police chief of Breckenridge Hills, but in just two years, he was sacked for reasons that were never publicly disclosed. Coffell sued, alleging his civil rights had been violated. The lawsuit was settled out of court in early 1989; the terms were not disclosed. Overland rehired him later that year.

As Overland's new chief, Coffell says, he wanted to run the department professionally and keep things on an even keel for a change. He slashed the department's "ludicrous" ammunition budget by two-thirds and began the process of ridding the department of its machine guns. He asked the Peace Officer Standards and Training Program to strip Williams and Kessler of their state certification, citing their alleged criminal behavior, but the state took no disciplinary action against them. Coffell also met with Chris Sarros and says he urged the city to reimburse him for the missing guns; Mayor Munsch said no.

Coffell says he was pretty much left alone by City Hall during the first few months of his tenure as chief, but then things changed. Munsch and the aldermen wanted a long-term fix that would lock in City Hall's control of the police department. At their urging, Overland voters in November 1996 approved a measure changing the city's status from a fourth-class to a third-class city. With the change, aldermen became city councilmen and the job of police chief became an appointed position. Because there still was sentiment in the city in favor of electing police chiefs, Munsch and other city officials pledged in mailings to voters that they'd still be able to vote for a chief in the next election. But less than a month after voters approved the charter change, Munsch and a majority of the board reneged on the promise and reappointed Coffell.

Rather than ensuring his job security, Coffell says, he quickly learned that his appointment meant that he could be fired if he ran afoul of the mayor and the board: "I was part of the team. And since I was part of the team, they expected me to be a team member.... Then the tests started happening." For example, Coffell claims, he was asked to drag his feet on a liquor-license application so that a city official could settle a financial dispute with the business owner. Coffell was sucked into the infighting at City Hall. Munsch, then 64 and looking toward retirement, was expected to step down in 1998, and his critics wanted to make sure he didn't have a change of mind. In what had become stock-in-trade in Overland, a derogatory anonymous letter circulated regarding the mayor and another city official, alleging adultery -- an accusation Munsch vigorously denied.

Coffell says a livid Munsch told him at a meeting in the mayor's office on Sept. 16, 1997, that he believed that Councilman Donny Ray Mason, a Mark Brown ally, was behind the scurrilous letter. Munsch told the chief he had plenty of money -- $25,000, in fact -- to have Mason "gotten." The former mayor and chief have different recollections of the conversation; Munsch says he meant he wanted Mason eliminated politically, defeated in his next election. Coffell, recalling the mayor's tone, believed -- and still believes -- that the mayor wanted to arrange a hit on the councilman. "He hated Mason. He wanted Mason hurt. He wanted something to happen to Mason," he says.

On Sept. 19 -- three days after the meeting -- Coffell called Mason, warning him, "Watch your back." The next day, a Saturday, the chief dined with Brown, Mason and two other Brown allies, getting their advice on how to deal with the mayor. And on Sunday, Coffell wrote and sealed two letters to himself, documenting his discussions with the mayor and the actions he took in response. In the letters, Coffell wrote of his fear of being fired or demoted. And he also summarized a telephone call he had received that day from the mayor: Munsch insisted he had been misunderstood and denied -- unequivocally -- that he wanted Mason killed.

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