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:
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.
This is what they uncovered:
· Records showing that 16 of the 339 evidence guns that a county judge ordered destroyed in November 1994 were instead donated by Chief Williams to the Missouri Department of Conservation's hunter-education program. Two shotguns, also from the once-bulging evidence locker, showed up the next year in Overland police vehicles. Records appeared to show that the department misled the judge about those guns.
· Evidence that computer records -- records that fell under Kessler's charge -- may have been falsified to reflect compensatory time earned by the chief.
· Records of gun purchases, including information that the department was buying guns, at a discount, for friends and officials, including the mayor. A key file of department gun sales, however, was missing.
Gault also located records showing that Wilhoit inspected and serviced one of Chief Williams' personal revolvers in 1992; the serial number on the gun matched a city-owned gun supposedly destroyed in 1985. Another record showed that the department actually owned a World War II-vintage M-1 carbine that Williams had claimed as his own. Williams surrendered the two weapons after he was shown the documents. The records, Gault wrote, "typify the handling of firearms by the Overland Police Department."
In short, Brown and Gault found that the city was either buying guns that were ending up in private hands or was working with a gang that couldn't keep records straight.
On Feb. 26, 1996, the pair turned their findings over to the St. Louis County Police; a copy of the files was also provided to the FBI.
Mayor Munsch suggests that the internal investigation was getting out of control and that he directed that the county take charge. "As mayor, I finally turned this over to St. Louis County.... I think somebody was trying to push it too hard, just because of hatred." According to Munsch, "a couple bad apples" in the department were trying to "set up" Chief Williams.
But Gault says Munsch never wanted the investigation to go outside Overland. "He didn't want it to go to the FBI. He didn't want it to go to St. Louis County," Gault says. "We told 'em it had to go outside of Overland. The scope of it got to the point where somebody else needed to do something else with it."
By the time his officers turned the investigation over to county police and the FBI, Eddy Williams decided he'd had enough. In January 1996, with two years left in his term, the 50-year-old chief told the mayor he was retiring; he formally advised the city's Board of Aldermen on Feb. 12 that he was done. Asked at the time for an explanation, Williams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I have some other business opportunities coming my way, and I need to get everything in order."
Eddy Williams, by some accounts, started as a strong and popular chief, pushing for and getting better pay and benefits for officers. And he was determined to equip his cops with the very best -- the best handguns, plenty of ammunition and even heavy-duty firepower.
In 1985, three years after taking office, Williams approved the purchase of about 50 new Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums. The revolvers were standard police guns -- in the 1980s, more than 100,000 police officers across the country were equipped with Smith & Wesson sidearms. The Massachusetts-based company had long dominated law-enforcement sales, but by the late 1980s, it was losing ground to other manufacturers, including Austria's Glock GmbH, which produced popular semiautomatic pistols.
Glock and Overland began their courtship in late 1989, when Chief Williams approved the purchase of 66 Glock Model 19s. The 9mm semiautomatic came equipped with 17-round magazines. The five-year-old Smith & Wesson service revolvers were put up for sale in early 1990; about 30 police officers bought the guns for personal use. The rest were sold to city officials and others; several, according to records, ended up being purchased by Wilhoit. Former Chief Poeschel recalled paying about $300 to buy two.
When the department bought its first Glocks in late 1989, police officers weren't the only ones who benefited from the deal. At least a dozen of the brand-new Glocks ended up in private hands. Among the buyers were Chief Williams, Mayor Munsch, Public Works Director Charles Karam, Ald. Denny Golden and Mark Brown, and the co-owner of a local sporting-goods store. A record obtained by the RFT shows that those individuals each paid the department $326 per gun -- the same amount the city had paid. Because the guns were sold to a law-enforcement agency, the sale was exempt from the 10 percent federal excise tax. That savings -- and the volume discount the police department may have received -- was passed along to the individual buyers.
This was not Overland's last transaction with Glock, however.
Within a year-and-a-half, Eddy Williams approved the purchase of 23 new Glock Model 22s -- a .40-caliber semiautomatic equipped with a 15-round magazine. The department -- in another tax-exempt transaction -- paid $6,926 for the guns. Again the guns were resold, for $298 each. It was a good deal for the buyers: Even today, the Glock Model 22 is a popular handgun, priced at more than $500 retail. Mayor Munsch and Karam, the public-works director, again were buyers. So was Williams. Mark Brown, the alderman and owner of Mark's Quick Printing on Page Avenue, was also a buyer. At the time, Brown was a reserve deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, and he was instrumental in lining up the resale of Overland guns to several others on the rural department's payroll, including his friend Sheriff John Whyte.
Other buyers included Otis Greif, the owner of O.K. Novelty Co., an Overland-based vending-machine company and, until his death, an influential figure in local politics. Don Maxey, a retired teacher in the Ritenour School District, was another buyer. Some of the buyers had law-enforcement connections as members or alternates to the city's police-advisory board. Maxey says he served as an alternate on the board, which he describes as an "honorary" position. Asked about his gun purchases, Maxey says, "I don't know nothing about all that," referring the RFT to current Police Chief James Herron.
In May 1991, the department bought three more Model 22s from Glock for $900 and resold them to Munsch and Mark Brown. The mayor bought two, the alderman one.
Munsch sees nothing wrong with his purchases. "All I know is, I wrote a check out and paid for everything that I got," he says. "I went over and got a permit for anything and everything. I got a 9mm or a .40 -- I got a permit for it, and I paid the going price for it. As the mayor of the city, I was entitled to purchase a weapon."
Ald. Brown says the Montgomery County officers grouped together to save money -- about $40 a gun -- plus, they were able to qualify on the new guns at the Overland firing range. Brown says he registered the guns he bought with St. Louis County -- county records verify that -- but not everybody else did.
"The other people who were buying them for individual use, and not for law enforcement, were violating the federal taxes, which were about $45-$50 a gun," Brown adds. (Any gun sold for personal use is subject to the federal tax, but the tax is collected and paid by the manufacturer, says Special Agent Larry P. Scott, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' field division in Kansas City, Mo. The manufacturer or dealer wouldn't necessarily know whether a tax-exempt police department was reselling the guns. And even if the ATF discovered that taxes were owed, the agency has just three years to collect any delinquencies, Scott says. Ray Reynolds, Glock's regional manager, says he didn't know Overland was reselling its new guns. "I was totally unaware of that," he says.)
Some of the Glocks that the police bought and sold were resold to other individuals; some that were sold to private individuals were not registered with St. Louis County; and others were registered late.
Ald. Golden, for example, bought his Glock Model 19 from the police department in 1989, then resold it to Karam. When the investigation into the department's handling of Chris Sarros' missing guns picked up steam in late 1995, Golden quietly repurchased his gun from Karam, then turned it over to Chief Williams in February 1996. Gault couldn't locate any receipts on the gun but in a brief report concluded that an "inventory of firearms sold by this department indicates Mr. Golden did legally purchase this weapon." The gun was returned to Golden, who registered it with the county within 10 days.
Golden, who is no longer in public office, says he received assurances from the police that his purchase in 1989 was legal and served the purpose of keeping the cost of police guns down. The deal, he recalls, also was intended to ensure that guns sold outside the department remained in the city of Overland. But years later, as questions arose about the department's handling of guns, he grew concerned. "I would never cross any line that was inappropriate," Golden says. "But as time passed, the same issue kept coming up. I thought, 'Well you don't sit on something. You take it to the folks in charge.'" Golden suggests he probably should have passed on "the opportunity" to buy the gun, and he keeps the Glock now as "a reminder of the importance of waking up on a decision."
Eddy Williams and Glock weren't finished just yet.
Although the chief had equipped his officers with new semiautomatics in 1990, he decided to upgrade again in June 1991. The city paid Glock about $20,000 for 57 Glock Model 22s. Overland sold 55 of the 66 older Glock Model 19s -- the guns that didn't end up in private hands -- to Ray O'Herron Co. Inc., a Danville, Ill.-based police supplier, for $15,125.
Chief Williams still had another gun deal to make. In February 1995, the police department placed another order for 58 Glock Model 22s. Glock charged the city $23,860 for the new Model 22s and magazines but offered the city a full credit if it traded in its older Model 22s and 154 magazines. The deal ended up costing the city nothing.
Reynolds, the Glock regional manager, says the new Model 22s included drop-free magazines, but former officers say there was another motive for the trade.
They say the last trade-in was triggered, at least in part, by the new federal assault-weapon ban in 1994, which barred the manufacture or importation of high-capacity magazines -- magazines holding more than 10 rounds -- made after Sept. 13, 1994. The new law, which specifically exempted law-enforcement agencies, made pre-ban high-capacity magazines and pre-ban semiautomatics hot commodities. Because it was -- and still is -- legal for civilians to own and buy pre-ban weapons, gun manufacturers and dealers turned to Overland and other police departments to supply the public demand for old semiautomatics and high- capacity magazines. Financially, the assault-weapon ban was a boon for police departments that wanted to get new weapons inexpensively.
"Glock could sell the older guns with the higher-capacity magazines for more money than they could sell the newer ones with the 10-round magazines," says Mike Blair, the former police-firearms instructor. "They could sell the ones made pre-ban and all the magazines that went with them, but anything manufactured after September 1994 had to have 10 rounds unless it was for law enforcement."
"I was told (Glock was) selling the used ones for more than they could sell the new ones," Blair adds.
Overland wasn't the only police department to trade in relatively new weapons after the assault-weapon ban (see sidebar), but given its repeated purchases of weapons, it had been one of the most active gun buyers. In a 10-year period, this one small department, with fewer than 50 police officers, purchased at least 257 handguns. And more than 200 guns, thanks to resales and trade-ins, ended up back in the marketplace.
And, just in case the latest semiautomatic weapons weren't enough to keep the peace in Overland, the chief made sure his officers also had access to weapons that may have been more appropriate for war-torn Beirut or Mogadishu than the home of Mr. Wizard's Frozen Custard and Woofies Hotdogs.
About the same time the department was converting to 9mm Glocks, it also bought five Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns (the weapon wielded by the INS agent who grabbed Elián Gonzalez), two Colt AR-15s (civilian versions of the M-16 used in Vietnam) and a USAS 12, a fully automatic anti-riot weapon that fires multiple 12-gauge shotgun shells. Those weapons -- illegal except for use by law enforcement -- were sold by the city to licensed firearms dealers after Williams quit.
Blair quips that it was like a mini-arms race in Overland. "The only thing they ever did (with the MP5s) was shoot 'em on our range. They were never used in any official capacity, because no one was ever trained on how to use them," Blair says. As for the heavy and unwieldy automatic shotgun, Blair describes the weapon as "completely useless, unless you wanted to anchor a boat somewhere. I shot it quite a bit over there at the range. You'd shoot it 30 or 40 times, it'd be so dirty it didn't work. At the time, I didn't know what the purpose of this was. I know now: The purpose was, Eddy Williams wanted something to play with."
Gault agrees: "I shot the thing, and with a fully automatic, you could only put one on the target, and after that, there's like five or six rounds, they're all gone up in the air....You can't hang onto it -- it's a beast. This was just somebody's lark to get these things. They never had practical aspects to those at all."
Mark Brown says he asked the chief why they were buying and trading so many guns. "Williams said, 'Well, you know, we are being outgunned by the drug dealers. They got bigger and more powerful weapons.'" But, Brown says, "it was more than just the guns. Bear in mind, for like five years, Ronnie Wilhoit and Chief Williams kept running up bills of $14,000-$20,000 a year in ammo.... One day, I sat down and figured it out -- each officer would have to shoot like two boxes a day in order to use that kind of ammo. In fact, they hadn't even qualified in a long time. We knew something was wrong there."
Mayor Munsch says that when it came to firearms, he trusted Chief Williams to make the right call. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I pretty well let Eddy Williams or the chief of police run their departments -- it was up to them; it's not up to a mayor or a board of aldermen to decide 'This gun is better than that gun.'"
In fact, says Munsch, Williams was savvy when it came to dealing guns: "When we traded the guns for the other guns, I think it was almost a break-even deal. It'd be like someone coming up to you and saying, 'Hey, you bought a new Cadillac this last year, and we're going to give you a brand-new Cadillac with warranties and a much-updated one with much better for practically nothing.' It's kind of a hard deal to pass up.... When you can get something for practically nothing, that's hard to beat."
But police officers had a different take on what was happening. "These folks had a fixation with firearms," Blair says. "I've never seen somebody buy so many guns in my life for a 50-man police department."
Gault says, "First and foremost, police departments are in the business of taking guns off the street, not putting guns back on the street. Number two, (St. Louis Mayor) Clarence Harmon actually put a bounty out there for people to surrender guns, and the city of St. Louis was buying guns. Now, take those two things and use them as a reference: Overland was buying and selling guns, and they were selling them to whoever wanted to buy them.... So they were in the gun business. That's the bottom line."
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:
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.")
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.'"
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.
Donny Ray Mason apparently didn't get word. Five days after Chief Coffell warned him to watch his back, three shots were fired at Mason's house. Mason immediately charged that Munsch was behind the shooting. Coffell turned the case over to the county police, and within two days, the county cops had their man.
They took Mason into custody.
The three bullet holes in Mason's front door were fired from a distance of about 3 feet, a forensic examiner later testified. That's just about the spot where Mason said he was standing when the 'unknown shooter' sprayed his house with gunfire. In March 1998, Mason was convicted of filing a false police report and sentenced to a year's probation, fined $500 and ordered to perform 60 hours of community service.
By then, everything for Coffell and the city of Overland rested on the April 1998 election. Mark Brown and Denny Golden were candidates in a six-way race to succeed Munsch, who was retiring. So was Bob Dody, assistant public-works director and a former alderman. It was a bitter race, but with Munsch's backing, Dody won and candidates who were allied with Brown were defeated. (Brown lost his bid for reelection to the council last year.) The election gave the new mayor at least six votes on the eight-person council, and some folks in Overland took to calling the results "a clean sweep."
Three weeks after the election, Dody and the new council started sweeping up: Coffell was out, and 54-year-old Jim Herron, a longtime Overland cop who had left the department to do school security, was named the new chief.
Coffell claims he was blindsided. "Imagine your son coming home from school -- he just got named student of the year and he got a straight-A report card, (and) the next day, you get called to the principal's office and they say, 'We don't want him here; he's gone.'" Coffell, who says he was promised a job in the department if he wasn't reappointed as chief, was without a job for about five months and had to fight the city for unemployment benefits.
It's 45 minutes before the City Council meeting is set to start, and a half-dozen Overland residents already have turned out on a sweltering July evening to watch the show. Councilwoman Ann Purzner, re-elected in April after a two-year absence, chats with the audience before the meeting; a few minutes later, City Attorney Bob Herman regales her with a joke about a baby born with both male and female parts -- a penis and a brain. Bodine J. Brown, a retired police detective and Mark Brown's dad, mistakes a student doing a class project for a reporter. "If you're covering this, all you have to write is 'Yes.' That's all they say up there -- yes, yes, yes," he quips. Mayor Dody enters and makes a point of shaking everybody's hand before the meeting starts.
Overland City Council meetings are recorded and televised on public-access cable channels, but viewers don't get to see the public-comment period before the meeting. Nor do they get to hear what is arguably the best part -- the running commentary from the peanut gallery, the constant murmur about who's a crook and who's bending the truth. Of course, since Purzner -- an old Mark Brown ally -- returned to the council, the meetings seem to have livened up some. She's not afraid to mix it up. Tonight she criticizes the recently approved city budget; she upbraids Public Works Director Ron Sage for not drug-testing his drivers; she complains that the city isn't spraying some areas for mosquitos. Sage says that's just not true; Purzner replies: "I had a mosquito on my back door as big as a chicken last night."
Everything else is routine: City Clerk Linda Downs reports on new business licenses, Herman reads new ordinances, Sage offers yet another update of the Lackland Road resurfacing project.
Then it's Chief Herron's turn. After getting the council to approve the purchase of new police cruisers -- five Ford Crown Victorias, equipped with police packages ($20,055 each) -- the chief begs the council's indulgence and reads two testimonials from residents. One praises compassionate Overland officers for comforting her mother when her father died of a heart attack; a second letter is from a mother lauding diligent officers who found her missing child. The cops knocked and knocked on doors and finally found the kid at a neighbor's. Letters like this arrive all the time, the chief says: "It shows there's more to police work than enforcing the law and writing police reports."
Talking with the RFT about police work in Overland wasn't something the chief wanted to do, however. Herron didn't return several calls; after this council meeting, he turns down a request for an interview. His reason? "I don't want to talk to The Riverfront Times." As we pieced this story together, we asked the city and its police department for copies of public records, including invoices, lists of traded-in weapons and receipts for the gun sales. Unlike other police departments in the county, Overland didn't -- or couldn't -- provide that information; we had to rely on other sources. In response to our last request for gun-related records, Herron wrote: "To our knowledge there are no other reports within the Overland Police Department regarding this subject."
Back in 1995, then-state Auditor Margaret Kelly rapped Overland for its poor record-keeping, finding "various expenditures were noted which did not have adequate supporting documentation." (The audit criticized expenditures and documentation on a variety of things -- flowers for city officials and others, travel, service contracts and property -- but didn't examine gun purchases.) As Kelly's finding suggested, Overland may simply not have records of what it's bought and sold over the years.
And the past is slipping from memory as the cast of characters changes in Overland. Even at the police department, many of the veterans have quit or retired; many of those who lived in the city have moved away.
Williams returned to Arkansas, near his birthplace of Searcy, but he occasionally visits Overland.
After Ronnie Wilhoit left the police department, he moved to Arizona and now runs a mobile-home park near Tucson. Wilhoit, whose federal firearms license expired in 1995, says he misses police work "every once in a while but not enough to get back into it."
Kessler, now 53, was rehired at City Hall a month after Dody was elected in 1998. Kessler's not eager to revisit the controversies that damaged the city, the police department and his own career: "It was all politically motivated and hurt a bunch of people at the time -- and most of the guys are gone who created the problem. So I'd just as soon not stir up the pot again."
Coffell, who filed suit against Overland in October, claiming he was unlawfully terminated, is general manager of a security company. In April, he lost a bid for a seat on the Overland City Council, finishing a distant third. "After going out a couple times and knocking on doors and seeing the apathy of people, I said, 'I don't care what happens here,'" Coffell says. "I guess I was naïve -- (I thought) people do care. But I'm not so sure they do anymore."
Karam, the public-works director, was fired last fall. He declined to be interviewed, citing plans to file his own lawsuit against the city.
After Coffell was named chief, Turner was given a desk job that entailed no clear responsibilities and gave him no staff. He remained in that position under Herron until early this year, when he was named watch commander on the undesirable midnight shift. After 27 years on the police force, Turner, 48, retired in June and now works as an investigator for the state Department of Labor. He did not want to be interviewed.
O'Brien, who retired from the police force at age 41, says he quit because he no longer had the appetite for police work in Overland. "I saw the reputation getting worse, and I just wanted to get out of there to protect my own integrity," he says.
It's a familiar refrain. Mike Blair quit the department in October after 10 years: "I had a bellyful there -- the way they do business.... There are still a lot of people who work up there who are decent people, but they're still conducting business in Overland like they did in the 1950s."
Gault, whose roller-coaster career included a demotion to patrolman, then a promotion to lieutenant, retired from the department in March 1999 after 20 years. Now 45, he works as a consultant for a security-alarm company. "I'd say 65 to 75 percent of the cops in Overland don't know a damn thing about any of this," Gault says. "They weren't there when it went on, they're all new people, and even some of the guys who were there then weren't involved. But they're all going to take a hit off this."
Frank Munsch, who now lives in Chesterfield, says he still loves Overland but sure hated his last term in office. As for the city officials now running the city, Munsch volunteers: "They are, the best way to put it, very honest people."
And what of Chris Sarros, whose insistent demand for his guns had folks turning over rocks at the police department?
Sarros, now 80 and remarried, recently underwent surgery but still makes it back to the St. Louis area occasionally. He's met with every police chief since Williams, asking about his guns, and still hopes the city will, at the very least, reimburse him, says his wife, Mary. But she's not as optimistic.
"He lived in Overland so long, I guess he wants to try to follow all the procedures, but they're not going to do anything -- they're just giving him the runaround," she says. "They think he's going to die and it's going to go away.
"We're not going to go away."
For more information, see Gun Club.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Access reports, rules and other firearms information from this site
The National Rifle Association of America. The leading organization advocating Second Amendment rights in the nation.
Handgun Control. A leading pro-gun control organization.
Handgun Control's Web site -- you can download a copy of the city of St. Louis's lawsuit against the gun industry
The International Association of Chiefs of Police.This group has passed a resolution opposing gun trade-ins by police departments.
Glock GmbH. Web site of the gun-manufacturer, parent of Glock Inc. of Smyrna, Georgia.
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