As Warson Woods Turns

Is the police chief an embezzler? Or do the mayor and his wife dabble in two-bit corruption?

Now that the scorned police chief has filed a $3 million wrongful-termination lawsuit, the people of Warson Woods might at last find out whether Marge, the mayor's wife, really does have a lead foot -- and whether the mayor ransacked the chief's office and tried to stop the city's six-man police force from boozing at O'Toole's Pub & Grill.

Strange times indeed have come to this little tree-studded hamlet, tucked between Rock Hill and Kirkwood. Its 1,983 residents, most of them partial to stately stone and brick homes, haven't seen this much commotion since an armed robber knocked off Noack's jewelry shop fifteen years ago.

"Everyone was surprised, and they're not telling us anything," twenty-year resident Jay Luttrell says, taking a break from mowing his lawn. "We didn't know there was such a feud going on."

June 26 is a good place to begin the saga. That was the day Chief Mark Willenbrink, his wife Kathy and their six children left for a vacation to Clearwater, Florida. After eighteen years leading the Warson police force -- and weary from repeated clashes with Mayor E. William Bergfeld Jr. -- Willenbrink looked forward to a month of golf and deep-sea fishing.

Willenbrink remembers the urgent call from Alderman John Devoto, two weeks into the trip. "He told me there was a secret meeting at the mayor's house -- that there was some kind of witch-hunt going on," a stoic Willenbrink recounts, seated beside his wife at the office of his Clayton attorney.

Kathy Willenbrink says her husband spent the next five days "sitting on the couch and staring at the wall."

It wasn't that Willenbrink had the greatest law-enforcement job in the world. His $65,000 salary brought home the bacon, but he worked for a mayor he couldn't get along with, in a basement office that flooded whenever the toilet overflowed at O'Toole's next door. It got so bad one time, the chief says, he had to replace all the wallpaper.

Still, crime had been almost nonexistent during Willenbrink's tenure. In fact, in its February 2001 edition, St. Louis Magazine called Warson Woods "the safest community in St. Louis County." There was also the camaraderie with fellow cops, the family outings together. Police morale was good, Willenbrink says, as were his annual performance evaluations. And salary increases, modest though they were, came regularly.

"I enjoyed the job, but these last months have been tough. There've been a lot of sleepless nights," Willenbrink says, running a hand through his thinning steel-gray hair.

Willenbrink cut his Florida vacation short by a week and headed home, family in tow, to discover he'd been put on administrative leave as of July 15, pending an investigation "into certain alleged improprieties."

The 54-year-old Willenbrink, a past president of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, was greeted by a letter from Mayor Bergfeld, dated July 19, informing him he was forbidden from speaking to any city employee and, in fact, banned from town: "[Y]ou shall not enter the City of Warson Woods," the mayor warned, until the investigation was completed.

"While I was gone, [Bergfeld] changed the locks on my office, went through my files," the ex-chief alleges. "Two guns are missing and so is a check register."

Counters Bergfeld: "We took nothing out of his office. The lieutenant packed it up and left it out at the back door like [Willenbrink] asked."

On August 16, Willenbrink was fired by a 7-0 vote of the city's aldermen. The town's eighth alderman, John Devoto, chose not to attend.

"I didn't even find out until a Rock Hill cop called and said, 'Did you know they had a meeting and you were fired?'" Willenbrink says. "The mayor has his own kingdom and everyone is afraid of him."

Only one of the city's aldermen is willing to discuss the fracas.

"The reason we haven't given the reason for the firing is that it could embarrass him," says Alderman Gordon Gosh. "It involves the misappropriation of city funds and other funds. We sent him a complete list of the charges in July, and he was offered the chance to resign." Does the amount allegedly pilfered exceed $10,000? "Yes, it does," says Gosh.

Absolutely untrue, says Willenbrink. "And that letter said nothing about any charges. It was vague, just about alleged improprieties."

In his suit, filed August 31 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Willenbrink argues that he had made the 72-year-old mayor aware of some shady dealings in Warson Woods, which prompted Bergfeld "to retaliate." The suit characterizes the city's investigation as a "sham" and a "charade."

According to his lawsuit, the corruption Willenbrink uncovered involves the mayor's wife, Marge Bergfeld.

Marge Bergfeld's landscaping firm, the suit alleges, did business with the city on a contract that was not put out for competitive bidding, as the city requires. Another allegation pertains to a police report about an automobile accident eighteen months ago involving Marge Bergfeld. Willenbrink claims the mayor pressured him into making sure the report didn't find Marge Bergfeld at fault.

Willenbrink further alleges that Bergfeld asked him to fire a police officer without justification, that he "would routinely send Warson Woods police officers out to harass anyone he does not like" and that he wanted the chief to set a policy banning off-duty police from going to any establishment in the city where alcohol is served.

Finally, the former chief alleges that Marge Bergfeld has long had a penchant for putting pedal to metal and, at the mayor's behest, she was never issued a speeding ticket, only warnings.

"It got so bad that officers wouldn't even bother to stop her," Willenbrink contends. "I told the mayor that it wasn't right, that it made officers look bad and that it demeans the department."

Approached at Warson Woods City Hall (located in a Manchester Road strip mall), Mayor Bergfeld is at first reluctant to discuss the scandal. Padding around his office in shorts and a blue Warson Woods T-shirt, the mayor, who's entering his fifteenth year on the job -- at the princely salary of $250 per month -- initially will say only that Willenbrink's suit "is entirely without merit," adding, "We're not going to try this case in the papers."

The new police chief, Robert Stanczak -- for sixteen years Willenbrink's second-in-command -- likewise turns ashen when asked about the firing. "The mayor has asked me not to talk about it," he mutters gravely.

The next day, however, Bergfeld opts to open up.

The mayor says his wife made no profit from her sale of $494 worth of plants to the city. As for the car accident, Bergfeld says he never told Willenbrink to write up a report to clear her -- he only asked that the chief make certain an incident report got written.

Most galling to Bergfeld is the allegation that Marge got off with warnings rather than moving violations. "That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard," he says. "I don't fix tickets in the City of Warson Woods."

On banning cops from O'Toole's -- which, until it closed in mid-August, was the city's sole watering hole -- Bergfeld says, "Look, we've had a cop shoot himself in the leg when he was off duty. This same officer, off duty, got into a fight with a customer, and the officer then called another officer and had the guy he fought with charged with hitting an officer. As a result, I felt like he might have hung out too much at O'Toole's and that maybe we needed a prohibition."

This is the cop, Bergfeld concedes, that he asked Willenbrink to fire. As for Alderman Gosh's allegation, Mayor Bergfeld declines to comment.

Willenbrink's lawyer, David H. Heimos, says wrongful-termination cases like this one can take more than a year to settle. Heimos says the chances are good the case will go to trial.

The mayor says Warson Woods city attorney Marvin Young intends to file a motion to dismiss the case.

The vanquished police chief, meanwhile, ponders his future.

"I'm putting a résumé together, going for some career counseling," Willenbrink says. "I've applied for unemployment, so we're just juggling our finances. Two of the six kids are in college."

After a long pause, he adds, "I never had a bad evaluation."

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