Blue Byline

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Lakewood scandal: great article, wrong target

Post by Brian O'Neill on April 9, 2013 at 8:25 am with 4 Comments »
April 9, 2013 8:30 pm

The twisted saga of Skeeter Manos, former Lakewood police officer, is a case study in betrayal. In a scathing article (TNT 4/7) on theft that shook the foundation of a grieving community, TNT investigative reporter Christian Hill drags Manos’ crime into the harsh light of day.

It was a worthy effort, but praise comes with a caveat. The subject of the story was not Manos, the central figure sentenced to 33 months in a federal penitentiary last year for embezzling more than $150,000 from a charity fund destined for widows and orphans of the fallen Lakewood officers. Instead, the article spotlights Manos’ best friend and alleged enabler, former Lakewood officer, Brian Wurts.

Skeeter Manos, left, and Brian Wurts. (JOE BARRENTINE, Staff photographer/ELAINE THOMPSON, AP) Read more here:
Skeeter Manos, left, and Brian Wurts. (JOE BARRENTINE, Staff photographer/ELAINE THOMPSON, AP)

According to Hill’s findings, Wurts’ actions as the guild president overseeing the Lakewood Officers Charity were, at the very least, troubling. At almost every turn, Wurts steadfastly defended his friend and later deflected other officers’ attempts to verify Manos’ shoddy accounting. That obfuscation prompted an internal investigation which culminated when Wurts was fired by Chief Brett Farrar.

(Full disclosure: I do not know or recall meeting ever Manos or Wurts. The views in this column are intended as an objective opinion of Wurts’ role as an individual in the midst of a criminal investigation.)

My discomfort with Hill’s article does not concern the level of scrutiny it brings to bear on Wurts. Many other stalled investigations, such as Josh Powell’s suspected involvement in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell, become legitimate fodder for the media. There are, however, two issues raised by Hill’s article which trouble me.

First, outside of a combat zone, it would be impossible to convey the confusion, grief and rage that rolled in waves through Lakewood P.D. following the events of 11/29/09. This unprecedented tragedy was immediately followed by an influx of cash for which the grief-stricken cops were completely unprepared. In rthis context, if Wurts were truly unaware of Manos’ scheming, it could be argued Wurts was operating under a “circle the wagon” mentality. As someone who walked through that station in the days following that vile crime, I can attest to the prevalence of that attitude.

Second, there was a tale of honor embedded in this piece far more deserving of a central role. As Hill reports, Lakewood police Sergeant John Unfred, Officer Eric Bell and Officer Jeremy Vahle were credited with discovering Manos’ theft. Their separate inquiries were conducted against the backdrop of a tragic situation, yet their professional and self-motivated efforts succeeded in uncovering their fellow officer’s crimes.

That’s a far more important story, don’t you think?

With insufficient evidence, Wurts was not charged with a crime. He did, however, lose the faith of his colleagues during an event of uncommon stress, and so forfeited his job as a result. With his shortcomings now emblazoned on the front page of TNT, he may wish he had been charged with a crime. At least that way he would have the opportunity to defend himself in a public venue.

In the end, Skeeter Manos was the only one legally responsible for an act that damaged the bonds of faith between the Lakewood Police Department and the community it serves. It would be my hope that Wurts’ failings are noted and filed away and that the honorable endeavors of Unfred, Bell and Vahle are remembered as the standard of professionalism that the citizens of Lakewood can expect from the agency which protects and serves them so proudly.

Leave a comment Comments → 4
  1. Perhaps there should be some loosening of ties in the
    blue brotherhood. That’s pretty hard when you depend
    on other officers for priority backup at 3 AM.

  2. DavidAnderson says:

    Three questions from Hill’s article:

    1. “Unfred, the charity treasurer, said the charity has tightened its accounting practices.”

    What are they?

    2. “Chief Farrar said Unfred told him he was ‘getting the runaround’ about the missing check. Farrar said he mentioned to Wurts in passing that Wurts needed to look into it. ‘I notified Brian, and Brian, in my opinion, should have run it down, followed up and taken care of it,’ Farrar told The News Tribune.

    But Brian didn’t and the game of deceit continued. So what, in addition to “tightened accounting practices,” will be the timely accountability procedures put in place?

    3. Wurts was a Republican candidate for the state legislature to represent the 28th District in 2010.

    What does this say about the vetting process that was used?

    Especially since it was Wurts who coordinated a rally of Lakewood police officers at the Grand Central Casino on Oct.4, 2008. Black T-shirts labeled Lakewood Police Guild and canvassing routes were distributed for the officers that then went door-to-door campaigning for gambling and against Proposition One, an initiative on the November ballot in Lakewood that would ban gambling.

    Of that day the TNT editorialized, “There are rights and then there’s what is right. Members of the Lakewood Police Guild are having trouble distinguishing between the two” (October 7, 2008).

    Peter Callaghan further wrote of the “terrible judgment it was for the men and women who enforce criminal laws in casinos to join in partnership with the proprietors of the city’s four casinos.”

    Detailing the abundant criminal connection that historically has characterized most of the time when cops and gambling get together, Callaghan stated in light of the record “as such there should be sensitivity to the subject, not the opposite” referring to Wurts and his fellow-officers who Callaghan called “foot-soldiers for the pro-casino side of the debate.”

    When questioned about Wurts’ activities, Lakewood City Manager Andrew Neiditz stated, “I’m not suggesting it looks good for the city.”

  3. One can always expect David Anderson to drag gambling into his comments. M.r Anderson, you may not like it, but gambling is legal and those of us who live in Lakewood are really tired of you trying to tie every evil in the city to gambling! The gambling issue has been settled. Move on. Man up. This article is about a terrible sequence of events in Lakewood. I know – your response will be ‘but if it weren’t for gambling this wouldn’t have happened’. Sorry, Mr. Anderson – this is nothing about gambling – it is about greed and mismanagement.

  4. DavidAnderson says:

    Indeed tukatz, the article and O’Neill’s opinion piece are about greed and mismanagement – both of which are addressed in the questions I asked. It was you that made gambling the central issue, not me. So no, that you bet I would respond as you wrote in your comment, is to have played a bad hand on your part – to use your preferred emphasis. My guess is we’re after the same objective: accountability in a department that has suffered for lack of it and which owes the public an accounting for improving it.

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