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.
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.