This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Imagine a briefcase full of cash on the sidewalk with the owner’s name on it. It’s open. People are walking by. What are the chances someone will pilfer some bills when he thinks no one’s looking?
That’s roughly what happened to the millions the public donated in an outpouring of sympathy for the families of the four Lakewood officers gunned down by Maurice Clemmons in 2009.
All told, $3.2 million in contributions flowed into the coffers of a charity created by the Lakewood Police Independent Guild. Skeeter Manos, an officer who’d insinuated himself into the finances of both the guild and the charity, had his hand in the till, embezzling $151,000 from – literally – the widows and orphans of four fellow cops.
A post-mortem of this shocking crime has been constructed by The News Tribune’s Christian Hill. Published Sunday, it details the negligence – particularly on the part of guild President Brian Wurts – that let Manos help himself to money he used for car gear, tickets to Las Vegas, electronics and other dainties.
Manos’ embezzlement is a cautionary tale for any institution entrusted with large sums of money. The police charity should have routed the money directly into a professionally managed trust fund. (It’s in one now.)
Instead, much of it wound up passing through the hands of Manos, who was treasurer of the guild and had begun skimming its funds months before Mark Renninger, Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards were gunned down in a Parkland coffee shop. The killings created an opening and Manos was poised to walk into it.
The deaths of the four had hit the Lakewood Police Department like a bomb; its officers were stunned and grieved – and simultaneously deluged with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cash and piles of checks were flooding in. Manos volunteered to “help” manage the flow. He had little trouble diverting some of it to a secret account he’d opened in the guild’s name.
Wurts does not come off looking good in this narrative. A buddy of Manos, he reportedly dismissed suspicions voiced by other officers and derailed an attempt to recall his friend from his position in the guild. Wurts denies being warned about possible criminal behavior on the part of Manos. None of the siphoned money came Wurts’ way, and we won’t second-guess the investigators who declined to charge him with a crime. Fortunately for him, bad judgment is not a felony.
The story also has heroes, including Jeremy Vahle, the officer who talked Manos and finally exposed the embezzlement. In the end, the Lakewood police policed their own.
This was a confidence game. Manos traded on the incredulity that a Lakewood officer could steal from the grieving families of four fellow Lakewood officers fallen in the line of duty.
Everyone was sucker-punched. Ultimately, though, it’s a cop’s job to be suspicious.