A veteran Fargo police officer, on the brink of losing his job, took his own life last week after one small mistake led to another, and another and another.
It started with an accidental Taser discharge inside police headquarters.
It ended on March 11, when Lt. Jeff Skuza — a respected 23-year veteran of the force and father of two — shot himself in the head in a cemetery south of town.
According to the internal affairs investigation the department completed this week, Skuza, 47, was working the night shift on Valentine’s Day when he did a routine check of his weapon. But he forgot to remove the cartridge first, and the Taser discharged into a clearing barrel with a “pop” loud enough to be heard elsewhere in the building.
Instead of reporting a wrist-slap of a safety violation, Skuza gathered up the spent cartridge and wires and cleaned up the scene, hoping no one would notice. When another officer found the discharged Taser probes and began asking questions, Skuza launched into a series of evasions and lies that led to the entire night shift being questioned, the internal investigation report said. He kept up his denials, while assisting in the investigation, for almost two days before admitting what happened.
The episode bewildered his colleagues, who knew Skuza as an exemplary officer with an unblemished service record. On March 10, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes recommended Skuza’s termination.
Skuza, he wrote, had lost the trust of his colleagues and his credibility as a law enforcement officer. The incident would open the door for defense attorneys to question his actions at every crime scene.
“Ultimately, this comes down to the value ‘we’ as the Fargo Police Department place on integrity and truthfulness,” Ternes wrote.
Skuza was punishing himself long before his superiors acted. In an anguished letter to the department on Feb. 17, he said he had been unable to eat or sleep since the incident. He desperately wanted to make things right, but knew he had waited too long to step forward. Finally, he made his decision.
“I sat my wife down on February 16 and told her what had happened and that I had to make it right,” he said. “The stress of what I had done was consuming me. I told her if I kept quiet I would not be the same person I have always been … the only solution was to come forward. I told her I was about to make a phone call that would at best damage my career and at worst end it.”
Skuza was placed on administrative leave in early March. There is no way to know whether the events at work led directly to his decision to commit suicide. What is known is that his final weeks were full of regret.
The minute one of his colleagues mentioned finding the Taser probes, “I should have right then told him it was me but I was afraid because I hadn’t immediately reported the discharge,” he later told investigators. Instead, mistake piled on mistake. “I had fallen into that rabbit hole and I didn’t know how to climb out.”