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Two top strike force leaders part of inquiry

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN, RANDY FURST and PAUL McENROE
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • October 16, 2009 - 12:09 AM

Two top leaders of the now-disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force are being investigated by the Minneapolis Police Department for alleged misconduct relating to their work in the unit, according to sources with direct knowledge of the probe.

The department opened internal affairs inquiries of Lt. James Heimerl, Sgt. Jeffrey Jindra and five other Strike Force officers last month following a report by two independent investigators who found evidence of criminal wrongdoing within the unit. Heimerl was second-in-command of the multi-agency Strike Force.

Altogether, at least 16 of 34 officers who served on the unit in the past two years -- including five members of the St. Paul Police Department and two deputies with the Ramsey County Sheriff's office -- have been investigated for alleged misconduct related to their Strike Force duties. Records show at least eight of those 16 officers were previously disciplined by their departments, with punishments ranging from reprimands to demotion.

The identities of the officers under investigation were obtained by the Star Tribune through interviews with law enforcement sources familiar with the cases. The agencies have not publicly disclosed the names.

Former assistant U.S. attorney Andy Luger and retired FBI agent John Egelhof were asked to examine the Strike Force by state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion last May after members were caught shredding documents just hours after the public release of a scathing state audit. The audit showed Strike Force officers had improperly seized large amounts of property and could not account for at least $18,000 in cash.

The unit was immediately suspended. In August, Luger and Egelhof reported that as many as a dozen Strike Force officers broke the law while working in the unit. The investigators reported that some of the officers took seized property home for personal use.

Heimerl, who allegedly sold seized property to a family member, has given a statement admitting the action, according to a source. Jindra allegedly mishandled cash following a drug raid and violated rules prohibiting racial profiling, the source said.

Falsified records, rules broken

Here's a look at eight of the Minneapolis officers under investigation:

• Heimerl, who joined the department in 1970, was temporary commander of the Strike Force for about three months. He was later criticized by his successor, Hennepin County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Omodt, for approving air fare payments so Strike Force members could attend a conference in Hawaii. In 1991, Heimerl was demoted to sergeant for 90 days and suspended for 15 days for attempting to falsify records, according to department files. Five years later, he was reprimanded for violating the department's professional code of conduct. His file also includes four special commendations and a certificate of merit.

• Jindra, who transferred to the Strike Force in 2005, was investigated by federal authorities six years ago for allegedly sexually assaulting a drug dealer with a toilet plunger. No criminal charges were filed. No reprimands or formal commendations appear in his file.

• Sgt. Kelly O'Rourke, who was suspended for a day in 2005 for violating rules regarding inventory of property and evidence, joined the department in 1998. He also received a reprimand in 2002 for unspecified reasons. O'Rourke, who joined the Strike Force four years ago, recently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis, claiming he was removed from the unit after complaining about the unprofessional handling of evidence and illegal activity within the unit. There are no formal commendations in his file, but O'Rourke's attorney said in a news release that the officer received an award of merit, a medal of commendation and a medal of valor.

• Francisco Porras, who was cited for violating the department's code of conduct in 2006, became a police officer in 1994 and was transferred to the Strike Force in 2005. He twice received a merit award.

• David Garman, who spent less than a year with the Strike Force, was fired in September for not being truthful about confiscating cell phones during a drug seizure, according to sources. Garman received a medal of honor in 2008 and a lifesaving award in 2009. Previously, he had not been reprimanded.

• Lucas Peterson has already served a 40-hour suspension for a procedural violation relating to his execution of a Strike Force search warrant, according to sources. He is appealing his suspension. Peterson, who joined the department in 1999, spent three years with the unit. He received a medal of valor in 2006 and has no reprimands in his file.

• Mike Nimlos was disciplined and ordered to undergo training on the proper way to handle seized property stemming from his Strike Force conduct, a source said. Nimlos, who joined the department in 1997, was transferred to the Strike Force in 2006. There were no previous reprimands or formal commendations in his file.

• Lawrence Loonsfoot, who spent less than a year on the Strike Force, has been disciplined for minor policy violations, but details were unavailable. In 2007, a grand jury cleared Loonsfoot and another officer of criminal wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a mentally unstable man, but the incident prompted a $50,000 internal investigation and changed the way Minneapolis police investigate officer-involved shootings.

Another Strike Force member, Sgt. Randall Olson, resigned from the Minneapolis department after a woman accused him of illegally obtaining her phone records and using the unit's electronic monitoring equipment to stalk her, court records show.

Procedural, policy violations

Here's a look at the records of five St. Paul officers being investigated for their Strike Force work:

• Timothy Pinoniemi, who was at Strike Force headquarters when officers shredded documents, is being investigated for procedural violations, according to sources. This veteran officer was one of the unit's longest-serving members, joining in 1999 when it was still called the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. He worked on gang crimes almost exclusively until the unit was disbanded this year. He twice received medals of commendation, as well as a medal of merit. There are no reprimands in his file.

• Sandy Kennedy, who joined the Strike Force in 2001, is being investigated for procedural violations, according to sources. Kennedy, a veteran with two medals of commendation, specialized in gang networks and intelligence. She received a reprimand in 1996 for a preventable accident.

• Andy Shoemaker, who was reprimanded for violating department policy in 1998, is being investigated for procedural violations surrounding reports, according to sources. Shoemaker, a veteran officer who joined the Strike Force in 2001, specializes in biker gangs that traffic in drugs and stolen property. He received four medals of commendation from 1998 to 2006.

• John McManus, reprimanded in 2000 for poor public relations, is being investigated for allegedly mishandling seized and forfeited property, according to sources. McManus joined the department in 1998 and was assigned to the Strike Force in 2002. He has received four medals of commendation.

• John Pyka, who was reprimanded twice for violations in the late 1990s, joined the Strike Force in 2001. He was transferred to the department's special investigative unit in 2008. He received three medals of commendation.

At the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, two deputies were suspended for improperly handling evidence following an internal investigation of their Strike Force duties. Paul Meskan was suspended for 25 days, and Chris Tayson was suspended for 10 days. Also, Cindy Gehlsen, a sheriff's office employee who worked as a clerk for the Strike Force, is on paid leave. The FBI recently searched her house, FBI agent E.K. Wilson said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465 Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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