St. Paul police Sgt. Heather Weyker rose from relative obscurity to local stardom in 2010, when she led an investigation that resulted in charges against more than 30 suspects in an alleged multistate sex-trafficking ring.
“I had to be sincere, and I am sincere,” Weyker said at the time of her investigative techniques. “I have to tell [victims] I understand, even though I haven’t been through their horror.”
But on Wednesday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals excoriated Weyker for lying to a grand jury and “likely” exaggerating or fabricating aspects of the case, going so far as to say that the whole thing “may be fictitious.”
Some of the defendants in the case were freed from jail Friday by a judge’s order as St. Paul police pursued an internal affairs investigation into the matter and other investigations conducted by Weyker. She was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday.
“It was a long time coming,” attorney David Komisar said of his client, Yassin Yusuf’s release. “I would like to see some form of justice happen to my client in terms of how does he get his 53 months back.”
Yusuf is one of three men convicted at trial in March 2012. Six others were acquitted by jurors in the same trial.
A district court judge later acquitted the three men, a decision upheld by Wednesday’s Court of Appeals ruling that found the prosecution’s two key witnesses to be “unworthy of belief.”
The ruling also prompted the release Friday of some of the 16 defendants whose cases are pending. (Some defendants had been previously released pending trial.)
It’s unclear what will happen in the pending cases — whether federal authorities will choose to drop all charges, whether defense attorneys will file motions for dismissal or whether defendants will proceed to trial.
David W. Boling, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Tennessee, said they are reviewing Wednesday’s decision and its possible impact on the pending cases.
Minneapolis attorney Gary Wolf’s client, Liban Omar, was released after serving 54 months while waiting for his trial. (He is technically in custody awaiting extradition to Dakota County on an arrest warrant.)
“All of us were heartened … that the judges are now calling into question [Weyker’s] credibility,” Wolf said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
The Court of Appeals decision said that Weyker secretly met with one of the alleged victims, Jane Doe 2, against her parents’ wishes, wrote final reports indicating that the girl was trafficked for money — which was largely absent in her original handwritten notes — and provided information that Jane Doe 2 later testified was incorrect, among other issues.
Notes ‘didn’t add up’
The case grabbed headlines when charges were filed in 2010, and it only grew in prominence as more suspects were charged.
Authorities alleged that four girls, one as young as 12, were forced into prostitution in Nashville and Ohio by the Somali Mafia and Somali Outlaw gangs in Minneapolis.
At the center was Weyker, by all media accounts a hard-charging investigator who was tough on criminals but soft and empathetic with victims. She joined St. Paul police in 1997 and was assigned to the juvenile unit before she was placed on leave. Attempts to reach Weyker by telephone were unsuccessful. Spokesmen for the St. Paul Police Federation did not return messages seeking comment.
The department and the Ramsey County attorney’s office are reviewing cases involving Weyker.
Her personnel file includes several letters of commendation and five letters of discipline, including a 2015 incident in which she failed to report an off-duty officer’s “alcohol-related incident.”
Although the Court of Appeals decision only named Weyker in discrediting the investigation, she had help.
St. Paul police Sgt. Mike Ernster, a department spokesman, said commander John Bandemer was also a key investigator in the case, and that other officers from the department contributed in smaller ways.
State and federal authorities, including the local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office and an agent from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), were also involved.
It’s unclear how the alleged fabrications and exaggerations bypassed so many checkpoints, including federal prosecutors in Tennessee who picked up the case when the Minnesota U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute it, saying at the time that the case did not meet the federal threshold.
“It would be very surprising that only one person could be responsible for this,” Wolf said.
Komisar said holes in the investigation became apparent early on when defense attorneys received evidence in preparation for trial. Information from Jane Doe 2 was inconsistent, and Weyker’s handwritten and typed notes “didn’t add up,” he said.
“[Authorities] just turned a blind eye to it,” Komisar said. “It was obvious to everybody except the government.”
Stranger yet, prosecutors didn’t call Weyker — the key investigator — to testify once during the three-week trial in 2012.
Wolf was keeping tabs on the proceeding from afar.
“In 34 years, I don’t think I’ve seen, in a federal prosecution, the case agent not take the stand,” Wolf said. “That’s how rare that would be.”
There was no reason given for her absence on the witness stand. Komisar and his colleagues wrestled with the idea of calling her as a defense witness to underscore inconsistencies in the case, but rejected the move out of fear it would allow the prosecution another chance to present its case.
They remain baffled at how far the case got.
“I can’t talk about [Weyker’s] personal motives … but it took up years of her life, and she wasn’t going to let it go,” Komisar said.