A high-ranking Hennepin County Sheriff's Office official has been demoted and remains on leave after his unmarked squad was found abandoned with a vodka bottle inside in a ditch across the road from a northwestern Wisconsin bar, and authorities in Burnett County were given conflicting stories about who was driving.

In the wake of the SUV's discovery Saturday night across the road from the Northwinds Resort and Bar north of the Rice Lake shoreline, Robert Staupe, 48, took a demotion from major to lieutenant and went on personal leave, according to a letter distributed internally by chief sheriff's deputy Tracey Martin.

Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said in a written statement Thursday, "I am aware of the incident that occurred in Burnett County, Wisconsin, involving one of our vehicles. We have launched an internal employment investigation into this incident." He declined to say more, citing the ongoing investigation.

On Saturday night, someone driving the SUV left the bar and went into the ditch across County Road G, roughly 100 miles northeast of the Twin Cities and about 3 miles east of a cabin owned by Robert Staupe and wife Susan Staupe, according to a Burnett County vehicle accident report released Thursday afternoon.

According to the report, a Burnett County deputy passed the scene, where people were standing in the bar parking lot. When he turned his emergency lights on, the bystanders retreated into the bar.

The deputy began searching for information from anyone in or around the bar about who owned the official Hennepin County vehicle before calling for a tow truck, the report continued. The deputy's inquiries were met at times with silence or unhelpful responses and a woman's loud cursing before the establishment's owner said the SUV belonged to someone in law enforcement.

Around that time, the deputy noted a woman driving a white Dodge Charger leaving the scene with a male and female passengers before it returned without the passengers.

Later that night, according to the report, the deputy called a phone number belonging to the Staupes. An "argumentative" Susan Staupe said with slurred speech that it was the bar owner's wife who was driving the SUV when it went in the ditch and they were passengers in the Charger that left the scene.

The vehicle was eventually towed to an impound lot and searched by local deputies before it was claimed by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

Inside they found a bottle of vodka, fast-food containers, a woman's purse with Susan Staupe's driver's license, a weed trimmer, a Hennepin County jacket and "sheriff's stars," read the accident report, which listed Robert Staupe as a suspect.

The next morning, Robert Staupe called Burnett County dispatch in a vain attempt to get his squad SUV out of the impound lot, the report continued.

He said that even though authorities there probably heard earlier that someone else was driving, he was the one who put the vehicle into the ditch after drinking alcohol — but "not that much," the document read. He said he continued to drink after leaving his SUV in the ditch and arriving at his cabin off Lipsett Lake.

A gun locker in the back of the SUV was locked, noted the report, but it did not reveal whether it held a firearm.

Several messages were left Thursday with Robert and Susan Staupe seeking comment but were not returned.

Use of official vehicle

Everyone on the Hennepin County sheriff's command staff, which includes majors, has an official vehicle to take home for personal use, said sheriff's spokesman Jeremy Zoss.

And even though Staupe's vehicle was located in another state and about 120 miles from his Lakeville home, "there is not a distance radius written into the policy" that addresses where staff vehicles can travel, Zoss added.

Command staff are on call 24 hours a day, the spokesman added, except when on approved time off. He did not say whether Staupe had such an approval when the incident occurred.

Soon after Hutchinson was elected sheriff in November, Staupe was promoted from lieutenant and commander of the Employee Development Unit to major and head of the Enforcement Services Bureau, which oversees enforcement, communications and volunteer services.

Staupe also has held roles in the crime lab and on patrol since he joined the Sheriff's Office in 1995.

Hutchinson said at the time he promoted Staupe to major that he was widely respected by other employees and would bring much-needed experience to addressing employee concerns in the bureau.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482