Sitka sorting out claims against cops

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Sitka's Assembly will decide next week whether to conduct its own investigation into allegations of police misconduct, the latest chapter in a series of problems plaguing the Sitka Police Department.

The Assembly will hold a special meeting Tuesday to vote on the investigation.

Alaska State Troopers began an investigation last week into allegations raised by forensic scientist Brent Turvey, who was brought into the department last year as a consultant, and former Sitka police Lt. John Baeza, who was fired earlier this month.

Tony Zimmer, administrator of the Southeast Alaska city of about 8,800 people, placed Police Chief Bill McLendon on administrative leave last week pending the results of the troopers' investigation. Before being put on leave, McLendon had announced his resignation effective Feb. 22.

Zimmer has asked troopers to look into a number of allegations, including that police ignored domestic violence complaints against other officers and that officers released confidential information involving a murder investigation.

Since then, more allegations have been brought forward by Baeza. Records show he was fired because of a heated argument he had with a suspect in another crime.

The department has fallen into such turmoil that some Sitka Assembly members are concerned with the way the initial investigations were handled by Zimmer and City Attorney Cliff Groh. They also are concerned that a trooper investigation would look only at potential criminal activity and not violations of city policy.

"The (city) administration is taking this seriously by bringing in the troopers. The whole town is taking this seriously," said Assembly member Marko Dapcevich. "We (the assembly) have to start taking care of business. It's an unpleasant task, but this is what we signed up for."

Forensic scientist Turvey was hired in January 2000 by the family of Jessica Baggen, who was raped and murdered near Sitka's Totem Park in 1996. Turvey brought with him retired New York City police officer Baeza to help reinvestigate the crime, which was prosecuted without a conviction. Through their investigation, Turvey and Baeza worked closely with Sitka police. They earned official access into files and police resources and Baeza was hired as a lieutenant.

However, the relationship soured in April 2001 when McLendon revoked Turvey's credentials, according to Turvey's written complaint to Zimmer. Baeza then began investigating officers he believed were violating department code as well as the law. By November, Baeza was put on administrative leave pending an investigation into a public screaming match he had with a suspect in another case. State troopers were called in to investigate that encounter. Troopers found no cause to press criminal charges against Baeza, but he was fired from the department Jan. 10.

The situation involves other allegations, including Baeza accusing the chief of having another officer give a copy of the department's sergeant exam to a potential candidate for the position. Baeza also has said he was fired because he was about to go to the city administrator with evidence of department misconduct.

Trooper investigators have not commented on the allegations or their investigation. Repeated attempts by the Empire to contact McLendon have been unsuccessful.

The trooper investigation is expected to take three or four weeks. Once it is complete, former state Public Safety Commissioner Dick Burton will analyze the department. Burton was hired by Zimmer to conduct the review.

"We have questions about the operations and management of the police department," Zimmer said. "Some of the allegations have to do with the way things are managed, the way things are run, discrepancies of operational procedures."

Burton is expected to remain at the department for about four months until a new chief is selected.

Zimmer has appointed retired Alaska State Trooper Lt. Bob Gorder as interim chief. Gorder, who lives in Sitka, worked as a trooper for 22 years, retiring in 1999 as commander of the public safety academy.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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