Cops' alleged lie leaves 17 cases in jeopardy
Seattle Times staff reporters
Questions over the credibility of two decorated Seattle police officers have led to the dismissal of one felony drug case and threatened the prosecution of at least 17 others, including federal drug and gun charges, authorities said Thursday.
Officers Gregory Neubert and Michael Tietjen are under investigation for allegedly lying in written reports and during questioning by department detectives, according to a law-enforcement source who is familiar with the case.
The issue has forced prosecutors to send letters to defense attorneys in cases in which Neubert and Tietjen are potential witnesses, alerting them to the possibility of problems with the officers' integrity.
The officers have not commented. The president of their union says the whole issue is "blown out of proportion."
But what began as an omission in a police report on a small-time drug bust in downtown Seattle in January has turned into a crisis of credibility for the Police Department. Besides the dismissed drug case, another has been postponed and a third likely will be, as an internal police investigation is conducted.
"An officer's credibility in one case can affect the outcome of another," said federal Public Defender Thomas Hillier II.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Redkey, who is prosecuting a drug and firearms case that might be affected, called the situation "highly unusual."
Neubert, 42, is a 14-year veteran with a record of commendations but a history of controversy. Defense lawyers have publicly accused him of lying under oath in past criminal cases, allegations he has denied. Most prominently, he was cleared of wrongdoing in one of the city's most controversial police shootings of the past decade. Neubert has twice sued critics for defamation, both times unsuccessfully.
Tietjen, 31, joined the department in 2000. As partners on the downtown bicycle patrol, he and Neubert were named "officers of the year" for the department's West Precinct last year.
Attempts to contact Neubert and Tietjen Thursday were unsuccessful. Both officers remain on duty and have not been disciplined.
During a news conference Thursday, Deputy Police Chief John Diaz said the department would not release any information about the internal investigation. But he acknowledged a need to complete it quickly because of the looming trials in many of the cases.
"I really caution people not to jump to conclusions," Diaz said.
The investigation centers on the late-night arrest on Jan. 2 of George "Troy" Patterson, 26, at the corner of Third Avenue and Pike Street downtown.
According to a sworn statement in Patterson's criminal case, which has been dismissed, Neubert said he and Tietjen watched Patterson through a telescope from a vantage point in a building nine stories above the street. Patterson, who uses a wheelchair, sold drugs to a woman, Neubert alleged.
The officers descended to the street and found "crumbs" of crack cocaine in Patterson's lap, Neubert alleged. Patterson is a convicted felon with a history of drug abuse.
Patterson was arrested and jailed for a few hours before being released pending formal charges.
In an interview Thursday, Patterson said that after he was released, he immediately complained about the arrest to the Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability. He alleges that the officers planted the drugs and roughed him up.
During his recitation of the events, Patterson said, he mentioned that the officers had briefly handcuffed and detained another man.
According to officials familiar with the case, that fact was missing from the officers' report. Yet Seattle police policy requires that all instances when people are detained by officers must be detailed in writing.
Detectives were assigned to investigate the discrepancy, and discovered that a surveillance camera on a nearby Walgreen's drug store had taped the arrest. The tape supported Patterson's version of events, according to one source familiar with the investigation.
The source also said detectives questioned Neubert and Tietjen and they again failed to acknowledge that there even had been a second man detained, the source said.
Police have not released the tape.
The second man
Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, said he has viewed the videotape, and he acknowledged that Neubert and Tietjen indeed detained the other man and failed to report it.
However, O'Neill blames defense attorneys for blowing the incident out of proportion. He says they dislike Neubert and Tietjen because they are aggressive and effective officers, making about 50 arrests a month.
O'Neill said the detention of the second man was not related to Patterson's arrest, so the officers weren't required to disclose it.
However, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has undertaken the highly unusual move of alerting defense attorneys in 17 cases -- including two being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office -- that Neubert and Tietjen are under investigation and that the outcome could impact those cases.
In addition, the felony drug charge filed against Patterson stemming from the arrest was dismissed earlier this month "in the interest of justice," a prosecutor wrote in King County Superior Court documents.
Patterson's public defender, Ramona Brandes, described the dismissal as sudden. She said she had no hint of anything unusual in the case until a deputy prosecutor asked the court to dismiss the charges, citing questions about the evidence.
A week later, defense attorneys in King County began receiving letters alerting them to the internal investigation and questions that came up in Patterson's case.
Sunil Abraham, a staff attorney for The Defender Association, a public-defense agency in Seattle, said his office has received several of the letters. Abraham said he believes the department should release the videotape of the incident so the public can "make a judgment for themselves."
Ethical, legal obligations
Hillier, the federal public defender, said prosecutors likely sent the letters because they are ethically and legally obliged to disclose any information that might raise questions about the character or truthfulness of prosecution witness.
For example, Hillier said, a defense attorney would be allowed to use information about an officer's dishonesty in one case to question their credibility in another.
Redkey, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting a federal case in which Neubert and Tietjen are key witnesses, said the defendant, Hubert Isabel, was set for trial Monday. He could face up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.
Instead, Redkey said he now will go before a federal judge today and agree to delay the case until the internal police investigation is over.
Neubert joined the Seattle police in 1992 after a stint in the Air Force.
After only three years on the force, he shot a suspected drug dealer inside a McDonald's restaurant downtown. Neubert said he thought the man's cigarette lighter was a gun. The man survived. Neubert was cleared of wrongdoing.
Then in 2001, Neubert and his partner, Officer Craig Price, stopped a black man named Aaron Roberts for driving erratically in the Central Area. Price fatally shot Roberts after Roberts allegedly grabbed Neubert's arm and dragged the officer down the street with his car.
The incident ignited charges of racism against the Police Department, but Neubert and Price were cleared both by a county inquest hearing and internal police review.
Roberts' family filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the officers and the department. Neubert countersued, claiming Roberts' widow should pay for the treatment of his injuries. Both lawsuits were dismissed.
Even so, in the wake of Roberts' shooting, defense attorneys alleged that Neubert has been dishonest in criminal cases.
One prominent Seattle defense lawyer, Jackie Walsh, says she caught Neubert lying on the witness stand during the trial of a man accused of trying to run down Neubert with his car. After Walsh presented evidence that Neubert's recollection of the event was impossible, a jury dismissed one charge and deadlocked on another.
Neubert sued Walsh for accusing him of lying. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich and news researchers Miyoko Wolf and David Turim contributed to this report.
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