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Not your father's Highway Patrol

Matt Westerhold • Mar 3, 2014 at 5:33 AM

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has some explaining to do, whether it wants to or not.

The director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, John Born, has been dodging questions for weeks about the Patrol's disciplinary practices after domestic violence, falsification and alleged sexual misconduct allegations were levied recently against three Patrol troopers in separate incidents.

The Patrol returned one of the troopers to full duty service immediately after local prosecutors opted against filing charges related to alleged sexual misconduct. The second trooper was demoted after he allegedly filed a false police report, and the third trooper remains on paid leave pending a trial related to the assault in which he was allegedly involved.

“If there's no charges, there's nothing we can do,” Joe Andrews, a spokesman for Born told the Register last month, referring to an investigation by the Sandusky County Sheriff's Office into allegations that Patrol Sgt. Ricky Vitte Jr. masturbated with a boy.

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Andrews talked with the Register for about 30 minutes Feb. 20, in a stilted conversation during which he carefully sidestepped direct answers to questions and kept repeating it wasn't the Patrol's responsibility to make sure the allegations of wrongdoing weren't true.

A second person with Andrews when he talked with the Register was coaching him on some of his answers, whispering instructions to Andrews how to respond. Andrews has refused to identify who that person was giving him instructions.

It might have been Born, and if it was, or wasn't, it's just plain strange someone would sit in on a conversation without identifying himself, or acknowledging his presence, especially a public servant who is providing responses to questions of a serious nature.

But the bottom line from Andrews, and the whisperer who was instructing him, is that as long as there aren't any criminal charges filed, the Patrol did not have to determine if Sgt. Vitte actually watched porn and masturbated with a pre-teen boy.

Born has refused to return phone calls from the Register or respond to requests for interviews, instead sending Andrews to respond to the questions raised after Sandusky County Prosecutor Tom Stierwalt said he would not file charges against Vitte.

Stierwalt said the main reason was because he didn't think he could get a conviction because Vitte could argue he was teaching the boy to masturbate.

The enormity of weirdness in Stierwalt's explanation takes some time to comprehend. It suggests that in Ohio — or in Sandusky County, Ohio, at least — it is somehow lawful for a man to have sexual encounters with a child as long as the man is teaching the child how to masturbate, in certain circumstances.

Vitte's attorney said in January that Vitte denies all of the allegations and he is completely innocent.

Stierwalt's office, however, doesn't appear to have cleared Vitte of the allegations, and the investigative report doesn't suggest there was any robust effort to clear him or even determine whether the boy and his mother are mistaken about what they said happened.

It either happened, or it didn't happen. Determining that, it seems, should have been the purpose of the criminal investigation, not finding a strange and questionable loophole that would justify the behavior and make it so Vitte wouldn't face any criminal charges.

Stierwalt has refused to expound on his explanation, clarify it, or refute it, and he seems to have decided the best approach is to simply ignore the questions his decision has raised. But in an about-face on Friday, Sandusky County assistant prosecutor Norman Solze, standing in for his boss, said the Vitte investigation isn't closed, after all.

“I don't think they've made a decision,” Solze told the Register, in an oblique response to the many unanswered questions Stierwalt continues to ignore. “There are still several things.”

Back in the day, allegations that one trooper beat a woman, another trooper had sexual encounters with a child and a third gave false information in a police investigation would be enough to trigger an intense review by the Patrol to determine whether those troopers were fit for duty.

That was then, however, and this is now.

Today's Patrol leadership seems to believe the way to respond to difficult personnel issues is to wait and see if charges are filed and then take action, all the while being unconcerned whether the alleged behavior actually occurred.

And, if a reporter actually has the temerity to ask about the allegations, the Patrol seems to have opted to simply ignore, obfuscate and avoid.

And whisper.

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