No charges coming in firefighter threat

SANDUSKY It appears as though the alleged "Code of Silence" at the Sandusky Fire Departmen
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

SANDUSKY

It appears as though the alleged "Code of Silence" at the Sandusky Fire Department worked.  None of the firefighters accused of covering up their coworker's threat to shoot and kill Sandusky fire Chief Mike Meinzer are facing anything more than possible internal discipline.

Part of the reason they were let off the hook is that they were essentially granted immunity from criminal prosecution before questioned by police about the firefighter accused of making the threat, Todd Schoen.

All eight firefighters interviewed by police first signed a Garrity and Piper Warning, which upholds their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, while being able to speak to further the investigation.

That right has been upheld since the 1967 federal court ruling, Garrity v. New Jersey.

"A public employee has a responsibility to answer questions truthfully and honestly," explained Don Icsman, city law director.

A Garrity Warning grants employees a sort of immunity, said Al McGinty, director of the Public Safety Training Institute at Cuyahoga Community College.

"Otherwise nobody would talk," he said. "If everybody basically stuck to their guns, internal affairs would have a difficult time proving the case."

The investigation into whether firefighter Schoen threatened Meinzer's life began as a criminal matter, said Sandusky police Chief Kim Nuesse.

But during the course of the investigation, Nuesse said it became apparent it could not be looked at criminally. That message, along with a police report detailing how it was apparent firefighters had coordinated their stories and had collective memory loss regarding the threat, was relayed to Icsman and city prosecutor Lynn Gast-King.

"You can't proceed on a case with no other evidence criminally and witnesses who are not giving consistent statements," Nuesse said.

Fire Lt. Harold Roane, who reported the threat, underwent a lie detector test to verify his statements. His story included the names of several firefighters present when the threat was made and detailed what he called the "Code of Silence" within the department.

When questioned by police, those firefighters couldn't recall the threat, but did remember a story about Meinzer pulling his pants down at a local bar.

Those inconsistencies did not lead to criminal charges such as obstruction of justice because of the Garrity Warning.

While criminal misconduct could arise during questioning, none of that behavior would be prosecuted under the law's protection, Icsman said. Instead, disciplinary action could be taken against employees interviewed during an internal investigation, he said.

City manager Matt Kline has not taken any disciplinary action against any of the firefighters except Schoen.

Schoen was penalized for his actions and placed on a 120-hour unpaid suspension and mandatory alcohol/anger management courses. He was also required to apologize to Meinzer and the other firefighters and sign a "Last Chance" agreement with Kline and the president of the local firefighters' union.

Nuesse said the police department's directive was to solely look at a possible threat made by Schoen, not the other firefighters.

That threat against Meinzer could have been a criminal matter. Charges of aggravated menacing and menacing were looked at, Icsman said, but thrown out when officials determined they couldn't prosecute them due to the way the law reads.

"The threat has to be made to the intended victim or the victim's immediate family," Icsman said, explaining that Meinzer was not present at the time of the threat.

He said no other charges fit.