Altered reports violated policy, but not law
By Robert Cloud
A special prosecutor who investigated allegations against the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office has declined to file charges.
“I have not found evidence to support that any individual associated with the incident involving the Waupaca County Sheriff’s department engaged in criminal conduct under the laws of Wisconsin,” according to Amber Hahn, an assistant district attorney in Fond du Lac County who was appointed as a special prosecutor.
In a June 18, 2023, memorandum, Hahn noted that the initial incident leading to her investigation was a criminal trespass complaint on Aug. 31, 2020, when Waupaca County Deputy John Stephens impounded and searched a vehicle belonging to Peter Klotzbuecher.
Stephens knew that Klotzbuecher was a suspect in a burglary investigation and believed there may be evidence from the burglary inside the vehicle.
Stephens called then-Capt. Julie Thobaben “to ask for clarification regarding whether an inventory search or evidence search should be completed on the vehicle.”
“Deputy Stephens did not recall being told to stop searching if he found evidence of a crime and to get a search warrant,” the report says, which also notes that was Stephens’ first inventory search.
He found receipts from a pawn shop relating to the burglary investigation.
In his report, Stephens wrote, “It was also decided that Peter’s red Pontiac would be towed and taken to the Manawa evidence garage to be inventoried and searched and searched for any possible evidence related to past thefts with Peter.”
Thobaben changed this sentence to read, “It was also decided that Peter’s red Pontiac would be towed and taken to the Manawa garage to be inventoried and searched.”
Noting that Stephens was coached regarding sheriff’s department policies and how he should conduct future searches to be consistent with policies and the law, the memorandum concludes that Stephens “did not take any actions that could be considered criminal offenses.”
According to the memorandum, Thobaben directed Stephens to conduct an inventory search.
“Captain Thobaben recalls telling Deputy Stephens that if he came across evidence related to the burglary case he was to stop and obtain a warrant,” the memo says.
Thobaben made the change in the report to better reflect her own recollection regarding the search.
Hahn reports that any changes in a report should be limited to simple grammar or punctuation and any changes beyond that should be made by the author of the report.
Although Thobaben’s changes did not comply with departmental policies, “they were not done in violation of any criminal statures.”
“Captain Thobaben was not under oath, she did not attempt to conceal her actions and she believed she was changing the report to be more accurate, not less so,” Hahn reports. “While some may say her belief was inaccurate, it does not rise to the level of criminal conduct.”
Chief Deputy Artz
Following the discovery of changes in Stephens’ report for the Klotzbuecher case, the district attorney’s office changed the attestation clause in criminal complaints involving the sheriff’s office.
At the beginning of the narrative portion of criminal complaints, there is a clause that attests to the reliability of the reports and records that underlie the charges.
Complaints involving the sheriff’s office attested that reviewing officers had not changed the reports.
Initially, the sheriff’s office refused to sign the complaints.
Then-Waupaca County Chief Deputy Carl Artz signed 80 complaints, “but later testified under oath that despite what the attestation clause stated he did not independently speak with the reviewing officers to confirm that the reports were not changed from what the original author wrote before they went to the District Attorney’s Office.”
Artz assumed that the reviewing officer was following departmental policies.
The District Attorney’s Office assumed that the person who signed the attestation clause had questioned the reviewing officers and independently verified that there had been no changes.
However, there was no evidence that the district attorney’s office ever provided written directives to the sheriff’s office regarding their expectations, Hahn’s memorandum says.
In a June 8, 2022, hearing on a felony drunken driving case, Judge Raymond Huber found that there was “nothing that would suggest that the complaint as sworn to by Chief Deputy Arts is not factually accurate,” according to the memorandum.
Hahn’s memorandum says Sheriff Tim Wilz testified “that he believed it was common for reports to be corrected to make sure the report was accurate.”
The report further notes that “the practice of the Sheriff’s Office at the time was not in line with the report changes and alterations policy. However this does not rise to the level of criminal conduct.”
Hahn reported that she reviewed multiple investigations by the Outagamie sheriff’s Office, the Outagamie County District Attorney’s Office and the Wisconsin Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigations.
“I have not found evidence to support that any individual associated with the incident involving the Waupaca County Sheriff’s department engaged in criminal conduct under the laws of Wisconsin,” Hahn concluded, declining to take further action.
District attorney, sheriff respond
“I believe she was correct in stating there was no criminal intent by anyone involved,” Waupaca County District Attorney Kat Turner said. “I also believe she was correct in pointing out that there were things that were done wrong.”
Turner said the sheriff’s office has clarified their understanding of their policies.
She noted that all reviewing officers now sign an affidavit affirming that they reviewed the authoring officer’s report and swear under oath that they made no changes.
The affidavits took effect in early March of this year.
“I feel that relations have normalized and that the sheriff’s office and my office are working well together and I hope that trend continues,” Turner said.
She said she has direct communication with the sheriff and the fact that they can sit down at the table and talk to each other as department heads “has made a big difference.”
“I’ve appreciated his openness to communication,” Turner said.
Wilz said the lack of communication had been a big part of the problem between the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office.
Moving forward, he hopes they can work together.
“I think it’s business as usual as far as working with the district attorney’s office and providing the best service we can to the community,” Wilz said.