Details regarding police officers’ firing revealed in court file

After more than two years of controversy, many details surrounding the firing of two veteran Susanville police officers have finally been revealed.

Last week the Lassen County Times obtained the complete Administrative Record from the Lassen County Superior Court of the city of Susanville’s investigation into the actions taken by two police officers that led to their dismissal.

The two officers — Sergeant Mike Bollinger and Lieutenant Matt Wood — seek writs of mandate in which they are asking the court to set aside and vacate the city council’s decision to terminate them and return the matter to the council for another hearing.

The issues surrounding their firing last summer arise from two main concerns — did the officers incompetently file a police report alleging the forgery of Wood’s signature by an investigator completing a background check on John King, Susanville’s former police chief, when they should have known the alleged forgery was not a crime, and did they insubordinately file that crime report after Jim Uptegrove, Susanville’s interim police chief at the time, told Wood he believed no crime had been committed, he would handle the matter and Wood should take no further action.

Confidential department documents and personal information also was allegedly mishandled.

Both Lassen County Superior Court judges — Tony Mallery and Mark Nareau — have recused themselves from the case. It will be heard instead by visiting judge Candace Beason. No court date has been announced yet.

The nearly 2,500 pages in the administrative record include transcripts of closed session hearings held by the Susanville City Council, testimony by a number of law enforcement officers, the personnel files of both Bollinger and Wood as well as correspondence between individuals involved in the investigation.

In July 2018, after the city completed its investigation into the conduct of two officers and made a 4-1 decision to terminate them, the city responded to a Public Records Act from resident Chris Cole in which Jessica Ryan, the city’s attorney, revealed the city had spent more than $100,000 in legal fees to investigate the circumstances surrounding the two officers and the process that eventually determined their fate. The cost of the court action so far remains unknown.

According to the court file, Bollinger and Wood both applied to fill the vacant chief of police position after the medical retirement of chief Tom Downing. During the hiring process in late 2016, the city did not move either of the officers forward in the selection process and selected another candidate, John King, to fill the position.

On Dec. 22, 2016, Bollinger filed a grievance with Jared Hancock, former city administrator, alleging King did not meet the minimum experience requirements contained in the city’s recruitment materials.

Hancock responded to Bollinger in a Jan. 19, 2017 letter. According to Hancock’s letter, Bollinger’s grievance cited three concerns — that King does not possess and will not be able to obtain a POST Management Certificate within one year of appointment, the minimum standard in the recruitment announcement; that the new chief should have seven years of extensive California law enforcement experience with a minimum of three years at the management or mid-management level and he does not; and that the new chief be experienced in maintaining municipal operating budgets and he is not.

Hancock denied Bollinger’s grievance, asserting, “your grievance fails to recognize that the invitation for applications for the position of police chief for the city of Susanville explicitly provided that ‘any combination of experience and training that would provide the required knowledge and abilities will be considered.”‘

The Lassen County Times obtained four different recruitment brochures advertising the chief of police position, including one provided by Hancock that contained this language. However, the newspaper could not find any public posting of that recruitment brochure, even on the city’s website.

Just a few days before, on Jan. 11, 2017, Wood received a FAX from Sue Todd, the investigator conducting the background check into King, who was hired as chief of police a few days later, Jan. 23, 2017.

The FAX included Wood’s signature, but he claims he did not sign the form. He said he had submitted a similar form during a previous background investigation, but he did not sign this form for King.

According to the court file, “The investigator (Todd) fell behind the timeline and the city began putting additional pressure on the investigator to complete the investigation … The form letter was modified by adding the new candidate’s name (King) and personal information and then sent to police agencies where the candidate lived and worked … The contracted background investigator stated she was just trying to expedite the background investigation process as directed by the city. When the interim chief of police (Jim Uptegrove) learned that Lieutenant Wood had a problem with his signature being used, he signed a form letter himself and asked the background investigator to re-send the letters to all of the agencies.”

Mark Siemens, the city’s investigator, asked Stacey Montgomery, Lassen County’s former district attorney, for a “prosecutor’s opinion” regarding the circumstances surrounding the form letter and if those facts constituted a crime.

On May, 9, 2017, Montgomery responded to Siemens, “With respect to the referenced investigation, I have reviewed the evidence provided and have determined that no violation of 470 PC (forgery), neither 538d PC (impersonating an officer) nor any other crime has been committed in this instance.”

According to the court file, Uptegrove testified that he agreed with Siemens’ assertion that for forgery or fraud to occur, the victim must incur a loss.

Uptegrove testified, at this point in the investigation there was no real victim and there was no real criminal intent.

During his testimony, Siemens asked Wood why he doubted Uptegrove’s judgment that no crime had been committed.

Wood said he didn’t necessarily doubt the chief’s judgment, he just didn’t agree with it.

“Did you have any information that led you to believe your disagreement was appropriate or right?” Siemens asked.

“Well, I felt like, as I said before, at the time, I mean she used my signature without my knowledge or consent. I didn’t think that was right.”

Siemens asked Wood, “So how is it reasonable that you believe Sue Todd committed a crime when you didn’t even look at the basic elements, you didn’t go to the criminal sections, you didn’t find out if what you were feeling is correct and the police chief already told you it wasn’t a crime. How’s that reasonable?”

“Well, I still feel Sue Todd should not have done what she did,” Wood said.

“Do you believe it was a crime?” Siemens asked.

“Um, I do. I don’t know. I’m not sure what, to be honest with you, but I just don’t think it’s right for you to use other people’s signatures … ”

Uptegrove also testified he was “a little upset” because Wood had gone to Captain Kevin Jones at the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office, and he believed Wood should have contacted him first.

“So, we had a conversation about that and then I told him at this point, I would take care of it,” Uptegrove testified. “I would handle it from here on out and that I didn’t want him to call anybody or follow-up any further on it then, you know. Leave it in my shop, and I’ll take care of it.”

That direction from Uptegrove to Wood came up again later in the case — as investigators alleged Wood had been insubordinate for not following Uptegrove’s direction.

On Jan. 17, 2017 Bollinger filed a crime report regarding the use of Wood’s signature. It alleges two possible violations — forgery and impersonation of a peace officer. Uptegrove’s last day was Jan. 20, 2017.

According to the crime report, Wood contacted Todd, the owner of STI Investigations, and she told him, she had received “numerous phone contacts” from city employees asking her to complete King’s background check “as soon as possible.”

Jones, now Susanville’s Chief of Police, served as a Lassen County Sheriff’s Captain back then. Bollinger asked Jones if the LCSO could “complete a courtesy report regarding these allegations.”

Jones advised Bollinger, “the best course of action would be to have the Susanville Police Department complete an initial report and forward it to the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation for follow up.”

The Lassen County Times learned of the crime report, and asked Hancock about it. Hancock said he was not aware of the crime report. Later, Jessica Ryan, the city’s attorney, denied the newspaper’s Public Records Act request for the document.

The day after the newspaper’s inquires, Uptegrove told Wood he had received “numerous” calls from Hancock the previous evening asking about the background check forms.

In the crime report, Bollinger wrote, “On Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 Lt. Wood was informed by Interim Police Chief Jim Uptegrove, that he had received numerous phone calls from Jared Hancock the previous evening.”

The city’s investigators allege Bollinger could only have learned this information from Wood, who had been informed no crime had been committed and had been directed to take no further action.

Wood, Bollinger’s supervisor, allegedly directed him to file the crime report, despite Uptegrove’s direction.

According to Wood’s Notice of Intent to Terminate dated June 26, Wood is charged with “Insubordination: Failure to follow the directions given to you by Interim Chief of Police Jim Uptegrove,” and “Violation of record handling policies and state law by copying personnel documents and distributing such to persons not authorized to receive them.”

Steven Welty, Wood’s attorney, appealed Wood’s July 31 Notice of Termination, writing, “The city has failed to consider mitigating factors in that Lieutenant Wood’s actions constitute the report of potential crimes and misconduct on the part of the city. The termination is in violation of public policy and the ‘whistle-blower’ protections afforded to Lieutenant Wood.”

According to Bollinger’s Notice of Intent to Terminate dated June 26, 2017, the grounds for termination are “incompetence by failure to take reasonable steps prior to filing a criminal report and to protect private information in a personnel record,” and “giving false and misleading information during an administrative investigation interrogation after being ordered to tell the truth and give your full knowledge.”

Bollinger and Wood served their last day at the department at the end of their shifts on July 5, 2017.

Rafael Ruano, Bollinger’s attorney, wrote on June 30 that Bollinger would waive his right to respond to the Notice of Intent to Terminate.

Both officers also were afforded a Skelly hearing before Susanville Fire Chief James Moore.