Is Wooten a good trooper? (7/27/08)
PALIN'S EX-BROTHER-IN-LAW: Union says yes, but investigation found serious concerns.
By LISA DEMER
He's the governor's ex-brother-in-law, and his job as an Alaska State Trooper is drawing scrutiny in a way rarely seen except in cases of killings by officers.
Legislators are seriously considering hiring an independent investigator to examine whether Gov. Sarah Palin, her aides or her husband pressured commanders to fire Trooper Mike Wooten, and whether she then fired the state's top cop when Wooten stayed on the job. Palin denies anything like that happened.
All that aside, what kind of trooper is Mike Wooten?
The picture painted by the Palins is pretty bad. The trooper brass isn't saying one way or another, citing personnel rules that protect his files. Union leaders defend him as a dedicated trooper who was already punished for his mistakes.
Efforts to speak with Wooten were unsuccessful. He did not return phone calls when the controversy first began two weeks ago. He now is out of the country on a long-planned vacation, said John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union for troopers. They are not in touch. An e-mail to Wooten was answered with an out-of-the-office auto reply.
Wooten is 35, a state trooper since March 2001 and an Air Force veteran. He's a father of young children who has been married and divorced four times.
The accusations are detailed in two thick binders, the result of a nearly yearlong investigation by troopers. When the investigation appeared to stall, Palin -- more than a year before she was elected governor, and about two months before launching her campaign -- pushed trooper commanders to take action against Wooten. At one point, Palin and her husband, Todd, hired a private investigator.
Wooten recently gave his union permission to release the entire investigative file, all 482 pages and hours of recorded interviews.
"The record clearly indicates a serious and concentrated pattern of unacceptable and at times, illegal activity occurring over a lengthy period, which establishes a course of conduct totally at odds with the ethics of our profession," Col. Julia Grimes, then head of Alaska State Troopers, wrote in March 1, 2006, letter suspending Wooten for 10 days. After the union protested it, the suspension was reduced to five days.
She warned that if he messed up again, he'd be fired.
"This discipline is meant to be a last chance to take corrective action," Grimes wrote. "You are hereby given notice that any further occurrences of these types of behaviors or incidents will not be tolerated and will result in your termination."
It's nearly impossible to know whether other complaints have come in about Wooten in the last two years. His personnel file is confidential. But the fact he remains on the force is an indication that he hasn't had the sort of trouble that Grimes warned against.
Grimes declined to comment, as did various troopers involved in the investigation.
'... NOT WITHOUT A BLEMISH'
As the investigation got under way in 2005, Wooten was in the midst of a bitter divorce from Palin's sister, Molly McCann. The couple was fighting over custody of their two young children. Accusations flew from both sides.
Troopers eventually investigated 13 issues and found four in which Wooten violated policy or broke the law or both:
• Wooten used a Taser on his stepson.
• He illegally shot a moose.
• He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion.
• He told others his father-in-law would "eat a f'ing lead bullet" if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce.
Beyond the investigation sparked by the family, trooper commanders saw cause to discipline or give written instructions to correct Wooten seven times since he joined the force, according to Grimes' letter to Wooten.
Those incidents included: a reprimand in January 2004 for negligent damage to a state vehicle; a January 2005 instruction after being accused of speeding, unsafe lane changes, following too closely and not using turn signals in his state vehicle; a June 2005 instruction regarding personal cell phone calls; an October 2005 suspension from work after getting a speeding ticket; and a November 2005 memo "to clarify duty hours, tardiness and personal business during duty time."
"Mike is not without a blemish," the union's Cyr said. But some of the problems noted by Grimes were small matters, he said. Many troopers were told to reimburse the state for personal cell phone calls, he said. Wooten had to miss work for court during the divorce, he said.
The union president, Rob Cox, is a 17-year trooper veteran who worked alongside Wooten in the Valley. Cox said he never thought of him as a rogue cop.
It's significant that Wooten served for a while on the Special Emergency Reaction Team -- like a SWAT team, Cox said. Officers have to be especially cool-headed to perform in crisis situations, Cox said.
Wooten was the first backup officer to arrive at the scene of a standoff in 2006 at the Valley trailer home of Donald Voorhis.
Wooten's history spilled into public view after the July 11 firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. The former commissioner has said he doesn't know why Palin wanted him out but wonders if Wooten's situation was part of it. He has said that members of Palin's administration, and the governor's husband, talked with him about the accusations against Wooten, which he considered improper.
"Never put pressure on Walt Monegan to fire -- hire or fire -- anybody," Palin responded.
The troopers' investigation into Wooten began after Chuck Heath -- Wooten's father-in-law and Palin and McCann's dad -- alerted troopers about a domestic violence protective order McCann had obtained against Wooten on April 11, 2005. McCann filed for divorce the same day, according to the court docket.
The trooper had not physically assaulted his wife but intimidated her and threatened to shoot him, Heath told troopers, according to a memo about the complaint.
The same day, a concerned neighbor of the couple called troopers with more accusations, including alcohol abuse, based on what Heath and McCann had relayed to him. Wooten seemed "disconnected" lately, the neighbor said. He told troopers that Heath and McCann were afraid to call troopers themselves.
"Extreme verbal abuse & violent threats & physical intimidation," McCann wrote in her April 11, 2005, petition to the court. He had driven drunk multiple times, threatened her father, told her to "put a leash on your sister and family or I'm going to bring them down," her petition says. A judge issued a 20-day protective order to keep Wooten away.
In written orders to Wooten sent the next day, trooper Capt. Matt Leveque echoed the court's directive. Leveque, now a major, also told Wooten to give up his department-issued guns, badge, credentials and vehicle during his off-duty time, while the order was in effect.
On April 27, 2005, trooper Sgt. Ron Wall began the internal investigation, interviewing and re-interviewing more than 15 people over a period of months. Witnesses included Palin, her husband, Todd, two of their children, Heath, McCann, her son, Wooten, friends, neighbors, a bartender, and other troopers.
Here's what the troopers found out:
ILLEGAL MOOSE HUNT
In September 2003, Wooten, McCann and a friend who was a Wasilla police officer, Chris Watchus, hunted moose from a boat in the Jim Creek area.
McCann had drawn a permit for a cow moose but had never done that kind of hunting before, she told troopers in the investigation. They brought Wooten's rifle, a .300-caliber Winchester Magnum. Chuck Heath had been riding her to make sure the permit was used, Wooten told Wall. It was the last day for the hunt, McCann said. The Mat-Su lottery tags are highly coveted.
Minutes into the trip, they spotted a cow. "Do you want to shoot the moose?" Wooten says he asked his wife. As he recounted it, she told him that she didn't.
McCann said that Wooten took out the gun and shot the moose.
"I guess I assumingly thought that he would help me sight it in and whatever you do you know to tell me, show me how to do it. Unless he planned all along of just shooting it," McCann told Wall, according to the transcript.
The first shot didn't bring it down, so Wooten fired a second time. During the personnel investigation, Wooten initially insisted there was nothing wrong with killing a moose under his wife's permit. At the time of the interview, he was a wildlife investigator for troopers. He was assigned that job in October 2004, about a year after killing the moose. Before joining the force, he was a wildlife conservation agent on Elmendorf Air Force Base but wasn't responsible for enforcing rules on moose hunts, he said.
The killing of the moose without a permit was a criminal misdemeanor, Grimes wrote in the March 2006 letter to Wooten. He was removed from wildlife investigations.
Wooten was never charged criminally. Troopers say the moose shooting wasn't investigated as a crime.
"Once a complaint is received on a trooper, more often than not it goes into what we call an administrative inquiry, and that's how the discipline is handled," said Col. Gary Folger, now director of the state Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers, which was formed after Palin took office in 2007. At least that's true for wildlife offenses, he said.
Col. Audie Holloway, director of Alaska State Troopers, said he couldn't speak about wildlife cases in the separate division but said generally, "a trooper has to answer for his crime." He said he couldn't talk specifically about Wooten's situation.
The statute of limitations for shooting a moose without a permit is five years.
TASING THE STEPSON
One day -- maybe a year or two before the investigation -- Wooten showed his stepson his Taser. He had just been to Taser instructor school. Wooten told Sgt. Wall that the boy was fascinated and pleaded to be tased.
"So we went in our living room and I had him get down on his knees so he wouldn't fall. And I taped the probes to him and turned the Taser on for like a second, turned it off. He thought that was the greatest thing in the world, wanted to do it again," Wooten told the investigator. The boy flinched but nothing more, he said. The boy was about 11 at the time.
In his interview with troopers, the stepson said it hurt for about a second, according to Wall's report. The boy said he wanted to be tased to show his cousin, Palin's daughter Bristol, that he wasn't a mama's boy. The probe left a welt on his arm, he said. His mother was upstairs yelling at them not to do it, the boy said.
As Bristol remembered it, the jolt knocked the boy backward, the trooper report says. She said she was afraid.
The probes are attached by thin wires to the Taser cartridge. In the field, an officer fires the probes into a suspect's skin or clothing and the suspect receives a jolt of electricity for five seconds, said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, which makes the devices. They are only incapacitated during that time. In demos, the probes might be taped to a person so that they don't accidentally strike an eye or injure the volunteer, he said. If the Taser is fired for just a second, it would feel like your funny bone was hit but the quick jolt wouldn't knock you over, Tuttle said.
DRINKING AND DRIVING
Wall evaluated several accusations that Wooten was drinking and driving. He didn't substantiate them. Some came only from McCann and family.
But Grimes re-interviewed a couple who lived nearby and found them believable about an incident that occurred in the summer of 2004. Adrian and Marilyn Lane told her they are friends of the Heaths but wouldn't lie to help the family.
Wooten stopped by their house one morning in his white patrol car and drank a beer from the fridge in the garage, the couple said. On his way out, he grabbed another beer, popped it open, and got behind the wheel, they both told Grimes.
"And I was like "Whoa!" Adrian Lane said. They both thought he needed to watch himself.
Wooten contended he never drank in his patrol car. Grimes determined that he did.
Troopers looked into another drinking episode that occurred late one night in March 2005.
Wooten was at the Mug-Shot Saloon with a friend. Wooten got into it with another man, whom he thought was causing trouble for his friend. Wooten's friend had to hold him back, and the bartender held back the other man, the bartender told troopers.
Wooten told the bartender he needed to eject the other man, the bartender said.
The bartender thought Wooten was out of line.
"Then he whipped out his badge and said 'Lemmie let me introduce myself. I'm State Trooper Wooten," the bartender said, according to a transcript of his interview.
The other man took a cab.
Wooten and his friend left in a black Audi, with Wooten driving. It belonged to the friend's brother but the friend was drunk, Wooten told the investigator.
Barely two blocks away, Trooper Dave Herrell pulled them over. Wooten jumped out to talk to him. Herrell told the trooper investigator that he "felt kinda weird" when he realized the driver was another trooper.
The bartender had called in to report Wooten as a possible drunken driver. "Said that you guys were severely intoxicated and caused a fight in the bar and then you guys left," Wooten told the investigator, recounting what Herrell said.
As Herrell remembered it, "I was sitting there talking to him and I smelled ... just a faint odor of alcohol that was coming from his breath," according to a transcript.
Herrell, who said he was No. 1 at the Palmer post with more than 250 drunken-driving arrests, didn't think Wooten seemed drunk. He didn't slur, his eyes weren't bloodshot or watery. Herrell didn't ask him to take any field sobriety or breath tests. That's always up to the officer's discretion, troopers say.
Was Wooten drunk?
"No," Herrell told Wall. "I believe that he consumed an alcoholic beverage, but I don't believe that he's intoxicated. Or overly intoxicated above .08."
That's the legal limit for driving.
Still, Herrell, who is now a sergeant, told Wooten to park the car. He gave the men a lift back to the friend's house.
McCann told the trooper investigator that Wooten called her about 3 a.m. to pick him up. They were separated, but he still came to the house to shower and get his things. He told her he and his friend "tore down the house last night" and were pulled over. "Oh I can play a good sober when I need to," he said, according to what she told troopers.
In his investigation, Wall didn't find that Wooten broke any policies or laws that night.
The other incident happened in February 2005. Both McCann and Palin gave troopers detailed accounts of what happened. Wooten was headed home in a rage, McCann said.
She called Palin and put the phone on speaker so Palin could listen when Wooten got there and get help if things got bad. Palin had her teenage son Track listen in, too.
As McCann remembered it, Wooten said if their father got a lawyer for her "he would eat a f'ing lead bullet. I will shoot him."
Palin was interviewed by troopers too.
"Mike in the conversation never did get to the bottom of what, what the foundational issue he was dealing with, he just kept screaming, "I'm gonna F'n kill your dad if he gets an attorney to help you," Palin told troopers, according to the transcript.
Track told troopers he heard the comment, too.
Palin drove over and watched through the window. She and McCann both said Wooten was all wound up. A neighbor who stood watch as well later told troopers that Wooten looked angry but that McCann wasn't cowering or anything.
Wooten told troopers he never said anything like that about his father-in-law.
The investigation concluded he did. It wasn't a crime, because he didn't threaten Heath directly. But it did violate trooper policy, the investigation found.
In August 2005, nearly four months after the investigation began, Palin wrote a lengthy e-mail to Grimes about Wooten that included some new accusations and new witnesses. She wrote that she was writing not as his sister-in-law but to express concern over the lack of action about a trooper whom she said many described as a "ticking timebomb" and "loose cannon."
In October 2005, Palin announced she was running for governor. Sgt. Wall, who is now a lieutenant over patrol in Fairbanks, finished his investigation the same month. The following March, Grimes handed out the punishment.
The union's Cyr says that ultimately Wooten was treated fairly by the Department of Public Safety.
"Clearly the folks have the ability to file complaints, and the state has the obligation to investigate them and that is what was done. He was disciplined, appropriately so we believe in the end. And you know, basically end of story. The only question in our mind would be has this pattern continued and has pressure been brought on anybody, I mean, after this whole sorry mess."
Wooten and McCann's divorce was finalized in January 2006. They continue to have disputes over custody and visitation.
Since that divorce, Wooten remarried and divorced again.
He remains on the force in Wasilla.
Tags: Wooten, Sarah Palin, Palin, McCain, Obama, Election, Abuse of Power, Vice President, Election, Politics, Scandal
Location: Wasilla, Alaska, United States (load item map)
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