LINCOLN — A former U.S. attorney has been appointed to investigate and prosecute potential criminal violations stemming from internal use-of-force investigations at the Nebraska State Patrol.
Special prosecutor Joe Stecher stressed Wednesday that he is aware of nothing at this point that leads him to believe that charges will be filed against any of the four patrol members named in court documents. All four are on paid administrative leave from the agency in connection with their involvement in an internal investigation into a 2016 high-speed chase in Sheridan County that ended in the death of the fleeing driver.
“A special prosecutor has the responsibility to look and see if an investigation or prosecution are necessary,” Stecher said. “There has been no recommendation of charges or any indication that charges are imminent.”
Stecher served as the U.S. attorney for Nebraska from 2007 to 2009. He now practices law in Harrison, in far northwest Nebraska, where he also serves as a deputy county attorney for Sioux County. Reached Wednesday while attending a professional conference, Stecher said he had not yet reviewed material related to his appointment as special prosecutor.
Stecher already played a role in one of the use-of-force investigations that have placed the patrol at the center of unprecedented controversy. The March 4, 2016, case in Sioux County involved a trooper who was seen on a dashboard-camera video using a rifle butt to strike the head of a drunken driver who refused orders to drop to the ground.
Stecher decided against charging the trooper, in part because he could find no evidence that the driver was hurt by the rifle strike. The prosecutor also decided that a jury could conclude that the trooper was justified in using the force after the driver refused repeated commands to get down.
The trooper has since resigned, but a state personnel review of the matter concluded that former Patrol Superintendent Brad Rice and others downplayed the “shocking” use of force.
Stecher said Wednesday he does not know whether the FBI is investigating the patrol. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he turned over evidence of meddling in internal investigations to the bureau and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Neither of the federal entities will comment on a possible probe into the State Patrol. But Attorney General Doug Peterson has said repeatedly that the FBI is investigating.
District Judge Travis O’Gorman signed the order Friday appointing the special prosecutor, the same day Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons declared that she had a conflict of interest in the matter. Simmons did not immediately return a message Wednesday.
Both the motion and the judge’s order list Capt. Jamey Balthazor, Sgt. Kevin Waugh, Sgt. Travis Wallace and Trooper Tim Flick. All four officers are stationed in the Troop E area, which encompasses an 11-county region in the Panhandle.
The court documents, however, do not list Rice, whom the governor fired in June after a personnel review found evidence that Rice had interfered in the Sheridan County fatality and other internal investigations.
Nor do they list Lt. Col. Thomas Schwarten, the patrol’s second-in-command, or Maj. Mike Gaudreault, who heads the division responsible for patrol troopers. Both also remain on paid administrative leave.
Patrol Sgt. Brian Petersen, president of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, said he was deeply disappointed Wednesday when he learned about the special prosecutor. In September, he called for the governor to reinstate the suspended troopers, three of whom belong to his union.
The agency review by Jason Jackson, the state’s chief human resources officer, contained factual errors and relied too heavily on just a few sources, Petersen said. Jackson, for example, did not interview the suspended employees to hear their side of the story, Petersen said.
“I’ll stand behind them 100 percent every day,” Petersen said of the suspended patrol officers. “I’ll never waiver. I am that confident in what I know about these cases and these individuals.”
The case that prompted the appointment of the special prosecutor unfolded on Oct. 3, 2016, on Nebraska Highway 27 north of Gordon.
On the dash-cam video, Flick, the pursuing trooper, can be heard saying he used what’s called a tactical vehicle intervention, or TVI, to bump the fleeing vehicle in an effort to cause it to safely spin out. But the official narrative changed as supervisors got involved and the trooper said his cruiser was struck by the fleeing car. Rice eventually concluded that a TVI was not used by the trooper.
While some within the patrol said the video showed that Flick used a TVI, patrol union leaders have sharply disagreed. They argue that the pursuit video shows that the fleeing vehicle made contact with the patrol cruiser as Flick was maneuvering to attempt the TVI.
A Sheridan County grand jury investigation cleared the trooper of wrongdoing last December.