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CSPD and other officers disciplined for moonlighting for Teller County sheriff's private investigations company

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BY ELENA TRAPP WITH ASSETS FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • By Elena Trapp with assets from Shutterstock.com

Nine Colorado Springs police officers took part in off-duty operations that led them to place trackers on vehicles, mount a secret camera to monitor a house in El Paso County, dig through trash and follow several citizens without their knowledge, including in Colorado Springs.

They also used Colorado Springs Police Department phones, computers and cameras, and some carried their department-issued weapons and badges — all to benefit Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell’s private security business, iXero LLC.

Those activities violated CSPD policies, including a ban on use of police equipment for private purposes and a mandate that officers receive permission in advance for outside work.

CSPD Internal Affairs (IA) investigators even suggested some actions by those officers — members of the elite multi-agency Metropolitan Vice, Narcotics & Intelligence Division (VNI) — might have violated state laws against trespassing and conducting investigations without a private investigator’s license.

As a result, five of the nine officers were reassigned to patrol duties. They also were dinged with suspensions. The most severe, 60 hours (about $3,000) in lost pay, was leveled against Mikesell’s ringleader for recruiting officers and running the private investigations.

The IA report was obtained by the Indy under House Bill 19-1119, which forces disclosure of police internal affairs reports upon their completion.

While the report fails to shed much light on Mikesell’s side business, it does outline how CSPD officers and others ran stakeouts, including one in which an officer tried to goad a “target” into ranting disparaging remarks about President Donald Trump.

The CSPD case, which came to light through a tip to the IA division, is the latest to trigger discipline of Front Range law enforcement officers who worked for Mikesell’s company.

Late last year, two El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies were disciplined and two reserve officers resigned amid an internal affairs probe about their work for iXero. Other officers in the region were also disciplined for their roles in Mikesell’s business.

Mikesell didn’t respond to a recent request for comment. But he told the Indy in March, “My private business has no relationship to the Teller County Sheriff’s Office.”

He also said he takes no responsibility for the jeopardy in which officers found themselves by working for him, and that no laws were broken.

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Exposure of the disciplinary measures comes at a time when CSPD is fighting to regain public trust in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that have caused friction with citizens and called into question some police use-of-force tactics.

Nevertheless, CSPD Chief Vince Niski says the officers deserved another chance.

“While I’m very disappointed that the employees failed to live up to our communities [sic] and my expectations, I still feel that they will continue to serve the citizens of Colorado Springs,” he said in emailed answers to the Indy’s questions. “I believe that once discipline has been imposed, and the employee has changed their behavior, we cannot keep punishing them. The employee should be able to go back to work with the understanding that if they violate policy again they will be subjected to more severe discipline.”

Over the course of more than a year, the nine CSPD officers collectively were paid roughly $105,500, with VNI Sgt. Larry Dyer earning the most, nearly $69,000.

But they paid a price. The CSPD’s IA investigation found violations of seven policies, including those governing outside work, conduct unbecoming an officer, use of equipment and records security.

The officers and the discipline imposed:

Sgt. Larry Dyer, 60-hour suspension (about $3,065 in pay)

Detective Nicholas Hartbauer, 20-hour suspension (about $833)

Detective James Lamberth, 10-hour suspension (about $416)

Detective Reuben Crews, 10-hour suspension (about $416) 

Analyst Carol Kisner, written reprimand

Detective Michael Garnett, Supervisory Discussion Record (SDR), a lower level than written reprimand

Police Service Representative Melissa Dyer, SDR

Part-time Academy Instructor Greg Reeder, verbal counseling

Part-time Background Investigator Tom Carle, verbal counseling

In addition, Dyer, Hartbauer, Lamberth, Crews and Garnett were reassigned to patrol.

Higher levels of discipline, in order of severity, include termination, reduction in pay and demotion in rank.

Chief Niski says in an email that the disciplinary measures were designed to change the employees’ behavior and assure such violations don’t recur.

In response to a question, he says he has no plans to change the department’s outside work policy.

“It is very clear on what type of outside employment employees are prohibited from working, as well as the steps necessary to request permission to engage in outside employment,” he says. “The issue is not the policy, but that employees did not follow the policy.”

Other agencies also have penalized officers after their work for iXero came to light.

Woodland Park Police Chief Miles De-Young this spring suspended Sgt. Michael Greeder for a week without pay and placed him on nine months of probation for not securing advance permission.

Castle Rock Police Department counseled officers John Moleno and David Morehead for the same reason and barred them from further iXero work.

El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which also requires permission for outside work in advance and bars personnel from conducting private investigations as sideline jobs, disciplined two employees. Detective Phil Gurnett and Deputy Mark Stevens were reassigned from Metro VNI and training, respectively, to patrol, and issued letters of reprimand. Two unidentified reserve officers resigned amid the investigation.

Sheriff Bill Elder also made working for iXero off limits for officers.

Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell - COURTESY TELLER COUNTY
  • Courtesy Teller County
  • Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell

Mikesell served with the Teller County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 20 years before resigning in early 2016. He returned in 2017 as appointed sheriff when his predecessor took a job in Jefferson County. He was elected to his first term in November 2018.

As the Indy reported on March 8 (“Side Hustle,” cover story), Mikesell, while serving as sheriff, runs a host of companies. One of those, iXero LLC, is described on its website as “the world’s premiere [sic] security provider.” The firm offers surveillance, appraisal of security gaps for businesses and schools, security training and, as one of his associates put it, investigating “high-end financial crimes.”

One of Mikesell’s private contracts commanded nearly $500,000 for a 30-day job, and iXero landed a multimillion-dollar security job for a California school district in Beverly Hills — all while he held the $105,000-a-year, full-time sheriff job.

Mikesell billed his private clients for months of work at the very time he was also working as sheriff, records show. It’s been a lucrative arrangement. Mikesell acquired $1.5 million worth of property in Woodland Park during 2018 and 2019 — the time frame in which Front Range officers worked for him.

While Mikesell sees nothing wrong with that, ethics experts do.

Kathleen Clark, a professor of government ethics at Washington University, St. Louis, has previously said Mikesell’s activities raise red flags.

“Even if he doesn’t punch a clock,” she told the Indy, “there’s a question of whether he’s actually providing the taxpayers with full-time work or not.”

She also noted that Mikesell employing his subordinate, Commander Greg Couch, in his private companies’ operations could give rise to concerns regarding favoritism.

Couch — asked about which job takes priority — told the Indy via email in March, “I serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff of Teller County and in the context of working for TCSO, that is my top priority.”

In response to recent questions about his deep involvement in Mikesell’s enterprise and two companies of his own, formed in July 2018 and December 2019, Couch said he spends about 10 hours per week of “off duty time” on those businesses.

Couch didn’t address a question of whether he obtained a legal opinion before setting up his businesses and working on the side for Mikesell while also working for him at the Sheriff’s Office.

“I admit freely to being a workaholic,” Couch says in the recent email. “If, in the future, I decide to comment further to someone who writes opinionated content under the guise of news reporting, I know who to call.”

The CSPD’s IA report contradicts Mikesell’s contention in the earlier interview that he hires officers “through word of mouth.”

“Our employees reach out to other employees or our contractors reach out to other contractors and those contractors reach out to other contractors about there’s a need for whatever [it] is we need,” he said.

But Sgt. Dyer told IA officers he was recruited by Mikesell himself. Dyer became Mikesell’s “Surveillance Team Coordinator,” and as such, hired officers from his own VNI team and elsewhere, scheduled work shifts for surveillance jobs and used CSPD resources to benefit Mikesell’s company.

CSPD Chief Vince Niski - COURTESY CSPD
  • Courtesy CSPD
  • CSPD Chief Vince Niski

“In August 2018, Sgt. Dyer got a phone call from Sheriff Jason Mikesell with the Teller County Sheriff’s Office offering work with Sheriff Mikesell’s company, iXero,” the CSPD’s IA report says. “Sheriff Mikesell asked Sgt. Dyer to put a team together to do the work. The job was in Denver doing surveillance of an individual and Sgt. Dyer found approximately twenty people to do the job.” That engagement, which included recruiting at least one person while on the job for CSPD, lasted 4½ months.

Dyer, who interfaced with both Couch and Mikesell, drew up work schedules and deployed officers from the Metro VNI team, comprising officers from Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) and the Fountain Police Department. (No Fountain officers were involved with iXero.) He also recruited from the Woodland Park and Castle Rock police departments.

CSPD’s policy, and those of the other departments, requires that officers request approval in advance for outside work. They must describe their duties, cite the employer’s name and the nature of the business. The work cannot conflict with the employee’s city job or constitute a conflict of interest.

“Any supplemental employment is considered to be secondary in importance and subject to review and approval by the Department,” the CSPD policy states. Moreover, officers are prohibited from working as investigators within the 4th Judicial District, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, or “in any employment in which police power might be used for private purposes of a civil nature.”

But none of the officers sought prior approval to work for Mikesell.

In fact, when CSPD Detective Hartbauer submitted his request memo to Dyer for review before going up the chain of command, Dyer sidelined it, because it mentioned “private investigations.” No others submitted memos.

Nor did deputies with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office or officers with the Woodland Park and Castle Rock forces ask permission, which eventually led to discipline by those departments as well.

Mikesell’s company operates on a need-to-know basis that relies on concealment. Mikesell demanded that “contractors” like Dyer’s crew sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), barring them from discussing their iXero work. Working piecemeal for $300 a day, officers had to be available on short notice to stake out individuals whom Mikesell’s clients suspected of wrongdoing, according to the IA report.

Officers moved in a furtive netherworld of mystery in which they communicated using encrypted emails and Dropbox. Yet, they were given little information about who their “targets” were and what they had done to warrant the clandestine operations.

Mikesell only hinted that “targets” were suspected of fraud, embezzlement of millions of dollars and a sham real estate deal, and that one client was from China.

Dyer and others told IA investigators they had only a hazy notion of why they were assigned to sort through trash, or follow people using vehicle trackers supplied by Mikesell, and place a secret camera on private property in El Paso County — the latter two being possible misdemeanor trespass offenses, the report said.

Woodland Park Police Sgt. Greeder told his department’s IA investigator he attended a meeting with Mikesell and others at which “Greeder was told not to tell anyone he works for iXero,” the Woodland Park IA report says.

Greeder also said that during one assignment he wasn’t able to place a tracker on a vehicle and wrote that in his daily log, submitted via Dropbox. “He was contacted by another member of the team saying he was not allowed to mention trackers in any of his reports,” the IA report says. “His report was then changed against Sgt. Greeder’s wishes. After this incident he realized he wasn’t ‘one of the cool kids’ and no longer received offers to participate.”

CSPD Detective Crews told IA investigators that after he came under investigation for working for Mikesell, he received an email from iXero “reminding him he signed a non-disclosure agreement.” Turns out, all the officers received that reminder.

Somehow, Mikesell engendered loyalty and a commitment to confidentiality. One CSPD officer was late to his CSPD shift because of his work for iXero, and another missed a VNI warrant operation because he was tied up on a Mikesell job. Some officers took vacation time to work for iXero and flew to other states, including California and Florida.

The Police Operations Center on South Nevada Avenue is headquarters for CSPD. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • The Police Operations Center on South Nevada Avenue is headquarters for CSPD.

Dyer didn’t mention those trips, or the camera installed outside the El Paso County home and many other significant events, during his first IA interview with investigator Sgt. Shannon Snuggs on Oct. 12, 2019. He also claimed during the two-hour interview that he didn’t use his department-issued phone, except once, or other equipment for iXero work.

But Snuggs interviewed others and discovered that several CSPD officers — including Dyer — used city equipment, such as phones, cameras and laptops, for iXero work. One took department-issued night vision goggles to a gig but didn’t use them; several carried their CSPD badges while on an iXero assignment, and at least two took their department-issued firearms.

After talking with the other officers, Snuggs circled back to Dyer for a second interview on Nov. 21, 2019.

According to a transcript of that three-hour interrogation, Snuggs asked Dyer why other officers could remember details with clarity but he couldn’t. Dyer said he assumed they reviewed materials prior to their interviews.

Snuggs: “And if they did, so what?”

Dyer: “Well, they’re not supposed to.... That could be against the NDA.”

Snuggs: “So it’s okay to violate CSPD’s agreements, but it’s not okay to violate iXero’s NDA?”

Dyer: “No, I’m not saying that. It’s not okay either way.”

Snuggs also asked him why he failed to mention key information from the first interview, to which Dyer responded, “I just didn’t think to,” and blamed his faulty memory for the lapses. “My memory stinks. It’s horrible.”

He then offered that he couldn’t recall much of anything about his trips to California and Florida, where he flew to track “targets” of iXero investigations.

“I can’t even remember flying in,” he said. “Hell, I can’t tell you the hotel I stayed at. Hell, I can’t even remember the dang city.... My memory is not what it used to be.”

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Asked why he claimed he encouraged officers to submit memos asking permission to do the outside work when others said he didn’t, including his wife, Melissa Dyer, he blamed Mikesell’s sudden and urgent demands.

One job led to another, he said, like “the snowball effect.”

“There’s no way we’re getting a memo completed in a month,” Dyer said. “There’s no way and that was the bad decision right there. And then it just went worse.... I get the call and, ‘Hey, I need this.’ It’s Sheriff Mikesell.... That was the mistake right there. I start calling people. And the next thing you know we need these memos.”

Within a couple of days of one operation, Mikesell would call asking that the stakeouts resume, he said. “It snowballed into some terrible stuff.... I mean, this thing just took a life of its own. It’s just terrible. You know, we’re talking about a career ender.... I don’t know what else to say. I mean, I screwed up.”

Dyer also told Snuggs he became “more uneasy” as time went on.

“Why?” Snuggs asked.

“Memos weren’t in and I wasn’t following the rules,” Dyer said.

“So why not say, ‘Stop?’” she asked.

Said Dyer, “I should’ve. I didn’t want to let down Mikesell, for one.”

“What about Chief Niski?” Snuggs said.

Dyer said, “I know. I know.”

Clandestine investigations caught up to some officers. - CHAYATORN LAORATTANAVECH / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Chayatorn Laorattanavech / Shutterstock.com
  • Clandestine investigations caught up to some officers.

The second job, in July and August 2019, involved surveillance of a person in Denver and other associates and family members in El Paso County and Colorado Springs.

To monitor one person’s home — in violation of CSPD’s policy prohibiting investigations in the 4th Judicial District — officers installed a video camera, provided by Mikesell, about 150 yards from Walker Road along an access driveway.

Under questioning by Snuggs, Dyer admitted he installed the camera without verifying it sat on public right of way.

Snuggs asked Dyer, “So that camera ... is up a private driveway. Would you not agree that’s a trespass?”

Dyer: “Well, I — I didn’t think about it, but I thought it would be a communal driveway so I figured that was — that’s where they put their trash, but since that was a communal driveway for several residences, I didn’t think that would’ve been ... private property.”

Snuggs: “Did you ever look at the assessor’s site to see where the property lines were?”

Dyer: “I did not.”

Snuggs: “Do you agree now ... that you all committed a 2nd Degree Criminal Trespass?”

Dyer: “Well, I certainly didn’t think I was committing that.”

(CSPD spokesman Lt. James Sokolik tells the Indy via email that there was no prosecution for the trespass issue, or other potential crimes, because the information about them was obtained through a compelled statement, meaning it’s not usable in a criminal investigation.)

In a strange development during one of the missions, Mikesell asked Dyer’s crew to try to engage a “target” “in a conversation related to President Trump,” the IA report says.

“Detective Garnett was able to get a brief video of a contact with Mr. [redacted],” the report says. “Detective Hartbauer followed Mr. [redacted] to Governor [Jared] Polis’ office and realized he had to stop.”

Garnett and Hartbauer told Snuggs they didn’t know why Dyer asked them to get a “target” to discuss Trump, the report says. But Garnett had recently received a CSPD button camera at a surveillance training class and used it that day to capture video of the “target,” the report says.

Snuggs asked Dyer why he recruited the two to engage iXero’s investigative target in a political conversation about Trump.

“Man, what a loaded question that is, huh?” Dyer responded. “That — Greg Couch and Mikesell, and I don’t really know what it’s about. I don’t know what the background is, if this guy was crazy or what the deal was but this was — it must’ve been the last day or two of that whole — when that was going to end and they said they needed to see him on camera touting crazy stuff.”

Snuggs then asked Dyer if he was familiar with policies that bar officers from collecting or maintaining intelligence on “political stuff” and, in light of that, why he sent two people working for iXero to engage someone on that person’s views of the president, and later to follow a subject to the governor’s office.

“It’s not under the color of law, and so I viewed it differently,” Dyer said, adding the episode was “not a big deal.”

Snuggs also cited the definition of private investigation (PI) work contained in state statutes, which require people to be licensed in order to conduct investigations into “the identity, reputation, character, habits, conduct, business, occupation, honesty, integrity, credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, efficiency, loyalty, activity movements, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, or transactions of a person, group of persons, or organization.”

“Is that not exactly what you did for iXero?” Snuggs asked.

“Um, yeah,” he said.

Snuggs then reminded Dyer that he performed many of those duties for Mikesell prior to obtaining a PI license on Aug. 9, 2019, at Mikesell’s request, as did four others.

“And then, do you ever notify any supervisor that you’re doing the PI work or had done PI work?” she asks.

Dyer: “No.”

Snuggs: “Did you know doing PI work without a license is a Class 2 Misdemeanor?”

Dyer: “I did not.”

Snuggs: “So prior to August 9th of 2019, you and your whole team are committing a Class 2 Misdemeanor and you had no idea?”

Dyer: “No.”

Snuggs: “Would that have changed things for you?”

Dyer: “Yes.”

Five of the nine CSPD employees involved — Dyer, Hartbauer, Garnett, Melissa Dyer and Reeder — eventually obtained state private investigator licenses. (El Paso County Sheriff’s Office prohibits officers from holding PI licenses. When Mikesell asked a deputy to get a PI license while working for iXero, he quit the job.)

CSPD did not contact the “targets” of iXero’s investigations, Sokolik says in an email, because the Internal Affairs Division “was not investigating that company or its practices.” Rather, the IA’s focus was the officers’ potential policy violations.

Mikesell was not interviewed by CSPD’s IA investigators. Sokolik said via email:

“Internal affairs reached out to Mr. Mikesell requesting information and was told he would need to speak with his lawyers.” 

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