MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Sept. 14, 2004

 

SECRETS DON’T LAST, TOWN OFFICER DISCOVERS

 

By Laurel Walker

 

You've heard it said, surely, that in small towns there are no secrets.

 

So in rural Waukesha County, in the Town of Mukwonago, you'd understand some fallout when purported, 10-year-old skeletons are yanked from a closet - in this case, off the Internet - and they concern no less than a town cop.

 

"A lot of people don't like the police," says Grant Turner, town police chief, "and if they can find out anything about us, they will."

 

In the case of Michael Austin, a town police officer for the past 18 months and, before that, a Milwaukee cop for 10 years, there seems enough wafting smoke fanned by critics that it's a wonder someone hasn't pulled the fire alarm.

 

Turner himself, whose department has six full- and three part-time police officers, adds to the intrigue.  On the one hand, he ordered Austin home on paid suspension weeks ago while investigating undisclosed "internal" issues. More than two weeks after he said he'd be done, he's still investigating.

 

On the other hand, he gave credit to Austin, saying, "He took a lot of drugs off the street out here, even in this community," drawing on his "special squad" experience investigating drug dealing and violent crimes in Milwaukee.  "A lot of people do call and complain because he is a very aggressive officer and he made a lot of arrests and they weren't happy with him," Turner said.

 

Austin grew up in Mukwonago and graduated from Mukwonago High School in 1986, where folks might remember him as Michael Quigley - the name he legally changed to Austin in 1995 while still a Milwaukee officer. The change came less than a month after an inquest jury found that Austin's girlfriend, Shorewood Police Officer Natalie Wagner, committed suicide by shooting herself in the head in Austin's presence a year earlier.

 

Austin noted that those events were publicized in news stories at the time.  He continued to work in the Milwaukee Police Department after that and with his new name. And he grew up in Mukwonago, where people knew him as Quigley.

 

"It's not like you're trying to hide," Austin said.

 

Oddly enough, though, he shared the name change but nothing about the Wagner case with Turner before he was hired. Police Commission Chairman Karl Miller said he knew nothing about either until I told him. Turner became aware of the Wagner investigation only when another officer told him about it shortly after Austin was hired.

 

Stranger still - and troubling, too - is that no background check for a police hire produced such information. Miller, for one, considered it "kind of shocking, really," and added: "I sure would have asked him about it. It makes you wonder, you know?"

 

Regardless of what they knew then, town officials who know it now say it is irrelevant, given the results of the investigation.

 

Though the medical examiner and police, along with the inquest jury, concluded Wagner's death was a suicide, Wagner's parents raise questions of a cover-up on Web sites. One is titled "REAL COVERUP AND CORRUPTION BY LAW ENFORCEMENT, REAL FAMILY FRUSTRATION AND HEARTBREAK” while another identifies the Wagner case as "(suicide/homicide?)."  Austin knows about the Web sites.

 

"For me, it was a traumatic incident," he said. "I still feel bad for (Wagner's parents), but at the same time this is dragging on 10 years, and certainly I didn't have anything to do with it."

 

For some critics who have crossed paths with Austin, the Wagner incident and name change are more ammunition.

 

Nell Hein, who with her husband owns Lucky Luke's Bait, Boats & Beer in Mukwonago, makes no bones about her dislike for Austin's tactics after a recent run-in with him at a restaurant.  She admits to circulating the Web pages - to the local gathering spots, to

heads of the Lions Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars, to a few customers - and if it helps chase Austin out of town, good.

 

Leslie Knueppel of the Town of Eagle, who claims Austin has it in for her son, whom he arrested twice, complained in May about Austin's tactics to the town. She's still waiting for a response.  "Then again, it's my word against him, and because he's a police officer

and I'm a nobody with a kid who has drug charges, I feel helpless," she said. When she learned "through the grapevine" about Austin's history, she said she was glad word was getting out.  "He has no business being a police officer," she said.

 

They might get their wish - in the Town of Mukwonago, anyway. Austin told me and the chief that he'll likely be leaving the department shortly, but because he's got his own departmental complaints.

 

"He had a problem with my sergeant," Turner said, adding that the sergeant was "very by-the-book. When the book is violated, I'm told about it."

 

No secrets.