MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Dec. 15, 2004

 

PLAYING BLAME GAME AS OFFICER DEPARTS

 

By Laurel Walker

A Town of Mukwonago cop, whose police methods and personal background had blood boiling and tongues wagging this year, has quit the force rather than face the district attorney over claims he broke the law by filing a false police report.

 

Now the ex-cop, Michael Austin, has filed a federal lawsuit against Police Chief Grant Turner, Sgt. Thomas Czarnecki, Officer Christopher Heckman and the Town of Mukwonago, seeking $300,000 plus punitive damages. He claims he was forced to resign based on false claims and without due process.

 

It's a shooting match, with fingers pointing both ways.

 

The spotlight shone on the town police force this year when a resident began circulating Web pages that exposed Austin as the former Michael Quigley, a Milwaukee cop at the time whose girlfriend-cop committed suicide by shooting herself in his presence. Though an inquest jury agreed with that conclusion, the woman's parents pressed suspicions about Austin's involvement on the Web.

 

When I wrote about the case in September, town officials responsible for hiring Austin in early 2003 acknowledged they knew nothing about that history but said it might not have mattered. Some people, including me, wondered what kind of background check is done on police applicants there.

 

Top that off with complaints by residents who thought Austin was overly aggressive and abusing power. Town of Eagle resident Leslie Knueppel said she wanted to file a complaint with the Police Commission over Austin's treatment of her son, twice arrested by him on drug-related charges. All but one charge were eventually dismissed, though he recently pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor to put it behind him, she said.

 

Knueppel said Wednesday she was talked out of filing the formal complaint by town officials who assured her that her complaints were being taken seriously and were behind an investigation of Austin.

 

Austin was suspended with pay Aug. 4 and resigned Sept. 17 - collecting $4,574 in pay and about $2,500 in benefits during that time, according to the town clerk.  Based on recently released records, it was a complaint other than Knueppel's that was Austin's undoing.

 

Town Police Officer Heckman filed a written complaint with his superiors stating that Austin lied on his report on a different arrest. Heckman's complaint indicated that prosecutors were planning to drop drug charges in the case because of "problems arising from our entry into the residence" and Austin said he would fix the problem.

 

Heckman wrote, "It is my belief that Officer Austin knowingly made false statements in his report" and left out other facts.

 

Chief Turner sent the matter in August to Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher, who dropped it only after he had Austin's resignation letter - dated Oct. 11, transmitted Oct. 22 and effective Sept. 17 - in hand. Austin, who did not respond to my request for comment, said in his letter that he felt coerced to quit "due to numerous false claims of criminal misconduct made against me" by town police and the DA.

 

Bet some town officials - who referred Austin's lawsuit to their insurer - wish they'd checked a little deeper during the hiring process.

 

And Knueppel, who wanted him fired rather than allowed to resign, wonders whether he'll just land a job as a cop somewhere else.