Unfinished Business at APD?
Citizen review panel to hear charges of misconduct against veteran officer
On Monday, May 19, the Austin Police Department's citizen review panel will hold a public hearing to review a charge of "official oppression" against veteran Detective Howard Staha, following an Austin woman's complaint resulting from a decade-old episode that first came to light in 2001. Lucy Neyens has charged Staha with forcing her to perform oral sex in return for protecting her son from criminal retaliation for the boy's cooperation with the APD as a confidential informant. Over the last year, the department officially reviewed Neyens' complaint, but ruled that investigators "failed either to prove or disprove" her allegations. Neyens filed a formal complaint with the city's police monitor for a review of the case, and the hearing will address her charges against Staha.
Detective Howard Staha vociferously denies the allegations Neyens has leveled against him. "I am totally stunned, because they are all false statements," he said. "I don't think anyone has a right to make [statements] like that. That's slander."
In the early Nineties, after nearly two decades in an unhappy marriage, Neyens had been repairing her life and her family. She was divorced, a single mother, and was supporting her four children by working as both an emergency medical technician in the Austin-Travis Co. EMS and part-time as an emergency-room technician at the South Austin Hospital. Her life and her family's, she recalls, was finally improving. But according to Neyens, as formally set forth in her written complaint to the police monitor's office, a crime against her son and her family's attempt to cooperate with a subsequent APD investigation turned into a nightmare when the department failed to protect her son, and Officer Staha used the situation to sexually coerce Neyens.
In October 1989, Neyens' teenage son -- whose identity she prefers to keep confidential -- vanished from home. He was found two weeks later by Port Arthur police; it turned out he had been abducted by a pedophile who had frequented the grounds of Austin's Porter Junior High. As a result of his abduction, Neyens' son had apparently learned a considerable amount about Austin-area criminal activities -- about several local pedophiles and also about local narcotics trafficking. As a result, the APD wanted Neyens' son to work with the department's Repeat Offender Program as a confidential informant under the direction of Officer Howard Staha. On May 28, 1992, Neyens and her son signed a "parental consent" form, which outlined Staha's plans for using her teenage son as a CI -- and contained a promise that the department would take "reasonable precautions" to protect him from harm.
According to Neyens, the APD's promise was soon broken.
It wasn't long, Neyens says, until her son's status as an informant was leaked to several criminals he was helping the APD pursue -- putting his own life in danger. Her son was frightened, she recalls, and soon became depressed and suicidal. "I was extremely worried about him," she said. "He'd tried to kill himself several times, in serious ways. I didn't really know the depth of the CI involvement he was into."
One day in late 1992 or early 1993 (she does not remember the precise date), Neyens became frantic after her son called her and threatened suicide. She called Staha and asked him to help find her boy. When Staha returned her call, Neyens says, he told her he had found her son and asked her to meet him at the Warehouse Saloon on Ben White Boulevard. Neyens says she and her friend Janie Bremer drove together to the bar, but Staha asked her to get into his car for a private discussion.
According to Neyens, Staha repeatedly told her that he didn't know if he could do any more to protect her son. "By the way he was saying it, I felt that he probably was going to allow something to happen to my son," she said. Neyens says Staha kept repeating himself -- that he "didn't know what he could do" -- while he unzipped his pants and exposed his penis. She says he placed his hand on the back of her head and pushed her down, forcing her to perform oral sex. When it was over, Neyens recalls, Staha said "that I better not make a mess next time."
Neyens says Staha quickly departed, and she went back to the bar and then returned home with Bremer -- and then told Bremer what had happened. Bremer says she did indeed go to the bar with Neyens, who left briefly with Staha, and after they returned home Neyens told her Staha had forced her to perform oral sex. "It's kind of a scary thing to think that somebody could force you to do things," Bremer said. "Mothers are going to protect their children and I think [Staha] really took advantage of that."
Staha completely denies Neyens' story about his conduct and says he believes her allegations are the result of departmental politics within APD. "I think it's all over certain people being transferred in certain positions [within the department]," he said, "and I think there were hard feelings about that." Staha says that he was aware that Internal Affairs investigators were looking into Neyens' complaint but that he thought the allegations had been put to rest. "I was told by Internal Affairs that it was completely completed and that it was over with," he said. Staha says that he and his attorney are exploring what legal options may be available to address Neyens' "slanderous" statements.
Neyens never reported the incident to authorities because, she says, she feared for her son. It would take nearly 10 years before she inadvertently revealed the allegation to other officers, and it was finally filed as a formal complaint. "My son's life was at stake," she said, "and I didn't know who to report it to -- I didn't know who was an honest cop and who wasn't."
A Questionable Transfer
Neyens had moved on with her life. She says she never told anyone, aside from Bremer and one other friend, Terri Hall, what had happened with Staha -- not even her husband of three years, who is himself currently an APD officer. She maintained her silence until late 2001, when she and her husband were having lunch with several other officers. "I heard Staha's name in I don't know what context," she said, "and it all just hit me, and I just made the statement. I shocked myself." Neyens says she initially expected the conversation to remain private -- until the other officers at the table told her that under the department's general orders, they have a duty to report the alleged misconduct to Internal Affairs. Neyens was concerned about possible departmental retaliation against her husband, but subsequently told IAD investigators that she would cooperate with the official investigation.
The complaint was filed in January 2002.
A week later, Neyens says, Staha was transferred into the department's Major Crimes Division -- and into the same unit as her husband, working undercover and with confidential informants. "Staha was moved into undercover major-crimes work after the IAD complaint was filed," Neyens said. Her husband "asked why they would do this, and he was told that it was [Assistant Chief] Jimmy Chapman's decision and that it couldn't be changed."
APD spokesman Kevin Buchman said that because Neyens' complaint is pending before the citizen review panel, the department will not comment on the propriety of the transfer.
The IAD investigation into the allegation of official oppression against Staha proceeded for a year. Neyens was interviewed, and investigators apparently interviewed Staha as well, but Neyens believes the IAD did not seriously pursue interviews with the friends she told originally about the incident, although she informed investigators she had done so. Bremer says an investigator called her once, asking general questions about Neyens and the incident, but he did not make clear the nature of his investigation. Bremer says the tone of the investigator's questions made her uncomfortable, and she told him she couldn't "shed any light" on what happened. He never called again. Terri Hall was never contacted by the APD. Hall, a doctor at South Austin Hospital, says Neyens indeed told her at the time that a police officer had forced her to perform oral sex, but she says she was never contacted by APD investigators.
The APD informed Neyens of its official conclusion in a Jan. 14, 2003, IAD letter from Lt. Jack Hines, who wrote, "[A]fter a complete investigation of this incident, the evidence has failed to either prove or disprove conclusively that the officer['s] actions were in violation of departmental policy." Hines added that in the event that Neyens did "not agree with the findings of the investigation," she could request "an additional review" by the department's assistant chiefs. On Jan. 27, Neyens requested the case be reviewed by the department -- as of press time, she had heard nothing further from the APD.
The lack of a response doesn't surprise her. Neyens says investigators never gave her nor (to her knowledge) Staha a polygraph examination and canceled two that had been scheduled for her. Finally, she says, although investigators apparently decided late last year that they couldn't confirm her complaint, it took several more months of prodding from her until Hines sent his official notice of the disposition of the investigation.
Copies of e-mail letters between Neyens and IAD Cmdr. Bobbie Owens appear to support Neyens' account of the investigation's progress. In an e-mail dated Oct. 11, 2002, Owens writes that the investigation has "been in the hands of Staha's chain of command for some time now" but that IAD did not yet know the resolution. On Nov. 1, Owens wrote to Neyens that she would likely receive confirmation of the department's decision in the case within one week. Neyens received no notice for more than two more months.
APD spokesman Buchman says that the department's investigation was complete and that the investigation "determined that the allegations were inconclusive."
Neyens said she is tired of the department's stall tactics and believes her case was not investigated based on its merits but on Staha's departmental connections. "I think [this has been investigated] based on protecting [an officer], she said, "and based on allegiances between some people [within the department]." Hers are by no means the first allegations of preferential treatment within APD's disciplinary practices. Last year, while defending former Officer Eric Snyder against criminal charges derived from an IAD complaint of excessive force, attorney Steve Edwards successfully argued in district court that he should be allowed to pursue the question of departmental "selective enforcement." During those hearings, former IAD investigator Gary Fleming testified that questions of APD punishment sometimes rest not only on rank, but also on whom the officer in question calls a friend. "Generally speaking," Fleming testified, "we used to joke around the office that, above the rank of sergeant, you practically had to be caught on video or something or [the officer had to be someone] not ... liked by the administration." (Chief Stan Knee was scheduled to testify in the Snyder case, but it was settled before going to trial.)
In January of this year, APD Officer Boren Hildebrand II was fired from his job after the department sustained two allegations that in June and August of last year, he had separately coerced two women into performing oral sex on him while he was on duty. The Statesman reported that the department placed Hildebrand on administrative leave during its investigation. APD sources suggest that the department's different handling of the allegations against Staha -- who was neither suspended nor apparently fully interrogated -- highlight the disparate treatment of officers accused of misconduct. "Does this surprise you?" one source asked. "This is the same stuff that has come up over and over: A small group [of officers] are protected while the rest are thrown to the wolves."
In March, Neyens finally tired of waiting for the department to take action and filed her written complaint with Police Monitor Iris Jones. The citizen review panel is scheduled to hear the case this Monday, May 19, and Jones says that according to the rules governing police review process, as confirmed by City Manager Toby Futrell, the hearing must be public.
"I want justice -- equal treatment for all [complainants] and officers," Neyens said. "That is my biggest concern. But it needs to be followed through. I think that if it takes a little discomfort from me, it will probably go a long way for keeping this from happening to other people."
The citizens review panel will hear Lucy Neyens' complaint Monday, May 19, 5:30pm, at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile St.