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Investigation's report of Drug Recognition Evaluator program exposes inconsistency, confusion

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Peavey Plaza Occupy video screengrab
A screengrab from a video released last week by the activist group Occupy Minnesota shows police taking young people away from downtown Minneapolis in squad cars. When they returned, the young people said officers from around the state provided them with marijuana to smoke.
Hongpong

A Chisago County sheriff's deputy told state investigators he was "in shock" after he saw his training partner give two young men marijuana to smoke in the back of a squad car.

Deputy Andrew Mahowald told the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that his partner, an officer with Hutchinson police, offered the pot to the men in a black case and explained to Mahowald, "they are going to smoke for us."

But when BCA investigators approached Hutchinson Officer Karl Willers about the allegations against him, Willers' attorney instructed his client not to talk.

The exchanges are among details contained in a 513-page file documenting the criminal investigation into the state's Drug Recognition Evaluator program, released this week because the case is now closed.

Interview transcripts and reports in the file provide the most detail yet into the bizarre allegations first leveled in May by Occupy Minnesota activists that officers in the class were helping civilians use drugs. The file also exposes a barrage of inconsistencies that led to a decision in September by the Hennepin County Attorney's office not to charge anyone in the case.

Run by the state patrol, the Drug Recognition Evaluator program trains officers to detect signs of drug use among motorists. Students are required to conduct evaluations by approaching people in the community who already appear to be impaired. With the test subject's consent, the officers then test their assumptions with a urine analysis.

Most of the officers in the class, who hailed from all over the state, were young and unfamiliar with the metro area and urban drug culture, according to a Sept. 25 memo from county prosecutors. Those officers struggled with the "gray areas" involved with the program.

"Many officers seemed confused as to how they were supposed to recruit participants and what instructors would consider acceptable means of obtaining test subjects," said the memo written by Gail Baez and Emery Adoradio, senior assistant Hennepin County attorneys.

The program remains suspended while an internal investigation into the state patrol continues. Authorities launched the investigation after the Hutchinson police chief, Daniel Hatten, requested it on May 8, after an Occupy Minnesota video on YouTube about the allegations named Hutchinson police, the Chisago County Sheriff's office, and Minnesota State Patrol as involved parties.

SIGNS OF ALLEGED WRONGDOING

Mahowald apparently wasn't the only one in the 26-student class to in some way give credence to the claims, the investigation shows. 

Minnesota State Trooper John Schmutzer told BCA investigators that on the last day of class, an officer with the last name of Willers said: "I don't know what the big deal is. I just gave them marijuana. It's not like I hurt anybody."

But it's not clear if the officer who spoke was Hutchinson officer Karl Willers. His brother, Kenneth Willers, a deputy with the Nobles County Sheriff's office, also participated in the class.

Schmutzer identified Kenneth Willers in a picture as the one who made the comment. 

When confronted by the BCA, Kenneth Willers" adamantly denied making any such comments, even in jest," according to the prosecutors' memo.

BCA agents also tried to address vague rumors about "something called 'Pete's Box,' " which some officers said contained drugs for potential test subjects, according to the memo. Officers in the class heard others remark, possibly while joking, that the box contained drugs. But they all denied seeing such a box — and several officers declined to be interviewed by investigators, as is their right.

Several others interviewed as part of the criminal inquiry said they never saw anyone in the class hand out drugs.

DEPUTY'S ACCOUNT

The exception came from Andrew Mahowald, the 27-year-old Chisago County deputy.

Mahowald said he and Officer Willers went to Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis on the evening of April 27, where several Occupy Minnesota activists were congregating. The officers approached two young men: Forrest Rainier Oliver and a heroin user. (Public records show a spelling of Forest Rainier Olivier, now 20.)

Once in the Chisago County squad car, Willers handed Olivier a black case that he said contained the marijuana. Olivier told the BCA that the officers gave him 10 or 12 pipe bowls full of pot.

"Mahowald stated that he was in shock in seeing this and was unable or unwilling to say anything to either Oliver or Willers about what was going on in the back of his squad car," BCA investigative agent Gary Swanson wrote in his report.

Moreover, Mahowald told investigators he threw out in the trash the pipe and the black case at his home later that night, destroying what could have been key physical evidence. 

Prosecutors had problems with Mahowald's credibility and noted that he could have been deemed an accomplice to Willers.

"There is the impression that Mahowald is not being completely forthcoming and hoped to deflect blame by coming forward first," the prosecutors' memo said.

Mahowald said he reported his account at the end of his shift on April 27 to the program's main instructor, Sgt. Rick Munoz of the state patrol.

Munoz, however, told investigators that he did not learn of the alleged incident from Mahowald until May 3, just after the Occupy activists released a video making the claims.

Reached by MPR News, Mahowald declined to comment for this story. 

So did David Ayers, an attorney representing Karl Willers.

"While there is the threat of any kind of investigation, it simply isn't prudent for him to be making any comment," he said. 

PROBLEMS WITH EVIDENCE

Prosecutors also struggled with conflicting accounts over the dates, names of officers, and other essential details.

Olivier, for example, said he smoked up weed provided by the officers on three different occasions, but investigators couldn't corroborate his version of events. 

They also noted that Olivier's account was disputed by a member of his own circle. Another Occupy Minnesota activist, Donald Turner, told investigators Oliver was lying about the misconduct to gain notoriety.

Because the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance allegedly provided to him was marijuana, prosecutors could have sought to qualify Olivier as an "expert" in marijuana identification. In other words, they'd have to establish he was an experienced marijuana smoker, which does not, "for obvious reasons, enhance the provability of the State's case," the assistant county attorneys said in the memo.

The prosecutors recommended more clarity, supervision, and oversight of the program. For starters, they suggested, the program could make clear that providing marijuana to the test subjects was "absolutely prohibited," the memo said.

Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said Friday in a statement she is committed to restoring the public confidence and integrity of the program.

• Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen