Lakewood police charity scandal rooted in betrayal of trust

Staff writerApril 7, 2013 

The money poured in after the Lakewood police massacre.

The murders of Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards in a Parkland coffee shop on Nov. 29, 2009, sent shock waves around Pierce County and across the country. Hearts were opened to the grieving families – and so were wallets.

People handed $20 bills to Lakewood officers responding to service calls. Children emptied piggy banks and slid bills and coins under the front-desk glass at police headquarters. The donation box near the front of the building had to be emptied every hour or two.

Then the mail came. The post office box filled so quickly that workers dumped letters into delivery bins. Officers picked up bins three or four times a day.

Most envelopes held checks or cash. On a table in the back area of the police station, checks were stacked several inches high.

The police department did not handle the torrent of donations; Chief Bret Farrar said that’s not its role. Instead, the responsibility was turned over to a charity set up by members of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild with its own bank accounts and oversight.

Sgt. John Unfred, the treasurer of the charity and the guild’s former treasurer, estimated it took in about $100,000 the day after the murders, as much as $1 million by the fourth day. All told, the charity accounted for nearly $3.2 million, he said.

“It was just this onslaught that would not stop,” Unfred told The News Tribune.

Into the deluge stepped officers Skeeter Manos and Brian Wurts, best friends and elected officers in the police guild.

Wurts, the guild president, was the public face of the grieving officers, representing the guild and seeking donations for the officers’ families. Manos, the guild treasurer, worked behind the scenes with others managing the donations.

The two friends have emerged as key figures in the story of how the Lakewood Police Department’s biggest tragedy led to its biggest scandal.

Manos, 36, was sentenced to 33 months in prison last year after confessing to bilking a combined total of more than $150,000 from the guild and the charity. He spent it on auto parts, outdoors gear, household items, a Las Vegas vacation, gambling and even to pay guild tax penalties.

Wurts, 38, was fired Dec. 28 after an internal investigation determined he prevented earlier detection of Manos’ theft by letting their friendship cloud his judgment.

Documents paint a picture of a guild president who enabled his friend’s personal indiscretions, turned a blind eye to missing checks and inquiries about guild finances, thwarted another officer’s attempt to remove Manos from the treasurer post and found himself in the middle of a forgery investigation.

Wurts strongly denies accusations that he knew Manos was embezzling or that he covered for him. Wurts was not arrested or charged with any crime.

In an interview with The News Tribune, Wurts, a former candidate for the Legislature, said he was fired by an administration eager to get rid of a vocal guild president. He has exhausted his appeals and is considering filing a lawsuit.

Still, investigators spared him no criticism.

“You crossed the line to the point where you became complicit in (Manos’) misconduct,” his termination letter stated.

Manos’ scheme was unraveled by a fellow cop, Jeremy Vahle, 35 — a former close friend of Wurts. One colleague described Vahle as “an attack dog.”

The News Tribune reviewed the Wurts investigation as part of 1,400 pages of public records it obtained, including a forgery investigation of Manos conducted by the Tacoma Police Department. The newspaper also interviewed a dozen people, including Wurts and Vahle. Manos, who is being held in the Pierce County Jail awaiting trial this month, declined an interview request.

The records shed light not only on the actions and inactions of Manos and Wurts; they also show how other officers, in a fog of grief and exhaustion in the dark days of late 2009, might have been slow to act on the warning signs of betrayal.

The reason? Police officers take an oath to uphold the law, and most cops have a hard time believing their comrades would break that oath.

Unfred told Lt. Heidi Hoffman, who led the Wurts’ internal investigation, that there were jokes about Manos going to the bank with “backpacks full of money.” Yet the department was overwhelmed and had put its trust in Manos, according to the transcript of Unfred’s interview.

Hoffman: “And you trusted (Manos) why?”

Unfred: “Because he was an officer.”

Hoffman: “Exactly.”

Unfred: “As sloppy as his work may be, it never crossed our mind that he would actually steal (the donations). Particularly in that situation from our own fallen officers. I mean, it just was unfathomable.”

Left unanswered through all the investigations and terminations is whether Wurts had anything to gain from Manos’ misdeeds and what it would be.

There’s no evidence, or any suggestion, that Wurts collected spoils from Manos’ thefts.

But there’s no doubt the two officers were close. They had a relationship that was complicated, stormy at times and ended abruptly when Manos was found out.

‘PEAS IN A POD’

Wurts joined Lakewood Police in August 2004, the same month the department began operations after breaking away from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Wurts had worked four years for the Steilacoom police.

Manos, a former Marine and Washington state trooper, came to Lakewood a month later.

Wurts told The News Tribune the two became friends about a year after joining the force.

Officer Tom Arnold told investigators the two men were “extremely tight. They went everywhere together as a matter of fact.” Unfred said they were always like peas in a pod.

They were “always like peas in a pod.”

Wurts was the godfather of Manos’ children, and the men were close in their personal lives.

Wurts had given the code key to his house to Manos and other officers, and said Manos was having sex with a woman there. Wurts had told his friend it was “stupid” behavior, but said he didn’t tell him to stop.

“I told him to think about his wife and kids and, do you really want to give all this up?” Wurts told investigators.

Manos also took pictures of the woman naked and showed them to fellow police officers — photos Wurts had on his personal phone, according to Vahle’s testimony. Manos didn’t want his wife to discover the photos, so he sent them to Wurts by text message, Vahle said.

Wurts told investigators Manos might have sent the pictures to his phone, but later told The News Tribune he didn’t receive them.

Wurts’ and Manos’ friendship held fast for years, despite growing volatile at times.

Once, while Wurts was out of town, Manos was left in charge of a bathroom remodeling project at Wurts’ house assisted by other officers. Wurts loaned him his Home Depot credit card.

Wurts returned to find the house “ripped apart” and saw hundreds of dollars of additional charges on his card. Manos said he’d expanded the work to the entire house.

Officer Eric Bell said he was there when Wurts assessed the damage. He said Wurts was angry and got into a heated argument with Manos.

During the internal investigation, Hoffman asked several officers whether Manos had any “dirt” on Wurts – any secrets that might give the younger officer leverage.

Some officers raised the possibility that Wurts’ sexual orientation could be used against him. Wurts, during his interview, acknowledged he was gay, and said many people on the police force knew it.

Vahle told the investigator Wurts and Manos clearly were loyal to one another, though nobody who was interviewed knew whether their relationship was sexual. Wurts has said firmly that it was not.

The investigation reached no conclusions about whether Wurts might have been blackmailed.

In an interview with The News Tribune, Wurts said he was being used, contending Manos “absolutely took advantage of me” as well as a lot of other people.

The two haven’t spoken since Manos’ arrest more than a year ago, Wurts said.

In interviews with investigators and The News Tribune, Wurts called Manos a “sociopath.”

SEEDS OF DOUBT

The 90-plus members of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild elected Wurts and Manos to their respective posts in 2006. Wurts was seen by colleagues as a smart, capable officer while Manos had a reputation for sloppiness that extended to his work as guild treasurer.

During the internal investigation, Wurts acknowledged that Manos wasn’t “detail-oriented” and didn’t know how to run basic accounting software. Still, Manos was the only one to volunteer to serve two three-year terms as treasurer.

Vahle, one of the guild’s vice presidents, viewed Manos as incompetent. Manos would “hem and haw and not really give an answer” when questioned about guild finances, Vahle said during his internal investigation interview. Manos also was unable to provide financial reports or would take a long time to produce them, Vahle said.

A former Seattle police officer hired by Lakewood in 2004, Vahle had a reputation as a cop who liked to push buttons and stir up trouble. One officer said Vahle liked to “swim upstream.” Another officer characterized him as “an attack dog” who went straight for the throat.

One officer said Vahle had a “personal vendetta” against Wurts and Manos to remove them as guild officers, although the officer later acknowledged he was proved wrong in defending Manos.

Vahle wasn’t alone in his doubts about Manos. Officer Eric Bell, the current guild president, who was secretary at the time, joined Vahle in raising concerns to Wurts. But Wurts said he was going to talk with Manos and “everything’s going to be fine,” Bell said.

“We did not believe (Manos) was stealing at that time,” Vahle told The News Tribune. “It was just hinky, and the possibility existed.”

Bell told investigators there were “always jokes about Skeeter’s constantly buying stuff.” Another officer who lived two doors down from Manos observed he was buying expensive items and constantly remodeling his home, Bell said.

Bell and Vahle said Wurts complained to them about Manos not paying guild bills on time. Bell recalled Wurts had to pay the retainer for the guild attorney. Bell also recalled Wurts yelling at him when the guild’s phones were shut off because the bill wasn’t paid.

“Why are you yelling at me?” Bell replied, according to his interview transcript. “I’m not the guy who pays the bills.”

Wurts told investigators Bell and Vahle had complained about his leadership rather than about Manos’ performance. Wurts said Vahle wanted him to step aside so Bell could become guild president.

In a letter he wrote shortly before his firing, Wurts disputed that either Vahle or Bell had raised concerns about Manos before 2011. Wurts noted they gave different years when the investigator asked when those conversations occurred.

Wurts said the incidents involving the attorney’s retainer and phone disconnection were overblown. And he said other officers lived in expensive homes and drove nice cars; he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary with Manos.

As it turned out, there was something unusual about Manos.

Court records show he began siphoning guild funds into his bank account he created about May 2009. Manos wrote in his statement to the court that he needed to save his home from foreclosure and considered the money a loan he would repay.

He never did, and later admitted to stealing about $47,000 from the guild over about a two-year period.

Before he was caught, Manos would steal even more money from another target: the Lakewood Officers Charity.

That organization is run independently from the guild and the police department, and had an account at a different bank than the guild’s.

Lakewood police officers started the charity in 2008 as a goodwill gesture to the community. It provided financial assistance to crime victims and allowed officers to deliver hot meals on Thanksgiving 2009.

In those early days, Unfred estimated the charity had about $1,500 in the bank – “next to nothing,” he told The News Tribune.

Soon it would have more money than anyone could have imagined.

A TRAGEDY, AND AN OUTPOURING

After Maurice Clemmons killed the four Lakewood officers on Nov. 29, 2009, the community response was powerful and immediate.

As treasurer of the guild, Manos expressed gratitude the day after the slayings.

“Words alone cannot begin to describe how much donating means to not only the fallen officer’s (sic) families, but to each and every Lakewood Officer,” he wrote in a guild Web post. “The comments that are sent along with each donation are personally read by me. Many times I have had to stop and recompose myself, because of the overwhelming support and compassion displayed by the generous community supporting us during this difficult period.

“Please continue to support our fallen officers and their families by donating anything you can.”

And they did — big checks and small poured in, from businesses, grandmothers, even prison inmates. They mailed checks, dropped them off at police headquarters and contributed through an online PayPal account set up shortly after the murders.

Mike Jankelson, a citizen volunteer on the charity board, told The News Tribune about emptying the donation box one day when a young mother and her two young children approached him. The boy raised a bag full of pennies, nickels and quarters — $32 in all.

“They’ve emptied their piggy banks,” the mother told Jankelson, “and would like this to go to the families.”

Unfred said nobody envisioned the Lakewood Officers Charity would end up handling the millions that it has.

Sgt. John Unfred, police charity treasurer who grew suspicious of Manos and "fired" Manos from his volunteer work with the charity.

“I’d be willing to bet an established charity with a full-time staff would have trouble keeping up with what we did,” he told The News Tribune.

In the immediate wake of the killings, the charity was tapped to handle the flood of gifts. None of the several city officials interviewed by the newspaper could say exactly how that decision was made. But Wurts told investigators it was “chaos,” and “everybody just kinda took a role and everybody kinda worked on something.”

Wurts said no one was really in charge. But on paper, he was — not only was he guild president, he was charity president until the end of 2009.

Still in its infancy, the charity was piggybacking on the guild, using the guild’s website and post office box. But the charity had something the guild didn’t: authorization by the Internal Revenue Service to write receipts so donors could write off charitable contributions.

This later helped reveal Manos’ thefts.

At the first news conference held outside the police building the day after the murders, Wurts noted donations were being accepted. He also posted a message to the guild website that he would make sure donations went where they were intended: to the fallen officers’ families.

Inside, Manos put himself to work. He had no role with the charity but offered to help while Unfred, the treasurer, was busy with an assignment on the crisis management team. Unfred said he wasn’t suspicious of the offer, because at the time he was not actively involved in the guild, and was unaware of any concerns about Manos.

Manos joined with several other officers managing the growing flood of donations; he was responsible for making pickups at the post office.

As the immediate crisis passed, Unfred shifted his focus back to the charity and to the donations. In mid-December, he discovered an unsecured stack of checks in the area where Manos was working.

Manos explained he had set the checks aside to ask permission from donors to use their money for a new endeavor the charity was considering. The children of the four slain officers were set for life, so the new plan was to open a third account dedicated to help future injured and fallen officers and their families.

Unfred said Manos’ explanation made sense, but it didn’t excuse his sloppiness.

Unfred “fired” Manos from the volunteer position, telling him he could have no part in handling money for the charity from that point forward.

“He was pissed,” Unfred recalled, according to his interview transcript.

Court documents detail what happened next.

On Jan. 19, 2010, Manos went to Bank of America and opened a secret account under the guild’s name. He forged Wurts’ signature to do this.

Though not involved with the charity, Manos was able to continue to exploit the blurred line between the charity and the guild. The charity did not establish its own post office box until May 2010, so checks continued to flow through the guild’s post office box — and Manos had the key.

He deposited into his secret account checks totalling $151,000 in about a year’s time. He would spend about $112,000 on personal goods, including through ATM cash withdrawals and online purchases. He spent about $39,000 reimbursing the charity to cover his tracks and to pay guild tax penalties, according to court documents.

Meantime, Wurts was busy, attending public events related to the fallen officers, conducting media interviews and speaking to lawmakers. He no longer was on the charity board.

Other officers began noticing Manos’ extravagant spending after the killings.

Officer Arnold said the “pieces didn’t match” because Manos was pouring a lot of money into personal vehicles even though Manos didn’t work a lot of overtime and his wife didn’t work outside the home.

“Skeeter had a new quad (all-terrain vehicle) and a new trailer and I can’t afford a bunch of toys like that and I have two incomes, and I just don’t understand it,” Arnold told the internal investigator.

Manos continued to handle checks and cash intended for the charity, including some that were mistakenly written to the guild.

One of those checks eventually led to his undoing.

THE UNRAVELING BEGINS

Down in the suburbs of Portland, Kevin Bigler was deeply moved by the Lakewood police tragedy.

The Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy had attended the memorial for the fallen officers at the Tacoma Dome. Bigler, who runs an online side business, commissioned a series of commemorative knives honoring the Lakewood Four, selling them to raise money for the surviving families.

A sheriff's deputy in Clackamas County, Ore., gave Lakewood one of these knives, which were sold in a fundraiser he organized to benefit Lakewood's fallen officer fund. It was connected to an important clue as officers unraveled Skeeter Manos' scheme to steal from the fund.

In November 2010, he sent Lakewood a $5,000 check along with the first knife produced.

The check was made out to the guild. Manos intercepted it and deposited it into his secret account on Dec. 10. Afterward, a fellow officer saw him carrying the donated knife on his uniform.

Bigler saw that his check had been deposited and wondered why he hadn’t received a thank-you letter. He eventually reached out to Unfred, the charity’s treasurer. Bigler wasn’t upset about not being thanked, he told Unfred, but he wanted a receipt so he could write off the charitable donation from his taxes.

Unfred went through a spreadsheet of about 3,000 donation checks received during the past year. He couldn’t find Bigler’s donation.

Unfred emailed Manos and Wurts about the missing check. Manos wrote back that Bigler’s check was made out to the guild; Manos responded that it was meant to go to an event to raise money for a memorial to the fallen officers to be built in front of police headquarters.

Wurts backed Manos’ explanation, Unfred told the investigator.

In an interview with The News Tribune, Chief Farrar said Unfred told him he was “getting the runaround” about the missing check. Farrar said he mentioned to Wurts in passing that Wurts needed to look into it.

“I notified Brian, and Brian, in my opinion, should have run it down, followed up and taken care of it,” Farrar told The News Tribune.

Bigler made a copy of the check and mailed it to Unfred. Though Bigler had made clear to Unfred that he wanted the money to go to the fallen officers’ families, he told Unfred it could be used for the memorial. There was no indication on the check it was meant for the fundraiser.

The Oregon man told The News Tribune in an interview that the situation was odd, but he chalked it up as a mistake.

“With so many people helping out, things happen,” Bigler said. “I understand things happen.”

Unfred was not as forgiving.

He said the charity board discussed requesting an internal investigation over the matter. Unfred said board members agreed it was “dirty,” according to the interview transcript. But they decided there was little to go on because the check was addressed and mailed to the guild and Bigler had given no advance notice to the charity that it was coming.

Unfred emailed Wurts to set up a meeting to discuss the charity board’s concerns and to inform him that the situation had been poorly handled; Unfred also intended to tell him Manos is “freaking slimey.”

Wurts never responded, Unfred told the investigator.

Wurts said in the investigation that he didn’t recall Unfred asking to meet with him; the two spoke several times afterward, Wurts said, and the issue never came up.

Hoffman, who later led the internal investigation, had a similar complaint about Manos at the time, and likewise was met with a baffling response.

Hoffman told The News Tribune that she gave Manos some checks that were delivered to the police station’s front desk. They were made out to the guild and directed to the police memorial. Manos said he didn’t have them.

Hoffman told the newspaper she raised the issue with Wurts, who responded that she needn’t worry; Manos had found the checks.

Later, Wurts disputed that he was ever asked about any missing checks, either by Hoffman or Farrar.

Asked why he defended Manos’ handling of Bigler’s check for the knife fundraiser, Wurts said he would jump to the defense of anyone who was working hard under such tragic circumstances.

“I saw the hours those folks were putting in back there,” he told the internal investigator.

Manos had slipped out of trouble for the knife-fundraiser’s missing check.

It would come up again later, and he wouldn’t be so lucky.

A FAILED RECALL

Officer Jeremy Vahle, former police guild vice president, described as an "attack dog," who eventually found Skeeter Manos' secret bank account.

Inside the police guild, Vahle and other officers who had no contact with the charity were unaware Manos was helping himself to the fallen officer donations.

But Vahle still wanted Manos out as guild treasurer, believing him to be incompetent — or possibly worse.

Vahle began circulating a petition in early 2011 seeking the recall of Manos for failure to monitor cash flow, pay expenses in a timely manner, report the status of guild finances and respond to questions raised about guild finances.

The guild’s bylaws allow a recall election for a guild officer to move ahead if at least 25 percent of active members sign a petition. Twenty-seven members signed the petition, but nine later removed their names. That left Vahle’s initiative unsuccessful.

Allegations later emerged that Wurts used his influence to thwart the petition drive. Arnold told investigators he heard that the guild president asked other officers to remove their names. Arnold said he also overheard Wurts making out Vahle as “the bad guy” who was “stirring the pot” and “always trying to cause problems.”

Officer Gene Sievers said Wurts convinced him and at least one other officer to remove their names from the petition. Sievers said Wurts indicated Vahle was “on a witch hunt.”

“I got to say he’s a hell of a good politician,” Sievers said of Wurts.

Wurts acknowledged to investigators that he called Vahle a “(expletive) stirrer,” but said others were making similar statements. He denied trying to discredit Vahle to get names off the petition, and said he just didn’t like that the rules of a recall election would put Manos at a severe disadvantage. Balloting would be done in secret, and Manos would have no chance to defend himself.

“I said it just doesn’t seem fair to me,” Wurts said.

Wurts told The News Tribune he preferred to keep Manos as treasurer because nobody else wanted the job, and Manos at least was hard working.

Meanwhile, concerned guild members wanted to know more about the guild’s finances. Several officers interviewed during the internal investigation said they received assurances from Wurts that everything was fine. He allegedly told three of them he had talked about the finances with the guild accountant, Roy Ovist, who was also Wurts’ personal accountant.

Arnold said Wurts’ assurances were offered at more than one guild meeting.

“(Manos) would not answer or he would not have the answers, and Brian would immediately jump to his defense and said he spoke to the bookkeeper and that everything’s good,” Arnold told the investigator.

Wurts denied making such statements.

Guild bylaws directed that an internal committee or a professional review its finances annually. In a Nov. 10, 2010, to many people, Wurts suggested that examination was under way. He wrote that he personally reviewed “our monthly statements and year-end reports from our (certified public accountant).”

The internal and forgery investigations turned up no such reports. Ovist, the accountant, said the last dealings he had with the guild were in 2007. Wurts told The News Tribune that he reviewed reports that turned out to be forged by Manos, and they’re now in the hands of federal investigators.

Wurts told investigators the guild had decided years ago to forgo a more in-depth audit because of the cost.

Growing concerns among guild members were aired during their quarterly meeting in early 2011. Wurts directed Manos to publish the annual financial review on the guild website. And guild members unanimously approved a motion to place a breakdown of income and expenses on the website.

Vahle went even further: He forced an audit. He asked to become a so-called “fair share member” under the guild’s bylaws, the first such request in its history. Officers must join the guild under a labor contract, but they can choose to pay only dues directly spent to negotiate and manage the contract.

Vahle’s move required the guild’s books to be audited for the previous year to determine what share of dues were related to the contract.

As time passed, Officer Nick McClelland posted messages on the guild website pressing to see the financial statements. Manos posted back that it would have to wait until the accountant finished the fair share audit.

During McClelland’s next check-in, Wurts emailed that he was frustrated about how long the review was taking.

“I made it clear I wanted this done quickly and am not happy about how long it took the CPA just to get through the basic numbers over the past year,” Wurts wrote on the guild website.

The guild president’s display of impatience didn’t work. About a week later, with the audit still not posted, McClelland called the wait a “joke.” He said it should be simple enough to download the financial statements from the Internet. Manos responded he was having technical issues trying to do that.

Finally, on June 29, Wurts met Vahle in the rear parking lot of police headquarters and delivered the completed audit purportedly done by Ovist, the accountant. Vahle had been expecting a lengthy, detailed document and was angered when he saw seven pages with just one page of financial information.

“What is this?! What happened to the 20-page document I’ve been waiting for?” Vahle said, according to his declaration.

“I don’t know,” Wurts responded, according to Vahle. “That’s what Ovist gave me.”

Wurts denied making this statement.

Vahle later told investigators people inside police headquarters were watching the confrontation on camera because they thought it would turn violent. No punches were thrown, but Vahle seethed.

Other cops had run out of patience, too. Two officers said, they told Wurts directly to stop defending Manos.

“Hey dude, he needs to man up and speak up for himself and take care of this (expletive),” Officer Noah Dier recalled telling Wurts.

Around this time, an old clue became a new lead.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

One day, Vahle and Unfred were commiserating with each other about Manos.

Vahle vented about his unsuccessful recall petition and his general distrust of the guild treasurer. Unfred related his concerns about Manos’ handling of Kevin Bigler’s check from the knife fundraiser a year earlier.

Knife fundraiser? This was the first Vahle had heard about it. He called Bigler and asked him to send another copy of the $5,000 check that had gone missing.

When he got the copy, Vahle keyed on the information showing it had been deposited at Bank of America, where the guild maintained its accounts.

Vahle visited the bank branch and told the teller the $5,000 check had been deposited by the guild but wasn’t showing up in any account records. The teller couldn’t find it in the guild’s three active accounts but located it in another account that had been closed.

It was the account Manos had secretly opened two years earlier.

With that, Manos’ crimes were finally revealed.

On Jan. 20, 2012, Vahle took his evidence to the police unit that investigates internal complaints of misconduct. Chief Farrar was notified two days later.

About that time, Wurts said in his interview, he heard something big was about to happen. Was the chief sick? Was he leaving the department? Was criticism the guild had leveled at the police administration on an unrelated matter coming back to haunt him? He was determined to find out.

Wurts said he and Manos were driving past Lakewood City Hall on their way to a movie on Jan. 23 and noticed the light was on in the office of City Manager Andrew Neiditz.

It was about 10 p.m. Neiditz had just briefed the mayor and deputy mayor on the Manos investigation after a City Council meeting. The third floor was dark. Neiditz was readying to leave when the sudden appearance of Wurts at his doorway startled him.

“The fact that I had … a sensitive conversation just minutes before he appeared made it a bit awkward,” the city manager recalled in investigative documents.

Neiditz didn’t see Manos but said he sensed someone in the hallway outside his office. Wurts later told investigators he didn’t recall where Manos was, but he probably was waiting at the reception area.

The city manager said Wurts was “fishing for information because he knew something was going on,” but Neiditz didn’t divulge anything. Wurts left after about 15 minutes. Wurts told The News Tribune that at the time he knew nothing about Manos being investigated for theft.

More than two weeks later, on Feb. 8, federal agents arrested Manos at Lakewood City Hall. Wurts was placed on paid leave the same day, pending an investigation.

The department fired Manos two days later in accordance with city procedure.

Within the hour, Wurts sent to Manos a text message — submitted as part of the internal investigation — that read in part:

“Be completely upfront, direct and honest with whatever the allegations are. You owe that to your family and to the family of the our fallen and our department cause no matter what the Guild all of us have worked so hard. … Everybody is going to (sic) dragged through the mud and we do not deserve that. I hope what they are talking about is not true but if it is you need to make it right.”

Manos didn’t reply.

Wurts said he fell into depression and was drunk for two weeks.

Months later, Wurts broke down crying after investigators read the text message he sent to Manos.

“It just it was an unbelievable experience,” he said, when asked why he was getting emotional. “It still is. … (I) didn’t do any of this. I would never let somebody do that.”

FORGERY REVEALED

Officer Eric Bell became police guild president after Brian Wurts was suspended. Bell, along with his friend, Officer Jeremy Vahle, grew increasingly frustrated with both Manos and Wurts.

There was one more loose end, and Bell helped tie it up.

Bell became guild president after Wurts was put on leave. Days after Manos’ arrest, Bell was shocked to learn the guild’s one-time accountant, Ovist, hadn’t prepared the guild’s taxes since 2007.

He contacted Wurts. According to Bell’s testimony, Wurts’ immediate response was, “Do you mean the … fair share document was forged?”

But Bell said he hadn’t brought up the fair share audit; he had been talking about taxes.

Wurts denied making this statement. Bell stands by his recollection.

Investigators later learned that the accountant’s signature on the fair-share audit was, in fact, forged. Manos was charged with forgery and identity theft, and currently awaits trial.

But Manos’ alleged deception went even further.

The guild’s attorney, Jeff Julius, said he had email exchanges about the audit with someone he believed to be Ovist. But the accountant said he never wrote the messages. Eventually, officers learned the emails thought to be coming from Ovist came from Manos’ computer.

They also learned the forged audit was removed from the guild website within a day of Manos’ arrest. An Internet check indicated only Wurts or Manos could have removed it.

Guild members said Manos had access to his guild-paid smartphone after his arrest, and wasn’t completely blocked from accessing the guild website until days later.

Wurts said he didn’t remove the audit. He said he also was fooled by the forgery; he told the newspaper he believed he had been communicating with Ovist, unaware it was Manos typing on the other end.

Manos’ arrest in September 2012 on the forgery and identity theft charges came 10 days before he was to begin his theft sentence in federal prison. He was taken into custody at the Great Wolf Lodge in southern Thurston County. His trial is to begin this month. He is being held at the Pierce County Jail.

Prosecutors have offered a nine-month sentence that would be served at the same time as his sentence for the thefts. Manos’ attorney, Bryan Hershman, is weighing the offer but might ask for a dismissal of the case for “vindictive prosecution.”

THE FIRING

Wurts was investigated for possible criminal activity in connection with Manos’ crimes but was never charged.

“There wasn’t enough evidence of criminal conduct that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” deputy prosecuting attorney Phil Sorensen said.

Wurts did eventually lose his job.

Chief Bret Farrar, didn't have a direct role with the charity or fundraising, but says he felt betrayed by his friend, Wurts.

City Manager Neiditz fired Wurts on Dec. 28, 2012, for violating professional standards, concurring with Chief Farrar’s recommendation.

“You have allowed your close personal relationship with Skeeter Manos to cloud your judgment,” Neiditz wrote in Wurts’ termination letter. “However, even the closest of friendships does not adequately explain the lengths you went to protect Manos from the scrutiny and the red flags that others were raising about him.

“Instead, you crossed the line to the point where you became complicit in his misconduct.”

Wurts fought to get his job back, but the guild’s four-member grievance committee declined to take his case to arbitration.

Wurts then took his case directly to the general membership of the guild he once led. The special meeting went on for four hours. The 22 members present voted unanimously not to take Wurts’ case to arbitration, Bell said.

Still, Wurts might not be done.

“I will fight until my name is cleared and justice is done, no officer should have to endure what I have for the past 10 months,” he wrote in a statement provided to The News Tribune shortly after his firing. “Those who know me know I would have taken the guy to jail myself if I had known.”

In his recent interview with The News Tribune, Wurts said he believes his firing was retaliation for the guild filing its first unfair labor practices claim against the police administration.

He also views himself as a fall guy for Manos.

“The department doesn’t like to be embarrassed,” he said, “and Skeeter didn’t get enough time in jail.”

TRUST BETRAYED

Opinions varied within the police department about whether Wurts knew of Manos’ thefts, but most officers interviewed during the internal investigation said they no longer trusted Wurts.

Farrar was friends with Wurts and had put a comforting arm around the guild president after his department’s first press conference after the officers’ murders in 2009. The chief later said he felt betrayed.

“I trusted him 100 percent,” Farrar said. “I trusted him to do the right thing.”

Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar, left, puts his arm around Brian Wurts, president of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild, after they talked to reporters, Monday, Nov. 30, 2009, in Lakewood, Wash. Four Lakewood Police officers were fatally shot Sunday.

In hindsight, Farrar said, an account should have been established so people could donate directly to a bank rather than sending checks to a post office box. But he noted the situation in the wake of the Lakewood police murders was “unprecedented.”

Unfred, the charity treasurer, said the theft was a huge public relations debacle, but the charity weathered the storm. People understand it was one man taking advantage of a tragic situation, Unfred said. The charity has tightened its accounting practices, he said.

Added Jankelson, the charity board volunteer: “We need to move on. We can’t let this guy (Manos) undo what we’re trying to do.”

The charity now manages more than $300,000, which pays for community work and financial assistance for injured and fallen officers and their families, Unfred said. Almost $3 million went to a separate trust fund for the families of the four fallen officers, which will cover health care and college for the officers’ dependents.

Shortly after Wurts was fired, his mother, Virginia, came before the Lakewood City Council to speak about her son. She read a letter she had written to Farrar in May.

Virginia Wurts said her son introduced Manos to her after Manos joined the police force. She said Wurts would have given his life for Manos as he would have for any officer.

“With that kind of trust, it becomes more than a betrayal when your friend and fellow officer chooses to betray that trust,” she said. “It is a grieving and deep loss that cuts to the very core of what we each hold the most dear: those we love and have trusted.”

Christian Hill: 253-274-7390
christian.hill@thenewstribune.com
@tntchill

The documents contain some profanity.

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