Career Death

Keep your mouth shut, keep your job, keep your career.

That's the lesson officers of the Arizona Department of Public Safety can take from the case of a rookie who was fired after a supervisor spiked one of his tickets.

Brent Wyatt, an ex-West Virginian with a military haircut and aquiline profile, won his case against the DPS last month for wrongful termination. He is now richer by $190,000, minus payments to his lawyer.

But he can't seem to land another cop job, just as then-Lieutenant Tim Lane promised he wouldn't be able to do after Wyatt started complaining.

Lane, on the other hand, has since been promoted to commander.

The trial that concluded August 9 exposed the DPS as an agency where ranking authority is to be unquestioned, honesty is a relative term, and internal affairs investigations are used — in the words of one retired officer — like "a hammer."

Said the jury's foreman, "Mistakes were made on both sides. But things went south when he questioned his superiors. Then they went back to cook the performance evaluations."

Wyatt sees himself as a whistle-blower. But Lane may have honestly — albeit incorrectly — believed Wyatt's March 2003 traffic stop of a BMW on Interstate 17 was illegal.

The ticket, for speeding and failure to obey a police officer, had "45" marked in the box for posted speed limit, though the actual speed limit was 65 miles per hour. Records show Lane believed Wyatt had made the stop based on a black-and-yellow advisory speed-limit sign. Wyatt maintains he stopped the car because it was going 70-plus and had swerved in its lane while negotiating the Loop 101 ramp to southbound I-17.

Wyatt said he told the BMW's driver, Michael Slusarek, to get back in his car 12 times before writing him up for "failure to obey." Lane didn't doubt this part of the story. However, records show Lane thought that charge wouldn't hold up because the stop was bad. He said the ticket was the first he'd dismissed in his 22-year career.

No evidence turned up in court records and police investigations that Lane or any other DPS officer knew Slusarek, a local businessman, or his passenger, Phoenix internal medicine physician Wen Zhong.

At the time, though, Wyatt probably had good reason to question how Lane got the ticket erased.

He had gotten into an argument with Slusarek, who said he had friends who were cops. And after Slusarek and Zhong called DPS to complain, one of Wyatt's fellow officers referred to Slusarek as a "bigwig."

Three days later, the ticket was history.

"I just kept thinking about it," Wyatt said in his subtle Southern twang. "'This is not right.'"

He felt sure the ticket was valid and the dismissal had been inappropriate.

Months later, when DPS was trying to determine whether Lane had done anything improper, the agency sought a legal opinion from the Arizona Attorney General's Office about Wyatt's ticket.

"There is no doubt under the law that the stop was valid," Rick Rice, chief counsel of the AG's transportation section, stated in a July 2003 memo to the DPS. "As a former prosecutor, I have handled thousands of speeding citations and have prevailed on many cases much weaker than this one."

Rice also stated that the failure-to-obey citation "would be well-founded if the stated purpose was to protect the driver from nearby traffic." Wyatt said he was trying to protect both himself and the driver from high-speed I-17 traffic.

Suspicious over what had happened, Wyatt began secretly recording his conversations with supervisors. His sergeant, Leland Youngberg, advised him to keep quiet because "how well you suck it up and go on determines how far you go with this agency."

Wyatt said he still wanted to talk to Lane about it. A few days later, Youngberg gave Wyatt his evaluation for the period of December 2002 to February 2003, which was nearly two months overdue.

The evaluation rated Wyatt "below standard," despite DPS policy that requires late evaluations to be marked no less than "standard."

Wyatt teamed up with Sergeant Bill Whalen, a veteran officer — now retired — who sometimes volunteered as an "employee advocate" at the non-union agency.

Whalen, who recently lost a bid for the Arizona Senate to incumbent Jack Harper, directed Wyatt to ask for supporting documentation for the below-standard grade.

Youngberg told Wyatt he could not view the file. A couple of days later, Youngberg called Wyatt in for a meeting, which Wyatt again taped. Youngberg said that if Wyatt told Lane he still thought the Slusarek ticket was valid, it would be his "death warrant."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.