Mayhem in Moab | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Mayhem in Moab 

Drunk cops and a game of beer pong bring police misconduct to light.

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One hot night in southern Utah in July 2015, the thoughts of two off-duty Moab police officers turned to beer. Then-officer Justin Olsen became so drunk, he later told investigators, he could not remember if underage kids were drinking at a neighbor's party he and his fellow officer crashed.

He and off-duty officer Joshua A. Althoff had been partying, too, playing the classic drinking game beer pong, when they'd decided to check on what partying teenagers were doing in a neighbor's garage.

Some of the kids who were there that summer night told investigators in late spring 2016 that Olsen and Althoff joined in on a game of beer pong and were aware that some minors were drinking. But others said that only water was used for the two rounds of pong the cops played, winning two wagers and collecting $40 from the kids.

Olsen claimed he could smell marijuana and, one witness told an investigator, said, "I'm OK with the alcohol but not with the pot." Olsen entered the neighbor's house and showed his badge. He told the boys, an investigator wrote in his report, "Just so you guys know, I am a cop, and if you have drugs, you might want to get rid of them." Olsen and Althoff left with an eighth of an ounce of weed one of the partiers handed over to Olsen.

But when the marijuana went missing and a photo began circulating of one of the officers at the party—captioned "Playing pong with cops ..."—it led to a concerted push against what some Moab residents say is years of public corruption and lax law-enforcement supervision.

Cops have long been too zealous in some areas and too lenient in others, locals complain.

A few months after the infamous beer pong party, another juvenile party involving alcohol and weed highlighted what Grand County attorney Andrew Fitzgerald drily calls "the unorthodox policing" by Olsen, Althoff and a third Moab officer and pal of Althoff's, Steven Risenhoover.

It was the last straw for defense attorney Happy Morgan, one of many in Moab's legal community who was fed up with city administration and the police department for tolerating misconduct by some of their officers. She gave information from juvenile witnesses at the two parties to the FBI, Fitzgerald and Grand County Sheriff Steve White.

The FBI, the State Bureau of Investigation, Peace Officer Standards and Training, the Utah County Sheriff's Office, the Vernal Police Department, the Grand County Attorney's Office and the Grand County Sheriff's Office have all scrutinized the activities of individual Moab officers and their department over different periods of time since April 2016. As a result of what FBI spokesperson Sandra Barker calls its "review," the FBI decided there weren't federal charges, but passed along its file to the state.

In August and September 2016, Fitzgerald sent three explosive letters addressed to the chief of the police department, advising that he could not use four officers—Althoff, Olsen, Risenhoover and veteran Shaun Hansen—on the stand because he did not view them as credible witnesses.

Through an open-records request, City Weekly sought the officers' discipline files, two internal affairs reports and details of work done on police employee issues by a Salt Lake City law firm that billed Moab City close to $60,000 in 2016 on cop matters. These requests were denied. Sources provided the two internal-affairs reports and copies of Fitzgerald's letters. Fitzgerald confirmed the authenticity of his letters and the investigation documents.

Since the probe began, Moab has lost a third of its police. Althoff and Olsen resigned in August, rendering the investigations into their misconduct moot and "the charges on which the disciplinary actions were based [...] not sustained," wrote City Recorder Rachel Stenta in her denial of City Weekly's request for paperwork. Longtime Chief Mike Navarre abruptly resigned on Sept. 20, 2016. Seven days later, Risenhoover and veteran narcotics investigator Hansen were put on paid administrative leave while they were investigated. As of press time, they remain on paid leave pending the result of the investigation.

Criminal cases also bit the dust. According to Moab City, at least 15 cases—all linked to the officers, excluding Hansen—have been dismissed by the city prosecutor and the county prosecutor, with multiple sources in Moab putting it as high as 40 dismissals.

Officers Hansen, Olsen, Risenhoover and former Chief Navarre could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.

Morgan declined to comment, citing a request by Grand County Sheriff Steve White not to talk to the media as she might be a witness in future prosecutions.

Moab City also declined to comment, citing pending investigations, though interim city manager David Everitt says in a mid-December 2016 interview that Moab "was due to have a real in-depth self-evaluation around how they do business as a police department."

Fitzgerald declined to discuss specifics of the officers' misconduct because of pending investigations. But he would talk about what he sees as a bigger issue—the city government's tacit acceptance of law enforcement corruption, going back years.

"It appeared to me the city wasn't taking steps to address these issues. In fact, it seemed to me they put stumbling blocks in the way," frustrations, he adds, that his office has witnessed in case work for several years. Fitzgerald's anger rises as he talks. Members of his community, he says, "have known about some of the things that have gone on," with regards to misbehavior by officers, "for many years before I was county attorney."

But such concerns, when raised with the city, have been "buried," he argues.

Everitt says he can't speak to historical issues, but notes that when Fitzgerald's letters arrived the day after Navarre retired, Mayor David Sakrison and interim Chief Steve Ross "took them seriously," and investigations ensued. "At this point, to my knowledge, every officer that the DA and others in the community have had demonstrable issues with have either resigned or are subject to [internal-affairs] investigations." He adds that after local and state investigations are concluded, "the city will act swiftly to adjudicate any findings."

Fitzgerald hopes that recent events in which he has played a key role will instill confidence in Moab's residents to at least come forward with their concerns, overcoming fears that have kept many silent for some time.

WHEN BORED, PARTY
Moab attracts more than a million visitors annually, thanks to the majesty of two neighboring national parks. Old-timers recall the boom-and-bust cycles of uranium mining and John Wayne filming Westerns there, while recent arrivals talk of trying to protect the legacy of environmental activist and writer Edward Abbey. At its heart, it's a small town, with a population of just 5,200.

"Not a whole lot to do here for the youth," says 20-year-old Tenaya Vanzandt, who grew up there. "Stay at home and be bored, or get yourself into trouble."

On Feb. 12, 2016, trouble came to the single-wide trailer she shared with her then-partner, 22-year-old Sabra Cordingley, and friend Malina Bohannon.

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Officer Risenhoover was finishing dinner at Denny's on the northern outskirts of Moab with Olsen and two Grand County and San Juan sheriff deputies around 11 p.m. when he got a call from Althoff about a party at the Grand Oasis trailer park. Althoff was off-duty and wanted to remain anonymous, Olsen told a 7th District Court in Moab on April 5, 2016.

"There was a lot of underage kids with weed, that's the word I got," Risenhoover told the Moab court that day. He said he would not have revealed that Althoff was the tipster, if Olsen hadn't already outed him in his earlier testimony. "I'll trust my life with him, so I'll trust a tip," Risenhoover said about Althoff.

Althoff knew about the party because he'd picked up a friend there—19-year-old Bohannon. He'd taken Bohannon to her mother's at Malina's request. Unbeknownst to Althoff, she went back to the party after he dropped her off and was there when four cops surrounded the trailer.

Olsen told the court, he could smell "the odor of the burnt marijuana" and alcohol, and "hear a lot of kids running inside." Then, he continued, someone opened the door and a cloud of marijuana smoke "came out of the house." The officers gathered the 21 people, at least 12 of whom were juveniles. A son of the San Juan deputy was found hiding in a back room.

Olsen made a deal with the group. If they told him the truth about whether they'd been drinking and their ages, he'd let them go. He told them, he testified, "if they're honest with me, I wasn't going to cite them."

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Cordingley, however, was arrested and charged with possession, a second-degree felony, and 14 misdemeanors relating to pot and alcohol distribution to minors. Vanzandt and Bohannon were cited for possession. Everyone else under 18 was cut loose—including three teenagers who were under the supervision of the juvenile court.

When Fitzgerald first learned about the arrests, he wrote in a formal letter to Chief Ross in September 2016, he was shocked that "Officers Risenhoover, Althoff and Olsen made no arrests on any of the 12 to 18 juveniles and gathered no evidence. Some of the juveniles present at the party were on juvenile probation and juvenile probation should have been consulted."

He dismissed the charges against Cordingley after the April 5, 2016, hearing, where Olsen and Risenhoover testified. "In that hearing there were a number of anomalies that suggested not only irregularities in the case but also gave rise to question whether the officer's testimony was truthful and whether certain facts were omitted," Fitzgerald wrote in a separate August 2016 letter to then-Chief Navarre.

Risenhoover had testified at that hearing "that he thought as an officer he had the discretion not to make arrests and take evidence," Fitzgerald wrote in his Ross letter. "Clearly, Officer Risenhoover is wrong on this account."

It was likely, he continued, "that the information presented to the judge for his ruling [by officers testifying] could not be relied upon for its veracity and it is unlikely that Officer Risenhoover did not know of the inaccuracies and omitted facts and the improprieties of Officer Olsen and Althoff."

Bohannon was in court for the hearing and felt deeply betrayed when she learned that Althoff had informed on her party. She texted him that "he was the shittiest friend ever." Althoff said he "didn't want to lose me as a friend," Bohannon says, and "he tried to fix the charges."

While prosecutor Fitzgerald describes her as Althoff's "girlfriend" in one of his letters to the police department, Althoff says she was his confidential informant. Bohannon says neither is correct. She and the officer had "flirted majorly, nothing more," she says.

Althoff called city prosecutor Marcus Gilson and told him Bohannon was his confidential informant and to drop the charges. Althoff says Gilson told him he would have to drop the charges against Vanzandt then, too. Both were dismissed on April 15. Gilson declined to comment for this story.

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WHEN THE FEDS COME TO TOWN
When FBI Agent Greg Rogers came to Moab on April 12, 2016, he had a list of juvenile witnesses from the two parties to interview. The feds weren't the only ones poking around, although the sequence of events remains murky.

On April 11, according to a State Bureau of Investigation report, Navarre placed Risenhoover on paid administrative leave after he learned from the city's HR department that the IRS had begun garnishing his wages for not paying taxes. The next day, then-Lt. Steve Ross asked the state bureau's Maj. Brian Redd to investigate Risenhoover.

The day after Rogers began knocking on doors, Lt. Ross reached out to the Utah County Sheriff's Office to request they investigate Olsen and Althoff over the beer pong incident. Sheriff James O. Tracey authorized both an internal affairs "assist" and a criminal investigation.

According to the state bureau report into Risenhoover, for approximately a decade, he was a "tax protester" who had "not filed his personal income taxes since before 2005." In his personnel file, Moab City's HR officer had found a document that outlined "his belief that payment of individual taxes is voluntary, and that the U.S. Government has no legal authority to collect income taxes from its citizens," an investigator wrote.

Risenhoover was in arrears "north of 700,000," his tax attorney told investigators, although she believed that figure was "over-inflated." The IRS told the investigators that Risenhoover wasn't being investigated criminally. The state bureau report shows that Risenhoover was working with the IRS to "become compliant," and ultimately intended to "take out a personal loan to get caught up on his back taxes."

Navarre ruled his officer "exonerated"—meaning that the allegations, while true, were "lawful and reasonable"—of three policy and procedure violations the bureau had investigated.

HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY
Risenhoover emerged from the investigation unscathed, at least initially, but Althoff and Olsen were not so lucky.

Investigators heard conflicting stories from underage and adult witnesses about whether the off-duty cops had drank alcohol with them or had played a version of beer pong that used water instead of beer.

One witness, 17-year-old Gage Moore, agreed to be interviewed by a City Weekly reporter in the presence of his father, Mark Moore. He recalls that Olsen and Althoff knocked and came in. "They were being drunken assholes," he says. When one of them saw a kid was filming them, they told him to put the phone away. Gage Moore recalls one saying, "We're just here to have fun, not here to get you in trouble or us."

What did emerge was that some marijuana had been confiscated by Olsen. According to the Utah County report into the incident, the weed's owner said that Olsen told him that "nobody was going to get in trouble for the marijuana and he wasn't going to do a report or anything."

Olsen told investigators he gave it to Althoff, but Althoff said he never saw any pot, only a baggie with a pipe in it, which he destroyed without booking it into evidence—something he says a sergeant, whom he declines to name, taught officers as unwritten practice.

Under what's known as the Garrity warning, when cops are under investigation, they are required to be interviewed, "with the understanding that failure to answer questions, or to be untruthful could be grounds for discipline," a state bureau investigator explained in his report on Risenhoover.

Olsen told the investigators during his Garrity interview that he identified himself as a cop to the minors and advised them to get rid of any pot they had. When one handed some over, he told them, in similar fashion to what he would later do at the trailer park, "Because you're honest, I am not going to tell your parents." Olsen said he gave the marijuana to Althoff on the sidewalk when the latter was leaving.

Because of the officers' conflicting stories, they took polygraphs on May 25, 2016. Olsen failed the second half of the test, which related to questions about juveniles drinking, while Althoff failed all his questions.

Althoff was called back in for an interview, where he told investigators, "If I made any mistakes, it would be taking the marijuana and the pipe from Officer Olsen." He clarified his statement by adding that he only included marijuana because "everyone is telling me I did it, but it doesn't mean I did."

The investigator concluded, "Ultimately, I have found no substantial evidence to show that Officers Althoff or Olsen contributed to the delinquency of a minor or supplied alcohol to a minor." In bold at the end of the report, beneath several sentences about the fate of the marijuana, he wrote, "Sideline Issue of Concern Expressed to the Administration."

One criminal issue the investigators didn't comment on was "a possible witness tampering incident" referenced by Lt. Ross in a memo at the end of the Utah County report involving Althoff and a juvenile at the party. Althoff had pulled over the youth in December 2015, and while the officer said the youth had been driving like a "jackass," the juvenile had alleged that Althoff warned him that if he didn't stop talking to people about the party, "things would be changing," Moab Sgt. Craig Shumway wrote in a separate memo included in the report. The youth "basically described Althoff as saying 'shut up or else.'"

Althoff says he was denied a copy of the investigative report when he made an open-records request for it. He says both he and Olsen felt that the investigation into the "pong" party "was weird towards the second interview. They didn't want us to be innocent." He believes Navarre feared the Grand County Sheriff's Office was investigating him, so he offered Althoff's and Olsen's scalps instead.

"I feel like Justin Olsen and I were scapegoats to deflect attention from the chief and the city manager," he says. "The investigation was found untrue or unfounded, so they decided to write us up for policy violations."

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"EXIT PLAN"
In the weeks after the internal-affairs investigation was concluded in July 2016, the two officers continued on patrol.

Gage Moore says he was stopped by Althoff four times after he was interviewed by the FBI and subsequently for the internal-affairs investigation, an interview conducted by Utah County investigators at Moab PD.

After the first time his son was pulled over, Mark Moore called a friend at the police department who told him he had warned the officers to stay away from witnesses. But the Moores say that Althoff continued to dog Gage Moore, getting "in his face" at a gas station shortly before the midnight curfew.

Moore took his grievances over his son to then-city manager, Rebecca Davidson, who, he says, "had no idea what was going on."

When Davidson learned of the harassment, she says she told staff that the next time Althoff did it, he should be arrested, particularly given that he had received a written warning to stay away from witnesses, she says.

"That's totally false," Althoff says. They had asked to be taken off patrol during the investigation, only for that request to be denied. While they were under investigation, he and Olsen were told to have no dealings with anyone from the party, but the department would not tell them who the investigators were talking to, "so we had to go on our memory," as to who had attended the neighboring party.

When Althoff dealt with Gage Moore, he says, "I was always nice to him, I never went near him." He says on one occasion that he pulled him over unknowingly, he called for another officer to deal with him.

"They treated us worse than common criminals," Althoff claims. "We had less rights than people actually breaking the law."

On July 22, Navarre notified both officers that they faced pre-termination hearings. Through an open-records request, City Weekly obtained two documents relating to the officers' departures from the Moab PD. On the documents, Navarre wrote that Althoff resigned a month after the pre-termination notice "for personal reasons," and Olsen followed suit on Aug. 30, 2016.

There was no final decision by Navarre regarding the allegations of police misconduct against either man.

The allegations against Olsen were not sustained, Navarre wrote, and the findings from the investigation that he "relied on" to issue his pre-termination notice, did not relate to Olsen's "truthfulness, credibility or mishandling of evidence."

Navarre wrote that Althoff, however, "had been untruthful during his interviews with the investigator." Because Althoff resigned, he forwent challenging allegations of "untruthfulness" that emerged from the internal-affairs investigation. "As a result, there has not been, and there will not be, any final and conclusive adjudication of those findings," Navarre wrote.

Less than a month after Althoff and Olsen left the force, Chief Navarre cleaned out his own desk.

He'd announced his intention to resign in May, but his sudden departure came as a surprise to those in the department. No replacement has yet been found, though months before, Navarre stressed the need for an "exit plan" that would leave Moab "under the watchful eye of a competent new Chief of Police."

Interim City Manager Everitt wrote in an email in response to questions, that, "I understand the Chief elected to postpone his resignation for a few months, particularly given the active investigations and staff turnover happening at that time." As to why no replacement had been found as the chief intended, Everitt wrote, "I do not know."

ISSUES OF TRUST
Whatever the extent of the power vacuum Navarre left behind, one person saw an immediate opportunity. The day after Navarre disappeared from his office, Grand County prosecutor Fitzgerald sent two letters to acting chief Ross.

The first dealt with Risenhoover. It highlighted multiple issues, beginning with the investigation into his non-payment of taxes, which "could be used to impeach Officer Risenhoover" in court. He brought up a DMV hearing where the officer told Fitzgerald's office of his intention to bury a toxicology report that showed a defendant was negative for "intoxicating substances." And then there was the threat Risenhoover had made regarding defense attorney Happy Morgan. He told a fireman that he was determined to see Morgan and her assistant behind bars for their role in the Althoff and Olsen investigations.

It's little wonder, Fitzgerald says, that Moab residents are reluctant to complain about law enforcement, given that even a senior attorney such as Morgan can find herself the subject of threats from an officer. "If an attorney needs to be afraid of being retaliated against, how are other citizens going to feel who are not officers of the court?" Fitzgerald asks.

In a second letter to Ross the same day, Fitzgerald focused on veteran Officer Shaun Hansen. Hansen had played a key role in a multi-agency drug task force as an undercover agent for some years, until other agencies decided they wanted out if Hansen continued as a part of it. "The reasoning behind task force member's exclusion is not certain; however, it appears that it is an issue of trust," Fitzgerald wrote.

Similar questions hung over Hansen due to his wife's 2012 drug possession convictions relating to forging prescriptions at work to obtain narcotics. In late 2015, she was also charged with theft. "Because Moab is a small town, it is reasonable that a jury member and other members of the community would consider Officer Hansen's reputation to be in question due to the marital association," Fitzgerald wrote.

Fitzgerald found that Hansen, much like Risenhoover, could not be relied upon to be a credible witness, and also urged "additional inquiry" into the "reluctance of other law enforcement agencies to work" with him.

Five days after the letters were dispatched, Hansen and Risenhoover were put on paid leave while Vernal Police Department conducted an internal-affairs investigation. Vernal PD did not respond to a request for comment.

A NEW ERA
While the four men in the crosshairs of various investigations await their outcomes, Althoff, for one, is working for both UPS and the City Market on Main Street. He's waiting to see what will happen to his peace officer certification. Peace Officer Standards and Training has to wait for the State Bureau of Investigation to finish its investigation, so they can address whether he is fit to be a cop at another police department.

However, that wait was rudely interrupted on Jan. 25, 2017, when Grand County filed a slew of charges against Althoff in both Moab justice court and Grand County district court. The two cases are not connected to the ongoing State Bureau of Investigation probe.

He faces three misdemeanor counts in justice court, including threat of violence, relating to an altercation outside a bar in Moab in early August 2016, while he was still on administrative leave prior to resigning from the force. In district court, he faces six domestic violence-related misdemeanors stemming from a late September 2016 argument with his wife, including threatening with or using a dangerous weapon in a fight and assault.

Althoff declined to comment on the charges.

His former friend Malina Bohannon wants to leave Moab behind, she says, perhaps travel to South America. "I want to start fresh, I want to go see big cities," she says.

Everitt acknowledges that recent events have "had a major impact on the department, and provided an opportunity to recalibrate how the department does business." After finding the city paid their officers 20 percent less than cops in other towns, their hourly salary rate was bumped up $3 to $19.85 an hour.

"I feel strongly that the personnel we have now in the police department are focused on performance, ready to move forward and recognize that it's a different era for the Moab Police Department," Everitt says. "The door's open, you can go in and out there now. It's not 'us versus the rest of the town.'"

Moab council member Rani Derasary finds optimism in how Chief Ross is working to improve the relationship between his department and the community, through initiatives such as lunching with kids or meeting community members. Her fear is that investigations "tarnish the whole department. My priorities are to have an approachable force that communicates well with the community, and that officers have what they feel they need to do the job well."

Fitzgerald hopes that the layer of unease and fear that has laid over his town for so long might start to be dissipated by the diligent work of state investigators trying to trace the fires that have caused so much smoke.

"It's unacceptable and harmful to our community that officers are behaving badly, breaking the public trust, breaking the law and harassing the public," he says. "As long as I am around, that behavior won't be tolerated. I hope through this process, the community feels like they can come forward with information regarding crime or bad behavior by officers and know they will be protected."


Letters from the Grand County Attorney to Moab PD can be found here. Internal investigation on Steve Risenhoover here. You can read the County Sheriff's Office internal investigation into Althoff and Olsen below.

Utah County Sheriff's Office investigation into officers Josh Althoff and Justin Olsen by City Weekly on Scribd

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