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Battle lines deepen in Moab over controversial police officer's return to duty.

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  • Stephen Dark

In mid-May, Officer Steven Risenhoover returned to patrolling the streets of southern Utah tourist mecca, Moab, after a year on administrative leave.

Of the four Moab officers whom Grand County prosecutor Andrew Fitzgerald complained to the city about last fall, Risenhoover is the only one still on the force. Former officers Joshua Althoff and Justin Olsen both resigned last summer. Althoff since has been hit with multiple charges, including domestic violence and obstruction of justice. Veteran narcotics officer Shaun Hansen, the fourth officer in Fitzgerald's crosshairs, retired from the force with benefits, Moab City Manager David Everitt says.

The Feb. 2 City Weekly cover story "Mayhem in Moab" looked at multiple investigations into Moab PD at the county, state and federal levels. Interviews with residents and members of the local legal community revealed a department in a state of crisis, beset by a culture that is poorly supervised at best, and where some officers felt they could act outside the law. Everitt says that's all in the past. But now, in its place, a confrontation has emerged between Fitzgerald and the city over Risenhoover—and neither party is backing down.

The controversy stems from Moab's request to Vernal Police Department for an internal-affairs investigation into five allegations made by Fitzgerald against Risenhoover in September 2016. Those assertions claim that Risenhoover, before he was a cop, did not pay taxes totaling over $4 million during 11 years because he viewed taxation as unconstitutional, and that he threatened to send defense attorney Happy Morgan and her paralegal, Crystal Alvarez, to prison. In response to a call and text seeking comment, Risenhoover referred all inquiries to his attorney.

Everitt says the Vernal investigators found all the allegations "unfounded." From the city's perspective, he says, "there's no reason or evidence to withhold him from being a fully active police officer."

Vernal's Detective Sgt. Shawn Lewis says he and a second officer substantiated an allegation relating to a May 2016 state investigation into the tax issues only because Risenhoover already admitted it. When it came to their own investigation, "we closed it out," Lewis says. "There was nothing for us to investigate." That was the same with the allegation that he threatened Morgan. Since it had already been investigated by a sergeant at Moab PD, Lewis says there was essentially nothing for them to do. Overall, Lewis says Moab PD's policies were out of date and his job simply was to investigate if Risenhoover's actions had violated those policies. Among the remaining allegations, they found no policy violations.

In a five-page letter dated May 8, 2017, to interim Moab PD Chief Steve Ross, Fitzgerald took issue with the city's decision to put Risenhoover back out on the street: "This proposed action is not only problematic, but it puts the public and the Moab Police Department in jeopardy," the prosecutor wrote. He also labeled the Vernal IA probe as "incomplete" and complained that the investigators had failed to interview six key witnesses. "The lack of interviews of critical witnesses is quite simply poor investigatory work." He told the city he would dismiss any case investigated by Risenhoover. In his letter, he noted that it "is absolutely unacceptable" that a crime victim could not get justice because Risenhoover's "tax evasion history" opened the door to him being viewed as a "non-credible witness" by jurors.

Risenhoover's attorney Bret Rawson says he and his client "agree with the city of Moab. He isn't impaired to do his job and we take great issue with the arbitrary decision Mr. Fitzgerald made to suggest he wouldn't accept Officer Risenhoover's cases. I would add that it's ridiculous a tax issue—especially one that's being dealt with appropriately by the IRS—would lead anyone to conclude a police officer would not be able to do his job."

If Fitzgerald wanted to blame his department, Lewis says "that's fine. We can only do so much and work with what we have." His department did a "fine investigation," he says. "I'm sorry Mr. Fitzgerald doesn't like the results."

On May 9, 2017, Risenhoover filed a notice of a potential lawsuit against both Fitzgerald and Grand County Sheriff Steve White over claims they sought, along with defense attorney Happy Morgan, to stop him from working as a cop. Rawson wouldn't comment on the pending litigation.

Salt Lake City civil attorney Heather White is representing Grand County. In a statement, White wrote, "Office Risenhoover's allegation that Mr. Fitzgerald violated his constitutional rights by fulfilling Mr. Fitzgerald's Brady/Giglio obligations shows his failure to understand the nature of that duty." Brady/Giglio refers to federal laws that require a prosecutor to disclose evidence that "tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense, which includes evidence related to an officer's truth and veracity."

Everitt says Fitzgerald's intention to dismiss any class A misdemeanor or felony cases that Risenhoover might file puts them in "a very difficult place. We have an obligation to return Officer Risenhoover to work. We are working to figure out the best way to deploy him as a fully vested officer to minimize that chance." The city's justice court prosecutor, Chad Woolley, doesn't share Fitzgerald's concern, Everitt notes.

Woolley says, "I'm not prepared to say that Risenhoover's actions have caused me to believe that he is a witness that can't be trusted." That said, he does think information might have to be disclosed to the defense, but only on a case-by-case basis.

If Fitzgerald and Vernal PD vehemently disagree on the quality and depth of the investigation, Vernal's Lewis agrees with Fitzgerald that "there is a Brady issue there," regarding Risenhoover's unpaid-taxes history. But, he says, "that's a battle for" the city and the prosecutor to fight. Indeed, in the IA, the officers wrote, "This is clearly an ethics and an integrity issue that must be addressed by the department and the prosecuting attorney."

While the problems surrounding Risenhoover's reinstatement for both the city and the county attorney seem intractable, a surprise twist in the quest to find a replacement for former Moab PD Chief Mike Navarre might push the back-and-forth into the shadows.

Several sources confirmed that Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder was a late-entry candidate for the position of chief, which until then had come down to a shortlist of two serving chiefs—one from Parowan, Utah, and the other New Mexico. That shortlist had been reached after vetting by what Fitzgerald calls "a large committee." Winder did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"Neither candidate was an overwhelming pick," Everitt says, but declined to comment on whether Winder also was in the running.

"I thought both of them would have set the bar so much higher," Fitzgerald says. He adds he's "a little nervous" that, without the committee's involvement, an unidentified new candidate has emerged.

Fitzgerald is pleased that three of the officers he had issues with are gone, but he views Risenhoover's reinstatement as the city "taking a step back." He says he invested a year into trying to address issues relating to the trustworthiness of some officers. "It just seems like the city is still rather resistant to fix the problem. They owe it to the community to ensure the highest level of law enforcement and integrity, and ignoring their county attorney is, I think, absolutely ridiculous."

Everitt finds it odd that, he says, Fitzgerald "does not respect that process" the city and Vernal undertook to address his allegations. "I feel it's insulting to people who have been working so hard—police officers and Chief Ross, in particular. I think he does a disservice to Moab PD with what's starting to feel like a witch hunt."

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