Commonwealth Journal

December 21, 2013

Wood: Molen was ‘inactive’ during most of probe

by Jeff Neal
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — For months, Pulaski County Sheriff Todd Wood has heard the murmurs — and the roars — that he mishandled former Deputy Steve Molen by allowing him to remain on “active duty” while Molen was the target of a federal investigation.

Now that Molen has entered into a plea agreement and is no longer a member of Wood’s department, the sheriff wants to set the record straight.

In documentation provided to the Commonwealth Journal last week, Wood showed that Molen was “inactive” for nearly 13 of the 15 months that he was either being investigated or under indictment.

Molen was facing a total of three federal civil rights charges after he allegedly used excessive force against three victims while “acting under the color of law” in incidents from 2008, 2009, and 2011.

Late last month, Molen entered into a plea deal with prosecutors in Western District Court. In exchange for pleading guilty to one count in the Western District, the two cases in the Eastern District were dropped. Molen was sentenced to six months of home incarceration and immediately resigned from his position with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s just been so much misinformation and speculation out there revolving around the Molen case,” said Wood. “Usually we don’t respond to negative comments or negative politics ... but we felt the people of Pulaski County ought to know how this was handled.”

Wood said he was informed by the U.S. Attorneys Office in London in September 2012 that Molen was the target of a federal investigation. Both he and Chief Deputy Larry Wesley were subpoenaed to testify and turn over documents relating to Molen.

“They wanted records and documents pertaining to Molen’s arrests for three or four years and we provided them,” Wood said. “We cooperated fully with the investigation at all times.”

According to internal memos from Wood to Wesley and Molen dated Oct. 1, 2012, Molen was moved from his role as a street deputy on third shift to the Criminal Investigation Division on Oct. 2, 2012.

“(Molen) handled property and made trips back and forth to the state crime lab,” Wood said. “He did some essential duties ... but he was not answering calls.”

In mid-December 2012, Molen was put back on the road for a two-week period to alleviate pressure on the department caused by vacations around the holidays. During those two weeks, Molen worked during the day hours and was supervised directly by Wood and Wesley.

“He worked 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. under my supervision and there were no incidents during those two weeks,” Wood said. “It was temporary because we had so many people taking time off during December.”

After moving back to CID for a couple of months, the decision was made in late February 2013 to shift Molen back to his original patrol duties. That move was effective on March 3, 2013.

“Early in the year we have deputies in training and it really takes its toll on our scheduling. We also had a lieutenant retire, so we were a little short-handed — more so than usual,” Wood said. “We had not heard a word from the U.S. Attorneys Office for months — we had no idea if the investigation was ongoing or if it had been dropped altogether.

“So we made the decision — after much discussion with our legal division— to put Molen back on the street,” Wood continued.

Molen’s move back to his original shift didn’t last long. In April 2013, Molen was indicted in the Eastern District on two counts of Civil Rights violations.

“We couldn’t take Molen off the street immediately after the indictment because it would have left us short-handed,” Wood said. “We had another deputy doing civil duties but we put him through an accelerated field training program to get him ready.”

That deputy was moved to Molen’s shift in early June, and Molen was assigned to the department’s Civil Division. Molen remained there until he resigned last month.

“(Molen) again handled a lot of important duties in the Civil Division ... eviction notices, funeral escorts, bank escorts,” Wood said. “All of those duties are essential and very significant. But he drove an unmarked SUV and didn’t respond to calls. He was essentially inactive, in terms of law enforcement, for the final five or six months he was employed here.

“Of course we could have sent him home with pay when the indictment came down,” Wood added. “But we made the decision to keep him working because, quite frankly, we needed the manpower. We have a big county to cover and our deputies answer more than 1,000 calls each per year. We owe it to the citizens to remain fully staffed.”

Wood also said there was a “presumption of innocence” in Molen’s case.

“In our legal system, anyone who has been accused of a crime is presumed innocent until the case is resolved,” Wood said. “Molen deserved that same presumption of innocence.

“I said early on I felt like (Molen) would be acquitted of the original two cases from the Eastern District,” Wood added. “Based on everything I knew about those cases, I felt like he was innocent. And after all was said and done, those two cases were dropped.”

The fact that those two cases got dropped perturbed U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, who scolded everyone from U.S. prosecutors to Wood himself for the handling of the case, in an order filed in the Eastern District earlier this month.

“There is no indication that any internal action was taken by Molen’s employer to correct or punish this behavior,” said Reeves. “And based upon other evidence the government would seek to introduce at trial, it would appear that (Molen) engaged in similar alleged conduct over an extended period of time.”

Reeves’ words left Wood confused.

“I never discussed the case with Judge Reeves; he never asked me how we handled this case internally,” Wood said. “The truth is, I never received any complaint from any of the parties involved in the indictments. No one came to me and said they had a problem with Molen.

“We do conduct our own internal investigations — they’re handled by Chief Wesley, who has 40 years experience in law enforcement,” Wood added. “But when we found out there was already a federal investigation underway, it seemed highly inappropriate to open our own investigation.”

Wood seems to understand that there might be issues with public trust after such a high-profile case. It’s that trust he wants to restore.

“(Molen) has taken responsibility for his actions and he’s paying a steep price,” Wood said. “These issues were physical in nature and very serious — we certainly take these matters seriously.

“The men and women of this department have tough jobs to do ... dangerous jobs to do,” Wood added. “I can tell the people of Pulaski County that we have tremendous people in this office who are protecting them and will continue to serve and protect them.

“If there’s ever an issue that anyone needs to discuss with me, just call me or come see me,” Wood continued. “I have an open-door policy for everyone in this county.”