Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chief Joe Mokwa, the hot seat sketches

We have here the former top cop for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Joe Mokwa, fidgeting in the hot seat, under direct questioning yesterday by Chet Pleban in a police board trial.

I reported on the trial on deadline for The St. Louis American and posted my story up here as well, and I plan to follow the case of Police Officer Scott Tillis until he receives justice.

His trial was delayed and then rushed into action on a mayoral election day, and then Mokwa's attorney fought like the devil to keep the former police chief from testifying under oath.

We have Pleban's guts and stubbornness to thank for this rare glimpse into what a formerly all-powerful police official will say under oath about matters that are currently under investigation by three federal agencies.

The police board trial is being held in a room at the Police Academy, where the rawest recruits report for duty. They were swarming the place yesterday when Mokwa came in to testify. "Did somebody die?" Pleban asked, bemused, as he came into the hearing room, having passed (as we all did) more scared-stiff cop recruits than one could count.

Just imagine the off-mic tales whispered to these recruits about the Mokwa years.

Word on the street, which does reach us at The St. Louis American, is that it was always a pretty wild ride. I could never gather any evidence to support the allegations, and it is best not to rush allegations about the police chief into print without factual backup, but they were the same allegations - over and over again, from black men of a certain age.

The stories fit an ancient pattern of police work: the squeamish interplay between the good guys and the bad guys; how vice players and vice coppers rub off on each other; how they come to work together, in so many ways.

I still can't prove any of it. Maybe it isn't true.

Yesterday under oath Mokwa denied to ever doing anything wrong regarding suspiciously towed vehicles or disciplinary action against an officer (Scott Tillis) who looked a little too closely into the operations of S&H Towing. S&H is the police board's towing vendor of choice, run by a former City cop (Greg Shepard).

Mokwa testified to having known Shepard for twenty years, to calling him every week, to sometimes calling him personally about a towed vehicle (unusual, to be sure, for the department's chief executive) and to meeting at the tow yard every other month, sometimes with other white shirts, "for coffee".

Maybe that is all true. Maybe a top cop can be that close to a tow yard operator that renews its contract with the police department repeatedly without any competitive bidder - without breaking the law or abusing the public trust.

The circumstantial evidence tends to impress anyone who hears even a portion of it - and there is tremendous mass of it. But circumstantial evidence is not what is needed to bust up an organized criminal relationship - especially if it's one that includes, centrally, the former police chief, who was close with the current mayor, who is running for reelection as the trial of Scott Tillis is getting underway.

Mokwa says he did nothing wrong and isn't even under federal investigation. He even said "gossip" reports to him that he won't be invetsigated by the feds.

Maybe "gossip" is true. But which gossip?

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