Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Officer whistleblower

Suspended Police Officer Scott Tillis listens as his attorney Chet Pleban questions former Police Chief Joe Mokwa under oath last Wednesday.
Photo by Wiley Price


Scott Tillis looked into suspicious towing operations – and is paying for it

By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American

On February 15, 2008, Police Officer Scott Tillis woke to complaints from several of his neighbors in the O’Fallon Place Apartments on the near North Side.

Four of his neighbors – all African-American, like Tillis – had had their cars towed away by S&H Towing the night before.

As a city cop with slightly less than seven years on the force, Tillis was required to live in the city – presumably so he would be accessible to the public he was sworn to protect, such as his neighbors.

His neighbors wanted to know why multiple tow trucks had towed multiple cars from the same apartment complex the night before – and why they couldn’t get their cars back from S&H.

So though Tillis was not on duty and worked in a district that polices a different part of the city, he investigated their complaints, as he testified last Wednesday at a police board trial.

Tillis’ trial was scheduled after he had endured 11 months of unpaid suspension for alleged insubordination – and it started on the date of the 2009 mayoral primary.

Tillis testified that he first went to Central Patrol, to see if there had been a major drug sweep or some other police effort on February 14 that would explain a wholesale towing of vehicles. The dispatcher told him there was not.

This was even more surprising, as he began to check tow logs – and discovered that more than a dozen cars had been towed from his immediate neighborhood in a roughly three-hour spree, all authorized by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

As Tillis checked the entries, he saw that one driver for S&H, Matt Sexton, had signed off on all of the tows. This increased his suspicion, since multiple tow trucks had been reported and it was scarcely possible for one driver to have done that many tows in that short span of time.

Tillis testified that Sexton did not return a call, so he went to interview him at the tow yard on February 16, 2008. Eventually, Tillis spoke with someone identified as Sexton’s supervisor, a former city cop named Greg Shepard.Tillis testified that Shepard asked if he was from Internal Affairs, and when Tillis said he was not, Shepard told him he did not have to answer his questions.

Tillis testified that Shepard told him, “I’m with Joe,” apparently implying a privileged relationship with Police Chief Joe Mokwa.

Mokwa testified under oath that he has known Shepard for 20 years. Mokwa also testified that as police chief he called Shepard once a week and personally visited him at S&H Towing “about six times a year.”

Mokwa also testified that he at times called Shepard personally, as police chief, regarding vehicles that had been towed.

Tillis testified that Shepard told him to get off his property – and said he would call Internal Affairs and tell them about Tillis’ visit.

Someone answering the phone at Metropolitan/S&H Towing yesterday said Shepard would not be in. The call was transferred to another man, who said he had no comment and refused to give his name.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said it does not comment on personnel matters.

‘In cahoots’

Tillis testified that he then went to Internal Affairs, where Sgt. Sheila Person told him they would not investigate the suspiciously towed vehicles.

He testified that he then approached his own command, Lt. Christopher Smith, to tell him he thought something suspicious was going on and they should get a search warrant. He testified that Smith told him he would not authorize the manpower and they would not investigate.

Tillis testified that the next day, February 17, 2008, Lt. Smith told him the department had decided to investigate a report against Tillis of an improperly handled call – though the alleged incident had transpired on December 24, 2007.

Tillis’ attorney, Chet Pleban, had Mokwa examine this incident report, made on January 9, 2008 and confirm that it was unsigned.

It would take another two months for this two-month-old incident to result in disciplinary action, when Tillis was suspended without pay on April 17, 2008.

“I posit that the charges against my client were a pretense to getting rid of this officer,” Pleban argued at the board trial – “a pretense because he rocked the boat regarding S&H Towing.”

After Tillis’ suspension, it took 11 months for his case to come to trial. During that time, Tillis has seen a series of investigative pieces by Jeremy Kohler and Joe Mahr of the Post-Dispatch report a widespread pattern of suspicious towing and profiting off of citizen vehicles by Metropolitan/S&H Towing, much like what he had been investigating on behalf of his neighbors.

The IRS, FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have seized evidence from Metropolitan/S&H Towing.

Mokwa himself resigned July 25, 2008. Mokwa drew the scorn of Pleban when he testified under oath that the towing scandal had no bearing on his resignation. His retirement package included paid legal fees for cases involving the towing scandal.

Tillis, however, was told by his own command and by Internal Affairs that the St. Louis Police Metropolitan Department had no interest in investigating what seemed to a veteran cop like a suspicious towing scam involving its own towing vendor.

Since Tillis was ordered to surrender his gun and badge last April, he has been forbidden from investigating the matter.

Meanwhile, at least one of his neighbors, Nicole Henry, has her car back from S&H Towing, though she said it cost her $500.

“They were giving me the runaround,” she said of S&H, “and the fees just kept adding up.”
She said the car was towed for illegal parking, though she said it wasn’t parked illegally.

The license plates had expired, though that is not grounds for having her vehicle towed.

Asked why she thought her vehicle was towed and why she had to pay $500 to S&H to get it back, Henry said, “They are in cahoots, trying to get money.”

There are no further hearings scheduled in the Tillis case. From here, according to the police department, both attorneys will present written briefs to the hearing officer, Kurt Cummiskey, who then has 30 days to present a report to the police board.

In the meantime, Police Officer Scott Tillis remains suspended without pay.


This story will appear tomorrow in the March 12, 2009 edition of The St. Louis American.

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