Officer Down

Seven years ago Tony DiIoia was a bright-eyed Minneapolis rookie. Then came the beatings, the lawsuits, and the pink slip.

As he relates the details of his professional decline, Anthony DiIoia looks like his shoes might be too tight. Sitting bolt upright in a plastic chair in a nearly empty suburban food court, he flashes an occasional bashful smile, but his dark brown eyes remain perpetually rueful. And while his jock-at-the-mall attire--jeans, fitted baseball cap, green jersey with a cursive "Tony" stitched on the chest--fits the 32-year-old's boyish manner, he doesn't seem quite comfortable in it. He'd rather be wearing a uniform.

DiIoia can't pinpoint the moment when things started to go seriously wrong. But many of the people who've become familiar with his career--attorneys, plaintiffs, fellow cops--figure Thanksgiving 1997 is as good a guess as any. He was still thrilled with his job back then, enough to pull a holiday shift patrolling the east-metro suburb of Afton, an affluent and quiet town of 2,900 that contracts with the Washington County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services. He had signed on as a deputy in his home county 11 months earlier, following a four-year stint as a Minneapolis cop.

As DiIoia tells it, on that Thanksgiving he was making his usual late-shift rounds when he detected a spotlight in a field near the intersection of 45th Avenue and Pasture Ridge Road. There had been reports of poaching in the area, so he figured that someone was shining deer. In short order he spotted a pickup truck, minus license plates, parked by the edge of the road. Immediately suspicious, he radioed his whereabouts to the dispatcher and set out to investigate. "I pulled in behind the truck. I opened my door, I stepped out," he says, pausing for a beat. "And that's all I remember."

Woodbury police found DiIoia a few minutes after receiving an "officer down" call--a call he says he has no recollection of making. He awoke in the ambulance with his eyes swollen shut and his shoulder throbbing from a torn rotator cuff.

For two days the deputy remained at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, recovering from his injuries and trying to make sense of the incident. He now theorizes that someone ambushed him, maybe whacked him with a two-by-four in the back of the head as he stepped from his squad car. He says he vaguely recalls seeing two men in the truck, but doesn't remember faces or other features that might help identify them.

The episode made the papers and the TV news. Washington County sheriff James Frank issued pleas for help from the public. A reward was promised. Early on, the sheriff's department announced that there were "some four-star leads." Yet the investigation never led to an arrest. It was a curious and relatively unusual outcome for a crime committed against a lawman, and the case spawned a spate of speculation--much of it unflattering to DiIoia. Maybe, the rumormongers suggested, the deputy had been targeted by local vigilantes sick of his overzealous policing. Perhaps some enemy from his days as a Minneapolis cop had come out to settle an old score. Or maybe he'd faked the attack.

Sheriff Frank has heard the stories. A former lieutenant with the St. Paul Police Department elected to his current office five years ago, Frank is circumspect in discussing DiIoia's brief and troubled career in Washington County: Pending litigation and data-privacy concerns, he says, constrain what he can disclose. "[DiIoia] says he could not identify who assaulted him," he offers carefully, "and the people who assaulted him have never come forward. I think there are people who believe that what he reported was not accurate. Our investigation can neither prove nor disprove what he reported."

For his part, DiIoia emphatically denies the rumors. He smiles at one memory related to the incident: the bouquets from well-wishers that filled his Oakdale home while he recuperated. But the convoluted chain of events that followed sets him frowning. The internal investigations. The complaints of excessive force. The pair of civil lawsuits--one alleging that he pummeled a local businessman with more than 30 baton blows, the other charging that he embarked on a three-month harassment campaign against an Afton woman. And, most galling of all, his dismissal from the sheriff's department in August--an action he is currently appealing through arbitration. DiIoia is a fluent talker, but the task of summing up the effect of it all leaves him at a loss for words. "When you get shit on," he finally says, "it hurts."

 

Tony DiIoia never wanted to be anything but a cop. Well, he allows, around age four he thought briefly about being a fireman. But policing was in his blood. His father Dominic spent his entire career at the State Patrol, retiring in 1992 as a major, the agency's third-highest rank. At 14, DiIoia joined the Boy Scouts State Patrol Explorer Post in Stillwater, where he got a firsthand taste of police work--helping to direct traffic at parades, learning about first aid, going on ride-alongs. After graduating from Stillwater High School, he served a four-year stint in the Air Force. He met his future wife while stationed in the Philippines, where he worked with drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs.

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