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 settles into a chair in the conference room at the downtown Minneapolis law office of Smith and Udoibok, Ron O'Connor spits out DiIoia's name like he's taken a bite of something rotten. He's just spent ten minutes calming down his wife Toni, who after overhearing a conversation between attorneys wrongly concluded that DiIoia had gotten his job back. "She's still freaked out about all this," says O'Connor, launching into a tale of the couple's encounters with the deputy.

A graying and bearded 39, O'Connor says he first became aware of DiIoia when some sheriff's investigators came to see him shortly after Thanksgiving 1997. At the time he was living in Afton, less than a mile from the scene of the incident that landed DiIoia in the hospital. O'Connor had had various run-ins with the law--drunk driving, driving after revocation, possession of stolen property--nothing, he says, that should have made him a suspect in what he calls "a heinous assault." O'Connor was also, however, a member of the Sovereign Sons, a now-defunct east-metro motorcycle club. Though he declines to discuss the particulars of the organization, he says that shouldn't have mattered. The Sons are "no different than a Corvette club," he says.

Robert Gherardi

Pat Hart, supervisor of the Minnesota Gang Strike Task Force's motorcycle gang unit, has a slightly different assessment: The Sovereign Sons was "not a Hell's Angels, for sure," Hart notes, but he is also skeptical of O'Connor's characterization. "That's what they all say--we just drink a little beer and ride motorcycles." Hart's unit investigated the group, but, he says, they disbanded "before we got anything on them."

When Washington County was looking into the DiIoia beating, according to Frank and others, an informant suggested that Sovereign Sons members had bragged of assaulting the deputy. Those leads bore no fruit, but O'Connor's involvement in the group put him in investigators' crosshairs. "They wanted me to finger a guy who they thought for sure did it but who I'm sure didn't," O'Connor says. "Tony thought I might know something, which I swear to God I don't. I even offered to take a lie detector test to get them off my back."

O'Connor says he doesn't buy DiIoia's tale of the beating for a minute. "He's not stupid. He was a Minneapolis police officer, not some dumb rookie. You mean to tell me that he's out in the middle of nowhere and he pulls over a truck, with two guys in it who he thinks are shining deer, which means he thinks they've got guns, and he doesn't call for backup? Come on. I think something happened in Minneapolis and it followed him out to the new job."

But after his statement to the investigators, O'Connor charges, it was DiIoia who followed him--or, more specifically, his wife. In a federal civil-rights suit brought in December against DiIoia, Sheriff Frank and Washington County, Toni O'Connor accuses the deputy of assault, false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the federal Violence Against Women statute.

A petite 39-year-old who earns her living as a bartender, Toni O'Connor is openly nervous as she relays her version of several encounters with DiIoia. She rattles off sentence fragments in a husky, staccato voice. "To this day, I feel this is not over," she says. "He knew all about me. He knew where I worked and what hours I worked." In her lawsuit, she alleges that several times over the last few years, she noticed that "Defendant DiIoia's car was parked in her driveway. He sat in his car and gazed at [her] house."

DiIoia flatly denies that claim--"I've got better things to do"-- but he acknowledges that between December 1997 and the following March, he pulled Toni O'Connor over three times. The first time, on December 14, according to the complaint, he claimed there was a bench warrant for her arrest. She spent the night in lockup before being released the following day. No charges were filed and, says attorney Kenneth Udoibok, none ever had been, hence the allegation of false arrest. But, according to Washington County assistant district attorney Jay Brunner, there was indeed a valid warrant for O'Connor's arrest, stemming from a 1992 failure to appear in court on a disorderly conduct charge. Brunner says a judge dismissed the case after the December arrest because it was so old.

In February DiIoia stopped both O'Connors as they were riding in an SUV belonging to Ron's father. According to Toni's complaint, DiIoia told her, "If you're nice to me, I'll let you go," and proceeded to grope her buttocks when she attempted to retrieve her purse from the vehicle.

Another deputy arrived on the scene and discovered a small quantity of what police say was methamphetamine tucked in a speaker compartment. Ron O'Connor was placed under arrest and charged with possession. The charges were dismissed after a friend of Ron's told police that he had borrowed the vehicle the previous night and left the drugs behind; according to the Washington County Attorney's Office, a warrant has been issued for the friend's arrest.

DiIoia pulled Toni O'Connor over for the third time a month later as she was driving home from her shift at the Wisconsin bar where she works. In a report he filed about that incident, DiIoia noted that he had been lying in wait for her because he believed she was not legal to drive. In 1992, O'Connor had indeed been convicted of drunk driving in Wisconsin, but her driving privileges had been restored in January 1998--a fact her attorney says DiIoia could easily have ascertained by looking at the records available on the computer in his squad car.

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