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.

In 1992 DiIoia received a two-year criminal-justice degree from Lakewood Community College and joined the Minneapolis Police Department. He was attracted to the big city, he says, because he was anxious to get some "real experience"; it helped that the department paid the costs of his skills training. He found the work to his liking, and he proudly points to various letters of commendation and excellence he received during his tenure.

"I was a go-getter and I worked my butt off," he says. "If there was somebody driving around with a felony warrant that nobody could find, I just had this dumb luck where I'd pull them over for a busted taillight or something. Maybe it's a sixth sense from being around law enforcement all my life."

But no sixth sense could have predicted what happened on December 14, 1993. That evening, DiIoia and a fellow officer were working an off-duty security gig at Little Earth, a Native American housing project in south Minneapolis. A group of teenagers were shouting and throwing gang signs in the parking lot, he says, trying to lure a rival from one of the apartments. In the chaos, DiIoia's partner confronted a 16-year-old boy who was wielding what police later termed a "realistic-looking" replica of a handgun.

Unlike the incident in Afton, DiIoia recalls the Little Earth episode in vivid detail. The errant shots fired by his partner. The kid rounding the corner. The gun, raised and pointed his way. "I remember aiming at him," he says. "And I remember seeing the shell casings come out of my gun as I fired. I remember seeing the slide and my gun coming back toward me and the round kicking out. Everything slowed down. That's how wickedly intense it was. They say that's the part that can really mess you up."

The youth, who recovered from his wounds, was later convicted of making terroristic threats. DiIoia received the department's medal of valor. And, he adds with a note of satisfaction, "we didn't get hassled by the press." (The incident only merited a brief story in the Star Tribune, which didn't identify DiIoia as the officer who shot the youth.)

Soon after the shooting, DiIoia began to notice a change in his mood. The transformation both alarmed and puzzled him. "It was a real weird feeling," he recalls. "I knew there was something wrong with me. I remember standing in the grocery store one day and I was bagging up my groceries, and some guy was standing across from me. He was just bagging his groceries, but I remember getting mad at him for being so close to me."

He pauses, then corrects himself. "Not mad. I guess it was that I just didn't want people around me, invading my little area. And I thought, 'Man, there's something wrong with me.'"

After visiting a psychiatrist, DiIoia was diagnosed with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. He insists that the condition never affected his work. But he chose to keep it private. Nobody needed to know that he was taking antidepressants, he figured. Besides, he says, back then he didn't realize how common depression is.

"Most people will hide it," DiIoia says. "But in the counseling I've received, I was told that a quarter of police officers wind up receiving some kind of medication for depression or some type of mental illness."

The notion that police suffer from unusually high rates of depression, suicide, and divorce is widespread, both among cops and the public at large. But according to Dr. Gary Kaufmann, such claims are not founded in reliable science. "This is stuff everybody assumes to be true, but there's no good data to support it," says Kaufmann, who is the chairman of the mental health division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Still, Kaufmann continues, depression is common for officers struggling with the aftermath of a shooting or other traumatic experience. In fact, he says, thinking about potential effects may be a stress factor: "Anytime they identify a problem, [cops] put themselves under the microscope. Before a shooting, a police officer might have a bad day and everybody would write it off as a bad day. But after the incident, there's a new element of scrutiny."

Tony DiIoia had more bad days than most. Over the three years following the Little Earth shooting, he was investigated seven times by the city's Civilian Review Authority. Four of the cases were dismissed outright, and three were found to lack probable cause. (The authority does not disclose details about complaints that are not sustained.) He was also the subject of an internal investigation triggered by another shooting: In a 1995 incident outside a north-side apartment building, DiIoia exchanged gunfire with an armed man he and his partner had encountered in a routine walk-through. Nobody was injured, the suspect escaped, and DiIoia says there were no further repercussions from the incident.

But allegations about DiIoia's on-the-job conduct were also leveled in a 1996 police-brutality suit filed in U.S. District Court. According to that complaint, DiIoia, along with two other MPD officers, beat a north Minneapolis man in front of a woman and her four children in March 1995. The suit alleged that the officers Maced, handcuffed, and then pummeled the man with batons and flashlights for half an hour, knocking him unconscious. The case went to trial, but the city settled midway for a relatively paltry sum--about $7,000, according to the City Attorney's Office. "I don't think they should have given them a dime. Their case was a complete joke and they looked complete fools," DiIoia complains.

Shortly afterward, DiIoia left the MPD for the Washington County Sheriff's Department. He'd always hoped to end up back home eventually, he says: He'd picked up part-time gigs on a water-patrol detail during the summer months and considered the department "the cream of the crop" in local law enforcement. He calls the day he got the job "one of the best moments of my life."

 

Bob Bennett doesn't see a good case walking through the door very often. The Twin Cities' most prominent police-brutality lawyer (he built his reputation with the now-infamous Mike Sauro case, which cost the City of Minneapolis $1 million back in 1994), Bennett gets hundreds of inquiries each year from people who say they've been beaten or otherwise abused by police officers. Most of the time he turns them away.

"These cases are credibility-driven," Bennett explains. "We screen for people without a significant criminal or mental-health background. I had one terribly paranoid schizophrenic come to me awhile back. I was sure that he was taken advantage of and beaten by the cops, but his mental health was so horrible, I couldn't in good conscience take the case. To put it in absolutely simplistic terms, the big driving force in these cases is how good the plaintiff is and how bad the cop is."

When John Buelow showed up at his Minneapolis office last spring, Bennett smelled a winner. The father of five had no record. He had lived in Washington County his whole life and for some three decades had run an excavating business. And then there was his mild demeanor, sure to impress a jury: In voice, Buelow is a dead ringer for Mr. Rogers.

Buelow--a trim 51-year-old, similar in size and stature to DiIoia--also had a hell of a story to tell. According to the civil complaint he eventually filed against DiIoia, Frank, and Washington County, it all began on May 20 of last year, when Buelow's 19-year-old daughter Denise threw what he describes as an "unauthorized" party at his home. (Buelow lives next door to his ex-wife Katie and their kids in rural West Lakeland Township.) Buelow found out the next day, the complaint says, and was dismayed to discover evidence of underage drinking and pot-smoking.

After consulting with Katie, he confiscated Denise's 1994 Geo Metro, barricading it behind a shed on his property. Then he called the sheriff's department. A deputy stopped by, collected a bong Buelow had found, and, according to the complaint, told him that he was "doing the right thing."

Three days later Denise called the sheriff's department demanding that her father be forced to release the car. The deputy who responded to that call was Tony DiIoia--and from this point on, accounts of the incident vary wildly.

According to Buelow's complaint, the deputy was belligerent from the outset. "All attempts at communication," the document reads, "were met with screaming and profanities by DiIoia. Eventually, DiIoia screamed unintelligibly at Buelow and Maced him directly in the face when Buelow indicated he did not understand."

Buelow says he never offered any resistance. "I just stood there and looked at him. He wanted me to swing so he'd have a reason to hit me. I wouldn't do it and he still went wild."

In his report on the incident, DiIoia said he "pled with [Buelow] over and over again to just cooperate... He just looked at me and said, 'I ain't going to jail.'" Finally, he wrote, "I pulled out my Freeze Plus P and told him that I would spray him if he didn't submit to arrest."

DiIoia's report continues: "My verbal commands and chemical agent were not having any effect on John, so I started to strike him with my [baton] on his common peroneal nerve [on the lower leg]. The entire time I was striking him, I was yelling as loud as I could for him to lay down on the ground.

"After about 10 strikes, I looked down and saw his right hand digging into his right front pants pocket. Suddenly, I saw what I believed to be a knife in his right hand, and as he pulled it from his pocket, I immediately responded by hitting him in the back of the head... I knew that if I didn't respond immediately to his use of deadly force, I may be killed myself.

"After one blow to the back of his head, he dropped the knife to the ground and I kicked it away from him. I continued striking him on the legs and arms. The entire time I was yelling for him to get down on the ground.

"After about 30 strikes, John fell to one knee. I was then able to force him to the ground. Once on the ground, I tried to handcuff him, but he continued to fight and was trying to get up. I delivered about five more strikes to his right common peroneal as I yelled for him to get down on the ground and put his hands behind his back. He finally yelled, 'All right, I'll do it!'"

At some point during the clash, according to Buelow's complaint, his 17-year-old daughter Janie ran inside the house and dialed 911, frantically pleading for help. After additional squads arrived on the scene, Buelow was taken to the Washington County Jail and, per DiIoia's recommendation, booked for second-degree assault, auto theft, and obstructing the legal process with force. DiIoia also placed Janie under arrest; he claims that she jumped on his back during the scuffle, though in her statement to investigators she said she had simply tried to separate the men. No charges were filed against her.

Following a night in lockup, Buelow was released, and he immediately filed a written complaint with the sheriff's department. He also sought medical attention for his injuries, which he says included postconcussive syndrome, partial hearing loss and "general soreness."

In the end, the Washington County Attorney's Office declined to press charges against Buelow. But that, he says, wasn't satisfactory--especially given that he was personally acquainted with Sheriff Frank. "I guess I expected a call from the sheriff's department saying: 'We made a mistake, can we make it right for you?' But it didn't happen. They still haven't returned my clothes from the jail." After hearing stories about other people who'd had run-ins with DiIoia, Buelow decided to see a lawyer. His lawsuit, filed in September, requests damages "exceeding one million dollars." The case is still in the prediscovery stage and no trial date has been set.

 

Bennett says a few key factors helped clinch his decision to take the case. There were witnesses who supported Buelow's version of events, including Janie and a neighbor who happened to be driving by. None of the principals had been drinking or using drugs. And Buelow, who has kept a careful journal for most of his adult life, had promptly recorded a detailed account of the incident--providing what lawyers term "contemporaneously recorded recollection."

Like most who have reviewed DiIoia's report on the incident, Bennett was also struck by how forthcoming the deputy had been about the beating. Over the years, the attorney has routinely called upon experts specializing in assessing use of force by police to bolster his legal arguments. When he ran the details of the Buelow case by one of them, he says, the expert exclaimed: "'Bob, are you kidding me? He said 35?' He'd never heard of a cop admitting to that many blows."

But most revealing, Bennett concludes, was his review of DiIoia's record. In addition to his history in Minneapolis, DiIoia had been the object of eight internal investigations by the Washington County Sheriff's Office of Standards and Conduct. Sergeant Larry Simon, who heads the office, says that is more than any of the department's 80 sworn deputies has received in the three years he's held the position. During that time, Simon notes, he investigated 156 complaints against deputies, meaning that DiIoia accounted for almost five percent of his workload.

DiIoia was exonerated in four of the cases, and no probable cause was found in a fifth. Two others, however, resulted in sanctions against DiIoia: In one case, stemming from a July 1998 incident, he was reprimanded for failing to report the use of Mace and physical force on two men he encountered while following up on a juvenile citation.

Six months later DiIoia was chastised for his conduct during an investigation of "a possible fight call" in Forest Lake Township. According to the letter of reprimand, he conducted an unauthorized search of a purse and a school bag at the scene. The notice faulted him for behavior that "resulted in an escalation of the event that should have been handled in a more courteous manner," and warned that any similar conduct in the future could get him fired.

Only months later the office found itself investigating the last complaint against DiIoia--Buelow's. On June 25, Simon issued a finding of excessive force against the deputy. The sheriff, who had placed DiIoia on leave a few days after the incident, now decided to hand him his walking papers. "It was a fireable offense because of the amount of force used," Frank says. "That stands on its own."

DiIoia, however, offers a different theory. The Buelow case, he claims, was just the sheriff's excuse to get rid of him--the culmination of a plan hatched as soon as the sheriff discovered his secret. "Everything was fine until the sheriff found out about my depression," DiIoia says. "Then everything went to hell."

According to DiIoia, in the wake of the Afton beating the MPD, which had been paying for psychiatric care under his workers' comp claim, contacted Washington County to determine whether it ought to pay a share of his future treatment. The sheriff immediately demanded that he be evaluated by a psychiatrist to determine whether he was fit for duty.

At first, DiIoia says, he was offended. In three job reviews, his supervisors had rated him average and above average, praising his "relaxed disposition" and "good knowledge of the law." When he complained that the sheriff's demands amounted to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he charges, Frank blew up.

"He said: 'I don't give a fuck about your union, I don't give a fuck about the ADA.' And he said, 'I want you to go to the hospital and get evaluated or I'm putting you on a 72-hour hold." DiIoia says he phoned up his union rep, and Frank backed down. The deputy also made appointments with two psychiatrists, his own and one assigned by the county; after a ten-day leave, he was cleared to return to work.

But he maintains he soon found himself ostracized. He was turned down for one assignment after the other--drug-dog work, a DARE program, even his old gig on the water patrol. And, he claims, the sheriff and other supervisors were quick to latch on to any excuse to depict him as unstable--including an incident in May 1998, when he began crying in the office. His maternal grandmother, to whom he was close, had just died. "They just keep saying, 'Tony broke down,'" he says. "If that's a sign of someone being wacko, I'm crazy."

John Engle, a boyhood pal of DiIoia's who joined the sheriff's department in February 1998, supports some of his friend's assertions. The sheriff, he says, never made a secret of his feelings about DiIoia: "He said, 'You're new here, and if you want to succeed, you better be careful who you associate with.' The dislike for Tony was so extreme and so well known, the supervisors would pick on Tony for any little thing. It was awful, but I was still on probation, so I didn't say anything."

Engle says he also concluded that the department was biased in the investigation of the Afton beating: A former partner who was assigned to the Minnesota Gang Strike Task Force, he says, told him that "Washington County sent over an investigator who said, 'Yeah, as far as we're concerned, the incident with DiIoia was fabricated. He made the whole thing up, and we're not going to look into it any more.' I was dumbfounded. His eyes were black and blue and swollen shut. How do you do that to yourself?"

Less than a year after being hired, in October 1998, Engle quit the department and accepted a position as a Minneapolis officer. But on his way out the door, he handed the sheriff a resignation letter complaining about the department's treatment of DiIoia.

Frank denies ever even mentioning DiIoia to Engle by name. The sheriff says he only cautioned the rookie that the selection of a mentor is important. As for his department's finding of excessive force against DiIoia, Frank argues that the morass of litigation has created a no-win situation.

"These are some pretty hard decisions," he explains. "Who's that guy that wrote 'What a tangled web we weave'? That's kind of what this is, a very tangled web. He's fighting us, saying we shouldn't have fired him, and, on the other side, we've got all these lawsuits saying, 'You should have gotten rid of him, you should have known about him long ago.'"

In the end, Frank says, the department decided to issue its excessive-force finding against DiIoia despite the liability concerns. "If we do a thorough investigation and we get to the bottom of it and we take action, it may very well be used against us. So then you make an ethical decision: Do you do the right thing, or do you try and protect the dollars? We let the chips fall where they may."

Actually, says former Bellevue, Washington, police chief D.P. Van Blaricom, Frank's action may have been just what the lawyer ordered. As civil-rights suits against law-enforcement agencies have become more common, he offers, sheriffs and chiefs have been faced with a choice: pay out big settlements or identify, and deal with, thumpers. The latter, says Van Blaricom--who now makes his living as an expert witness in excessive-force lawsuits--is best achieved by looking for certain well-established clues: a pronounced interest in the tools and accessories of the job, an unusual number of civilian complaints, evidence of unusual behavior.

One sign of trouble, Van Blaricom continues, is a pattern of arrests where the only crime is the suspect's conduct toward a cop. "You look for misdemeanor assaults on a police officer, obstructing or resisting. And you have to look for citizen complaints, and people being taken to the hospital after being arrested. Those are all warning signs." Typically, Van Blaricom says, the first people to notice such tendencies are fellow street cops and immediate supervisors.

Van Blaricom says administrators making hiring decisions also need to carefully review the personnel and medical files of cops they hire from other agencies--particularly if there's evidence that an officer, like Tony DiIoia, has been treated for posttraumatic stress disorder. That diagnosis, Van Blaricom adds, ought to send up warning flags.

So how come Sheriff Frank didn't seem to know about DiIoia's past difficulties when he was hired? DiIoia insists that he disclosed his condition to a psychiatrist in the course of his pre-employment screening. Still, he acknowledges, the sheriff didn't seem to be aware of the diagnosis until the workers' comp flap.

Frank won't address the subject explicitly. "When we hired him, we were satisfied with the information we had," he says, noting that the department had been pleased with DiIoia in his previous part-time work on water patrol. "Let's put it this way," he adds, "if someone has had some sort of medical treatment, we might not always know."

As it happens, attorney Bennett is very interested in what Frank knew and when he knew it--and a jury, he ventures, will be too. "It could play out a bunch of different ways," the attorney says. "A better case for the county would be that they were in a significant remediation phase. They were having him see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, they were limiting his contact with the public, and this happened anyway." Conversely, he opines, "if they knew after he'd gotten beaten that he had a problem and they were building a file to terminate him, but waited for John Buelow to come along, that cuts against the county. That means they allowed him to be in a spot where he could perpetrate an injury on the public."

 

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.

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.

O'Connor says she presented DiIoia with reinstatement papers, but he ignored them and the encounter quickly escalated into a physical confrontation. According to DiIoia's report, he wrestled with and then cuffed the 98-pound woman. In her complaint, O'Connor says she believed that DiIoia was going to sexually assault her, and that she screamed, "Rape!"

"All I wanted," she says now, "was for some other officer to take me to the hospital. I mean, he was throwing me over the trunk of his car, and he was trying to get on top of me. He never said, 'I'm taking you in for this or that.' He was just attacking me." Another officer arrived at the scene and transported O'Connor to Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater, where she was treated for complaints of shoulder pain (and where a blood test showed that she was two months pregnant). She was subsequently charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of disorderly conduct. On advice of attorney Udoibok, O'Connor refused a plea bargain; the charges were dismissed following three days of testimony that concluded with a mistrial.

"There is no question my client's civil rights were violated," says Udoibok, adding that he believes O'Connor was stalked. According to the attorney, the effects have been more psychological than physical--a fact that, he concedes, may make for a tougher sell with a jury. Still, the suit seeks damages in excess of $75,000.

Sheriff Frank won't comment on O'Connor's allegations, though he notes that the couple never filed a formal complaint with his department. DiIoia is less circumspect. "What a joke," he scoffs when asked about the suit. "She's claiming that I was going to rape her in a ditch on a busy road? At rush hour? I can't believe they're actually claiming this stuff. They're just looking for a handout."

 

Since he got his last paycheck from the sheriff's department in August, DiIoia has been employed as a loss-prevention specialist for a low-end retail chain whose name he doesn't want disclosed. He works in stores throughout the metro area, going from one mall to the next. Mostly he investigates employee theft, occasionally hiding in false ceilings and peering down on the unsuspecting workers. It's familiar work--he did the same kind of job while attending community college. But it's not the same as being a cop. "You don't have the same powers," he laments. And you don't make the same money: DiIoia says he's had to dip into his retirement fund to support his wife and three-year-old son.

He still hopes he'll eventually go back to police work. Should he fail, he says, he'll try to make a living as a private investigator, maybe work a little surveillance.

Meanwhile he's retained three attorneys--one for the lawsuits filed against him, one for his arbitration proceedings and one for a civil suit he hopes to file against Frank. The latter will have to wait until the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is done reviewing the discrimination complaint he filed this summer. According to Barbara Nevin, DiIoia's attorney on that case, it could be another six months before the department issues a finding.

The delays irk DiIoia. "I can't go on like this forever," he says with a note of resignation. "It seems like I have no rights. A murderer gets a right to a speedy trial. I don't. I sit and wait. I guess you've got to play the game, and it's a tough game."

As he nears the end of another shift, the last of the shoppers are filing out the exits. Piped-in Christmas music plays over the speakers, and the drab fluorescent lights cast a grayish pall over the scene. DiIoia looks a touch gray himself. He says he still struggles with depression, though not as badly as he used to. Sometimes he feels he's failed his family.

"What do you do?" he muses. "You want to be something your whole life and then you just see everything go away, your whole life slipping away."

To this day DiIoia insists he's done "absolutely nothing wrong." And it's not, he adds, as if he can't tell wrong when he sees it: "When I was in Minneapolis, there were guys who did things they shouldn't do, who used excessive force," he offers. "It's frustrating. You see people get away with things and then you end up in a situation like this."

"This," to him, is a quagmire where people are trying to drag him down, "lying their asses off," ruining his career. The O'Connors, he insists, are after money--"bottom feeders," he calls them--and so is Buelow. The latter may succeed with his lawsuit, DiIoia ventures, since the department sustained that excessive-force complaint. "This is all real unfortunate," he sighs. "The truth may never come out in a public forum. They'll settle with a gag order."

The truth, in DiIoia's mind, is that he has been a victim--of circumstance, of the dilemmas inherent in police work, and most of all of a bad boss. The shooting in Minneapolis led to his depression. The beating in Afton caused his secret to be revealed. And that left him helpless against a man he calls "evil" and "prejudiced." Of all the allegations leveled at him, none seems to upset DiIoia more than a near-footnote in the Buelow lawsuit: The claim that he received preferential treatment from his nemesis, Frank, because the sheriff was a neighbor and law enforcement buddy of his father.

The sheriff, DiIoia says with venom, is "not half the man my dad is." And then he adds: "You know, my mom tells me not to hate anyone. But it's hard not to hate someone who is destroying you."

It's near closing time and DiIoia rises from his seat, heading into the cool winter night to grab a cigarette. Leaning up against the brick wall, he stares into the distance and, for a moment, his eyes glisten as furls of smoke rise into the air. He doesn't look big or menacing or anything, really, other than sad. "I may get my job back and I may work the rest of my life on the street as a deputy," he says. "But I'll never go anywhere."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Minnesota Concert Tickets
Loading...