Huron County Sheriff Richard Sutherland confirmed Monday that he prohibited his employees from discussing the investigation of former Detective Matt Spencer, who was fired Aug. 14 in connection with providing deputies with false or inaccurate information during an internal probe.
"I didn't want my officers to talk to the media," Sutherland explained. "If you have one person answering the questions, you can't go wrong. The gag order was not to cover anything up."
One deputy had "heard rumors" of the gag order. A second deputy said Sutherland issued it, while a third said there was "nothing in writing." None of the officers wanted to be identified.
Attorney Greg Shell, who represents Spencer, accused Sutherland of trying to "circumvent" his client's Sixth Amendment rights to counsel by issuing the gag order.
Shell estimated the sheriff issued the gag order in July. "I don't know (that) there's a written gag order out there," he added.
Spencer is accused of providing false information and conflicting reports during the investigation over what he originally reported missing July 10 from his personal vehicle, a 1998 Dodge pickup truck.
The detective reported his golf clubs, two firearms, some personal checks and a Fraternal Order of Police emblem were missing from his truck, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI&I) Agent Thomas Brokamp wrote in Norwalk Municipal Court documents. Brokamp accused Spencer of attaching the FOP emblem "at some point" to his personal vehicle.
There have been published reports implicating Spencer in about $15,000 missing money, plus several undisclosed items from the evidence room which the detective oversaw. Sutherland declined to comment, saying he "can't say" anything about the allegations.
The sheriff also declined to comment on the possibility Spencer committed the crimes because of a personal financial situation.
"That's really ridiculous," Shell said, accusing several deputies of filing for bankruptcy. "Matt doesn't have any of that."
Shell mentioned that the investigation of Spencer withdrawing money from his bank shouldn't be considered mysterious because many people do the same thing.
Sgt. Mike Martz has been the evidence room supervisor since Spencer was placed on paid administrative leave July 24 and later fired. There have been allegations that Spencer approached Martz during the probe, but Martz declined to assist the suspect.
"I had heard something like that, but I don't remember exactly what was said," Sutherland said.
Shell said: "I don't know about him approaching someone else. I mean I've heard that."
BCI&I agents interviewed Martz during the investigation, but only to obtain information, the sheriff explained. Martz has been trained as an evidence officer, Sutherland said, but there are no written policies for the evidence room.
"Sgt. Martz is not being looked into (for) doing a wrong deed," Sutherland said.
Shell said there is another deputy whom he declined to identify who is trained to be an evidence officer, but is not allowed. The attorney called it "a shoddy way of running a sheriff's office."
"I might welcome an indictment (of Spencer), because there might be some people surprised by how the sheriff's office is being operated," Shell said. He declined to elaborate, but added: "I'm saving it for trial."
The sheriff's office turned the Spencer case over to BCI&I after a brief investigation, which is now in the hands of the Erie County Prosecutor's Office.
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mary Ann Barylski said prosecutors have reviewed it, but "we need a little more investigation on it." When asked to be more specific, she said: "I'm not privileged to talk about the investigation."
Barylski expects to have a meeting about the case this week with Prosecutor Kevin Baxter and BCI&I agents. Brokamp, who oversees the probe, said BCI&I policy prohibits him from speaking to the media and referred questions to a spokeswoman.
"I will confirm we are still looking into the case," Barylski said.
"So far (Spencer) hasn't been charged with anything," said Shell, who is prepared to take the case to trial if or when his client is indicted.
The attorney believes it would be foolish for the state to charge Spencer.
"I guarantee there won't be a plea bargain, that's for sure. We'll get all the laundry out," Shell said.
Shell, in a Sept. 11 letter to Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler, offered "a solution to the investigation" by saying Spencer "is willing to submit to a stipulated polygraph exam regarding the evidence room ... and his filing of an insurance claim for the theft of personal property from his truck."
The attorney expressed confidence in the letter that Spencer "did nothing wrong in regard to his insurance claim, and that he took nothing that was not authorized by Court Order or the Sheriff."
Spencer took and passed two polygraphs, Shell said, meaning that "he was being truthful that he didn't do anything (wrong)." He suggested to Leffler that attorneys present the conclusions as evidence.
Leffler "didn't want to do that. Period," Shell said.
The prosecutor, when asked about the letter, declined to comment.
"I can't tell you anything," Leffler said in response to each of the Reflector's questions. "I can't help you. There's nothing there."
Spencer worked for the Greenwich Police Department for three years, starting Sept. 25, 1997. He became a deputy March 15, 2000. After being the Greenwich police chief for about a month in May 2003, Spencer resigned for personal reasons and rejoined the sheriff's office.
Spencer could not be reached for comment, but a relative confirmed he still lives in the county.