Taylor County Sheriff asks demoted deputy charged with misconduct in office back to duty after 5 years on paid leave

Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 8:38 PM CDT
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MEDFORD, Wis. (WSAW) - After five years of being on paid administrative leave, the Taylor County Sheriff asked in a letter for demoted deputy, Steve Bowers, who is charged with misconduct in office, to come back to duty.

Bowers is accused of handing over two sets of cold case files to the investigative reality T.V. show, Cold Justice, without prior approval in 2017. Then-Det. Sgt. Bowers and the sheriff’s office were working with the show about the unsolved 1999 death of Eugene Monte. When then-Sheriff Bruce Daniels learned about the files being shared and asked Bowers, Bowers admitted to sharing the two cases with the producers. Some files were physical boxes of paperwork, but many were digitally shared via Bowers’ private Dropbox account that was linked to his county email address, which has been a key point in the civil and criminal cases he is involved in.

While the courts handle those cases, Bowers has been on paid leave.

“It was a financial decision.”

Sheriff Larry Woebbeking was the lead investigator on the Monte case and worked alongside Cold Justice and Bowers in 2017. At the time, Woebbeking was the chief deputy. He was not part of the decision-making process as to how to discipline Bowers or whether charges should be filed against him. Woebbeking was elected sheriff the following year.

“When I took office, my immediate goal was just to see what the resolution would be,” he said.

He explained he does not get updates about Bowers’ criminal case, except for what he sees on the news. However, he said each year since taking office, the county is told the case will resolve soon. Year after year, the case continues. Woebbeking estimates that, including retirement contributions and benefits, Bowers is paid about $100,000 each year.

“We’re paying him a full-time wage to work and he hasn’t been able to, so to me, it just made financial sense to bring him back to work.”

Woebbeking asked Bowers to come back to fill a patrol deputy position (what Bowers was demoted to after his disciplinary hearing in 2017) starting May 9. Since his law enforcement certifications have lapsed and it has been five years since he last worked a shift, he would be required to perform 400 hours of training.

“There’s nothing that he did wrong that would endanger the public or be some sort of a problem that way,” Woebbeking explained. “I have confidence in his abilities. He’ll go out there, he’ll serve the community -- if he chooses to come back -- I think in a quality way, otherwise, I wouldn’t ask him to come back.”

Woebbeking notified the appropriate county departments about requesting Bowers back to service, including the district attorney, and he did not ask for their opinion. However, DA Kristi Tlusty previously stated in Bowers’ disciplinary hearing that Bowers is untrustworthy, which would impact her ability to use any of his casework or testimony in court. She referred 7 Investigates to her testimony in that hearing when asked about her thoughts on Bowers’ possible return to service.

“I just don’t see how I can go back.”

Bowers said when he got the letter, he was confused. While he has described Woebbeking as once his best friend, he said that the relationship is now broken and he does not understand why, after five years and an unresolved criminal case, he would be asked back now. He responded to the letter through his attorneys to understand exactly what they wanted from him. He said Woebbeking responded to his attorney by saying he wanted what was laid out in the letter.

“I just don’t see myself going back to a place where I feel uncomfortable, they feel uncomfortable, nobody trusts each other, I’m just happy where I am now.”

At the time of the interview with 7 Investigates, Bowers had not given Woebbeking a response as to whether he would return. However, he told 7 Investigates that at the age of 53 he can, and likely will, retire instead. He added that while he recognizes why he would need to recertify and do some training after five years out of law enforcement, being re-trained by the people he once supervised would feel demoralizing.

“I’m profoundly sad about not going back because this is the time in my career when I should be passing on my knowledge to other people, helping younger officers start, and it should be a happy ending to my career instead of just fizzling out based on a letter I receive.”

He currently works as a full-time substitute teacher, a job he said he loves and allows him to pass on knowledge like he wanted to do in his law enforcement career. It was not the job he intended to do at the beginning of this all.

“I wanted to go back to work from day one as soon as my suspension was done and they’re the ones that wouldn’t allow me back. And here I got paid for not working, but I’ve got legal expenses like you can’t believe to get me through this. And, you know, I’ve thought about that a lot too; I think that was part of their plan was just to run me out of money and have their way with me and that didn’t work out that way for them.”

The warrantless Dropbox search

What Bowers is referring to are the developments in both the criminal and civil cases. He filed a federal civil rights case against the relevant county members in 2020. He received the judgment on that case the same day Woebbeking’s letter came in asking him to return.

The federal judge ruled that Daniels and the county’s IT director violated Bowers’ constitutional right to privacy and unreasonable search and seizure when they accessed his personal Dropbox account without a warrant. That ruling came despite the fact that Bowers used his county email address as the primary username and email for his Dropbox, and that he had county files on the account. However, because Bowers’ attorneys did not cite cases that would show that it should have been obvious to them that they should have gotten a warrant, the judge granted them qualified immunity and dismissed the case in the county’s favor.

“How a sheriff, a long-term sheriff, can’t not know that he needs a search warrant to do things, I don’t understand. But, that’s what it is so, he gets off without being punished again and the case is dismissed,” Bowers opined.

The criminal case is at a similar point. The judge in that case ruled on a motion making a similar conclusion about how the county obtained evidence in Bowers’ Dropbox account, meaning the state cannot use that evidence against Bowers. The state is appealing that decision.

7 Investigates reached out to the county members involved through their attorneys for comment, but did not hear back. The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the criminal case, would not comment on the ongoing case and did not feel it would be appropriate to comment on the other related aspects.

The cold case families

After being consumed by what happened in 2017 for the past five years, Bowers wanted to bring attention to the people lost in the discussion. While he believes the double demotion and suspension he received in his disciplinary hearing in 2017 was a harsh consequence, he was able to accept it, ready to move on to continue serving. He believes the criminal charges went beyond what was necessary and have harmed the people he was trying to help.

“You know, everybody’s talking about what the sheriff thinks, what the county thinks, and how this is affecting me, but nobody’s talking about the victims of these homicide cases that the district attorney has flat-out said she’s not going to work on any longer. I mean, I’ve become the focus of this and not the families of the victims that this whole thing started with.”

7 Investigates asked Tlusty about the validity of Bowers’ statement. She said in an email, “The Attorney General’s office agreed to review/prosecute one of the cases, so they would be the office making the charging decision on that case. I’ve never said that I had any interest in resolving either of those cases. That’s an absolute lie.”

7 Investigates asked the DOJ whether it is, would be, or has reviewed or plans to prosecute the case Tlusty mentioned and it could not confirm or deny it is working on any case that has not been brought to court.

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