By Gina Barton
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — For years, rumors of a rogue group of Milwaukee police officers known for brutalizing suspects have been circulating around the city. The group reportedly called itself the Punishers, a name that came from "The Punisher," a vigilante comic book, video game and film character, and many of its members were supposedly on hand at the Bay View party where Frank Jude Jr. was attacked in 2004.
It turns out that the group's existence may be more than a rumor, according to evidence presented Thursday during the sentencing hearing of fired officer Jon Bartlett on federal gun charges.
Bartlett, convicted last week in the Jude case, had an incriminating tattoo, while another convicted former officer, Andrew Spengler, had a Punisher decal on his car, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Frohling.
Frohling showed a photo of Bartlett's tattoo in court and said it pictures the same long-toothed skull emblazoned on the Punisher's body armor. The skull is inside a black spade. The tattoo also features the number seven, which Frohling said refers to Milwaukee Police District 7, where Bartlett used to work.
And one of the guns Bartlett illegally tried to buy was a civilian semiautomatic version of the P90 rifle, an automatic weapon sold only to law enforcement and the military that is the comic book Punisher's weapon of choice. No evidence of any other brutal acts by the group was presented at the hearing, which resulted in an 18-month prison term for Bartlett.
However, the information about the Punishers and a copy of "The Turner Diaries" — a white supremacist manifesto that inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh -- found during a search at Bartlett's apartment in August 2006, led authorities to believe he was trying to buy guns for something other than target practice, Frohling said.
In addition to the rifle, Bartlett, 35, tried to buy a semiautomatic pistol, 875 bullets and larger-than-standard magazines for each weapon: a 50-round magazine for one of the guns and three 20-round magazines for the other. The price of the guns and accessories was $4,501.73. At the time, Bartlett was out on bail on two separate cases: an allegation of calling in a bomb threat to his former police district station, for which he was scheduled for trial in three weeks; and a state charge of substantial battery related to the Jude beating.
Bartlett was convicted of lying on a background purchase form when he tried to buy the guns and magazines at the Shooters Shop in West Allis. Federal law prohibits anyone who has a felony conviction or pending felony charge from buying a gun. On the form, Bartlett indicated he had no felony convictions or charges pending.
He already had six guns and 300 rounds of ammunition in his apartment at the time, Frohling said. During questioning, Bartlett tried to distance himself from the Punishers by saying his tattoo was the Harley-Davidson skull. The Harley skull, however, generally has no teeth or very short teeth, Frohling said. Bartlett also said he bought "The Turner Diaries" out of curiosity after the Oklahoma City bombing. However, federal officials tracked the price tag on the book and found out it was purchased sometime in 2005 or later — some 10 years after the bombing.
When Bartlett tried to buy the guns, he was free after a state jury in the Jude beating failed to reach a verdict on a substantial battery charge against him in April 2006. State prosecutors planned to re-try him, so he remained on bail for that. He also was on bail in the bomb threat case.
When the gun charges were issued, Bartlett was taken into custody and has remained there ever since.
The attempted gun purchase also resulted in two state counts of felony bail jumping, for which he is awaiting sentencing. He was convicted in the bomb threat case and is serving 4 1/2 years in prison for that.
Bartlett was later charged with two federal felonies in the Jude beating and was convicted, along with former officers Spengler and Daniel Masarik, on both counts last week. All three were convicted of conspiring to violate the civil rights of Jude and his friend Lovell Harris when the two were attacked at the party. All three face up to 20 years in prison when they are sentenced Nov. 29.
None of the three received any psychological screening or had an oral interview before they were hired by the city. The Fire and Police Commission overhauled its psychological screening of prospective officers after the Journal Sentinel reported that Milwaukee was out of step with other cities.
Bartlett, hired by the city in 1999, got a job as a Milwaukee officer even though he was demoted by a university police department, received poor work reviews from the state Department of Natural Resources and was earlier convicted of fleeing police.
Prosecutors at the Milwaukee County district attorney's office haven't decided yet whether they will re-try Bartlett on the state charge related to the Jude beating, Bartlett's attorney, Bridget Boyle, said Thursday in federal court in Milwaukee. Boyle also called Bartlett's tattoo "irrelevant" and reiterated that he tried to buy the guns and ammunition for target practice. If he wanted to do violence, as the prosecution suggested, the guns he already had in his apartment were more than adequate for that, she said.
After the Jude beating, Bartlett's life started to fall apart and he simply wanted to go out and do something he enjoyed, which was target practice, she said.
"His marriage is basically over because of everything that has gone on, there are four civil cases against him, he's absolutely destitute when it comes to money. He has lost basically everything in his life," she said.
Bartlett said all his other offenses stemmed from the Jude incident. Financial problems and the media coverage of the beating caused him a lot of stress, he said. Although he said he never expected to become a convicted felon, Bartlett acknowledged that he is one and promised never to own or possess a gun in the future.
Before handing down the sentence U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa reminded Bartlett that police officers, judges and lawyers are held to a higher standard than civilians.
"Police officers are probably the most important people in law enforcement, because that's the face of the law out on the street," he said.
Upon completing his prison term, Bartlett must serve three years of supervised release.
Copyright 2007 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Ex-cop in Milwaukee linked to rogue group 'Punishers'