05/30/2006

Accused Wis. officer has history of assault complaints

JOHN DIEDRICH, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Copyright 2006 Journal Sentinel Inc. 

Milwaukee Police Officer Steven Lelinski, who is charged with sexual assault, was accused of committing similar crimes by at least six other women in the past decade but never charged by the district attorney's office, according to police, court and prosecution records.

Police presented at least five of the cases to prosecutors, who declined to issue charges, saying the accusers were not credible so there wasn't enough evidence to convict Lelinski.

Lelinski also wasn't punished by the Police Department in any of those cases, according to records.

Now prosecutors want to use those women's stories against Lelinski to show a pattern and methodology they allege he refined and used again in two more recent assaults. In February, the 16-year veteran was charged with an off-duty October assault of a woman he met on duty. Two weeks later, Lelinski was charged in a 2002 on-duty assault of a different woman, a case prosecutors previously declined.

Lelinski, 42, who is suspended with pay, faces more than 80 years in prison if convicted on all counts. He served on several appointed boards prior to being charged but has been stripped of most of his positions.

Lelinski has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann referred questions about why Lelinski wasn't charged earlier to Deputy District Attorney Jon Reddin, who himself declined to issue charges in three of the cases, according to records from the district attorney.

"I can't make any comment while the case is pending," Reddin said.

Court and Police Department records suggest that Lelinski, who always worked a late or evening shift, followed a pattern in how he targeted and assaulted women. His accusers worked as prostitutes or strippers, were poor and had criminal backgrounds, the records say. The women knew Lelinski was an officer, and he used his position to learn about the women's backgrounds and stay in touch with them, according to the records. He sometimes offered to help the women and other times threatened to arrest them but never did, the records state, and usually demeaned them with sexually suggestive comments.

On duty and off duty

The assaults occurred both on and off duty, sometimes in Lelinski's squad car, other times in the women's homes, according to the records; Lelinski was always alone and typically appeared unexpectedly late at night. He often paid the women - generally with a $20 bill, according to the records.

"Lelinski was honing his skills at executing his 'plan,' developing ways to target vulnerable women," Assistant District Attorney Miriam Falk wrote in a prosecution motion that will be argued in court Thursday.

"These were not his first forays into his plan, but were well-developed and time-tested behaviors that he had perfected over the span of nine or 10 years."

Lelinski's attorney, Steven Kohn, said Falk is trying to resurrect old, discredited cases that rely on accusers who lack credibility.

"It concerns me that cases that were not legitimate and not charged will be paraded in front of the public and into court," Kohn said. "Basically, we have one district attorney attempting to trump the decision of numerous other district attorneys regarding these cases."

Complaints 3 times average

Since he was hired, Lelinski has been investigated by the department in connection with misconduct allegations at least 27 times - three times more than the average number of complaints against other officers hired in 1990 and 1991 who are still on the job, according to the department.

Court records indicate there were other complaints not listed among the 27. Five of the women who accused Lelinski of assault were not listed separately in Lelinski's personnel record; neither was a 1991 battery allegation, reviewed by the district attorney, according to that office's records. That case also wasn't prosecuted.

Six of the 27 complaints were filed with the Fire and Police Commission. Five were dismissed, and one resulted in a two-day suspension for a use-of-force violation. The commission refused to release details of the complaints. Five other investigations into Lelinski were not released by the Police Department because they are still open, involved an anonymous accuser or couldn't be found, police said.

Lelinski has been punished five times in his career but never over the allegations that have now led to criminal charges, his personnel record shows.

Most of the released complaints are labeled as failing to be civil and courteous, though there are also alleged uses of force and other accusations, according to 554 pages of police reports obtained by the Journal Sentinel under the Wisconsin open records law. Lelinski unsuccessfully tried to have a court block release of the records.

Allegations date to 1996

The first case cited in the district attorney's motion dates to November 1996, when Lelinski was working a night shift in District 7, on the city's northwest side.

Police records indicate that a woman who called the district said Lelinski made sexually suggestive comments to her. She said he later came to her house and made similar comments, but no sexual contact occurred. The woman said she did not want to pursue the matter. The police report says the accuser lied in a different case and was not credible.

The prosecutor's motion said Lelinski continued to visit the woman in subsequent months and make suggestive comments.

While on duty in April 1997, Lelinski arrived alone at the woman's house and began touching her breasts and buttocks, the motion says. He threatened to arrest her, and she agreed to have sex with him, it says. Lelinski continued to see the woman over the next two years, paying her cash and paying her cable bill, the motion says.

The case was not referred to prosecutors.

On April 4, 1997, Lelinski while on duty stopped a woman standing near N. 17th and W. Center streets, an area known for prostitution at the time, the motion alleges. The woman, who was wanted on two warrants, told police Lelinski had stopped her before but this time ordered her into the squad car and drove to a liquor store lot. Lelinski then ordered the woman to expose her breasts and then to pull down her pants, so he could search her for drugs, the police and court records state; she refused sex, and he let her go.

Women's credibility in question

Assistant District Attorney Thomas McAdams and Deputy District Attorney Robert Donohoo reviewed the case. Donohoo "stated the 'only' violation of the law that might have been committed by Lelinski was disorderly conduct," according to the police records. They declined charges because the woman was the only witness, and her credibility was in question because of a long criminal record, those records state.

Later in 1997, two prostitutes claimed, Lelinski solicited them while on duty, always when he was alone and generally paying with a $20 bill, the reports say. Lelinski appeared unannounced at one woman's home early one morning, made suggestive comments and then masturbated and left, the documents allege. He also followed one of the women and watched her have sex with other men, police records indicate.

Both women identified Lelinski from a photo array, according to the records.

One of those women said Lelinski was known as "Detective Hell" because he gave prostitutes so much trouble. She said she had sex with Lelinski several times, each time for $20, according to police records. But then things changed.

"When he started using that (squad) car and that badge for his authority to get (sex) for free, he crossed the line," she told detectives.

A third woman said she was questioned by Lelinski in July 1997 for being a prostitute and driven to a parking lot where he "searched for weapons" by touching her indecently, according to court and police records. She said he then forced her to perform a sex act, the records state.

In 1999, Reddin and Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Rothstein reviewed the cases and declined to prosecute because the three complainants were "prostitutes and therefore lack credibility," according to police records.

A letter from the district attorney says Reddin could find no record that he reviewed the group of allegations, but Deputy District Attorney James Martin wrote it "appears" Reddin and Rothstein reviewed the case.

In September 1998, a woman accused Lelinski of assaulting her after he met her while investigating a robbery at a gas station where she worked, according to the prosecutor's motion. Lelinski told the woman she was wanted on warrants, put her in handcuffs and took her into his Jeep to a park, where he raped her, the motion says the woman claimed.

The records don't reveal whether the complaint was ever investigated internally or previously referred to prosecutors.

Charged in two assaults

Lelinski has been charged in connection with two reported assaults, one in July 2002 and the other last October.

In both, the women say Lelinski met them on duty and offered to help them, in one case with problem children, in the other with arrest warrants.

According to the criminal complaint:

In 2002, a woman called police to say her children had run away. Lelinski and a partner took the call, and Lelinski gave the woman his cell phone number. He invited the woman, who has a criminal record, to come to the Police Academy, where he proposed they have sex. She refused.

At midnight, the woman was taking out her trash and discovered Lelinski at her back door, in uniform. He propositioned the woman, who initially resisted and then consented to perform a sex act. Lelinski gave the woman $20 and left.

Reddin refused to issue charges in 2002 "because of insufficient evidence," a district attorney letter reads.

The criminal complaint also charges that last fall, Lelinski met a woman whose mother had died and offered to help her clear up warrants the woman had. Wearing plainclothes, Lelinski arrived unannounced at the woman's house at 2 a.m., walked in and began making suggestive comments. Lelinski tried to force her to perform a sex act and then threw $20 at the woman and said she would be arrested on the warrants, according to the complaint.

Prosecutor Falk writes in her motion the most recent allegations show "the escalating progression of Lelinski's behavior."

Copyright 2006, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.) 
 
May 29, 2006

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