WEST CHESTER, Ohio (FOX19) - The West Chester police officer who investigated a stalking complaint filed by a 23-year-old woman who later was found murdered by her ex-boyfriend violated police procedures, records released Friday show.
Officer James Thomas failed to thoroughly document information and conduct a thorough investigation when Ellie Weik filed an April 11, 2018 report that an unknown person began sending her harassing text messages in February 2018, according to a memo summarizing the case.
Thomas was given a 40-hour unpaid suspension that he tried to halt or reduce, according to the internal investigation report. Two supervisors, Lt. David Tivin and Sgt. Jeff Gearhart, were also verbally admonished for issues related to case management, other records show.
FOX19 NOW obtained the documents via a public records request to the West Chester Police Department earlier this month.
“Officer Thomas needed a stronger sense of urgency and attention to detail while investigating this case to ensure the safety of the victim. That did not occur,” reads the administrative hearing report following an internal investigation.
We have a request for comment and several questions into Police Chief Joel Herzog via township spokeswoman, Barb Wilson. Wilson said the chief was out of town and unavailable Friday but would review our questions when he could.
We also left a message for comment Friday with the union that represents West Chester police and a message in the squad room for Thomas, Tivin and Gearhart.
We will update this story when we hear back.
Weik reported the text messages she received were from a “Mikael” who also had sent her a video of her sitting at her dining room table. The video appeared to have been taken by someone standing on her patio.
Four months later, on Aug. 1, Weik’s mother reported her missing, and her body was found in a Liberty Township in a farm field off Millikin and Maud Hughes roads later that month, on Aug. 24.
Weik’s cause of death is listed as asphyxiation. The preliminary autopsy report confirmed she was strangled.
West Chester police arrested Michael Strouse about 4 a.m. Aug. 25. He is currently serving 17 years to life in prison after a jury convicted him of her murder.
He has a criminal history which includes public indecency and burglary, court records show.
After Weik’s body was found and Michael Strouse was arrested, and as police began to learn more about the case, they launched an Aug. 29 internal investigation into how Officer Thomas conducted the initial stalking probe, police records state.
The investigation also looked at how the two supervisors, Lt. Tivin and Sgt. Gearhart, oversaw the probe.
Police have since realized Strouse stalked Weik from Feb. 1, 2017 through July 29, 2018, using multiple aliases and spoof chat apps to interact with her, even posing as a friend called “Nate” until she realized it was him, records state.
“I have concerns about both the thoroughness of this investigation as well as the timeliness in which follow-up investigative steps were taken,” wrote a police supervisor, Captain Joe Gutman, in a memo to Police Chief Joel Herzog back on Aug. 27, 2018.
Specifically, the review of Thomas’ investigation of the stalking report shows that while he was taking steps with the investigation while working the case, “there were notable gaps in the timeline where there appeared to be no action,” police wrote in an Administrative Hearing Report signed by the chief.
The investigation uncovered, according to the report:
- The initial report did not explain where the name spelling of Mikael came from
- The report did not document Weik had an ex-boyfriend named Michael, his last name or address. The report did not say why Thomas did not treat him as a possible suspect
- The emails and video link Weik sent the officer were not scanned in and added to the report or logged into property
- Thomas did not document he received an email from Weik on May 1, 2018, stating she received additional texts and he did not scan the messages into the report or log them into property
- The officer did not document his attempts to evaluate the IP address information he received from Textme.com or the results when he clicked on the address
During the officer’s Nov. 27 administrative hearing, Thomas read a prepared statement that said he felt he followed up on the report per policy.
“He stated that in no way did he not take the situation as a serious matter," reads a copy of the administrative hearing report.
“When I asked her who Mikael might be she said the only Michael she knows was an ex-boyfriend and he does not spell his name that way,” the officer said during the hearing, according a recording of it. “She also said she did not believe it to be the same Michael she knew and did not show concern of her ex-boyfriend.”
The officer also told police officials that “when he felt he took it was far as he could, he requested assistance from CIS," the report states.
However, the chief was clearly troubled by the officer’s actions - or lack thereof, according to the recording.
“I’m a little troubled that the initial report the fact that it’s called telecommunications harassment. The video absolutely escalates this.”
After listening to the charges, case investigation and the officer’s statement, Herzog determined Thomas "was lacking in several areas and sustained both charges,” Herzog wrote. “I took a 30 minute recess before returning to an administering of discipline.”
The chief ordered that Thomas be given a 40 hour suspension without pay.
“Officer had been issued a PSL counseling in April of 2017 and a letter of reprimand in February of 2018, both of which were similar in nature to these cases,” the chief wrote.
One of those cases involves the investigation of a bank robbery, records FOX19 NOW obtained Friday show.
In reference to Weik’s stalking case, the chief wrote that Thomas should have had a "heightened sense of concern after learning that the text had been sent for several months and then a video link showing Weik inside her residence that was surreptitiously taken from outside.
“Regardless of how Ms. Weik relayed her concern,” the chief’s report continued, “these facts should have caused an experience(d) investigator and officer reason to believe this case should be given a sense of urgency. Officer Thomas neglected to login to property the text messages and failed to capture the video in question. It was later learned through the video link that had expired and that the video was potentially lost. It was through cooperation with BCI that this video was able to be recovered."
The chief’s memo also states: “I had to be careful to not mix what is known now and what was known to Officer Thomas at the time of the report. As this case escalated, many of these case facts were discovered that were not known at the time of Officer Thomas’ investigation. Officer Thomas was provided the name ‘Mikael’ that the text could be coming from but he failed to question further about this potential suspect. Officer Thomas needed a stronger sense of urgency and attention to detail while investigating this case to ensure the safety of the victim. That did not occur."
The officer fought the suspension with the help of the union that represents West Chester police, records show. A grievance was filed Nov. 30 requesting to “nullify or reduce discipline."
Thomas has been with West Chester police since 2003 and remains on active duty, working third shift, police officials said Friday.
Herzog wrote in a response about the grievance over the officer’s suspension to the officer and the union that he stood by the length and, in fact, originally felt an 80-hour one would be more appropriate.
“I feel the discipline is appropriate given the seriousness of this case and I am not willing to nullify or reduce” it, he wrote.
“I also considered (a union request) ...for a suspended portion of the non-paid suspension pending good behavior from Officer Thomas,” he wrote. "I do not feel that would be appropriate at this time. As I stated, due to the seriousness of these issues surrounding this case and the failures of Officer Thomas, I was actually considering up to 80 hours of non-paid suspension.
“After reviewing Officer Thomas’ employment record, I felt the issue could be correct and understood with a 40-hour non-paid suspension. I also have concerns about stress levels placed on an officer having suspended time weighing on him for two years. I feel the discipline is warranted and appropriate considering Officer Thomas has past infractions similar in nature, in a recent time frame from this occurrence.”
Now, the officer is the subject of yet another internal investigation - one launched in March, police records show. It is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks, township officials said.
Details were not released because it remains open, they said when we sought more details and records.
FOX19 NOW also is still waiting for other records from West Chester police related to the officer, including his entire personnel file and all his job performance reviews.
Township officials told us Friday those would be released next week.
Thomas has reported that his transition to the patrol section “has not went as well as he anticipated over the last year,” according to an April 29 email the chief wrote one of Thomas’ direct supervisors, Sgt. Jeff Niehaus.
“He stated to me and Capt. Gutman that so many things have changed while he was assigned to the Criminal Investigation Section. He stated that he was not given any transitional training when he came back to uniformed patrol. He feels this has led to his not meeting my expectations of him,” Herzog wrote.
“I asked him to give me specifics in an email of what he feels he needs training in for (the patrols section,” the chief’s email continues. "Immediately, I would like you to ride with him tonight to see if there is areas that area readily identifiable and determine if he is capable of functioning solo properly as a police officer.
“It is difficult to comprehend it could be evidence collection or how to properly document an incident for a report with his vast experience in CIS, but I will leave that for you to evaluate and discuss with him since these are the areas he mentioned he was lacking. After your assessment, please advise Lt. Whitton and Capt. Gutman your suggestions for remedial training."