WEST CHESTER TWP., Ohio (FOX19) - West Chester’s police chief is speaking out for the first time since FOX19 NOW revealed he ordered a 40-hour suspension of an officer after an internal investigation determined the officer violated procedures during the stalking investigation of a woman later found murdered.
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.
Police conducted extra patrols at Weik’s house but, ultimately, it was not enough to keep her stalker from killing her.
Her mother reported Weik, 23, missing on Aug. 1, and her body was found in a Liberty Township field 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. on Aug. 25. He is currently serving 17 years to life in prison after a jury convicted him of Weik’s murder.
West Chester Police Chief Joel Herzog responded in writing Tuesday to some of the questions we sent him Friday when a township spokeswoman said he was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Here is his response in its entirety:
There is only one person to blame for Ellie Weik’s murder. Michael Strouse is responsible for this evil act and he will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. It is important not to confuse the evidence and information we now have about Strouse, with the information that was available or known at the time of the investigation into telecommunications harassment.
If we knew in advance the evil that an individual was capable of, and could arrest and sentence them to jail with just that knowledge; there wouldn’t be any violent crime in our society. All of the potential evil-doers would already be locked up.
Law enforcement has a responsibility to protect the community by enforcing laws and investigating crimes. Individuals cannot be arrested and charged with crimes without cause and police cannot provide guaranteed individual personal protection to every resident and visitor in our community.
The West Chester Police Department has been open and honest with Ellie’s family on all aspects of the investigation.
I won’t comment on any further matters related to the internal investigation because it is a pending case. Officer Thomas is on active duty.
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, police records show.
The video appeared to have been taken by someone standing on her patio.
Officer Thomas did not scan in and add the emails and video link Weik turned over, add them to the stalking report, or log them into property, the internal investigation found.
He also did not document an email he received from Weik on May 1, 2018, which said she received additional texts, police records state. Those were not scanned into the stalking report or logged into property either.
Friends of Weik told FOX19 NOW after her death that she had been terrified for months. She had been telling her friends that someone was stalking her non-stop.
We have tried multiple times to reach the attorney for Officer Thomas on Monday and Tuesday and will continue to seek comment.
Thomas tried to stop or reduce his unpaid 40-hour suspension with the help of the police union, but the chief declined to change it, police records show.
His personnel file shows he served the suspension in over four days December.
Thomas defended his actions in Weik’s stalking investigation in an administrative hearing in November, stating “that in no way did he not take the situation as a serious matter,” according to a report on it.
"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 concerned 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," the chief said.
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,” the chief wrote in the administrative hearing report.
Two supervisors, Lt. David Tivin and Sgt. Jeff Gearhart, also were verbally admonished for issues related to case management, internal records show.
Thomas has been documented for similar conduct before, according to his personnel file.
He was 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 in a report summarizing the officer’s November administrative hearing.
One of those cases involves the investigation of a Dec. 22, 2017 robbery at U.S. Bank on Tylers Place Boulevard near Interstate 75, police records state.
West Chester Police Captain Joe Gutman recommended an “internal investigation as soon as possible” when he suspected Thomas’ “actions may constitute multiple violations of policy and rules and regulations,” according to a January 17, 2018 memo he wrote to the chief.
Specifically, the complaint alleged Thomas, then a detective in the Criminal Investigation Section, “failed to act on investigative information given to him regarding a bank robbery suspect.”
On Feb. 21, 2018, a week before Gutman wrote him a letter of reprimand in the case, Thomas requested to transfer out of CIS and to go to Uniform Patrol Section.
“I have pondered for some time now and through many discussions with my family, I feel that the timing is right for a change,” Thomas wrote.
He closed his letter out with: “Thank you for the opportunity to serve this department in this capacity as long as I have and I look forward to continued service in a new role.”
Gutman wrote in Thomas’s letter of reprimand that he “failed to ask (a communications officer) for additional details, he failed to contact his supervisor about the tip and he failed to take immediate action which would have been entirely appropriate in this case.”
“Given the fact that (the communications officer) clearly stated she was passing on a tip about the bank robbery and that the information was in relation to the identity of the suspect, Detective Thomas had a clear duty to focus on the phone call and to take appropriate action. Instead, he chose to push it off until Tuesday. It should be noted that Detective Thomas was off the following week and at no time did he mention this phone call to his co-workers or his supervisor" the letter states.
“Detective Thomas is advised that his conduct in this situation falls well short of our guiding principles and future violations of our rules and regulations could result in progressive discipline.”
In 2017, Sgt. Jeff Gearhart made a notation documenting verbal counseling he gave Thomas about care of victims.
"Det. Thomas needs to ensure he is engaged and vested in providing victims’ the service they deserve and require. This should include making certain the victim is prepared and aware of court proceedings, as well as, ensuring an appropriate amount of victim follow up is completed.
"This attention to detail was found to be lacking during the initial proceedings of (case no).
“Det. Thomas has been counseled on this matter. Further, Det. Thomas attended a CIS information session by the Area III Court Victim Advocate Division. The session provided an overview of the services that their office can offer to victims as well as their ability to assist during the different court hearing process.”
He also was verbally counseled Nov. 2, 2016 related to improperly disposing a complaint form.
Now, another internal investigation is underway involving the officer, township officials said. It was launched in March, 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 information and records.
Thomas has been an officer in the township since 2003, is a member of the department’s Honor Guard and currently works third shift, according to the township.
He also previously worked for the Clermont County Sheriff’s Office, from July 14, 1997 through Jan. 20, 1999 and at Milford Police Department Jan. 25, 1999 until March 7, 2003, when he went to West Chester, his personnel file shows.
Thomas earned his Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and also attended Great Oaks Police Academy.
He was rated mostly “Meets Standards” on his latest job performance review, from 2018, and received “Exceeds Standards” on attendance, teamwork and incident response, his personnel file states.
Thomas received “Needs Improvement” for investigation and case preparation.
“PO Thomas is always early for his shift and has his car loaded, ready for deployment prior to briefing,” his rater wrote. “He is also very much a team player, respected by his peers and assist other officers with calls that are pending without solicitation.”
Another rater noted his suspension over the Weik case but stressed "Through all this, Officer Thomas has stayed focused and remained positive while on duty. There have not been any other like or similar issues brought to my attention.
“Officer Thomas brings many years of experience to the shift and his experience as a detective is a valuable resource for other officers. He voluntarily works one of the busier beats, and he does a nice job of time management and taking care of his beat,” the review goes on.
“He manages his calls efficiently and requires little to no supervision. Officer Thomas led the shift in calls for service, accidents, incident reports and 101 checks. He was second on the shift for arrests, and he maintained standards with traffic enforcement as well....Officer Thomas is also a team player consistently helping other officers out. Officer Thomas has displayed very good communication skills in handling mentally ill and intoxicated subjects.”
He has received nearly 50 commendations, unit citations or letters of appreciation during his time at West Chester, according to his personnel file.
He has been lauded for everything from politely and professionally checking on a female driver while her car was disabled to de-escalating a volatile and potentially violent situation with a patient having a psychiatric emergency to risking his life.
He also rescued a suicidal male with a history of jumping in front of traffic on Interstate 75 in an attempt to harm himself from the edge of a 30-foot drop off the interstate.
“The male would not talk to the officers or acknowledge them in any way," reads the June 6, 2018 commendation. "As PO Young and Michaud talked to the male PO Thomas was able to ease up next to and ultimately pull him to safety. Once the subject was handcuffed the three officers were escorting him to a nearby cruiser when he began to resist. The subject head-butted PO Thomas as they were trying to get him to cross a guardrail. The subject has to be physically restrained and was placed on the ground in a controlled manner.
“All three officers are commended on their handling of the situation and used very minimal force after one of them was intentionally assaulted. During the review of the incident it was noted that the officers were more concerned about the subject’s safety and well-being then their own. Great job.”