The first police officer Brad Burke hired after he was promoted to chief of the Carroll Police Department in 2015 was Jacob Smith, who, public records show, had been fired from his previous police job, in part, for engaging in a Facebook conversation with a 16-year-old girl while he was on duty.
By April 2017, court records show, at least one of Burke’s own officers as well as two local teenagers had notified him that Smith was suspected of being in a sexual relationship with a high school student who was living with him.
However, court records show that Burke didn’t order an official investigation into Smith’s conduct until the Daily Times Herald began its own inquiry in July 2017.
And court records also show that after Burke allowed Smith to resign in lieu of termination, he told at least one police department that was considering hiring him that Smith was a “good officer.”
However, Smith, 27, was a “problem officer,” according to Philip Stinson, a law enforcement expert who is a professor of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University’s Criminal Justice Program.
“His personnel files are replete with information that demonstrate(s) that Smith’s serial police misconduct was well known to his police colleagues, supervisors, police chiefs and many of the residents in the communities where he worked as a police officer,” Stinson wrote after reviewing the personnel files and other information that came into public light as part of a libel lawsuit Smith filed against the Daily Times Herald last year.
Stinson made these statements in a report that was filed as part of the lawsuit proceedings.
That lawsuit — which alleged the newspaper erroneously reported the circumstances that led to Smith’s resignation in July 2017 under the threat of termination — was dismissed by a judge this week.
“The article at issue is accurate and true, and the underlying facts undisputed,” District Judge Thomas Bice wrote in his 10-page ruling.
As a result of the lawsuit, hundreds of pages of documents — including those that relate to internal investigations into Smith’s misconduct and transcripts of under-oath interviews with police officers and others associated with the lawsuit — are now part of the public court record.
The following is what those documents reveal about the department’s handling of Smith.
Smith admitted in his application to the Carroll Police Department that he had been fired from his first police job in Sumner, the eastern Iowa town where he grew up, in May 2015.
In his job interviews in Carroll later that year, Smith said he was fired because he was recorded on video at a private party drinking with someone who was underage, according to a transcript of Burke’s lawsuit deposition. Smith also mentioned a complaint about his contact with a high school girl, but he claimed she was his confidential informant.
Burke said at his deposition that no one with the city of Sumner would agree to talk about Smith’s termination.
But Smith’s misconduct in Sumner played out in a series of public city council meetings in early 2015, in which residents complained about his haughty attitude, his hyper-vigilant policing of drunken driving and for showing favoritism in traffic stops, according to recordings of those meetings that are public record.
He was reprimanded, according to the city council recordings, for questioning a superior officer and for contacting a 16-year-old girl via Facebook when he was 23.
“Illegaly parked..... tisk tisk tisk,” Smith wrote to the girl in November 2014, according to the messages obtained by the Times Herald.
When the girl told Smith she was out of town, he responded: “Drinking? haha”
The girl later wrote to Smith that she had broken up with her boyfriend. Her parent complained to Sumner city officials, according to recordings of the city council meetings.
Burke said at his deposition he did not know that Sumner reported to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy that Smith was fired for “actions unbecoming of a police officer” and that he was not eligible to be hired again there.
Carroll Police Sgt. Jeremiah Hoyt, who was among those who interviewed Smith in August 2015 before he was hired, testified at his deposition that he was concerned that Smith would have insubordination problems because Smith refused in the interview to say he would follow a superior’s order if he disagreed with it.
Hoyt ranked Smith fourth out of five candidates the department was interviewing.
“The police department reached out to many sources before hiring Jake Smith,” Burke said in an email to the Times Herald on Thursday. “Some of those sources refused to answer or provide information while others did.”
The police department has since adopted a more stringent vetting process, Burke wrote, that includes lie-detector tests and interviews with a police psychologist for prospective officers.
Hoyt did field training with Smith in October and November 2015, in which Hoyt rode along with the new officer to coach him shortly after he was hired by Carroll.
“Sgt. Hoyt noted that Smith exhibited aggressive policing tendencies and frequently had to be reminded of legal boundaries,” Stinson, the law enforcement expert, noted in the report he compiled about Smith’s misconduct. The report was commissioned by the Times Herald as part of its defense in the libel case.
In one traffic stop during that training, Hoyt observed that Smith obtained a false speed reading while using a radar gun. Hoyt documented that he was condescending and argued with the driver about going too fast, Stinson’s report says. Hoyt told Smith to apologize for the mistake.
“Instead, Smith approached the motorist, avoided explaining his mistake and advised the motorist that (Smith) was ‘letting him off with a verbal warning,’ ” the report states.
When the field training concluded in November 2015, Hoyt sent an email to Burke, then-Capt. Mark Heino and Sgt. J.J. Schreck, advising them that Smith needed to be monitored for a long list of concerns that included: Having an arrogant demeanor, insubordination, errors in his tickets and reports, blaming others for his mistakes, and “an overall lack of reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause when investigating crimes or making arrests,” among other concerns, according to Stinson’s report.
“We got constant — almost from the day he was released from his training — constant complaints” from the public about Smith’s attitude, his rudeness and Fourth Amendment rights violations, Hoyt said in his lawsuit deposition.
Months after that training, on July 1, 2016, Hoyt sent Burke an email that outlined numerous complaints of Smith’s misconduct that Hoyt had witnessed or heard about from residents, according to Stinson’s report.
Burke, in his deposition, said the complaints were typical of a new officer: “Very aggressive. Pretty black and white. No gray area.”
Hours after that email was sent, a 17-year-old girl named Randi Rinehart called 911 at 12:20 a.m. to report that someone tried to break into her car in the Walmart parking lot. Smith was on duty at the time and responded. According to transcripts of depositions of Rinehart, now 19, and Smith, Rinehart told him he was “hot,” and in the next three days they exchanged 74 text messages — 28 of those while he was on duty. Smith, in his lawsuit deposition, admitted the messages were flirtatious.
After hearing numerous rumors about Smith’s relationships with teenagers, Hoyt began his own investigation into Smith in August 2016. That November, Smith was reprimanded for departmental policy violations and was warned to “cease close personal relationships with minors,” according to Stinson’s report. Smith admitted he was spending off-duty time with high school boys.
Later in 2016, Smith had sex with Rinehart, who was still 17, both of them admitted in lawsuit depositions. She was a high school senior and he was 25 years old.
“I had sex with her when she was 17,” Smith said in the deposition. “It wasn’t right.”
Rumors about their relationship percolated through the community, and even among inmates at the jail. Dustin Hill, a Carroll County jail inmate who filed a federal lawsuit in March 2017 — which was later dismissed — claimed he was mistreated by Smith and said Smith was “dating a minor,” court records show.
Sgt. Gary Bellinghausen said in his deposition that he had several discussions with Burke and Heino in late 2016 about the relationship, “but the discussions ended with, ‘We have no proof.’”
Hoyt testified that by April 2017 he was confident that Rinehart was living with Smith and likely having sex with him, partially because pictures on social media showed them together. Around that same time, Hoyt notified Burke of his suspicions in an email.
Also that month, two teenagers who knew Smith told Burke that his relationship with Rinehart was sexual, Hoyt said in his deposition.
In April 2017, Rinehart, who was then 18, was involved in the vandalism of the vehicle of another woman, age 19, who had also had sex with Smith, according to court records.
Bellinghausen, who investigated the vandalism, said in his deposition that he was aware of an allegation that the vandalism had happened because Smith cheated on Rinehart.
Yet the police department’s formal investigation into Smith’s relationship with Rinehart didn’t begin until July 10, 2017, three days after the Times Herald requested police department emails and cellphone text messages pertaining to Smith and the teenagers.
“During all investigations the department reaches out to many individuals about the situation,” Burke wrote in an email to the Times Herald on Thursday. “We do everything we can to get to a conclusion. No investigation is completed overnight and some take many months to complete. Once all the information is collected, there can be issues with false information and the need for follow up to get as close to the truth as possible. It should also be noted that law enforcement agencies must follow strict guidelines when interviewing juveniles and that parents must be present or consent to this occurring before any questioning can be completed.”
‘PEOPLE SHOULDN’T JUDGE’
The day before the Times Herald made its records request, Burke called Times Herald co-owner Douglas Burns to discuss the newspaper’s investigation into Smith and said Smith’s relationships with teenagers should not be made public.
“People shouldn’t judge,” Burke said, according to a recording of that July 6, 2017 telephone call — all calls at the police department are recorded. “How do we pick what’s right and wrong when life is changing every day?”
The department’s subsequent investigation into Smith by Bellinghausen was largely focused on what the Times Herald had discovered about Smith in interviews with teenagers who were tied to the vehicle vandalism — teenagers Bellinghausen had previously interviewed about the vandalism.
“I told them that we were not sure exactly what the paper knows, but we were trying to find out,” Bellinghausen wrote in his now-public investigation report.
That report mentions the Times Herald — by referencing the “newspaper” or “paper” — 28 times.
In the investigation, Bellinghausen also sought to find out who might have first told the Times Herald about Smith’s relationships with teenagers, suspecting that it was someone at the police department.
Bellinghausen’s investigation confirmed within days that Smith had been “intimate” with 17-year-old Rinehart, who was then 18 and living with him, and Burke told Smith he would be terminated if he didn’t resign. Burke insinuated that resigning would look better to potential employers than being fired, according to a transcript of the talk that is in the public court record.
Smith resigned July 17, but that didn’t end the department’s attempts to learn who might have told the Times Herald about Smith’s relationship with Rinehart.
In September 2017, then-Officer Sandy March approached the Times Herald, claiming she had been fired and had damaging information about the department to share. Specifically, she said Carroll police officers had covered up a crime committed by a local businessman, but in exchange for providing details, she wanted to know which officer in the department was the newspaper’s informant because the officer might be involved in the cover-up.
The Times Herald had no informant in the department.
March agreed to meet with the newspaper again, but days later, Burke sent an email to the Times Herald that said: “Officer Sandy March has not been terminated and never was. She was never asked to resign. She met with you over the weekend at my request.”
In November, a former Carroll police officer who now works in Eldora emailed Burke and asked whether his department should consider hiring Smith for a part-time patrol job.
In Burke’s response, which the Times Herald obtained from Eldora, he acknowledges that Smith lied to him about his relationship with the live-in girlfriend, “more than likely due to the girl being in high school and only 17. He did not commit any criminal offense.”
Nevertheless, Burke praised Smith as a “good officer.”
“I would rate him high in that aspect,” Burke wrote. “I would compare him to (former Carroll police officer) James Anderson but with more personality. He got along well with members of the department and those in the community.”
The Eldora officer, Preston Gebhart, forwarded Burke’s email to the Eldora police chief with a note that included: “James is a great officer so it does speak highly that Chief Burke compared him to James. Might not be a bad idea to at least speak to Jacob about part time.”
Eldora Police Chief Mike Ludwigs called Smith on Nov. 20 to inform him he would not be hired because residents there had learned from a Times Herald article about the reasons he was forced to resign in Carroll and fired from Sumner, according to a transcript of the call.
“People of the community are not receptive towards a lot of this stuff, so, um, nothing against you,” Ludwigs said, according to a transcript of the call. “The chief in Carroll spoke highly of you. ... Like I said, you know if it was me, personally me, you’d be here in a heartbeat."
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
This article is based primarily on publicly available documents, many of which were filed with the court in connection with Smith’s libel lawsuit that he filed against the Daily Times Herald in July 2017. A judge dismissed that lawsuit this week. Among the documents used to write this article were interview transcripts from the police department’s internal investigation of Smith, Smith’s personnel file, deposition transcripts from the lawsuit, and the expert report of Phillip Stinson.
Read Carroll Sgt. Gary Bellinghausen's report on Smith here.
Read notes from Carroll Police Sgt. Jeremiah Hoyt on Smith here.
Read a report from Philip Stinson, a law enforcement expert and professor of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University’s Criminal Justice Program, on Smith here.