Police chief arrested over K9 certification
Status of remaining officer at issue as aldermen, mayor battle
The Verona police chief has been arrested for alleged forgery in the aftermath of another bruising round of head-butting between aldermen and the mayor at Tuesday’s Verona City Council meeting.
Bobby Jason Smith, 36, of Nixa, hired as interim police chief twice in January, was arrested Thursday by the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department on a warrant for alleged felony forgery. He was released on $1,500 bond.
According to the probable cause statement signed Sgt. Jason Trammell, Smith presented documentation that his dog, Thor, had been certified from a police dog training school in Arkansas. He presented the certificate to the city.
“Suspicion grew in regards to the certificate and a preliminary inquiry was made regarding the validation of the police K9 certificate,” Trammell wrote. “The police dog training school in Arkansas was contacted and no records were on file on behalf of Officer Bobby Smith and his dog, Thor. On March 1, Officer Smith was interviewed by the Highway Patrol. Officer Smith initially gave false statements surrounding the certification of his dog. When confronted with the inconsistencies, Officer Smith ultimately confessed to his knowledge of the police K9 certificate to being false and that he paid an individual in Arkansas $500 for the fraudulent certificate. The investigation confirmed the police dog K9 certificate from Officer Smith as presented to the Verona City Council was fraudulent and the dog in question did not attend any police training.”
The issue came to a head at Tuesday’s council meeting when aldermen took up Smith’s request to hire a dog for police business. Under questioning from Alderman DeDe Hutson, Smith said he approached School Superintendent Tony Simmons about using Smith’s personal dog, who he claimed was trained for narcotics and tracking. Smith said he approached the school district as part of his personal business, not officially as the Verona police chief. Smith requested the city cover half the cost for training his dog for use in Verona. He presented the city with certification for his dog from Blue Streak K9 in Jonesboro, Ark., where he said the dog undergoes training eight hours a month.
“I call bulls**t,” Hutson said, a charge she repeated several times.
She pointed to typos on the certificate that Smith said had been emailed to him and produced another certificate, in another format. She claimed Smith’s copy was a fraud and said it had been turned over to the Lawrence County prosecutor’s office.
Blake Bristow, who operates Blue Streak K9 in Jonesboro, Ark., where Smith said his dog, Thor, was trained, told The Monett Times the certificate presented by Smith is not legitimate.
“I’ve never met the guy, and I’ve never seen the dog,” Bristow said. “The date on the certificate, I was in Atlanta, Ga., conducting a K-9 training. I don’t email certificates. I fill in the scores and send them to DrugBeat in Springfield, and they send a stamped copy to the owner.
“I’m a police officer. I take offense at this behavior. I don’t send out documents with misspelled words. If I’m doing it, it’s going to be properly done.”
Bristow confirmed he was contacted by Hutson in the course of her inquiry into the matter.
On the city council agenda, for the second month in a row, was consideration to formally hire Smith as part-time chief and Levi Neely as a full-time officer.
Mayor Joseph Heck hired Smith and Neely to begin work on Jan. 8 after Police Chief Tim Jones was not offered a contract for 2018 and all the reserve officers quit. Council members Linda Gates and Hutson would not consider officially hiring Smith and Neely at the January 23 meeting. Heck immediately rehired them.
City ordinance 115.070 states, “If a vacancy occurs in any office not elective, the mayor shall appoint a suitable person to discharge the duties of such office until the first regular meeting of the Board of Aldermen thereafter.”
Following the exchange with Smith, Hutson quickly made a motion not to hire Smith and Neely, adding the mayor not be allowed to hire them either. Gates seconded the motion. Aldermen Michael Haynes voted against it.
The significance of the motion was unclear.
“I called the Missouri Police Chiefs Association,” Heck said on Wednesday. “They said you can’t fire police officers like that.”
Heck further cited state statutes which he interpreted to mean firings can only be done in closed session, then announced in open session. With that as foundation, Heck said he planned to rehire both officers. Heck said on Friday Smith would not be returning to work in Verona.
City Attorney Darlene Parrigon was initially unsure of the significance of Hutson’s motion. She thought the motion could indicate the officers did not qualify as “a suitable person” as referenced by the ordinance. She planned to contact the Missouri Municipal League for better direction.
The confrontation over police issues did not start with Smith’s dog or end there.
Matters began to deteriorate as documentation was requested on police matters. Heck reported the Dodge Durango, used as the primary police vehicle for many years, had a salvage title and, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, should not be used as a police vehicle. Smith said the vehicle failed inspection, but he did not have paperwork showing that, having left it with his attorney.
“Bring the title and we’ll talk about it,” Gates said.
Heck requested purchasing two new police uniforms. According to Neely, there was only one uniform that fit. Cost was estimated at around $140 each, but no price quotes were placed before aldermen for consideration. The matter was tabled.
The police department’s taser was soaked on Feb. 24 when Neely aided a Lawrence County sheriff’s deputy in rescuing a motorist who drove into high water on Farm Road 1131, north of Highway P. According to Smith, the deputy “screamed for help,” and Neely responded according to mutual aid protocol.
Gates asked for documentation on the incident. Smith made a phone call to the dispatch center in Monett but could not receive any documents promptly. The matter was tabled.
Following the exchange over the dog, Hutson drew the discussion to a Facebook page posted as being from the Verona Police Department. Hutson asked Smith to take down comments she deemed as critical toward herself and Gates. The posting referred to “some members of the city council,” and Smith challenged Hutson to find her name there.
“Really?” Hutson replied, then asked him to take it down.
Smith, while not denying he put up the post signed “Chief,” said the Facebook page did not belong to the city government.
“The citizens own it, not the city,” Smith said.
Heck joined in, complaining about posts from a Hutson email calling the city under his leadership “a clown show,” a claim Hutson rebuffed.
Hutson took the posting on her phone to Parrigon and asked for action. The attorney asked Heck what the city’s standard operating procedure was regarding social media, in either the city employee manual or in the police manual. Heck said there were no policies.
By Wednesday, the Facebook page was no longer active. The post can still be read on the Concerned Citizens of Verona Facebook page, which had other postings in favor of non-incumbents running for city council seats.
Heck also said he had no plans to introduce a social media policy for employees.