On Jan. 25, 2006, a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, suspected marijuana stems and seeds, and drug paraphernalia were seized from a Warrenton home owned by a Warrenton city official.
Thirty-seven months later, the criminal case wound up going nowhere as the statute of limitations expired for the potential felony crime related to the discovery of the illegal weapon.
What happened between those dates is a cause for debate.
For two years, the case sat dormant as the suspect could not be reached by a deputy who was first assigned to the case, according to police reports. Another delay ensued between the time the warrant application was written by a second officer and submitted to the prosecutor’s office.
While the case is certainly not a high profile one, the parties involved has led to some extra scrutiny. The suspect who police said was in possession of the gun was Woodrow Thorn III, the son of Terri Thorn, the director of operations/financial officer for the city of Warrenton.
For Stan Shelton and ex-city employees Jennifer Schloeman and Bernice Fletcher, the mishandling of the case is cause for concern and he and others are questioning whether if some type of influence was wielded to allow for it to be neglected for so long. It is one of the reasons Shelton has requested an audit of the city by state authorities.
On the opposite end are others, such as Sheriff Kevin Harrison and Thorn, vehemently denying any implication or a perceived cover-up of the case.
At approximately 11:25 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2006, then-Warrenton Police Chief Pat Harney responded to a home at 106 Oaklawn Ave. in Warrenton for suspicious circumstances following a request made by Thorn, who had arrived to help secure one of two loose dogs. Thorn told Harney that her son’s girlfriend should have been at the home, but her absence prompted concerns.
According to the police report filed by Harney, he searched the home to determine if the girlfriend was present. While inside, he located a 12-gauge shotgun that appeared to be less than 18 inches.
Harney told Thorn of what he found inside the home. They returned to the bedroom where the gun was located and retrieved a tape measure. The barrel length turned out to be 13 ½ inches, the report stated.
Also seized, according to Harney, was one foil smoking device, one aluminum smoking device and suspected marijuana stems and seeds.
A records check of the shotgun found that it had been reported stolen by the Cape Girardeau Police Department. Soon after, Thorn produced a sales receipt dated Sept. 14, 1994, showing that the gun had been legally purchased by her husband from Kevin’s Guns, a St. Charles County business that has since closed.
The following day Harney, after consulting with Thorn and then-Mayor Jim Shores, wrote to Sheriff Kevin Harrison requesting the sheriff’s department take over investigating the case to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest since the suspect was the son of a city official.
On Feb. 6, Harrison wrote to Harney acknowledging the sheriff’s department was beginning its investigating and that the information related to the case should be forwarded to deputy Lt. Doug Stonebarger.
Investigation Draws Scrutiny
The period of time the sheriff’s department investigated the case is the focus of criticism raised by Shelton and the former city employees. They obtained copies of the police reports and are pressing for answers as to why the investigation took so long.
From February 2006 to September 2008, Stonebarger was unable to make contact with Woodrow Thorn and his girlfriend, according to the reports. On Oct. 1, 2008, the case was reassigned to deputy Det. Scott Schoenfeld, who was able to make contact with the couple the following day.
During a brief conversation, Woodrow Thorn informed Schoenfeld that he wished he could speak with him, but had been told not to, the police report states. He then used Schoenfeld’s cellphone to call his mother, who directed him to not answer any of the officer’s questions, according to the police report.
Schoenfeld eventually prepared a warrant application and a probable cause statement, documents that are used when a law enforcement agency plans to pursue criminal charges against a suspect. Dated Dec. 9, 2008, Schoenfeld sought to have Woodrow Thorn charged with felony possession of a prohibited weapon.
However, the charging documents apparently failed to be forwarded for over two months. At the time it was submitted to the prosecutor’s office, stamped on Feb. 25, 2009, the statute of limitations had expired by 32 days.
Prosecutor Mike Wright sent a follow-up letter dated Feb. 27 to Schoenfeld indicating the same.
But why did the investigation go nowhere for two years? Why another delay that slowed the paperwork from being delivered to the prosecutor’s office located down the courthouse hallway?
Sheriff: Ball Was Dropped
Sheriff Kevin Harrison disagrees with Shelton’s stance that the case was ignored on purpose as a way to protect a city official’s family member.
“The thing is, a mistake was made and a case fell in the cracks,” Harrison said.
Harrison admits his department mishandled the case and he is taking sole responsibility for how it was dealt with. He places some of the blame on the period of time when Stonebarger was promoted to jail administrator and there was a shuffling of employees within the detective bureau.
Then, when the case was reassigned, it sat idle once again as the U.S. attorney’s office reviewed it to see if a federal charge was warranted, Harrison said.
With those factors combined, he said, the statutory of limitations closed in. Eventually, a three-year window to have Woodrow Thorn charged with a felony passed.
“I’m not going to make an excuse,” Harrison stated. “The ball was dropped.”
Having a case submitted past the statute of limitations does happen, local police and prosecutors say. At the same time they also acknowledge it’s rare.
“Does it happen? Yes,” Prosecutor Mike Wright said. “But it’s an exception to the rule and it’s unfortunate. It can be for a variety of reasons. This isn’t the first time and won’t be the only time.”
Harney, the ex-police chief who found the gun, admitted to being curious about the case’s aftermath following his exit from the city in 2007. He agrees that sometimes criminal cases for whatever reason fall to the wayside.
In this specific case, he commented, “I don’t have anything to hide. I took the right and necessary steps from the start to end of my involvement.”
City Head Responds
Thorn has been employed with the city since March 2003, first earning $10 an hour. She then rose through the ranks to being its highest-paid employee and now has an annual salary of $81,922.16.
But her ascension has not come without criticism, primarily because of the high employee turnover rate that has occurred during her time as director of operations. More scrutiny has been directed at Thorn since April after she and Police Chief Greg Houdyshell were given employment contracts.
The contracts had been recommended by then-Mayor Greg Costello, who said both city employees had been targeted for termination by mayoral candidate and eventual winner Jerry Dyer, and approved by aldermen.
Under the terms of the contract, if either employee would be dismissed without cause, they would receive a severance equal to a year’s salary. According to the contract, if either employee is discharged for cause, they would not be entitled to the severance pay.
Thorn and Houdyshell are the only city employees who have contracts.
Shelton said it would have never reached the point to release the reports from the illegal weapon case involving Thorn’s son to the media had the employment contracts not been issued. He also recently spearheaded a petition drive to have the state audit the city.
“We’re not trying to paint anything in this story,” Shelton said. “Look at the police reports. It is cut and dried with what happens.”
In an interview last week, Thorn said some of the details related to the delays in the investigation and inability to reach her son were learned for the first time. But she strongly denied having any influence or connection in her son’s criminal case.
“From the time it went across the street (to the sheriff’s department), I had no involvement,” Thorn commented. “I did not have any conversations with anybody. I did not have conversations with the mayor. I purposely talked to no one.”
She wonders what is fueling the negative publicity that is being brought upon the city in recent months. In regard to the audit, Thorn said she welcomes the opportunity to show that city business has been conducted appropriately under her watch.
She does not regret signing the employment contract.
“I’m sorry the city has to go through this, spend money for a state audit,” Thorn said. “I truly believe there is nothing to find. I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. Are you asking me on a personal level? Somebody is always taking pot shots. My son is not the first one who has ever had some report with the law. Maybe it comes with the job. Maybe it comes with being a city employee. I don’t know.”
Shelton said a letter was recently mailed in the past week to the governor’s office seeking that an investigation begin alleging corruption within the city.
While Shelton has hope the case will be revisited in some form, it’s likely the criminal case involving Thorn’s son will remain closed forever and the skepticism will remain.
Once again the case will be forgotten.