The conviction and sentencing of a St. Charles County deputy for his actions during a drug raid in Montgomery County continues to reverberate among law enforcement agencies including the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.
The polarizing case, which pitted police officer against police officer in court and later triggered in an altercation among officers at a charity event, is gaining notoriety among fraternal police associations as well as groups that target rogue cops.
The case is likely to take on an even higher profile now that a former Missouri Supreme Court judge has agreed to represent the officer on appeal and his supporters have launched a public relations campaign to combat what they describe as “unjust character assassinations” against an 18-year veteran of law enforcement and former U.S. Marine.
That campaign includes a rally this weekend at a St. Charles Harley-Davidson store which is expected to draw hundreds of people, including a large contingent of police officers.
While the case has generated support for Christopher E. Hunt, the convicted deputy, it also has provoked a backlash of criticism for several Warren County officers who testified against him.
St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer is so upset with the outcome of the case he has instructed his officers not to cross into Warren County or Montgomery County to make an arrest or to assist in an investigation, according published reports.
For many involved, the case boils down to who is telling the truth.
“I think that the Warren County officers got caught in the cross hairs in this thing,” Nicole Volkert, Montgomery County prosecutor, said Monday. “I think the officers deserve a lot of respect for telling the truth when they observed another police officer’s crime.”
Volkert took over the prosecution of Hunt after the original prosecutor, Lee Elliot, was removed from office over allegations that he violated his duties by representing a woman in a traffic matter in 2011.
Hunt was one of nearly a dozen officers, including members of the East Central Drug Task Force and the St. Charles County Regional Task Force, who arrested Phillip Alberternst, a known methamphetamine maker, in a mobile home in Middletown on Feb. 5, 2009.
At the time, Alberternst was wanted on several felony drug charges and had numerous prior encounters with drug task force officers, including Hunt.
Police considered Alberternst armed and dangerous. He was alleged to be responsible for burning a baby in a meth explosion in Warren County and reportedly had shot a St. Charles County drug informant in Pike County.
According to police reports and court testimony, Alberternst’s girlfriend agreed to turn him in on the condition that Hunt not be involved in the arrest.
Volkert said there was obviously “bad blood” between Hunt and Alberternst from previous encounters and that his girlfriend believed Hunt was out to get him and had issued a shoot to kill order against him.
After a trek through several counties, the girlfriend eventually led police to the trailer in rural Montgomery County. Hunt was not working the night of the arrest.
The officers did not have a search warrant for the trailer so they decided to set up surveillance and agreed to try to obtain consent to search the premises. According to Volkert, around this time, the St. Charles County deputies involved in the raid tipped off Hunt that Alberternst was at the mobile home.
What happened next is in dispute. According to Volkert, Hunt arrived at the scene, kicked in a porch door and proceeded to beat Alberternst who was naked after just coming out of the bathroom.
Other accounts of the raid indicated that Alberternst resisted arrest. Officers found meth in the trailer as well as materials used to manufacture the drug.
Alberternst declined an ambulance at the scene. Later that evening he was examined by a doctor at the Audrain Medical Center and found to have multiple contusions and abrasions on his face, legs and back. Several X-rays were taken but were negative for broken bones.
Immediately after the raid, some of the officers who took part in the raid expressed concern that they didn’t have probable cause to enter the trailer and were reluctant to pursue criminal charges against Hunt. A trooper with the Missouri Highway Patrol was notified that evening of the raid.
Eventually, at the request of the Audrain County sheriff, the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control conducted a full investigation of the raid which initially resulted in misdemeanor charges filed against Hunt and three other St. Charles County area officers involved in the raid. Volkert later amended one of the charges against Hunt to a felony.
Hunt’s case went to trial in August in Montgomery County. In a tense courtroom, Warren and Montgomery County deputies testified against Hunt. After six hours of deliberation, the jury found Hunt guilty of one count of felony burglary and two misdemeanor counts of assault and property damage.
Earlier this month, Warren County Circuit Judge Keith Sutherland sentenced Hunt to five years in prison for his role in the raid.
Volkert said Hunt got what he deserved.
“The other officers were willing to testify against him (Hunt) which, to me, shows just how egregious his conduct was. Judge Sutherland made some pretty strong comments at the sentencing. He didn’t believe Hunt’s testimony and neither did the jury,” she said.
Joe McCulloch, the attorney who represented Hunt at trial, said his client got a raw deal. He stressed that Hunt had every legal right to enter the trailer to arrest Alberternst and that there was evidence that he resisted arrest.
“I think the prosecutor played this case as the law enforcement from the big city comes out to the country and overruns the local officers.” McCulloch said Tuesday.
He also said that the Warren County sheriff’s deputies changed their accounts of what happened the night of the raid.
“With respect to the question of whether he (Alberternst) was resisting, you had two officers from Warren County and an officer from Montgomery County who said that he was. Either they (Warren County officers) prepared false police reports at the time of the event or they perjured themselves at trial, because the police reports they offered and their testimony was completely different. They’re lying either way — false report or perjury,” he argued.
McCulloch pointed out that one of the Warren County officers who testified against his client was later terminated for stealing money from the department, but was never prosecuted.
Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison acknowledged the case has caused a strain between his department and the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department.
When asked, he confirmed that one of his officers was struck by an officer from St. Charles County in a fight at a recent Guns and Hoses charity event in St. Louis after they exchanged words regarding the case. The incident was cited by many of those interviewed for this story as an example of the tension between the two departments.
Harrison said that on another occasion, a photocopy of a rat was left under the windshield of one of his department’s vehicles. He said that he doesn’t understand why his department was being singled out by some when the case against Hunt also involved officers from other departments and the highway patrol.
“Look, the jury reached a verdict. The judge issued a sentence and the defendant is exercising his right to appeal. My take on this is let the justice system run its course,” Harrison said this week.
“The only other comment I have is in response to what Tom (Sheriff Neer) said about ties being severed between our two departments. We are not severing ties with St. Charles County and if an officer there is in need of help or mutual aid we are going to be there to help. I have instructed my guys that way and we are going to do whatever we can to create a safe environment for the public and for law enforcement. That is our job.
“The St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department has a lot of people I respect. They have some of the best officers anywhere and I’m not going to let a few bad apples spoil that perception,” Harrison added.
Sheriff Neer did not return phone calls for this story.
Volkert said Neer’s actions in the case were disappointing.
“If there is a part of this case that is shocking, it is what has occurred in the aftermath of it that has put St. Charles at odds with Warren County,” Volkert said.
“Some in the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department obviously feel that a crime should not be reported if it’s committed by a police officer. It is alarming to me that St. Charles (County) officials are willing to use taxpayers’ dollars to defend this man. I understand it in a civil context, but I find it very unusual in a criminal setting. I’ve never seen a public entity support an employee in a criminal case. They have asked that the bills from the case be sent to the county. They obviously feel their employee is being railroaded.”
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann acknowledged the county has paid for Hunt’s criminal defense and plans to pay for his appeal. McCulloch called Ehlmann and Neer to testify as character witnesses on behalf of Hunt at his sentencing, but Judge Sutherland wouldn’t allow it because they weren’t on the witness list. Sutherland also refused to allow St. Charles County to pay for Hunt’s appeal bond.
A spokesperson for the county also confirmed that St. Charles County paid $65,000 to settle a civil suit filed by Alberternst. She also said that the county has a policy in place to provide legal representation to employees in criminal matters providing they cooperate fully with an internal investigation. The spokesperson said that in Hunt’s case, the criteria was met so the county agreed to cover his legal expenses in the criminal case.
McCulloch is no longer representing Hunt but said he deserves the respect of the public and his fellow officers. He and others mentioned that Hunt rescued a woman who was threatening to jump off the Interstate 364 bridge. He said Hunt climbed out onto a 2-inch wide steel girder to reach the woman and held her while she went into convulsions to prevent her from falling in the river.
“He’s an excellent officer,” McCulloch added. “He is the guy you want answering the call when you need help.”
Former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson has entered his appearance in Hunt’s appeal. He declined to comment on the specifics of the case saying he was still reviewing the facts including testimony from the trial.
“This is a case that involves a very unusual set of circumstances. The policy implications of this case are enormous for every police officer who is charged with protecting the public,” Robertson said.