When Greg Kelley appears in court next month, his lawyers will claim the Cedar Park Police Department bungled his case so badly that their client never had a fair shot in the criminal justice system.
The odds were stacked against the former Leander High School football player from the very beginning, they say, because a detective did not interview other potential suspects, encouraged an alleged victim to name Kelley in the crime and deleted numerous emails between himself and Child Protective Services. But for all of that, they say, Kelley would never have been convicted of super aggravated sexual assault of a 4-year-old-child, resulting in a prison sentence of 25 years.
The accusations of investigative bias in Kelley’s case come at a time when the quality of the department’s work is being questioned in two other high-profile cases.
In one of them, testimony from an accused child killer may be at risk because detectives detained the suspect, Meagan Work, for a lengthy time before getting an arrest warrant. In another, the force came under fire for losing witness statements and failing to preserve evidence of a murder.
And in two low-profile cases, the city paid out a combined $133,000 for arresting and jailing two people without cause.
But five cases do not reveal a pattern of problems for an agency that handles about 28,000 calls for service each year, said Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix, who has been chief since 2013. While his force may be small, his officers can handle big crimes, he said.
The increased scrutiny comes as the department evolves from a small town force to a more metropolitan department. The city’s booming population has grown 12 percent to about 69,000 people since 2013, bringing with it a steadily growing number of crimes. Its police force has jumped from 80 to 90 sworn officers.
While the overall crime rate is low and homicides remain a rarity — there were no murders in 2016 —the department is dealing with a growing number of rape, assault and larceny cases.
Among the department’s good work, Mannix points to the case of Adam Solis, who pleaded guilty to the 2015 murder of his girlfriend, Katie Eager. Another is the conviction of Clarence Richardson, who recently received two 40-year sentences for trying to sexually assault a woman after breaking into her home.
Like all law enforcement agencies, Mannix said, Cedar Park PD has made missteps at times.
“We work in a complex industry and mistakes get made,” he said. “It’s not the mistakes that get made: it’s what you do with them.”
It’s hard to know how Cedar Park’s record compares to other departments because the details of each case and the makeup of departments are so different. And there is no way to say whether one investigator is better at finding the truth than another.
But attacking a police investigation is routine in court. Robert Pusins, a former Fort Lauderdale assistant police chief who now operates a law enforcement consulting business, said police officers and detectives expect that their work will be second-guessed and challenged once a case reaches the courtroom – especially if it is high-profile.
“It is not undermining their work, it is representing the defendants as they should,” Pusins said. “Defense attorneys are trying to represent the rights of the defendants to ensure a fair trial and to have their day in court. Part of the process is to question whether the police operated reasonably. Police officers understand it.”
Big cases, big questions
When it comes to the Greg Kelley case, Cedar Park police been under fire for years.
Since the 2014 trial, Kelley supporters have lambasted the lead detective’s actions, claiming he eschewed good police work to fit his personal narrative of the crime: that Kelley had abused two children at an in-home daycare and there was no need to investigate other possible suspects who had access to the 4-year-old boys. Even after one of the boys later said Kelley had not molested him, the detective conceded that he pushed the boy to stand by his earlier allegations. The child recanted on the witness stand.
On August 3 and 4, Kelley’s lawyers will head to district court to try to convince the judge that Kelley is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. One of their arguments will be that the detective’s investigation was so shoddy that Kelley was essentially denied fair treatment by the judicial system.
The Williamson County District attorney has reopened the case and the Texas Rangers are investigating another suspect in the crime.
Cedar Park police have said they focused on Kelley because the child identified him as the perpetrator.
But experts in child sex crime investigations say they prefer to get a fuller picture before zeroing in on one target.
“I would want to know who comes and goes and learn as much as I could about the individuals,” said Andrew J. Scott III, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla., who now operates a consulting business. “Are they stable? Are they transient? I would want to know the criminal history of everybody who lives in the house. I would want to know the full range of what this child has been exposed to.”
Kenny Shepard, a retired New York City Police Department detective who investigated child sex crimes, added, “You want to interview people who were there to see if at any point the child was away with anyone else.”
But although they would have conducted aspects of the Kelley investigation differently, the two experts are reluctant to criticize the department’s work.
“Dealing with sex crimes with children is a very slow, methodical process which requires far different interview skills for obvious reasons,” Scott said. “They are incredibly difficult cases.”
Mannix says his employee did a good job. His cops get the facts, then leave it in the hands of the prosecutors, he said. It’s not personal.
“That detective is not worried about where that case goes once it goes to the DA,” he said. “They’re on to the next case.”
Going into overdrive
There is one case Mannix said officers did take personally: the Colton Turner case.
In 2014, the department launched a search for 2-year-old Colton, a Cedar Park boy who disappeared after having been photographed with bruises and cuts on his body.
During that investigation, Cedar Park detectives questioned his mother, Work, for more than 24 hours while trying to find the little boy. According to police, Work told numerous stories about the boy, first saying he was alive, then confessing that he was dead. Colton was later found in a shallow grave in a wooded area in Southeast Travis County.
Work was charged with tampering with physical evidence and injury to a child.
Work’s lawyer, Ariel Payan, claimed that the police interrogation was constitutionally invalid because they improperly detained her for three days and deprived her of her right to an attorney. A district court judge decided she had been unlawfully arrested and that the bulk of her statements should be kept out of her trial.
The Third Court of Appeals, however, overturned that ruling, allowing her statements to be admitted. Now the issue is before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
“Every case that I’ve worked on that has dealt with a baby or missing child, the police go into overdrive and, as a parent, I totally respect that,” Payan said. “But the reality is, every time I’ve seen this happen, they go above and beyond to the point that they exceed the limit of the Constitution.”
Mannix said he wouldn’t change a thing about the way the department investigated Colton’s case. While it affected officers personally, they also followed the law, he said:
“If those 24 hours hadn’t happened, that young boy would still be buried in a shallow grave.”
Another high profile case in which the police department has come under fire is that of Crispin Harmel, who is accused of strangling Jessica Kalaher to death on Sept. 7, 2009.
That case ended in a mistrial in 2014 because certain video evidence was not provided to the defense by former Williamson County district attorney Jana Duty. But during the trial, Cedar Park police came under fire for losing crime scene photos and a report about an interview with a witness. They also failed to place bags around the victim’s hands and feet to help preserve evidence.
Mannix said the case was before his time, but he trusted the work done by his detectives. Prosecutors plan to retry the case.
The Kelley, Work and Harmel cases may be well known, but the Cedar Park police have taken some low-profile hits in recent years, settling two lawsuits contending that innocent people were jailed amid bad investigations.
In one case, according to a 2016 lawsuit, a police detective investigating financial fraud said that documents showed a Leander woman falsified loan documents to make it look like her car had fewer miles on it. The woman was arrested and jailed for several hours before being released.
Further investigation showed that the detective was wrong, that documents proved it, and that the woman was wrongfully arrested, the lawsuit states.
Mannix said the case simply suffered from a procedural error. The city settled the lawsuit for $90,000.
A different settled lawsuit, Mannix concedes, stemmed from “bad police work.”
In that case, two men were seen shoplifting from Walmart, the 2015 lawsuit states. The culprits were described as two middle-aged white men in a grey vehicle. The surveillance video provided grainy images in which no faces can be clearly seen, according to the suit.
The company’s loss prevention officer gave the police the vehicle’s license plate number and the detective accidentally transposed some of the numbers.
The mistaken license number led to a man in Mesquite with a very common name. After learning a man by the same name lived in Cedar Park, the officers met with the local man, who refused to cooperate. The detective then went to a judge, swore that he had the correct license plate number, that the plate came back to a Georgetown man and that the video surveillance videos positively identified him.
The man was arrested and jailed for twocq days.
“I’ve never seen such a blatant lie on an arrest warrant because on the surveillance video you can barely tell it’s a human,” said Scott Medlock, the man’s attorney. “It was the most lazy, dishonest police investigation I’ve ever seen, especially on a shoplifting charge, that they would go to such lengths to arrest a guy where the evidence is not there it all on such a minor charge.”
The lawsuit was settled for $42,500. Mannix declined to provide details about the detective in charge of the case but said that “he’s no longer working with us.”