By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The episode started with plans for strawberry shortcake, moved through discussion of important banana and hamburger precedents, and ended with accusations that might have Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton reaching for the Rolaids.
Because of the fruit involved, it has one lawyer making references to The Caine Mutiny, the fictional account of a ship's captain who turned his crew upside down looking for a petty strawberry thief. As the paranoid Capt. Queeg said after someone nicked a quart of frozen berries from his galley, "The pilfering of foodstuffs in amounts large or small is a serious occurrence aboard ship."
This too is a small-quantity case, specifically, $14 worth of fresh strawberries that Cynthia Schoelen took from the break-room table at the Dallas police auto pound in May, loaded in her car in full sight of others, and later served with pound cake and whipped cream at a cookout in Rowlett.
The act got the 19-year civilian employee fired from the department and prosecuted for misdemeanor theft by a public official, a charge that could have landed her up to a year in jail. Schoelen was acquitted of the criminal charge last week, when the berries' owner failed to appear in court.
Wearing a matronly blue dress and a solemn look, Schoelen says she never denied taking the fruit. She maintains she took it because she had been given permission by a sergeant at the pound who thought the berries would just sit and rot. "I would never steal from the public," Schoelen says.
The department's response to the matter was so harsh that she believes it has more to do with retribution against her by Bolton than with her taking the two boxes of berries.
Police officials say Schoelen's treatment was by the book.
"This was an opportunity to finally get rid of me," Schoelen says. "Everything had failed before that...I'm not the only employee he [Bolton] has retaliated against. There's a history with him."
She claims Bolton has had it in for her ever since he tried and failed to talk her out of filing a sexual harassment complaint against a close friend of his in 1992 .
Schoelen was Bolton's secretary in the northeast substation at the time. "I had returned to work from having major surgery. I still had stitches in my abdominal area, and this officer got in my face," she recalls. "He told me, 'I want to know if you're well enough to have sex.'"
When the harassment continued, she complained to her supervisor, who passed it on to Bolton. "He told me he felt I had emotionally reacted. He wanted me to reconsider because it was going to embarrass me," she recalls. "He told me I was no longer trustworthy and my loyalty was questionable."
After Bolton sat on the complaint for two weeks, she took it directly to internal affairs. "We had a good working relationship, but after the complaint was filed he became very angry and very cold and distant."
Two sergeants were eventually found to have harassed Schoelen and were temporarily suspended from the force, Deputy Chief Ron Waldrop, the department's spokesman, confirms.
More recently, Schoelen says, Bolton urged her to reveal to him what she told the FBI about an aspect of city council member Al Lipscomb's bribery case, and she turned him down. "He tried to persist, and I said I couldn't."
She says federal agents were interested in what she knew when she worked as Bolton's secretary, and her information was important enough that she testified before a federal grand jury and was on standby to be called at Lipscomb's trial in Amarillo last January. Schoelen declines now to specify what her testimony was, except to say that it related to the Lipscomb case and was unfavorable to Bolton. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Uhl confirms Schoelen was on his witness list.
Although the chief has denied wrongdoing, he has been nagged by questions about his role in a part of the Lipscomb matter that was not raised during the former councilman's trial.
U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins revealed after the trial that Nick Rizos, owner of the now-defunct Caligula XXI strip club on Northwest Highway, paid Lipscomb $7,700 in 1992. Lipscomb arranged a meeting between Rizos and Lt. John Sullivan, who worked under Bolton. According to Rizos' attorney, police enforcement at the club fell off after the meeting.
Bolton has said that he did not send Sullivan to talk with Rizos. Sullivan has said he didn't recall who ordered him to go--and public information on the episode ended there. Schoelen is hinting there is more to learn.
Bolton declined through a spokesman to discuss Schoelen's case. "There's a threat of litigation," Waldrop says.
Assistant Chief Tom Ward, who made the decision to fire Schoelen with input from Bolton, says the department fired her to maintain discipline and morale.
"It doesn't matter if that property is worth $5 or $20 or $50; it still comes down to the fact that we have a responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of property in our custody," Ward says. Otherwise, he says, Schoelen had a record of being a good employee.