A Bust Goes Bust
On an April evening in 2006, two police officers were patrolling a crime-ridden neighborhood in Northwest Dallas, a few miles south of Love Field. One cop was a respected veteran, the other a rookie less than a month out of the academy, now learning on the job. The two saw a BMW pull out of a dilapidated apartment complex where drugs are often peddled. Suspicious that the driver of the car may have just hooked up with a dealer, they looked for an excuse to stop the vehicle for a traffic violation. When the driver rolled through a stop sign on a right turn onto Maple Avenue, the officers pulled the car over into a lit parking lot.
The veteran officer, David W. Kattner, approached the vehicle on the driver's side window, while the rookie, Shanna Lopez, took the passenger side. Both shined their flashlights into the BMW. According to the police report, Kattner could clearly see a bright-blue plastic bottle top with an attached spoon, which is commonly used for snorting cocaine. On the tip of the spoon, he saw a residue of white powder. Also, on the passenger seat, they saw a pink plastic straw, which appeared to contain a powdery white substance. They arrested the driver, a Mongolian woman named Buyandelger Galbadrakh, and Kattner searched the vehicle and found meth, ecstasy and coke. That night they took her to the Dallas County jail and booked her on felony drug possession charges.
It was just another routine drug arrest in a bad part of town, but more than a year later, it may come back to haunt a department reeling from accusations that at least three of its officers may have written fake tickets and made false arrests. The rookie officer the night of the arrest is no longer with the force, having accused Kattner, her one-time training officer, of preying on known criminals by charging them with phantom crimes. In an interview with D magazine reporter Trey Garrison, Lopez, 32, said that Kattner used to review the county's criminal database for names of women arrested for street crimes and then write them tickets for additional infractions that he never witnessed.
Lopez said that three of Kattner's colleagues more or less did the same thing. Other officers corroborated her allegations, and after an internal investigation, those cops have been suspended from active duty. Kattner, though, was not the subject of any investigation and remains on patrol. Meanwhile, Lopez was dismissed from the force a few days after she received a commendation for helping arrest a hit-and-run suspect who attempted to flee on foot. She claims she was let go because she talked about Kattner's conduct with another officer.
Attorney George Milner, who is defending Galbadrakh, read the D story and now plans to attack Kattner's credibility. He may have a pretty good witness. In an interview with the Dallas Observer, Lopez says that Kattner searched the car without consent. In fact, she says that during the stop at the parking lot, while she was shining a flashlight into the BMW, she never saw anything suspicious—even though the police report claims that the bottle top with the attached spoon was in the center console of the vehicle while the straw with the white powder residue was in the passenger seat, presumably right in Lopez's line of vision. She says that Kattner first told Galbadrakh that he pulled her over because he had reports that a sedan like hers had been stolen in a carjacking, a story that the veteran officer never shared with Lopez. He then pressured Galbadrakh to give her consent to search the vehicle, but she refused. He searched it anyway, which if true would be illegal, and came upon methamphetamine, coke and ecstasy.
"She did have drugs on her, but whatever we found on her, all the contraband, is irrelevant because we didn't have probable cause to search," Lopez says. "He set her up. She never gave consent; he found the contraband by digging through her stuff, and that led to the other chain of events."
Later that evening at the jail, Kattner asked her if she had seen the straw in plain view in the car. When she said no, he told her slowly, "It was in plain view," the legal threshold needed to search a car for drugs without the driver's consent. At first Lopez doubted herself, but as she continued to go over what happened during that stop, Kattner's actions didn't make sense. "If he saw it in plain view, then why did he go around and around trying to get her consent?" she says. "In my opinion he was convinced there was going to be dope in there because of his initial reason that it was a nice car in an apartment complex known for selling drugs."
If Lopez repeats these comments to a judge, the case against Galbadrakh could be very well be dismissed. Her story corroborates the defendant's account that the officerasked to search her car, and she refused.
The special panel that investigated three of Kattner's colleagues, but not Kattner, interviewed nearly 60 officers. Consisting of three police lieutenants, the panel found other officers who worked with the three cops under investigation, senior Corporals Timothy Stecker, Jeffrey Nelson and Albert Schoelen, frequently didn't see probable cause for the arrests they made. Because of the similarities of those findings to his case, Milner wants to know everything the department knows. So in what some in the department view as a thinly veiled fishing expedition, Milner is asking for "all records, notes, documents and recordings," related to the investigation of the three officers, as well as Kattner himself, if his conduct was ever reviewed. (Police Chief David Kunkle tells the Observer he believes it was not, but Lopez says that internal affairs investigators did ask her questions about him.) So far, Milner says that both the city attorney and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office are fighting against turning over its records, including the investigative report, which the police department already released to The Dallas Morning News.
Last week, however, Judge Lena Levario ruled that the prosecution must turn over its records to Milner. As it turns out, that information will now come in handy in another one of Milner's cases, a felony drunk driving arrest made by Officer Schoelen, who is one of the three officers who have been suspended from active duty.
"If the officer lacks credibility generally, then their credibility has to be questioned in every case they make," Milner says.
The three officers under investigation could not be reached for comment, and neither could Kattner. Kunkle says that from "everything I've heard, he's a very well-respected officer."
Still, depending on what turns up in the investigative file, Milner may have even more ammunition in a case that just a few weeks ago would have seemed to be an easy win for the prosecution. Even Lopez doesn't dispute that Milner's client had drugs in her possession. The question now is if Kattner ever had the right to find them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.