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.
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.
He urged a reading of the department's internal investigation when asked for specifics about why Schoelen was fired.
That document, it turns out, contains a rather Caine-like story about who did and did not touch the strawberries in question, and on what authority. Contrasted with what the strawberries' owner said about the incident in an interview last week, it appears a number of people at the pound might have ducked for cover when the department's internal investigators launched their full-scale probe of the case.
The berries came into the West Dallas pound after Shaun Weber, a fruit peddler from Durant, Oklahoma, ran his Chevy pickup into a car on Central Expressway. While Weber was being treated for a neck fracture at a hospital, pound employees checked in his truck, which had been towed, and began figuring out what to do with the fruit on board.
Because there is no property-room refrigerator at the pound, some of the 34 boxes were stored in a refrigerator in the employees' break room. The rest were left out on a table in the employee lounge.
"When I called the pound, a lady said, 'You'd better come get 'em. We're all eating them,'" Weber says. "I was thinking, 'Dallas is getting to be like New York City.'"
Schoelen says another employee was eating the strawberries as she and her supervisor, Sgt. Joseph Maines, loaded the fruit into the break-room fridge. After it was full, they began stacking the boxes on a table. Schoelen says she began chatting about her barbecue plans for the night and asked Maines whether she could have two boxes to take home. According to Schoelen, he replied, "I don't care. Nobody's coming back for these."
Her only concern after that was how to keep juice from the somewhat battered berries from leaking on her car seat.
Weber says he returned to the pound that evening in a friend's truck and was upset to learn that someone had taken some of the fruit. After several pound employees helped him load up his truck with the remaining 32 boxes, he gave them four boxes for their help, he says.
In a raft of statements given by pound employees to internal affairs, nobody acknowledged eating any of Weber's fruit, talking about taking any home, or accepting Weber's four-box gift.
Maines, who also became a focus of the departmental investigation, disputed Schoelen's account. "At no time did I give Mrs. Schoelen any indication regarding the owner's intentions," says Maines, who denies giving Schoelen permission to take the fruit. "I did not know whether or not the owners of the strawberries were going to come to the pound to pick them up or leave them."
Everlena Kersee, the employee who Schoelen says was eating berries, denied eating any. She said she never heard Maines give Schoelen permission to take the two boxes, as Schoelen alleged.
Highlighting how petty this all was, Schoelen's lawyer says she had a witness "who is prepared to testify she saw Kersee eating strawberries." The attorney, Jane Bishkin, says other employees were seen snacking on the berries too. She says her client owned up to her actions and offered to make restitution the minute she learned Weber had returned for his cargo.
Furthermore, Bishkin says she was prepared to explore what happened to a load of bananas abandoned at the pound in late 1999. They were left out on the break-room table and eaten with supervisors' permission, Bishkin says.
Then there's the hamburger precedent.
In 1996, a uniformed officer was accused of eating a fast-food burger that had been left in a wrecked car after its owner was packed off to the hospital in an ambulance. Unlike Schoelen's case, which resulted in a direct filing of a theft case, a grand jury was left to decide whether there had been a crime, Bishkin says. The grand jury declined to indict. And while Schoelen was fired under an expedited internal police review, the hamburger-hungry officer received only a 15-day suspension.
"That was under another administration," Ward said. "I don't know what they did."
Bishkin says that if her client's firing is sustained, she likely will file a whistleblower lawsuit.
"It can come out," Bishkin says. "You can't allege retaliation and file a lawsuit without going into what the retaliation was all about."
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