Collin College Cops Say Their Discovery of a Campus Theft Ring Led to a Cover-Up and Retaliation

Detective Billy Burleson III stood outside the Collin College gymnasium, waiting for the man he was tailing to finish a friendly basketball game with a group of students. Burleson had been following his target all day, investigating a claim from the assistant manager at the campus bookstore that the man, a temp worker at the store, was stealing books. It wasn’t a typical crime for the community college, although theft was being reported more frequently, he says.

The 38-year-old detective with the college’s police department normally worked theft cases in between his other duties, which sometimes included running background checks on new police officers or chauffeuring the chief around campus. But his chief, Michael Gromatzky, insisted that he break the bookstore case.

Burleson had left the Garland Police Department after a decade working patrol and investigations to accept a less stressful position. But he still looks young, so dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying a backpack, he blended in as he followed his target.

Burleson had heard the 20-something temp was passing textbooks out the backdoor of the bookstore to a 50-year-old student accomplice who would sell the books to other students at discounted prices. Gromatzky had been adamant that both suspects be arrested and removed from campus immediately.

“But I’m like, ‘We don’t have any evidence against the guy,’” Burleson says.

Instead, Burleson and Craig Bennight, a former Dallas officer, uncovered what they claim is a bookstore theft beyond the pair of suspects. They claim the crime involved millions of dollars in missing textbooks and several high-ranking college officials who shut down their investigation despite a mountain of evidence that included eyewitness accounts and duplicate accounting records.

This was just one of many signs that something was wrong inside the police department at the college, they say. The officers’ investigation revealed an alleged cover-up to protect staff. They also claim the department made unlawful traffic stops of students and retaliated against officers who complained.

Collin College’s turmoil isn’t unique. Campus police departments across Texas may look like other departments — with armed officers, uniforms and full accreditation to make arrests — but the job description of campus cops is very different from that of officers at the city police forces where many campus cops originate.

“Really, at the college level, you’re there more just to protect property, staff and students,” Burleson says.

Campus cops operate without the checks and balances that govern municipal police. They are also caught between some conflicting trends, like community-focused policing, the option of discretionary enforcement and the prevention of mass shootings. So what role should campus cops play in the college community and when do they stop serving the administrations they work for and start policing them, as well?

As one Collin police officer who wishes to remain anonymous says, “There is no law that guides the college. They are in [and of] themselves a law. They cannot be prosecuted. They cannot be charged. They are all by themselves.”

"There is no law that guides the college. They are in [and of] themselves a law."

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Burleson had only one thought on his mind as he fired his gun at the suspect: His lieutenant was in danger from a large deranged man wielding butcher knives. It was Valentine’s Day 2006, his birthday, and he was taking his wife, a redheaded Garland police dispatcher, for an evening ride in his patrol car when he received word a man having a mental breakdown was misbehaving.

Burleson had been working as a patrolman in Garland for several years, and he knew the call would be dangerous. But he headed over to the address and told his wife to wait in the car as he approached the man’s parents.

The man with the knives, Scott Rockwell, suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Rockwell rented a room from his parents, and he was inside. The 27-year-old had quit taking his medications early that February. After that, he began hearing voices, behaving unpredictably and refusing to see a doctor. Now he was suicidal, according to court documents.

He also refused to leave his room. Burleson could hear him screaming as he walked down the hallway toward Rockwell’s bedroom. He sounded like a caged wild animal, Burleson says. He tried calmly talking to him through the door. But Rockwell wasn’t interested in conversation. Burleson says he noticed the couch was shredded as if somebody had slashed it with a knife. “It was a real menacing feeling,” he says.

Burleson still remembers him warning, “I’ll fuck up anybody that comes into my room.”

More officers arrived and they spent a long time trying to calm Rockwell down and coax him out of his room. Burleson knew they couldn’t just leave him because his parents worried that he would become more violent when officers left. A lieutenant arrived and gave the order to bring down Rockwell’s bedroom door.

“The lieutenant saved my life by saying, ‘Listen, whenever we do this and you kick in the door, just wait and see what happens,’” Burleson later recalls. “If I had gone in there, I would have been stabbed.”

Burleson was the closest officer to Rockwell’s bedroom door when officers breached it. He didn’t see anything at all when the door fell, which was odd, he says. So he leaned forward and Rockwell appeared, towering over the other officers, filling the doorway. They looked each other in the eye, but Rockwell held his arms up close to his head, ran past Burleson and attacked the lieutenant, who fired several pepper pellets.

That didn’t faze Rockwell, who wielded two 8-inch serrated knives, and the lieutenant fell into a bathroom behind him under Rockwell’s enormous weight. Their fall broke the commode, Burleson says, but didn’t stop his lieutenant from blocking several of Rockwell’s knife attacks with his pepper rifle.

Burleson drew his gun and fired a shot that spun Rockwell off the lieutenant, but Rockwell merely jumped up and charged officers. It took six or seven shots to kill him, according to court documents.

Burleson started experiencing extreme anxiety not long after the shooting. He decided maybe the stress of patrol was finally catching up to him. So he applied to become a detective, hoping that he could handle that load. It took him about a year to realize just how seriously Rockwell’s shooting had affected him. He was assigned to participate in “simunitions training,” a safety certification course that puts officers through potentially violent scenarios, but he couldn’t make it through those that involved an imaginary criminal shooting at him.

“A pellet sounded like a real gun,” he says. “It was too intense for me.”

He didn’t know then that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, although he would later seek treatment for it. He just knew that he didn’t want to be involved in law enforcement. He left the Garland Police Department two years after the shooting. The master peace officer went to work for Carmax, then found a second job as a bank teller.

“After a year of that I realized I couldn’t support my family,” he says. “So I went back to law enforcement.”

Collin College Police Department, he says, was the first place to hire him, and it seemed like a good fit. Retired police officers from Dallas area departments often spend their retirement years working as campus police officers because it is less stressful.

“When you leave a large metropolitan department, you don’t necessarily want to retire,” says one older Collin College police officer who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the college. “You want to slow your life down a little bit because you’re not 21 years old. So when you got to a junior college, it’s going to be a little slower, a little easier to deal with.”

Working as a patrol officer at Collin College was a nice change of pace from the heavy caseload Burleson once handled as a Garland detective. There wasn’t nearly as much crime and activity going on at the college’s five campuses located across three counties, he says. Most people around the campus were friendly. He became heavily involved in checking other officers’ reports, took charge of obtaining arrest warrants and even taught a couple of report writing classes.

He wasn’t bothered by the low retention rate at the campus police department. He says that one of his bosses, Ed Leathers, director of public safety for a time, asked him and every other officer who came forward to speak with the Observer if they would simply commit to a year or two before searching for other employment. One former officer claims 20 police officers took jobs and left during the five years he was employed at the campus police department.

The Observer reached out to Leathers, who agreed to be interviewed if the college gave him permission to speak. The college declined.

“He was concerned that I was going to leave as soon as I got a better job offer,” Burleson says.

Chris Livingston, an attorney for Texas Municipal Police Association, has represented officers from the University of Texas at Dallas, Baylor and Collin College. Livingston pointed out that some of the Collin College police officers he’s represented over the years were fired for sleeping on duty, an action that wouldn’t normally result in firing, based on past discipline at the department. The officers claim they weren’t sleeping; they were being retaliated against by their superiors.

“What you’ve got is police officers who are inculcated with all the powers and duties to uphold the law,” he says, “and they’re to enforce any law whether through the penal or education code. But there [are] no specific statutes or ordinances that they’re enforcing.”

Livingston says part of the problem that faces campus police officers involves colleges not having an elected board like City Council, so there are no checks and balances.

“Campus officials will direct their police department to not really make traffic stops or investigate drugs in off-campus housing,” he says. “That is something that I have seen occur. Officers get these college professors or college presidents dictating what they are going to do. Some of those directives are you’re not going to enforce law.”

“So officers have an obligation under criminal code of procedure if they witness a crime they are supposed to take action,” he says. “But I have seen college police officers under an order not to take action for certain crimes.”

In Burleson’s case, several years passed before he received what he believed was an order not to investigate a crime, but his worries about his department began earlier because of traffic tickets. He and other officers believed they didn’t have the authority to write them, and he told Chief Michael Gromatzky as much.

Burleson and other officers claim that the Texas Education Code allows the college to pass resolutions similar to a city ordinance to set up traffic rules that allows them to initiate traffic stops. Jon Mark, one of the officers along with Burleson who has sued the college over claims they faced retaliation for whistle-blowing, says that Collin College’s refusal to pass a resolution “is clear official oppression and violation of students’ Fourth Amendment rights and becomes the fruit of the poisonous tree.”

He means that students who were thrown out of school because drugs were found in their cars during unlawful traffic stops could sue the school. “If you have no lawful way to get it, then what you’ve obtained is unlawful,” he says.

A former officer who spent 35 years working traffic for the Plano Police Department was the one to raise the most concern about the improper traffic stops. He was later fired, he claims, after facing a series of retaliatory acts by the former police chief. “Some of the retired Plano guys could see it,” he says. “But some of the college guys didn’t know. They were so fearful and needed a job. They didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t care. It was wrong.”

College officials refused to answer questions related to this issue. Gromatzky did too. He no longer works as police chief at Collin College. He says he left the campus police department after his wife accepted a job transfer to Houston. He now works as a deputy constable.

But he did deny all of the officers’ allegations regarding illegal traffic stops on campus, the bookstore theft by high-ranking campus officials and the retaliation that officers Burleson, Bennight and Mark say occurred not long after the bookstore theft was discovered in early 2014.

“None of it is true,” he says.  Burleson was tracking down a student with suspected ties to the terrorist group ISIS for the FBI, he says, when Gromatzky assigned him to investigate the campus bookstore theft in early January 2014. At that point, he’d been a detective for a couple of years and had assisted the FBI on bomb threats several times in the past because, “It was much easier to work with me than go through the red tape at the college,” he says.

Officer Craig Bennight was hired by the Collin College Police Department as an investigator a few months before the bookstore theft investigation to assist Burleson with his caseload as a detective. He’d retired from the Dallas Police Department, and he decided to find another law enforcement job to help pay off a mortgage on a farm he owned.

Like Burleson, Bennight noted problems with traffic tickets, and he and other officers spent six months writing letters back and forth with administration officials, he says, before Burleson called and asked him to help investigate a temporary bookstore employee involved in a scam to sell “dead textbooks” at discounted prices to college students.

Dead textbooks are textbooks left over from previous orders when a new edition hits the shelves. Officers claim the bookstore is supposed to destroy the dead textbooks or sell them back to the manufacturer. But it only receives “pennies on the dollar” for the textbooks and, in turn, loses money.

The scheme the officers say they uncovered allegedly involved bookstore bosses selling new books under the table to the vendor, replacing the new books with the dead books and pocketing the cash. The vendor would then sell the new books elsewhere and keep the proceeds.

“Let’s assume estimates by the bookstore are that 10 pallets of the seventh edition of The Prince will be needed for classes the next semester,” Bennight says. “Since there are five pallets of the sixth edition in the basement that can be substituted, 15 pallets of the seventh edition are purchased. If each text costs $100, and there are 250 books per pallet, the cost of the excess inventory ordered is $25,000 for each pallet, a total of $125,000 for all five extra pallets ordered.

“Upon arrival, the sales rep keeps the excess pallets and pays the bookstore official $62,500 in cash,” he continues. “The sales rep personally profits when he sells the same texts to another institution at full price.”

Bennight pointed out that this $125,000 theft is just for one textbook pallet during one semester. The more than $2 million in dead books he says the college later wrote off is merely “a snapshot of a single point in time,” so there is no telling how much thievery has occurred over the years. “Sworn statements from accounting staff indicated ‘dead books’ were re-entered into inventory multiple times,” he says. “This means the $2 million is a low estimate of the theft.”

Bennight says Gromatzky wouldn’t listen to him about the larger theft but instead asked him how to set up a buy with the temporary employee and the student whom he and the assistant bookstore manager believed was selling dead textbooks to students at cheaper prices than the newer editions, which often cost more than $100 per book. He says he told the police chief that he needed to find a police officer who could make the buy, someone whom the suspect would be comfortable with and trust, which meant the officer would need to be placed in the classroom to make friends with the suspect’s 50-year-old student accomplice.

Instead, Gromatzky asked the administrative assistant of Ralph Hall, the college’s chief financial officer, to pose as the buyer and approach the temporary worker in the middle of the day, according to Bennight.

“The female dripping in real jewelry and designer clothes approaches the suspect at the bookstore in front of all of his coworkers and says, ‘Hey, can you help me out?’” Bennight says. “Then she gives the suspect her phone number. Obviously, it failed.”

Burleson says Gromatzky then told them that they needed to solve the crime and asked them later that day if they were going to arrest the suspect. Bennight asked, “Arrest him for what? Just because someone said that he might be stealing?”

Burleson had tailed the younger suspect, who worked at the store under the Jobs Corps program, but had found no sign he was breaking the law. The temp wasn’t carrying a backpack to haul the books, Burleson says, and a hidden camera they later installed in the back inventory room showed him guilty of nothing more than playing on his phone during work hours.

They also interviewed the 50-year-old student as well as students in his culinary class, all of whom indicated that they had not been approached to purchase textbooks at discounted prices. It was a dead end that even bookstore employees were saying not to follow.

“In fact, the question among the line officers was, ‘Why are we going after the Job Corps kid?’” says another campus police officer, who wishes to remain anonymous. “These are low-income kids who come from bad backgrounds. All you have to do is point your finger, and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, look, it’s the Job Corps kid who stole them.’”

The Job Corps kid was issued a criminal trespass warning and told he had to leave the campus a couple days after the failed book buy. He asked, “What about my job?” But he was told that was his problem to figure out, according to officers.

Bennight and Burleson knew the crime was more intricate than something a Job Corps student could pull off because two of their witnesses worked in the accounting department and provided sworn affidavits that indicated a much larger scheme. They also received a set of duplicate spreadsheets that one of the witnesses kept because she knew altering spreadsheets was wrong. They believed someone was stealing millions of dollars in textbooks, but they didn’t know who.

In an email to Bennight, one of the witnesses claimed that someone had adjusted the inventory by adding dead textbooks after a physical count of the inventory was completed. The witnesses also claimed some of the textbooks had no tracking labels, and there were also no signatures on the bill of lading and no appropriate documents to verify if the dead textbooks were returned to the vendor.

Bennight and Burleson realized the scale of the newly reported offense suggested an organized theft problem existed, according to an April 10, 2014, letter they sent to Claire Miranda, an assistant criminal district attorney at the Collin County DA’s Office.

Both investigators claim they told Gromatzky about their suspicions of an organized theft ring composed of college employees. Gromatzky immediately called his superior Ed Leathers, the director of public safety, who then called bookstore director David Husted, placed him on speaker phone with investigators still in the room and alerted him to what police thought was going on at the bookstore. The officers consider Husted a potential suspect. He didn’t return messages requesting an interview for this story.

“I thought, ‘How stupid is this guy that he would call the suspect and tell him that we knew a major theft was going on,’” Burleson says. “My gut instinct was telling me that it was getting ugly and high level people were involved.”

A few days later investigators found a pallet of dead textbooks located in the basement at the Spring Creek campus. Bennight requested that the books be seized, but Leathers told him that the volume of books was too great to be moved to a property room and they should remain where they were found. He would notify the plant operations that no one would have access to the room without police present, according to the April 10, 2014, letter to the DA’s office.

“I was dumbfounded,” Burleson says.

Investigators returned to the inventory room about a week later and discovered that the entire pallet was missing. They reviewed camera footage that showed temporary bookstore employees merging the dead textbooks into current inventory.

A couple of days later, Bennight was told by one of his sergeants that all theft issues had been resolved and work on the case could cease, according to an internal email. But a few days later, witnesses submitted additional statements claiming that nearly $200,000 worth of dead textbooks had been moved into inventory in 2013 alone. Investigators also discovered that one of the bookstore theft suspects had informed bookstore staff that she had obviously made an accounting error and no loss was to be recognized until either she or the chief financial officer, Ralph Hall, approved it.

They then reached out to Collin College president at the time, Dr. Cary Israel, and met with him and two other college officials to explain their findings and whom they suspected of committing the crime, only to be reprimanded for stepping outside their chain of command.

A month after learning of the bookstore theft, Burleson and Bennight were ordered to cease all investigative work and turn over all files related to the bookstore investigation to Gromatzky, who would turn it over to Hall, who planned to hire a third party to investigate the alleged crime. They asked if another law enforcement agency was taking over the case but were told that “attorney-client privilege precludes them from knowing,” according to the March 7, 2014, audio recording of the meeting.

Hall sent an email later that afternoon to investigators, reminding them that the investigation had been placed on hold and all evidence needed to be sent to Gromatzky. “As discussed, this investigation must remain confidential until further notice,” Hall wrote in a March 7, 2014, email to investigators.

“There was a painful process where we attempted to do our jobs,” Bennight later recalled. “But Hall and his assistant went to students saying not to talk to police. We had witnesses being tampered with, and we went to see all of them, but they looked at us with blank faces.”

Hall didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

But Bennight and Burleson ignored Hall’s confidentiality order and met with Miranda at the Collin County DA’s Office and then FBI special agent Dave Rogers, who, they claim, delivered the packet of their bookstore investigation to the FBI’s white collar crime unit.

The FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation.

Not long afterward, investigators claim they were subjected to multiple acts of retaliation, including a change in work hours, transfers to less desirable campuses and “retaliatory write-ups.” Bennight, Burleson and, later, Jon Mark filed a lawsuit in 2014, seeking $1 million in damages for the alleged workplace retaliation against them as whistleblowers.

Mark joined the lawsuit because he says Gromatzky had issued a directive telling officers that they could no longer make Class C arrests, which would result in an officer taking intoxicated persons or others to county jail.

“I was informed tonight as I came to work that if we have an intoxicated person that we are to keep them detained in the office for four hours and then release them,” Mark wrote in an April 10, 2014, email to the former college president, Israel. “You sir, as a lawyer, understand that this is a violation of civil rights, right to due process and official oppression. I’m required by my oath of office to inform you that I cannot follow those orders.”

Collin College issued a statement through its attorney, Charles Crawford, on January 13, claiming that no evidence was found to support officers’ allegations involving a bookstore theft. The accounting problems officers uncovered were “the result of implementation of a new computer system,” Crawford wrote.

“Collin College categorically denies that anyone did anything fraudulent or illegal,” he added.

The state court agreed with the college’s claim that as a government agency it was immune from the retaliation lawsuit. The officers appealed the decision to the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas. They’re awaiting a ruling, possibly sometime in April.

“When you couple all of this with the claim of sovereign immunity, it destroys any faith in the government,” Mark says. “I know there is money and influence, and I get it. But this is crazy. If the sovereign immunity stands, you’re going to have college hit squads because no one can touch them.”

B urleson traded in his college detective badge for a courier route in June 2015 because of a workplace injury he suffered the previous November. He delivers paint and electrical equipment to construction sites across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A cyst on his left upper thigh was the first indication that something was wrong with him, he says. It formed because his gun belt had been rubbing against the soft spot on his leg, which then went numb. His lower back gave out next, he says.

A doctor diagnosed him with Sam Browne Syndrome, a little-known medical problem caused by the weight of an officer’s duty belt damaging the discs in the lower spine. A nerve in Burleson’s left leg was being crushed by protruding discs, but his superiors didn’t understand and, in turn, retaliated against him, according to his lawsuit.

In January 2015, he realized that the college wasn’t going to let him return to work, so he decided to file for unemployment because the college had quit paying him, but the college refused to give him a letter saying that he was fired, he says. The Texas Workforce Commission ruled the college had fired him because of his medically verifiable illness, according to a Feb. 27, 2015, TWC document. The college tried to appeal it, he says, but it lost the appeal. The college officially fired him in June 2015.

“It was just a little twisted game they played with me,” he says.

“I miss being a detective,” he says. “I miss solving the crimes and the puzzle that comes with it. Right now I’m still injured and not getting treatment that I needed.”

Once the investigation was taken away from the investigators, Burleson and Bennight began to wonder what they were doing and more stress set in as they worried about retaliation, especially after Mark was sent to deep nights after speaking out against illegally detaining intoxicated people.

As a campus police officer, Burleson was still attending therapy sessions to manage his PTSD and eventually began seeking help from “The Warrior Project,” a program offered by the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health. He was attending weekly sessions, but as the stress from his superiors and college officials began to mount, his PTSD began affecting him at work and his therapy sessions became fewer.

“My anxiety from the PTSD went crazy when dealing with all of this,” Burleson says. “There wasn’t much I could do when it hit. I usually just had to wait for it to go away, which usually took hours. It was extremely difficult.”

As a courier in Dallas, he’s able to manage his PTSD, but it’s a constant battle as he awaits the court of appeals’ decision.

Bennight and Mark still work for the Collin College Police Department. They both claim that they have been given orders not to do anything but “to be” on campus. The traffic code still hasn’t been implemented, and internal emails reveal that officers are still complaining about the issue to their superiors. Bennight says he’s been asked by his superiors to start working on a traffic resolution for the college.

The director of the bookstore, David Husted, left his job at the college about a month after investigators revealed their suspicions. Investigators claim they discovered a spreadsheet in his desk that showed the dead books were being substituted into inventory for the past 15 years.

Gromatzky left his position in September 2015, and Leathers is now focused on overseeing construction projects, according to a July 8, 2015, internal email, although the college’s website still lists him as the executive director of safety and security.

The police department now answers to the college president, H. Neil Matkin, who replaced Israel last year.

“All the major players are gone now,” Burleson says, “and there [have] been no repercussions for them.” 
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.

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