Tampering with justice: Police chief interfered in criminal investigation, stayed on job for 15 months

June 02, 2019 10:24 PM

A Minnesota police chief tampered with witnesses and interfered in a criminal investigation into one of his own officers but was allowed to keep leading his department for more than a year, according to city and court documents obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Isanti Police Chief Gene Hill was eventually fired in March. However, records show city officials first became aware of his tarnished credibility back in the fall of 2017 after a judge ruled Hill had engaged in witness tampering and could not be trusted in court during a use of force case.

Yet, City Attorney Clark Joslin did not recommend that the city council take action against Hill because he disagreed with the judge's finding, according to an internal records.

As a result, Hill, who declined multiple interview requests, continued to be involved in criminal investigations until January when newly elected Mayor Jeff Johnson requested that an outside law firm review the chief's misconduct.

"He would still be the police chief if I didn't do something about it." Johnson said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. He recalled his initial reaction to the chief's misconduct was "this could be a huge liability."

INTERNAL INVESTIGATION: Special Prosecutor Erin Stephens describes the chief’s misconduct in the city’s investigation.

That's because Hill's credibility issues could impact any case he touched, according to Steve Schleicher, a former state and federal prosecutor in Minnesota.

"It's something that could be raised by every single criminal defendant that was affected, in any way, by anything he has signed (or) sworn to in his career," Schleicher said.

The records show Joslin was not fully aware of the severity of the issue, however, he did know that the Isanti County Attorney was concerned that Hill's tainted credibility could impact future cases.

Despite the potential legal ramifications, Joslin "did not seem concerned," according to an unnamed city official interviewed as part of the internal investigation.

Asked to comment before a recent city council meeting, Joslin said it was "not appropriate" to discuss the city's finding despite it being a public record.

COURT TRANSCRIPT: Isanti Police officers testify about the chief’s involvement

'Completely not credible'

The city's investigation also found Chief Hill had defied orders from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) when he provided a key piece of video evidence to his officer who was charged with 5th degree assault. The video showed Ofc. Rodrick Barrows slam a handcuffed and intoxicated man to the ground in a jail elevator in February 2017.

Hill later blamed his inappropriate release of evidence on a misunderstanding of the state's data practices laws, according to the internal investigation.

However, Erin Stephens, the special prosecutor on the case, told those same investigators it was evident that Hill "was attempting to protect (Barrows)."

Stephens added that Barrows "watched that video over and over again" before he was even interviewed by the BCA.

Barrows was eventually found not guilty, but the case had already been marred by Hill's substantial interference, according to a judge's scathing ruling and court transcripts.

JUDGE’S RULING: Judge Heather Wynn issues court order

Judge Heather Wynn called Hill "completely not credible" and said he had, "chilled the testimony of other officers... by essentially threatening them if they testified."

BCA evidence reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES included a voicemail from an Isanti officer telling Barrow's defense attorney, "I'm not supposed to make contact with you."

Another officer wrote in a text message that "Hill will (expletive) me" if he talked.

COURT TRANSCRIPT: Judge Heather Wynn calls into question the chief’s integrity

"No one can prevent them from cooperating with the defense or the prosecution," said Steve Schleicher, the former state and federal prosecutor who reviewed the records obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Hill later disputed the judge's ruling and downplayed his involvement in the case, saying he had only cautioned his officers about talking without first being given a subpoena, according to internal city records.

However, in those same records, Stephens, the special prosecutor, said Hill was "a known liar" who did not cooperate throughout the investigation.

She added that Hill's credibility would always be questioned and that would be difficult for prosecutors to work with him moving forward.

"Judges in neighboring counties are aware of what happened… what he said and what Chief Hill did."

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