The Columbus Dispatch



Wednesday, June 12, 1996

By By Scott Powers

Dispatch Staff Reporter

Columbus Police Cmdr. Walter J. Burns was obsessive, intensely secretive and dictatorial in handling a 1992-93 prostitution case, say vice bureau officers he managed at the time.

Several of the detectives told police internal affairs investigators that they thought Burns took control of every facet of the case because of early indications that judges, police officers, politicians and other prominent people may have been connected to the alleged prostitution ring, which police say was run by Anthony D. Mennucci.

Burns, however, characterized the Mennucci investigation as routine and his involvement limited. When questioned more than two years after the case by internal affairs investigators, he could recall few details.

The commander said that he didn't learn until late in the investigation that public officials might be involved.

''To me, it was just like any other case,'' Burns said.

Mennucci subsequently pleaded guilty to federal charges of racketeering and money laundering, for which he served 13 months in prison.

The interviews with the vice detectives and Burns are part of a 1,000-page internal affairs report issued last month on Burns' handling of the Mennucci case. Last week, Chief James G. Jackson cleared the commander, who now oversees the Police Division traffic bureau, of all but one of 13 departmental charges alleged in the report.

During their interviews, the detectives described the Mennucci investigation as highly unusual. It has since drawn the attention of city, county and federal prosecutors, as well as a separate investigation by the Columbus Department of Public Safety.

''This thing started off from Day One as being very secretive, and it continued throughout the end,'' the lead detective, Howard W. Wingard, told internal affairs detectives.

''It seemed to be an obsession,'' Sgt. Roger S. Trigg said, recalling Burns' interest in the case. ''The commander had total dictatorial control over (every)thing that was done, right down to the day that we physically made the arrest of Mr. Mennucci.''

The control became so complete that Burns was the only person who could know the details of the case, according to statements from Trigg; Wingard; Wingard's partner, detective Amy Phillips; and one of the original detectives on the case, Daniel Betts, who is now retired.

The detectives told internal affairs investigators that Burns:

Reassigned the case for unstated reasons to Wingard and Phillips after Trigg and detective Gary Workman had spent six months on it. Burns ordered the detectives not to discuss the case or share their findings.

Ordered the newly assigned detectives not to discuss the case with anyone - not even their supervisor, Trigg - and to deliver everything they found directly to the commander.

Went on the Jan. 27, 1993, raid of Mennucci's house and ordered everyone, including agents of the Internal Revenue Service, not to look at anything they found there - just to put it in bags.

Took custody of the seized property and other evidence before the material was inventoried and kept it locked in his office instead of the police property room.

Doled out evidence secured in his office to Wingard on a need-to-see basis only.

Ordered the impoundment and search of Mennucci's car and the seizure of property found in it - despite protests by Trigg and others that it would be illegal - then had all the seized property brought to his office.

Failed to file scores of summary reports written by Wingard and Phillips or share reports from the Police Intelligence Bureau with the detectives.

Burns denied doing any of those things.

He told the internal affairs investigators that Trigg assigned the detectives, not him. He denied giving the detectives special orders or directing their efforts, saying that Trigg supervised the case.

Burns said he went on the raid but gave no orders - that Trigg was in charge. He said he could not recall whether any evidence was stored in his office; if it was, he said, it would have been at the detectives' requests, for their convenience.

Burns could not recall how Mennucci's car was impounded. Had he been involved, he said, he would have advised the detectives to get clearance from police attorneys first.

He also told the investigators that he could not recall receiving any investigation summary reports or intelligence reports, and that he could recall paying undue attention to security.

The detectives involved remembered the case differently.

''I know, when we compiled this information, Cmdr. Burns was apprised of everything - that we were going to do a long-term investigation - or, start an investigation; and that . . . I remember talking to the commander about that there was a possibility of judges or police officers or attorneys involved in this, and he deemed it necessary to be handled as a sensitive matter,'' Trigg told the internal affairs investigators. ''All of the information was to be funneled through him, and it was on a need-to-know basis.''

Trigg later said, ''To be truthful, it infuriated me that I was cut out of the loop for some reason, it, as a matter of fact the entire vice bureau was, including our secretary, except for Cmdr. Burns and, and Detective Wingard.''

Wingard said only Burns knew what was collected during the raids.

''Cmdr. Burns put out an order for, ah, anyone involved that they were just to collect stuff and not go through it, read it, ah, that ah, it was not their responsibility,'' Wingard said. ''So he told everyone there to gather it, put it in bags.''

''Did that include you?'' an investigator asked Wingard.

''Yes, sir.''

''And you are the lead investigator on the case?''

''Yes, sir.''

''And you were instructed to not look at any of the material you're collecting?''

''That is correct, sir.''

''Do you have any idea why that was?''

''Well, the only, I, you know, ah, speculate is that, ah, as I told you earlier, there were, ah, suspicions of police involvement, political figures, and, ah, I guess it was just that, ah, no one would see it.''

Workman told the internal affairs detectives that he made two videotapes and 20 Polaroid photographs of the search of Mennucci's home. Those tapes and pictures have disappeared, the internal affairs report says.

''Do you have any way of knowing that you got back everything that you took in?'' an internal affairs investigator later asked Wingard.

''No, sir, I don't.''

''Did anybody?'' the investigator asked.

''No, sir,'' Wingard said.

''Had any of the defense attorneys found out where the property was kept or stored, there is no doubt in my mind that this case would have been thrown out of court.''

''Did anyone object to the handling of evidence to Cmdr. Burns?'' an investigator asked Wingard.

''No, sir.''

''And why not?''

'''Cause I was ordered, being the detective in charge, I was ordered to bring the property to his office, and I follow orders and that's why I did it.''

''Did you discuss it with anyone else as to the way it was being handled even though you did not discuss it with Cmdr. Burns as to the propriety of it?''

''It came as a big surprise to everybody in the vice bureau including Trigg, ah, the IRS guys, that you know, stuff should not be stored there - should have been put in the property room.''

''Did anyone from the prosecutors' offices of any level - whether city, county or federal - have any idea where the evidence was kept?''

''No, sir.''

Burns told the investigators that he never controlled the evidence.

''In no way do I have any idea why that was removed (from the property room), where it went or what happened to it,'' he said.

In an early interview, Trigg defended Burns. ''Granted, Cmdr. Burns is a stern commander, but I am not aware of any time that he's stifled any investigation. . . . I cannot envision Cmdr. (Curtis) Marcum (of the Intelligence Bureau) or Cmdr. Burns stifling an investigation. I just don't think their integrity would allow it. I really don't.''

All content herein is 1996 The Columbus Dispatch and may not be republished without permission.