How a Police Chief in Wyoming’s Ranchlands Lost Her War on Drugs
A campaign over meth, money and accountability cost law enforcement officers in Guernsey, Wyo., their jobs. Now their lawsuits are prying open the town’s secrets.,
How a Police Chief in Wyoming’s Ranchlands Lost Her War on Drugs
A campaign over meth, money and accountability cost law enforcement officers in Guernsey, Wyo., their jobs. Now their lawsuits are prying open the town’s secrets.
Ex-Guernsey police officers Terri VanDam, left, and Misty Clevenger.Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
GUERNSEY, Wyo. — It was a few days before New Year’s Eve 2019, and Terri VanDam, the chief of Guernsey, Wyo.’s three-person Police Department, had run out of options.
For more than a year, Ms. VanDam and her sergeant, Misty Clevenger, had tried and failed to get to the bottom of the drug and alcohol problem in Guernsey, population 1,124. Methamphetamine use was rampant, and much of it was bought and sold right at the bars, they were told, but when anyone tried to investigate, they ran into a wall of silence that went right up to City Hall.
Not long after she had first started asking questions, she said, she had found a dead bird on her front porch, with a nail driven through it. Now, as chief, she had opened a full-scale investigation, and two townspeople warned that they had overheard the mayor talk about crippling the Police Department.
Not knowing where else to turn, Ms. VanDam reached out to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, asking for a team of state investigators to come into Guernsey and help turn her suspicions into a case.
“It is becoming a huge issue and is out of control,” she wrote.
Far from bringing in a posse, the emails would prove to be the new police chief’s undoing. Two weeks later, Ms. VanDam was fired, and then Ms. Clevenger. In federal lawsuits, the women contend they were ousted because they tried to confront an insular, small-town network of powerful ranchers, business owners and politicians that was unaccustomed to questions.
In court documents, city officials said the women were engaging in innuendo and rumor that proved nothing about a drug problem in Guernsey and everything about their incompetence as law enforcement officers. They say Ms. VanDam and Ms. Clevenger were fired because the department was over budget and officers were padding their pockets with overtime, a claim the women denied.
Ms. Van Dam’s case, now set for trial in June, has exploded into warring accusations of lying, public corruption and moral failings, big and small.
In the national debate over policing and how municipal officers both enforce the law and answer to the communities they serve, the question has all but torn this sleepy ranch town apart.
Defenders of the fired police officers say that for years, an insidious drug and alcohol problem ruined lives and seeped into most aspects of daily life, but was left unchecked by city officials who protected their friends and failed to take the issue seriously.
Platte County, where Guernsey lies, has one of the highest rates of drug-related arrests in the state, according to a recent report from the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. About 35 percent of all arrests in the county in 2020 were drug-related — more than a third higher than the state average.
“Meth’s run amok,” said Cheryl Hoff, a longtime Guernsey resident who has been one of the former police chief’s many supporters.
Neither the F.B.I. nor state investigators would say whether they opened a formal investigation based on Ms. VanDam’s referrals, but Ms. VanDam said she became convinced that no police officer in Guernsey would ever be able to tackle the problem alone.
“The culture and the population of that small town has been fearful for many years,” Ms. VanDam said. “If you ask the wrong questions, it’s going to have consequences.”
The end of the rail line
Guernsey is nestled in the high desert plain, more than a dozen miles east of the interstate that connects Denver and Casper. It has two claims to fame, the railroad and the Oregon Trail, both of which are now history — the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway shuttered its local hub last year, taking nearly a hundred jobs and Guernsey’s last real hope for a sustainable future.
It is 15 miles from Guernsey in any direction to the next town, with nothing but sagebrush, cattle and spotty cell service in between.
The town’s location near two major interstates helped fuel the movement of drugs, according to several former police officers who agreed to talk about their work in Guernsey, but they said they, like Ms. VanDam, ran into obstacles when they tried to learn who was bringing so much meth into town.
“There’s been a lot of corruption in this town in the last 10 years,” said Jeff Thomas, the chief of Guernsey’s Fire Department, who said he personally knew of instances in which a town official had pressured the Police Department into overlooking some drug and alcohol offenses.
“I want the drugs out,” he said. “I want the D.U.I.s taken care of.”
Kicking the hornet’s nest
For four years as a patrol officer in Guernsey, before she was named chief, Ms. VanDam had tried to look into who was profiting from the city’s meth epidemic. She was disturbed when previous chiefs discouraged her from investigating drug-related cases, and when no major drug investigations ever seemed to stick.
“I was told, ‘Don’t ask questions,'” she said. “We were basically told to turn a blind eye to certain things.“
She was thrilled in January 2019 when Nicholas Paustian, a postal worker who had just been elected mayor, asked if she would like to be the police chief. She accepted, and was approved to hire Ms. Clevenger, an instructor at the state law enforcement training academy.
Neither woman was from Guernsey, but both had spent years in the community. An Air Force reservist, Ms. VanDam had taken overseas security assignments for the State Department, guarded prisons in Montana and was a longtime firearms instructor for the military. Before moving to Wyoming, Ms. Clevenger had worked for years as a sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina.
“I told VanDam when she came in, if there was any assistance that I could give her, I would not step on her toes,” Mr. Paustian recalled.
For the women, it felt like a chance at cultural change. But Mr. Paustian’s promise was quickly tested: According to court documents, they began aggressively investigating many of the targets Ms. VanDam had previously been discouraged from exploring, including allegations that workers in the town maintenance department were buying and selling drugs. One of the council members, Kellie Augustyn, a longtime friend of the mayor, worked as a bartender and handyman at Kelley’s Bar — a favorite of the town’s leaders — where the police officers had heard reports that drugs were being sold through a drive-thru window.
Mr. Paustian said he and other council members felt like the new chief was looking for problems where there were none. But Ms. VanDam was undeterred. The tension came to a head over the July 4 holiday in 2019, when one of Ms. VanDam’s officers forced Kelley’s Bar to close early, citing public intoxication and a young woman who had passed out on the street.
Furious, Mr. Augustyn threatened the officer and told him to leave; he and Mr. Paustian would later go to Ms. VanDam and register their displeasure.
“It’s way unprofessional, way out of line,” Mr. Augustyn said in an interview. He denied there was any drug-dealing going on at the bar and said that heavy drinking might occur anywhere on a holiday weekend. “That’s what you have going if people are drinking. If we can’t do that, then what do we have? What’s the point?”
The incident rattled Ms. VanDam and Ms. Clevenger, who felt the council was trying to handcuff the Police Department.
“I had never seen administration officials and town council members involved in the Police department like that,” Ms. Clevenger said.
Mr. Paustian and Mr. Augustyn found that the chief had overspent her staffing budget on all the new investigations, and they ordered a cutback in officers’ hours.
Upset by the escalating tensions, Ms. VanDam and Ms. Clevenger shared their concerns in October 2019 with Forrest Williams, the interim director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
“Do you ladies realize the hornet’s nest you’re about to kick?” Mr. Williams asked at the time, according to court documents. He would go on to forward their information to the F.B.I.
Over the next several weeks, Ms. VanDam and Ms. Clevenger sent a variety of documents and reports containing evidence supporting their “serious allegations” to the state, according to court documents, and arranged for at least one witness to meet with outside investigators. But Ms. VanDam was looking increasingly over her shoulder: In December, after her final email to the state, she told the city attorney that someone seemed to be reading her department email; messages she had never seen were being marked “read,” she said.
Within days, the dismissals came down, accusing Ms. VanDam of “repeated acts of insubordination.”
Mr. Paustian and Mr. Augustyn denied they had ever gained access to Ms. VanDam’s emails before she was fired. But both said in interviews that they had, with approval from the city attorney, read through the police chief’s correspondence after she was terminated, seeking and finding evidence that she had been disparaging the city. They said they were shocked to find her email to the state, which they said was full of unsupported rumors and outright falsehoods — in some cases about them.
“She told them that, you know, she was going to get to the bottom of all of this stuff that’s going on in Guernsey,” Mr. Paustian said. “I had to sit down and I had to think to myself, is this good for the community? And it wasn’t.”
Mr. Paustian said he discussed Ms. VanDam’s allegations with investigators from the F.B.I. and the state last year, and was told the problems did not appear worse than in any other small town.
“There is stuff going on in Guernsey. We know that,” Mr. Paustian said. He said that some of the allegations Ms. Van Dam was looking into were probably true, including her belief that drugs were being sold in the bars.
(At least one bar owner ridiculed the idea. “Dealing drugs out of Kelley’s Bar window? That’s just ludicrous to me,” said Renee Boomhower, who has owned the bar since 1999.)Mr. Paustian said he did not regard the issue as a major problem in any case. “I certainly don’t lose sleep over it,” he said. “I honestly don’t.”
‘The dynamic there is just scary’
Ms. Van Dam was not the first police officer to complain of interference when trying to take on the town’s drug problem.
Seven former Guernsey police officers recalled in interviews being threatened, harassed or warned by town officials when they opened investigations.
“The old adage, that a police department is a reflection of the cultural norms and the desires of the people that it serves — unfortunately the culture in this case is wanton,” said Stephen O’Donnell, a former Guernsey police officer who left town in 2019 and now works as an officer in Jackson, Wyo.
Joseph Hayes, who worked as a K-9 officer in Guernsey in 2010 and 2011, said he was pushed out when he began making headway on a drug case that involved well-connected people in town. “The dynamic there is just scary,” he said.
Ms. Clevenger, whose lawsuit against the city is set for trial in September, said city officials are focusing on fighting the two former officers instead of tackling the seriousness of Guernsey’s drug problem.
“It speaks volumes that they would rather just keep quiet and just keep the status quo,” she said.
A new police chief and several new officers were hired, but almost immediately the department had a fresh challenge on its hands: One of the new officers, Trampas Glover, was arrested for smoking methamphetamine in his garage, while his children were present.
He pleaded guilty in December, admitting that he had seized the drug while conducting a traffic stop.
“Drug abuse, it happens,” Ms. Clevenger said. “But let’s look at it in an honest, open way, do what we can to try to get individuals help instead of, you know, firing women for doing their jobs.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.