Mario Altuzar appeared to be a pretty seasoned pothead.
When he smoked the stuff outside the bars of Washington County, he even "French inhaled," breathed, that is, the smoke that he blew out his mouth back in through his nose, those who were with him told investigators.
They were absolutely convinced he was getting high -- so convinced that they let down their guards and became ensnared in what Washington County Sheriff Brian Rahn now calls, and quite justifiably, Altuzar's "phenomenal accomplishment."
Mario Altuzar wasn't a drug user.
Nor, a long investigation by the state attorney general's office has concluded, is there any credible evidence he ever assaulted anyone, contributed to the delinquency of a child or did any of the other things his detractors once claimed.
He is, rather, an unusually talented undercover officer who gathered evidence against a fairly extraordinary number of people: somewhere around 50.
The fact that there was an "aggregation of allegations" by a good number of them did, Assistant Attorney General Gary Freyberg wrote in a summary of his investigation of Altuzar, give him "pause."
Freyberg also wrote, however:
"Taken in context, the allegations against Altuzar are the product of criminal defendants and their allies, all of whom have obvious biases, and in some cases, lengthy criminal records. None of the accusations of wrongdoing by Altuzar was made until well after the defendants were formally charged with committing their own crimes. The majority of the accusations were made by individuals who, by their own admissions, had been consuming alcohol, drugs, or both, at the time they claim to have witnessed Altuzar's alleged misconduct, and were recalling their observations months or years after the events. The allegations are vague as to time, place and circumstances. There is no physical evidence to substantiate the allegations. Some of the allegations are contradicted by other available information. In sum, there is no credible basis upon which to issue any criminal charge."
Thus ends one of the more sensational -- though ultimately unmerited -- investigations of law enforcement around here in some time.
Freyberg's report, which was issued in November but never became public, runs 14 pages and addresses in detail numerous allegations.
In some instances, it's clear, his accusers probably only thought they saw something.
They thought Altuzar was getting drunk when he could just have been dumping many of his drinks down a bathroom sink.
They thought he was "French inhaling" when what he could, just as easily, have been doing was using a simulation technique taught to undercover officers.
In other instances, it appears, his accusers either made things up out of whole cloth or were incapable because of the fog of alcohol and drug use of knowing exactly what happened or when.
The allegations of Altuzar's misdeeds received quite a bit of publicity, and the Washington County Sheriff's Department itself, as a result, was also put under a cloud. Two state investigators, according to the sheriff, came in and scrutinized the department's operations. They found nothing improper.
Altuzar was filling out the proper reports, they found, and there's nothing to suggest his supervisors were not in the loop.
If he'd been a rogue officer, Rahn suggested, if he'd been coming in drunk or high after nights out working, it would have been noticed.
Moreover, says Rahn, these sorts of allegations often arise in drug cases.
The difference in this particular case was that some of the defendants had attorneys -- Waring Fincke, William Mayer and Daniel Patrykus -- who took the unusual step of requesting both the appointment of a special prosecutor and criminal charges.
Fincke said he doesn't agree Altuzar was necessarily exonerated. He thinks the attorney general's office simply found there was insufficient evidence to establish wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt.
In fact, my reading of it is, the only way anybody would ever have gotten a jury to convict the guy based on the flimsy or non-existent evidence was if they got the jurors themselves to inhale.
And you'd have to watch pretty closely, everyone now knows, to make sure they really did.
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