When good cops go bad

Theodore Decker

Tye Downard must have known what was coming.

Downard had been a Reynoldsburg cop for 20 years and spent nearly half that time in narcotics, where he'd earned a reputation for making busts that often brought the division big bucks when it came to forfeited drug money. He'd twice been named Reynoldsburg's officer of the year. A succession of chiefs had hailed him as an effective soldier in the war on drugs for nearly a decade. “I appreciate all of your efforts in fighting the uphill drug battle,” the current chief, Jim O'Neill, had written to Downard in 2015.

Yet there he was early on Feb. 22, 2016, on the wrong side of the jailhouse bars. He'd landed there on Feb. 18 following his arrest by the FBI in a corruption investigation that alleged he had used his know-how and drug-world contacts to set up, then steal from suspects, after which he'd peddle the dope on the same streets he'd pledged to protect.

On top of his work in Reynoldsburg, Downard had spent time on a multi-jurisdictional drug task force. He knew what went into big investigations, and the sting targeting him had all the hallmarks of a by-the-book federal prosecution, beginning with an informant who had given him up. “The [informant] has been determined to be highly reliable,” read an FBI affidavit, “in that his information has been corroborated extensively through the use of recorded conversations, recorded telephone calls, closed-circuit television, physical surveillance, seizure of narcotics provided to the [informant] by Downard, and other investigative techniques.”

The feds hadn't yet arrested Downard's friend and partner, both on the force and in crime, Lt. Shane Mauger, but Downard must have figured that was coming, too. And that raised the prospect of the friends turning against each other. Their whole sordid tale was about to be revealed, and with it, his life of accolades and position within the community was about to be ruined.

Downard was being checked hourly by Delaware County jail guards, but he was not on suicide watch. That left him with an opportunity to control a situation that had spiraled away from him. By then he had spent three full days behind bars. He would not finish his fourth.

Downard's suicide, and Mauger's subsequent arrest and conviction in U.S. District Court, rocked the Reynoldsburg Division of Police and the Franklin County law enforcement community. Their illicit enterprise upended criminal cases in which they'd played key roles, tarnished their department and weakened morale. Some fellow officers remain angry more than a year later, saying their superiors gave the pair too much leeway for years and haven't made changes promised after the scandal broke.

Not long before the Downard case erupted, one officer noted, the division had conducted an internal investigation of an officer for inappropriate Facebook posts. “They did a full-blown investigation on that, and not a damn thing is done when one guy is six feet under and another is doing 33 months in federal prison,” says the officer, on the condition of anonymity. “We're that department now, we're that corrupt department that other agencies and the community look down upon.”

Officers and Gentlemen

It was an unexpected end for two local boys who seemingly were born to become policemen.

Tye Downard was a product of Reynoldsburg schools. In high school, he had captained the wrestling team and played football. A classmate described him as “real popular.” Former employers describe Downard as a hard worker and diligent employee as he hung gutters, worked behind the line as a cook at Roosters and briefly spun records while DJing at a nightclub, Screwy Louie's, as a student at Kent State University.

He was 22 when he applied to be a Reynoldsburg police officer. He told interviewers that he'd always looked up to police officers. His references included a retired Columbus officer, a Columbus police sergeant and the wife of a lieutenant. “I would be proud to have him as a son,” wrote another reference, a man who worked as a referee in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Reynoldsburg police interviewers were equally impressed. “I believe there is no questioning his integrity and sincerity of wanting to be a Reynoldsburg officer,” one wrote. Downard was sworn in on April 15, 1996.

Shane Mauger's ties to law enforcement ran deeper. His father, Michael, had been a Worthington police officer since 1970, rising among the ranks to become chief before retiring in 2011.

Mauger also was a high school athlete and showed an early interest in becoming a police officer. He joined the Worthington Police Cadet program when he was 14. He graduated from St. Francis DeSales High School in June 1992 with a 3.3 grade-point average.

“When I spoke to his father, Capt. Mauger of Worthington, I asked how he was able to bring up a son in this day and age without him trying drugs, violating curfew, getting caught doing something wrong,” a Reynoldsburg police department interviewer wrote. “Told him it appeared his son was so clean-cut he squeaked. His answer to my question was he had no idea, the best guess he could give was Shane fell out of his crib right after birth and didn't know any better.”

Mauger was hired by Reynoldsburg the same year as Downard. The two recruits became fast friends. “They were two peas in a pod,” says a current member of the force.

Going Rogue

Soon after his hiring, Downard's personnel file began to fill with citizen commendations and glowing supervisory reviews. One, in 2001, came from the late Bill Meeks, who for decades was considered one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Central Ohio. “This letter is prepared to compliment the integrity of Det. Tye Downard, who served as a juror in a homicide case I defended,” Meeks wrote. In 26 years of picking jurors, Meeks had only allowed two police officers to remain on a panel. Downard was one. “It is quite apparent that Detective Downard's judgment and sense of integrity have served him well in both his personal and professional life,” Meeks wrote.

Downard was twice honored as Reynoldsburg's officer of the year, the most recent on Feb. 18, 2014, when Chief Jim O'Neill spoke before members of the Reynoldsburg City Council's Safety Committee to present the year's officer awards. “He worked countless hours with the Franklin County/DEA Drug Task Force while maintaining his narcotics investigations in the city of Reynoldsburg,” O'Neill said. “His efforts have produced seizures of over $639,497 in drug money, countless pounds of illegal narcotics and multiple handguns and assault rifles used by suspects to protect their drug operations.”

By then, Downard had been dirty for eight years.

The Temptations of Power

According to investigation records, the descent of Downard and Mauger began in 2006. Records state the two so-called “peas in a pod” first stole money during the execution of a search warrant in November of that year. “The frequency of the thefts increased over time and peaked in recent years,” wrote assistant U.S. attorney Peter Glenn-Applegate in a sentencing memorandum in the Mauger case.

Investigators estimated that the pair stole between $150,000 and $250,000 during their decade-long conspiracy. They said Mauger sometimes had fabricated the evidence needed to obtain search warrants, like he did on Feb. 4, 2016, lying in an affidavit that he had pulled the trash from a suspect's home and found marijuana in it.

At sentencing, Mauger's defense lawyer, Mark Collins, told U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley, “It's like two different people at certain times.” In his request for leniency, Collins explained that his client had trouble saying no to Downard, and was embroiled in a nasty custody dispute and had developed a gambling problem.

As part of the pre-sentence investigation, Mauger disclosed that he had been sexually abused by a cousin when he was younger. “Why didn't you tell anybody?” the pre-sentence report writer asked. “I don't tell anybody anything,” Mauger said. “I don't tell anybody anything.”

Mauger acknowledged that he had brought shame upon his father, his family and all of law enforcement. “It was just more than the money,” Mauger told the court. “It was about … clearing cases. It was about your status within the police department.”

“I really don't have an answer why I chose the path I did,” he said. “I loved my dad being a cop. I loved being a cop. I loved the guys that I worked with. The path I chose with working narcotics or assisting in narcotics gave me an opportunity to work with the task force all over the state.”

Mauger ended his plea by asking for leniency on behalf of his two sons, “so I can continue doing the only thing I've really done good and straight for the last eight years, and that's to be a father.”

Marbley didn't see the need to be lenient. “I have had many defendants who would give an appendage to have the stability that you enjoyed growing up,” Marbley told Mauger. “So it was likely neither nurture nor nature that brought you here, but simply greed.”

“I'll guarantee you anything that you still find holy, Mr. Mauger, that if some criminal defendant explained to you what you've explained to me, you'd be summarily dismissive and say something like, ‘Yeah, I've heard it before,' as you're taking them in.”

“You will, for some time to come, still live with the harm that you caused to your badge, to your family and to yourself.”

Mauger was sentenced to 33 months for his guilty pleas to federal charges of theft and conspiracy to deprive persons of their civil rights. He's serving his sentence at a medium-security federal prison in Pekin, Illinois. His release date is scheduled for July 1, 2018.

Downard, according to authorities, had taken the wayward path even farther than Mauger apparently knew, beyond theft and into drug-dealing. Records indicate that at some point about 2013, Downard forged a criminal partnership with a drug dealer. Of course, there's little honor among thieves, as they say, and when the dealer got pinched, he turned on Downard and told his tale to the FBI.

That happened on Oct. 19, 2015, when the informant, facing charges not detailed in the investigation report, told federal agents about his partnership with a Reynoldsburg cop. The dealer, referred to only as the CHS, or “cooperating human source,” said Downard had busted him sometime in 2013. But to work off the charges, Downard offered a deal. “The CHS began working as an informant for Downard,” an investigator wrote in an affidavit. The CHS began providing Downard with the names of other dealers, he told authorities. Downard paid him about $500 per name.

Soon, the plan escalated. Downard asked the informant to begin selling drugs that Downard would provide, “to track drugs that would be put out on the street by them.” Even the informant knew the plan was sketchy, however, when Downard told him he could keep half of the money he would make from the sale of the drugs.

To the FBI, it was immediately obvious that this was not a valid police operation. Downard never asked the informant to wear a wire. There were no records kept of the transactions, nor the amount of drugs supplied to the informant. In fact, Downard never even asked who the drugs were sold to, according to the informant.

With the FBI now listening in, the CHS continued to meet with Downard from Oct. 22, 2015, through Feb. 11, 2016, a week before Downard's arrest. During that time, Downard provided prescription pain pills, heroin, marijuana, crack and powdered cocaine. “In less than four months, Downard recovered $34,800 as proceeds of his trafficking activities,” the FBI reported.

Authorities learned that Downard would turn drugs confiscated from his busts as evidence over to the informant to sell. As proof, the FBI cited a Jan. 7, 2016, search warrant executed by Downard on a marijuana grow operation in Reynoldsburg. Among the evidence seized were four green glass jars containing marijuana buds. The next day, Downard met his informant with the latest product to push—marijuana. Four green glass canning jars full of it.

On Feb. 18, Downard was taken into custody on a charge of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, but the case against him went no further. Four days later, he hanged himself in his cell.

The Fallout

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien's office hunted for cases that might have been affected by the officers' crimes. Fifteen pending cases ultimately were dismissed, O'Brien said, and another seven were not presented to a grand jury—all, as lawyers like to say, fruits from a poisoned tree. Prosecutors sent another 34 courtesy letters to defense attorneys advising them of the dirty cops involved in their clients' arrests, yet concluding that the scandal did not appear, to prosecutors at least, to have affected those cases. Most of those defendants already had pleaded guilty, but the notifications prompted four motions for new trials, only one of which was granted.

One man still fighting for a new trial is Malcolm Phillips, whose 2012 arrest had been noted by Downard's and Mauger's supervisors in commendations. “The seizure of a large amount of cocaine and two weapons [one of which was stolen during a burglary in Pickerington] makes our communities a little safer and hopefully puts Phillips out of play for a long time,” a supervisor wrote.

O'Brien said Phillips' prosecution primarily was conducted by Whitehall police and was untainted by Downard and Mauger's involvement. Phillips and his family disagree. They claim that Phillips had called Downard out for stealing. Downard had claimed to have found $5,020 in a shoebox during the bust. “Man, you know there was more money than that in the closet,” Phillips had said, according to police reports. “Someone took my money.”

“We knew something wasn't right,” says Phillips' sister, Michelle Phillips. “There were a lot of things that went on in this case that we questioned initially.” Her brother's latest request for a new trial was rejected in December, but he filed an appeal of that decision in January, which, as of press time, had yet to be decided.

Current and former officers in Reynoldsburg say higher-ups should have been held accountable for their lack of supervision. Instead, they escaped discipline or even scrutiny. Downard and Mauger worked largely as they pleased, with little or sometimes no oversight, the officers say. A former officer says he complained to the administration when Mauger was moved to patrol but kept his key to the detective bureau and continued to work with Downard anyway.

When it came to drug investigations, Downard made it clear that it was his show, the former officer says. “He just didn't share anything. After all this came out it made sense.”

“They gave Tye Downard way too much leeway because he brought in a lot of drug money for them,” the ex-cop says. “Nobody seemed to care as long as they were productive.”

A current Reynoldsburg officer says, “The department in a sense did put them on a pedestal. Anything narcotics-related, those two guys would handle it.”

While Downard was productive, he also was personable. He and Mauger didn't appear to live lavish lifestyles. While Mauger was known to drink and raise a little hell on occasion, colleagues say Downard seemed to be a homebody who was happiest spending what little free time he had with his wife and children.

Chief O'Neill still hasn't figured out what drove his two officers to crime. “There are very minute indicators that, taken individually, no one picked up on,” O'Neill says. “They found the cracks, and they found where they could exploit things and manipulate people.”

“It doesn't make sense to me,” the chief says. “I don't know what the endgame was for either one of them.”

A current officer suspects that Downard decided on suicide in part because, “he couldn't stand and testify against his best friend. That's how close they were.”

Complaints that his department has done nothing in response to the scandal are unfair, O'Neill says.

If change has been slow to arrive, the chief largely blames the same factors plaguing all police agencies at times. Last year, staffing was down. The professional standards position O'Neill promised in the aftermath of the scandal is in the works and will be staffed by a current school resource officer once the school year ends, he says.

O'Neill says he did not have another local police agency review Reynoldsburg's policies, as he had said he would after the scandal. But he says the department has made changes to evidence-handling procedures and is working on policy improvements through the Ohio Collaborative, a statewide effort to raise overall police standards.

There has been one other development. O'Neill acknowledges that his department lost institutional knowledge with Downard and Mauger gone, and therefore has had to become more selective in taking on drug cases, especially ones that may extend beyond Reynoldsburg. Rank-and-file officers say it's worse than that. “We really don't even have a narcotics section now,” a current officer says. “I just had a [dealer] tell me the other day that the safest place to deal drugs is in Reynoldsburg.”