The Federal Bureau of Investigation is questioning whether Lawrence Police officers have improperly posed as federal agents when interrogating suspects, the Journal-World has learned.
The FBI inquiry stems from allegations that Lawrence Police claimed to be agents from the FBI when questioning people during the police investigation of an alleged fencing operation at the Yellow House secondhand shop, 1904 Mass.
"We are attempting to resolve whether or not a person or persons falsely represented themselves as FBI agents," FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza confirmed Wednesday.
Lanza would not comment further.
But sources with knowledge of the investigation told the Journal-World the FBI inquiry was prompted by complaints from Sarah Swain, attorney for the secondhand store, and others close to the fencing probe.
The sources also said the FBI was never involved in the actual fencing investigation, but was only involved because of allegations against the police.
The Lawrence Police Department would not comment for this article because it involved another agency's investigation, spokeswoman Kim Murphree said Wednesday.
Agents from the FBI have already met with Swain and the police department, in part to establish that the FBI was not actually involved in investigating the Yellow House.
The meeting between Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick and FBI Special Agent Bob Shaefer was at the request of Swain, who had heard from Yellow House owners Guy and Carrie Neighbors and others that FBI agents were using the Douglas County Law Enforcement Center to interview people who sold merchandise to the store.
That allegation culminated in a sworn affidavit from Lawrence resident Laura Helm, who said two men identifying themselves as FBI agents had taken her from her brother's home to the police station to interview her.
According to the affidavit, the men questioned Helm for 90 minutes before driving her back to her brother's home.
"They questioned me about items I had sold to the Yellow House in the past," she said in the affidavit. "They told me they obtained my name through checks that were written by the Yellow House."
Helm said in the affidavit that the men had guns and badges on their belts, and that at least one of the men knew the door code needed to enter the Law Enforcement Center.
More about the investigation
- Letter from Police Chief Ron Olin to Sarah Swain about the investigation (.pdf)
- Affidavit on alleged improper tactics used by police officers (.pdf)
- Police search Yellow House in stolen goods investigation (05-09-06)
- Fliers provide false information about Yellow House probe (04-14-06)
- Yellow House store owners to have party to thank supporters (03-02-06)
Helm is on probation for attempted forgery and reported the incident to Harley Eddis, her probation officer, the affidavit said.
During the meeting of Swain, Pattrick and Shaefer, Swain said both men told her the FBI had no involvement in the Yellow House investigation.
"Shaefer told me that the FBI would not be involved," Swain said. "There is no interagency task force or anything like that."
When Swain contacted the police department to confirm the FBI's involvement in the investigation of her clients, Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin would only confirm that the appropriate federal agents had been contacted, according to a letter from Olin to Swain, a copy of which was obtained by the Journal-World.
"(LPD) Officer (Jay) Bialek assures me that he has contacted the agents involved and has informed them of your wish to be contacted," he wrote Swain.
Bialek is involved in the investigation of the Yellow House.
Olin said in the letter that he would not name any federal investigators involved, but did mention the meeting between Swain, Pattrick and Shaefer, and said that all further questions should be addressed to U.S. Atty. Marietta Parker, who is handling prosecution on the federal level.
Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, would not comment on whether his office was involved in the fencing investigation.
Yellow House, 1904 Mass.
Police acknowledged assistance from the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service in a news release from December when police served an initial search warrant against Yellow House.
The release called the alleged fencing operation, which entails the purchase and resale of stolen goods, "one of the largest, most sophisticated fencing operations we have seen in Lawrence."
The statement also said the findings were the result of a two-month investigation.
Since then, police have offered little in the way of evidence or information regarding the alleged fencing operation until last month, when police again served a search warrant against the business.
So far, there have been no charges or arrest warrants filed in the Yellow House case.