HOLTON — The new imperative for outgoing Jackson County Sheriff Charles Cornell is to grow accustomed to life without a shiny seven-point star over the heart and a firearm on the hip.
After decades as a Kansas crime fighter, Cornell will no longer have responsibility for answering calls defining human frailty in this sparsely populated jurisdiction north of Topeka. Highways linking Circleville, Soldier, Whiting, Hoyt, Mayetta and Holton will be a new sheriff’s domain. At the end of May, he won’t be the guy brewing the first pot of coffee at the department’s languid headquarters along US-75 highway.
It is an ugly departure for Jackson County’s most prominent enforcer.
The resignation of this blunt-talking, workaholic sheriff midway through his second term was hastened by a torrent of strife among his current and past employees, an associated cluster of legal claims costing Jackson County at least $100,000 and the state investigation of a former prisoner’s claim the sheriff convinced her to participate in sex acts.
Cornell’s decision to quit belies defiance percolating inside his wispy frame. His attorney says the report of sexual malfeasance was the fabrication of a troubled mind. Personnel problems were propelled by folks lacking inclination to do what was required to make the grade, the sheriff said.
In this volatile environment, the brand of clarity being sold by the sheriff and his attorney won’t be universally accepted.
The sheriff has defenders, but even some of them say Cornell’s bulldog approach with colleagues fueled dissent. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s lead investigator on the Cornell case, who recently wrapped up her lengthy probe, has been accused of a conflict of interest. Odd behavior by a key witness in the case hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Biggest mistake I ever made,” he said.
Charles “Charlie” Cornell served as a police officer in Salina before accepting a job in 2002 at the Holton Police Department.
“I had a spotless reputation,” he said. “I’m not afraid of work.”
He was convinced that track record made him suited for the more public role of sheriff in Jackson County, which has about 13,000 residents and encompasses the Potawatomi Indian reservation.
In the November 2004 election, Cornell, the Democratic challenger, ousted incumbent Sheriff Bruce Tomlinson. Cornell’s victory came the same year Jackson County voters chose to abandon prohibition and allow liquor by the drink. The sheriff was re-elected in 2008.
Cornell pledged to make the department “one of the premier law enforcement agencies in northeast Kansas.” The agency would hold employees “to the highest standard of morality. We believe in God, country and the citizens we serve.”
He said he made it clear sheriff’s department employees would no longer be allowed to drag their feet on cases and exploit the overtime budget to perform duties that should have been accomplished earlier.
His agenda — featuring a do-more-with-less philosophy — created predictable flash points.
“If you get a paycheck, I expect you to earn it,” Cornell said. “I came into a snake pit.”
Former Jackson County sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Bruggeman claims Cornell placed his name on the list of expendable department employees before the sheriff took the oath in January 2005.
In a lawsuit filed two years ago against Cornell and the Jackson County Commission by Topeka attorney Margie Phelps, Bruggeman asserted Cornell made “numerous statements of hostility toward and about” him and perpetuated a “plan to get rid of employees he perceives as against him or who he otherwise does not like.”
The lawsuit claimed the sheriff bragged he had the “legal means to avoid liability for his actions against employees.”
Bruggeman resigned from the department in 2007, but he alleged he was hounded by the sheriff from November 2004 to February 2008. The lawsuit says Cornell disclosed private information about Bruggeman drawn from a criminal history background check not available to the public.
Jackson County Commissioner Roger Coverdale, of Holton, said a half-dozen lawsuits or formal notices of legal claims against the sheriff and the county surfaced in the past few years. Each similarly maintained Cornell created a “hostile work environment” at the department, Coverdale said.
Four cases were settled out-of-court with the county paying $25,000 to each claimant, the commissioner said. At least one case is pending, he said.
Coverdale said the majority of the public believes Cornell to be an effective law enforcement officer, but legal problems cascading over the tiny department were unacceptable.
“It’s just a bad situation,” Coverdale said. “We need new blood, is what we need.”
Cornell said his tight-fisted financial management — he finished each year under budget — and willingness to work upwards of 100 hours a week rubbed people the wrong way. He said he tried to lead by example, but a few dissident employees poisoned the office culture and turned others against him.
Al Dunn, a Jackson County sheriff’s office detective who applied to replace Cornell, said all department staff members deserved to be treated like professionals.
“If all we do is criticize the employees,” he said, “before long we end up with a department full of unmotivated, depressed drones just going through the motions. We can no longer let petty differences of past administrations plague the future of our community.”
Reverberation of inner-office conflict, more than any other issue, makes Cornell’s blood boil.
“I can sum that up in two words: Personnel problems. It’s a never-ending battle,” he said.
Holton resident Bobbi Klahr was intoxicated, distraught and in the midst of a domestic dispute a halfdozen years ago when she was introduced to Cornell. The sheriff had been dispatched to her doorstep after Klahr’s husband dialed 911.
The day’s intervention by law enforcement culminated, Klahr said, with the sheriff touching her inappropriately while she was transported in his patrol vehicle to Osawatomie State Hospital.
For Klahr, Cornell’s entrance into her life started the clock on a tumultuous period of personal crisis. Time was marked by bouts with depression, DUI arrests, probation violations and stints in jail. She said the years also concealed incidents in which the sheriff took advantage of her.
Klahr said she wanted to share this secret, but self-loathing obscured the message.
“I was putting up a front and yet, on the inside, it was tearing me down,” Klahr said.
She said another probation violation — purchase of liquor — landed her in Holton police custody this past summer. Perhaps it was alcohol roiling in her bloodstream or the prospect of more time in jail, but Klahr’s story about the sheriff tumbled out. Holton police officers, she said, contacted the KBI.
The state law enforcement agency opened a criminal investigation of the sheriff on July 26.
In a scene reminiscent of a television crime drama, the KBI arrived in Holton to gather evidence at the sheriff’s office and from Cornell’s vehicle. A brief fracas erupted between deputies loyal to the sheriff and the out-of-town agents.
Chris Joseph, a Topeka attorney representing Cornell, confidently predicted the sheriff would be cleared in a matter of days. He was wrong.
Klahr grew up in Holton and entered the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school. She worked for 13 years at Goodyear in Topeka and studied accounting in college. Her 10-year marriage began to crumble in 2004 and ended in divorce. She married again last year but annulled that union in February.
As Klahr’s legal problems mounted, she became a frequent visitor to the Jackson County Corrections Center. She estimated she served a total of 20 months for two DUIs and a handful of probation violations. Prosecution on a third DUI is pending.
Cornell regularly had the jail staff bring Klahr to his office early in the morning. She performed chores ranging from sweeping the floor to washing cars. Klahr, the sheriff and the manager of the county’s jail confirmed the arrangement.
Former Jackson County corrections officer Randy Cornell — no relation to the sheriff — said security protocol was violated by allowing the sheriff unfettered access to Klahr and other female inmates. Randy Cornell said he was skeptical of Klahr’s abuse allegations, but there was no excuse for persistent security lapses.
Randy Cornell said Klahr was given special treatment from jailers so she could spend time with the sheriff at the headquarters building next door.
“Because he was the sheriff, it was allowed to happen,” he said.
Klahr said the sheriff served her coffee, donuts and ice cream. She said Cornell spoke with her about ongoing county investigations and granted her access to a cellular telephone.
Upon her release from jail, Klahr said the sheriff helped her obtain a job in Whiting. Cornell sold his 1999 Lincoln sedan to her, she said.
Klahr said the sheriff urged her not to develop relationships with other men.
“He said he liked it when I’m in jail, because then he can come and get me whenever he wants to,” she said.
Early last year, while on probation, Klahr said the sheriff, who is married, picked her up at her home. The sheriff, she said, parked on a remote area of US-75 with the headlights off. She performed a sex act, she said. He denies the clandestine incident occurred.
Klahr said Cornell stopped on that road trip to check a suspicious person working on a vehicle in the dark. Klahr recognized the man as Jackson County lawyer Doug Fisher. At a subsequent court appearance, Klahr mentioned the late-night encounter to Fisher. He was surprised, Klahr said, that she would have been cruising with the sheriff after hours.
Asked about the incident, Fisher said he wasn’t comfortable talking about an ongoing criminal investigation.
“I don’t feel able to discuss it,” he said. “I don’t think I could comment.”
Katie Schuetz, the KBI investigator assigned to the Cornell case, didn’t perform a hit-and-run inquiry. She followed leads for months. She declined to be interviewed about the case, but recently turned files over to Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He will make a determination as to whether evidence exists to prosecute the sheriff for his alleged relationship with Klahr.
Cornell said the KBI case is full of holes. He said political rivals in Jackson County — he won’t name them — helped grease gears of the state probe.
“There’s nothing there,” the sheriff said.
However, Cornell chose not to wait for a decision by the attorney general. He shocked supporters by submitting his resignation to the county commission.
In his one-page letter, the sheriff emphasized how much his workload had taken a personal toll. The threat of additional litigation was a factor, he said.
“One current employee openly stated that when he leaves he is going to sue,” the sheriff wrote in the letter. “KA-CHING.”
His letter to the three-member county commission avoided mention of the KBI inquiry, suggesting the departure had nothing to do with Klahr’s allegations against him.
Klahr said she was stunned by the sheriff’s decision to step down. She remained firm in her belief Cornell crossed ethical lines with her.
“He knows the truth,” she said.
In a random sampling of 10 residents of Jackson County, six professed support for the sheriff. Two welcomed leadership change at the sheriff’s department, while the remaining two were ambiguous. None felt controversy at the sheriff’s office was good for the county. They agreed to express an opinion on condition they not be identified.
Others with insight into the crisis found their voice.
Capt. Jim Gilchrist, the top administrator at Jackson County’s jail, said Cornell had proven himself to be a dedicated public servant.
“He’s put in a lot of hard hours, and he’s done a lot of good as sheriff up here,” Gilchrist said.
He said KBI investigators would struggle to prove Klahr’s claims because no physical proof existed the sheriff engaged in sexual conduct with an inmate.
“Circumstantial evidence?” he said. “Only a lawyer could find it. Charlie is just not the kind of person to get involved in it.”
Gilchrist said the controversy had cast a long, dark shadow over managers of the jail.
Keen Umbehr, an Alma attorney who represented several state prison inmates who accused corrections officers of sexual misconduct and represents Klahr on a limited basis, said intervention by the KBI was warranted.
Cornell’s previous employment as a Holton police officer and current service as sheriff should prevent both of those agencies from being involved in an investigation of Cornell, he said.
“The investigation is important because there is this question: Did he or didn’t he?” Umbehr said. “If he did, he must be punished. If he didn’t, he’ll be exonerated.”
Klahr spoke freely and consistently in a series of interviews about her contention Cornell exploited the power differential between them. She signed an affidavit attesting to abuse claims. After the sheriff announced his resignation, she sat for a portrait to accompany a newspaper story of her scandal narrative.
Then, her attitude took a dramatic turn. Klahr called off a follow-up interview. She didn’t answer knocks at her door in Holton.
In a subsequent telephone conversation, Klahr revealed she didn’t want to be part of an article pertaining to the sheriff of Jackson County. This sentiment stood in contrast to her previous expression of disappointment that a story featuring her claims hadn’t run. At no point did she back away from her allegations.
Then, she dropped a bombshell.
“It’s just what Katie said, ‘We got what we wanted to get out of it,’ ” Klahr said, referring to the KBI investigator.
Cornell’s attorney, Joseph, was surprised a key witness in the KBI case appeared to be saying Schuetz and Klahr had a particular outcome in mind while working together on the inquiry.
The sheriff, in fact, will leave office May 31.
Katie Schuetz said she couldn’t answer questions about Klahr’s statement.
“If you have any questions regarding a situation like that I recommend you call our legal counsel,” Katie Schuetz said.
What Joseph said next raised another red flag. The attorney said Schuetz’ brother, Corey, worked under Cornell as a deputy at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff confirmed that fact, saying Corey Schuetz left the department after failing to earn a promotion to detective.
This sibling relationship should have disqualified Katie Schuetz from working the Jackson County case for the KBI, Joseph said.
“That strikes me as grossly inappropriate,” he said.
Laura Graham, general counsel with the KBI, said she didn’t have information about whether Katie Schuetz disclosed to KBI officials information about her brother’s work history. Graham, too, said she wouldn’t address Klahr’s remark about the sheriff’s resignation.
Two current and two former sheriff’s department employees stepped forward as candidates to replace Cornell. The list included Detective Dunn, Undersheriff Danny Howerton, former Undersheriff Steven Rupert and former Deputy Tim Morse.
This past week, the county’s Democratic Central Committee recommended to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback the office be placed in the hands of Morse, the Onaga police chief who lives near Holton.
Morse, who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff against Cornell in 2008 and intends to seek the Democratic nomination for the job in 2012, said he had the skills necessary to create a collegial atmosphere at the sheriff’s department. He said he will be an approachable, open-door sheriff.
The rural-oriented county’s residents demand “the right balance” from leaders in law enforcement, he said. There should be no favoritism in policing, he said, because nobody is above the law.
“They want the rules to be enforced, but in a fair, respectful manner,” Morse said. “They expect competency and professionalism. They do not want Gestapo-type policing, harassing their every move. They do not want to live in fear, but in freedom.”
In terms of Jackson County’s legal problems attached to personnel issues, Morse stood apart from Cornell.
“During my career as a supervisor, an administrator and a business owner, I have never been the subject of an employee lawsuit or grievance,” Morse said.
The new sheriff will have the weighty task of settling the dust storm enveloping the department. The Cornell criminal investigation file is on the attorney general’s desk. Nothing prevents current or former department employees from raising new legal challenges.
The only certainty is the man at center stage in this controversy will fade into the background.
“I’m probably done with law enforcement,” Cornell said.
By Tim Carpenter
THE TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL