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Archie Ingersoll, Published March 17 2014

Officer who killed himself was to be fired for accidental discharge of Taser

FARGO – It started with the accidental discharge of a Taser – a small mistake by police standards – but it snowballed into a cover-up attempt that prompted command staff to recommend the firing of Lt. Jeff Skuza, despite his otherwise unblemished 23-year career with the Fargo Police Department.

Chief Keith Ternes sought the input of the department’s three deputy chiefs after an internal investigation found that Skuza did not immediately report that his Taser had gone off inside police headquarters on Feb. 14 and that he tried to hide that he was responsible for what happened, according to an internal report released Monday.

On March 10, the deputy chiefs each sent a letter to the chief advising that Skuza be fired. Early the next morning, Skuza was found dead in a cemetery just south of the city. The 47-year-old had shot himself in the head with his own handgun, authorities said.

Ternes told The Forum that Skuza knew that the deputy chiefs had recommended his firing. The chief said he had not yet made a final decision at the time of Skuza’s death and that he was set to meet with Skuza the day after his suicide to hear the lieutenant’s perspective on the internal investigation.

Although the timing of events suggests a link, Ternes was not prepared to say that the investigation drove Skuza to kill himself.

“I think it would be speculative at best and a fairly significant presumption to say that this internal affairs investigation was the only reason or the sole reason for Jeff taking that action,” he said.

‘Rabbit hole’

The night of Feb. 14, Skuza was doing a routine check of his Taser when he accidentally fired it into a barrel designated for checking what are supposed to be unloaded weapons, according to the internal investigation report.

About 1 a.m. Feb. 15, Sgt. Jared Crane found probes and other evidence that a Taser had been discharged in the Police Department. Crane started to investigate what happened and notified Skuza, who was on duty at the time. Crane interviewed all the night-shift officers and some of the evening-shift officers, but was not able to determine who was responsible, the report stated.

The afternoon of Feb. 15, Lt. Joe Anderson told Crane to make a list of the officers working when the Taser discharge occurred, saying that if the responsible officer did not step forward, he would order the Taser data of all those officers. The same day, Skuza told Anderson that he would make the list of officers and asked what sort of information Taser data would show, the report stated.

It was not until Feb. 16 that Skuza told his supervisor, Deputy Chief David Todd, that his Taser was the one that had been discharged, the report said.

Skuza told internal investigators that after he accidentally discharged the Taser, he thought, “This is going to be very embarrassing for me, I have never done anything so careless before, I thought I will just throw this thing (the spent cartridge) away.”

Skuza told investigators that when Sgt. Crane asked him about it, “I should have right then told him it was me but I was afraid because I hadn’t immediately reported the discharge.” Skuza went on to say, “I could have mitigated the whole thing right there but I had fallen into that rabbit hole and didn’t know how to climb out.”

“What I did was wrong, I know it was, I have no idea why I did what I did.”

‘Exemplary performance’

On March 4, Chief Keith Ternes notified Skuza that, as a result of the investigation, he was placing him on paid administrative leave until he made a final decision.

The three deputy chiefs, in making their recommendations to fire Skuza, were all conflicted because the lieutenant had been a model officer up to that point. Deputy Chief Pat Claus noted that Skuza had never been disciplined and that his job evaluations showed “a history of exemplary performance.”

Todd wrote that he tried to think of a way to salvage Skuza’s career, but concluded that the misstep precluded him from ever being in a command position. Todd also said Skuza would not be able to work at a crime scene without his trustworthiness being called into question in court.

The police sought opinions from local prosecutors as to how a police department determination that Skuza acted dishonestly would affect criminal court cases in which he was involved.

Assistant Cass County State’s Attorney Tristan Van de Streek wrote that under the policy of the state’s attorney’s office, a finding of dishonesty against Skuza would have to be disclosed in any cases investigated by Fargo police.

“Generally speaking we would avoid situations where we use testimony from an officer who has been found to be dishonest,” Van de Streek wrote.

‘Shocked my conscience’

While Skuza’s discharge of his Taser was a violation of the department’s weapons policy, the deputy chiefs found that Skuza’s cover-up was far worse, according to their letters to the chief.

“Although all of the acts of deception are unacceptable, allowing other law enforcement officer’s integrity to be called into question when he was responsible is perhaps that most egregious violation of trust to be committed by a command officer – in my view,” Todd wrote.

Deputy Chief Todd Osmundson outlined what he saw as Skuza’s unacceptable actions:

  • Failing to immediately report the Taser discharge.

  • Discarding of Taser wires in such a way to avoid detection.

  • Quietly replacing the spent Taser cartridge with a new one while walking past a sergeant.

  • Knowing a sergeant and lieutenant were initiating an investigation and letting it continue.

  • Asking the officers and supervisors if “anyone had stepped forward.”

  • Continuing to assist the investigation through video, conversations, emails and phone calls.

  • Letting about 40 hours pass before he called his supervisor to confess.

    Osmundson wrote that “Lt. Skuza’s action/inactions related to this case shocked my conscience.”

    “I have known Lt. Skuza since his first day with the Fargo Police Department and still cannot logically grasp his response to what started out as a minor weapons violation,” Osmundson wrote. “The improper Taser discharge would have been a simple letter of consultation. Case closed.”

    Skuza apologized for his actions in a Feb. 17 letter to Todd. “After all of my time serving this community this is not a situation I ever thought I would be in,” he wrote. “Even now I look back on it with disbelief.”

    He explained that he decided to throw away the spent Taser cartridge on an impulse, hoping that it would go unnoticed. As he deliberated on whether to come forward, he barely slept or ate, he wrote.

    “The stress of what I had done was consuming me,” his letter said.

    On Feb. 16, he told his wife what had happened and that he had to come clean.

    “I told her I was about to make a phone call that would at best damage my career and at worst end it, but I had to do it as soon as possible. She agreed that it had to be done,” Skuza wrote.

    Skuza, who had two teenage children, left a note for his family at home before driving to the Holy Cross Cemetery, south of the Wal-Mart at 3757 55th Ave. S., and killing himself. His funeral was Saturday.

    The Cass County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating Skuza's death, is still waiting on autopsy results, said spokeswoman Sgt. Tara Morris. Those results could take four to six weeks, Morris said.

    Fargo police documents

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734

    Emily Welker and Erik Burgess contributed to this report.