Juror No. 4 was angry.
For five days, he sat just a few feet from St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar, the juror whose chair was perched closest to the defense table, close enough that at one point, when his pen ran dry, Belmar reached over and offered him a replacement.
One of the more senior jurors, the man with white hair and dark-rimmed glasses, became the foreman of the group of 12. As the trial reached its fifth and final day, Juror No. 4 could not hide his disgust, not when attorney Russ Riggan displayed a photo that showed Capt. Guy Means in an enthusiastic and friendly embrace with a witness whom Means, a member of Belmar’s command staff, had testified he didn’t know.
The lie was shocking in its boldness, its recklessness, so easily proven to be a lie when the woman, a police widow named Donna Woodland, dug through old photos in the middle of the trial and found the proof that could help to take down the chief who refused to promote Sgt. Keith Wildhaber because he’s gay.
“It was huge,” Juror No. 4 told me later about that photo.
It was $19 million huge. That’s the total verdict Juror No. 4 and 10 of his peers awarded to Wildhaber for the discrimination and retaliation perpetrated against him by the administration of a chief of police whose days atop the department should now be numbered.
Early Monday, Wildhaber plans to report back to work in the department’s north precinct.
“It’s going to be hard to go back to work there next week,” he told jurors on Friday.
Means, the lying captain, is his boss.
And that’s why work at the police department, as well as on the ninth floor of the St. Louis County government center, where the top administrators of the county, including County Executive Sam Page, have offices, should be equally uncomfortable on Monday.
They have some questions to ask.
How can Belmar keep his job? How can Means keep his? How many other members of the command staff lied on the stand?
At least one county official, Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, plans to review the court transcript and investigate possible perjury.
Another key question is this: How did this case ever get to trial?
The case was essentially won in November 2018. That’s when, under questioning from Riggan in a deposition, Belmar offered the only fact Riggan needed to prove to win the retaliation allegation. That’s when Belmar admitted that the equal opportunity complaint filed by Wildhaber, and the lawsuit that followed when the county refused to settle the complaint, was affecting the gay cop’s promotional opportunities.
“In one question and one answer, it’s game over for the county in this case,” Riggan told the jurors, who agreed. “It’s essentially a confession.”
Had Belmar made that confession to his bosses, the case could have been settled. Instead he and the county government apparatus played a dangerous game of denial for three years. They sought to use the power of the government to smear Wildhaber rather than promote him.
They lost and now taxpayers will pay the consequences.
Page appoints the commissioners who have the power to hire and fire Belmar. In recent weeks, Page and his top advisers have discussed replacing police commissioners and top brass. It appears Page is ready to follow through. On Sunday, he texted this statement: “The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top.”
Page also supervises the county counselor who can decide to put this nasty dispute in the rearview mirror by cutting the county’s losses and refusing to appeal a case that never should have gone to trial. Page can stand up on Monday morning, while Wildhaber is getting off his shift in north St. Louis County, and make it clear that there will be a new culture in the police department.
No more discrimination. Not against gay cops, nor black or brown ones, not against women, not against those who raise their voices in pursuit of justice.
Page has his first major challenge as county executive. Just weeks ago he was pitching Belmar as the de facto police chief of the entire St. Louis region, fixing MetroLink, tackling the city’s crime problem. That thought had an exceedingly short shelf life.
Page didn’t create this problem, but he must clean it up. He should start by channeling Juror No. 4’s righteous anger.
“If you decide to bully people, you’re going to pay a price,” the juror said, after spending five days sitting within an arm’s reach of the head bully, the one whose broad shoulders fill the white shirt worn by command staff in the St. Louis County Police Department.
County taxpayers are on the hook for $19 million because Belmar wouldn’t give such a white shirt to Wildhaber. Now it’s time for him to pay the price.
Page must take away Belmar’s white shirt.