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St. Louis County police brass take stand, deny homophobia claims in Wildhaber case

St. Louis County police brass take stand, deny homophobia claims in Wildhaber case


For two days, St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar has listened quietly in court here as witnesses accused his administration of creating a punitive, homophobic culture.

On Thursday, he and his commanders defended themselves.

Several police commanders, known as “white shirts,” took the witness stand on the trial’s third day, denying they discriminated against Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, who sued the department alleging it had repeatedly passed him over for promotions because he is gay.

By the end of the day, Belmar himself testified, saying he had not punished Wildhaber for being gay, quashed his promotion or ever used the word “fag” to refer to anyone.

“I didn’t hold his sexual orientation against him,” Belmar told the court.

County attorneys largely called witnesses on Thursday to rebut plaintiff testimony the day prior.

County police Capt. Guy Means took the stand first.

Donna Woodland, the widow of a former county police officer and the girlfriend of a current officer, testified on Wednesday that Means called Wildhaber “fruity” at a 2015 event and then said Wildhaber would never get a promotion because he was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt.”

But Means said on Thursday that he could not recall attending the event, doesn’t know Woodland, and didn’t know Wildhaber then — let alone that he was gay.

“I don’t know him that well to judge him like that,” Means said. “And I have a relative that’s gay. I would never make those statements.”

Wildhaber’s attorney Sam Moore noted that Woodland “didn’t have a dog in the fight” because she’s not a department employee. He also questioned how Means could not recall anything about the event — and yet was certain he never said those words.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Gregory testified soon after. He said he “never had conversations about homosexuality” in the workplace and that he never quoted the Bible at work, despite testimony to the contrary.

On Wednesday, Gregory’s former executive assistant, Mary Beth Ruby, testified that she overheard him tell another commander that the Bible says homosexuality is “an abomination.” Ruby, who is gay, said that Gregory subjected her to harassment after she listed her fiancée as an emergency contact on a personnel form.

But on Thursday, Gregory said he had a “very good working relationship” with Ruby. He said he “bent over backwards” to help her on personal health matters and denied that requiring her to see a department physician was punitive.

“We wanted to make sure she was fit for work,” he said.

One of the central claims in Wildhaber’s lawsuit was that his transfer to the midnight shift in Jennings, more than 20 miles from his house, was retaliation for filing his lawsuit in 2016.

But defense witnesses on Thursday suggested that Wildhaber asked to be transferred to Jennings and didn’t apply for opportunities to leave or get off of the midnight shift once he got there.

Lt. Col. Troy Doyle testified that Wildhaber expressed interest in a position in the West County precinct. But when he learned the position was filled, Wildhaber seemed disappointed and said he thought he had been promised it.

The opening in the Jennings precinct “came up” and Wildhaber said “it’s time for a change,” Doyle said.

But Wildhaber’s attorneys then showed the jury Wildhaber’s “dream sheets” that he and other officers regularly file indicating precinct preferences:

Jennings was Wildhaber’s last choice every time, including one filed five months before his transfer there.

Wildhaber’s attorneys twice raised concerns about the proceedings with St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge David Lee Vincent III.

First, when Lt. Ray Rice said he had received text messages of Wildhaber making disparaging comments about black people, Wildhaber’s attorneys objected.

Then, during a break, a bailiff approached Belmar and the county counselors and said that there was an issue with a juror who expressed concern that the chief and Rice were looking at their cell phones when Rice was on the stand. The bailiff said he told the juror Belmar and Rice were on duty, and likely using their cell phones for work.

After the break, Wildhaber’s attorneys complained again to the judge.

Vincent told the jury on Thursday that the trial was ahead of schedule, and expected it to wrap up on Friday.

Belmar is also expected to continue testifying on Friday.

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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