News

Officer's dismissal contested

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

A Des Moines Police officer who was fired Oct. 31 for his part in allegedly beating and kidnapping a drug informant last year is appealing his termination.

An internal investigation by the city's Police Department recommended officer Barron Baldwin be terminated. He pleaded his case during a hearing before chief Roger Baker.

But Baker ultimately terminated Baldwin. He said he didn't learn any new information during the hearing that changed his mind.

"We're dealing with the same facts, but different people were involved," he said.

Baker said Baldwin has filed a grievance to appeal his termination before the Des Moines city manager. While the chief might be called to defend his decision before city government, "we concluded our investigation," he said. "It's now outside the department."

Two King County Sheriff deputies involved in the alleged incident that led to Baldwin's firing were suspended for 20 days, but kept their jobs.

All three officers were arrested and charged with assault and kidnapping in November 2003, but a King County Superior Court jury was hung 8-4 last summer in favor of acquitting the men, resulting in a mistrial. King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng declined to seek a retrial, and the officers returned to their departments for internal review and discipline.

Baldwin, 37, and deputies George Alvarez, 31, and James Keller, 32, worked together as detectives on the Special Emphasis Team in the Sheriff Department's south King County precinct. The team's job was to target street crimes, like car thefts, gang activity, drugs and prostitution.

In October 2003, the officers arrested Michael Winchester on outstanding felony warrants, but let him go after he agreed to work with them as a drug informant and promised to call them every day, according to charging papers.

When Winchester failed to call, the officers tried to track him down by calling people he was known to spend time with, leaving messages to call them. Winchester's friends told him about the calls and Winchester grew upset, thinking the officers would reveal his identity as an informant.

On Oct. 22 last year, Winchester met with Alvarez and Baldwin about 9:30 p.m. at a diner at South 252nd Street and Pacific Highway South. The officers told him to get in their vehicle, according to the authorities, and they drove to an abandoned building at South 274th Street and Pacific. They parked behind the building, where they were soon joined by Keller and two other officers. Everyone had gotten out of the cars when Keller allegedly walked up to Winchester and pepper-sprayed him in the face, and Keller, Alvarez and Baldwin hit Winchester, demanding to know why he hadn't called, according to charging papers.

Winchester was told to get back in the car and they left the area. During the ride, Baldwin and Alvarez talked about killing Winchester and throwing his body in the Green River, according to authorities.

They parked near the river and got out of their cars. Winchester cried and begged them not to kill him. Baldwin and Alvarez took him by the arms to walk him to the river, but Winchester went limp to hamper their movements, according to charges.

The officers told Winchester they were sorry they had to do it, according to charges, and wondered aloud where his body would float up, whether they should cut his throat or make it look like an accident, and whether they should leave his identification visible to make it easier to identify his body.

As they reached the trail to the river, the officers told Winchester he was at his last point and asked if he would call them. He said he would and they let him go, according to authorities.

They got back into the car and the officers dropped Winchester off after he showed them a house where drugs were being sold.

Winchester was never arrested, advised of his rights or placed into handcuffs, according to charges.

The next day, a Des Moines Police detective who had been present but didn't participate in the incident told then-interim police chief Kevin Tucker what happened. Tucker forwarded the information to Sheriff Dave Reichert, and departmental investigations were launched.

The three officers were arrested and charged Nov. 13, 2003 with one unlawful imprisonment and fourth-degree assault. All three pleaded not guilty.

In the end, the departments' internal investigations yielded similar recommendations for termination, but the outcomes were different for the Sheriff Department deputies, Keller and Alvarez. They appealed to Reichert. After hearing the deputies' side of the story, Reichert suspended both men for 20 days without pay. They have since returned to work.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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