A criminal case in Lawrence, Kansas involving a police officer who was later hired by the Arvada Police Department may have broader legal implications for past and future Arvada cases. The details of …
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A criminal case in Lawrence, Kansas involving a police officer who was later hired by the Arvada Police Department may have broader legal implications for past and future Arvada cases.
The details of that Feb. 4, 2018 arrest call into question the truthfulness of the two officers involved. This could complicate or even overturn other court rulings related to those officers, according to at least one legal expert and the Kansas case’s defense attorney.
That defense attorney, Kurt Kerns, wrote the Lawrence Police Department in 2019, notifying the department of the “malfeasance of these two officers.” According to his letter, the police reports and court testimony of the officers contradict video and audio recordings taken from the scene of the incident.
The letter sparked an internal affairs investigation of one of the officers, Brad Williams, and through that investigation, the LPD cleared Williams of any department policy violations. Williams remains with the department.
Meanwhile, the other officer — Brian Wonderly, who now works with the Arvada Police Department — was never part of an internal investigation regarding the incident, said Amy Rhoads, public affairs officer with the LPD. Wonderly left the Lawrence department in November 2018, prior to February 2019, when Kerns sent his letter.
The APD said in a statement to the Arvada Press that it does not believe APD officer Brian Wonderly acted dishonestly in the Kansas case and “we are incredibly pleased to have Officer Wonderly, and very lucky.”
Spokesperson Detective Dave Snelling with the APD said he “looked into” the case after the department received an anonymous phone call complaint about the Kansas incident. The APD’s review included conversations with the LPD and Wonderly — but based on the Arvada Press’s correspondence with APD, it is unclear what other steps the department took to investigate.
After Snelling stated that the APD had reviewed the matter, he asked the Arvada Press to provide the APD with video evidence from the incident in question.
When asked if the APD, had previously attempted to view this video footage — which seems to contradict parts of Wonderly’s testimony — Snelling responded, “We have full confidence in our background investigation process and Officer Brian Wonderly is a great addition to our team. We will have no further comment.”
Snelling also stated that the APD performs rigorous background checks on new hires, including a written test, an extensive personal history questionnaire, interviews with an investigator and a polygraph test.
An interaction in Lawrence
The 2018 story starts in a bar called the Jayhawk Café near the University of Kansas campus, where Wonderly, as an officer for the LPD, was making his usual rounds alongside Officer Williams.
Wonderly started escorting a young woman out of the bar, believing that she was drinking while underage. The young woman’s brother, Jameson O’Connor, saw this and asked Wonderly why the woman was being escorted from the bar, O’Connor said in an interview. According to him, Wonderly asked him to back up and O’Connor immediately turned to the side, before the two were close enough to make physical contact, allowing the officer to pass without incident.
O’Connor said that shortly after Wonderly had passed by him, he turned to follow Wonderly outside the bar. Within seconds, Officer Williams grabbed onto O’Connor to detain him and took him outside the bar, he said.
An audio recording was taken that night through the police department’s equipment and depicts a conversation between Wonderly and Williams, with Williams saying he is considering charging O’Connor with battery of a law enforcement officer.
In the recording, Wonderly responds by summarizing his interaction with O’Connor.
“I was like, `You need to back the (expletive) up’ because he was trying to get in between me and her and that’s when he said, `I’m not going to back the (expletive) up,’” Wonderly said. “I kept pushing him and that’s why I got drink spilled all over me. I’m trying to remember if he did grab, or — Yeah, he definitely like, puffed his chest out and kind of walked at me, but, yeah I don’t think he like, grabbed or pushed or anything.”
Later in the recording, the two agreed to give O’Connor a charge of interference with law enforcement.
Kansas Statute 21-5904 says that for an individual’s actions to rise to the level of interference, that person must be “knowingly obstructing, resisting or opposing any person authorized by law to serve process in the service or execution or in the attempt to serve or execute any writ, warrant, process or order of a court, or in the discharge of any official duty.”
Depending on the circumstances of an interference case, somebody found guilty of this charge in Kansas can face several penalties including fines and jail time.
A judge would eventually acquit O’Connor of this charge.
Wonderly’s testimony and APD’s review
On the stand in O’Connor’s trial, Wonderly described his encounter with O’Connor by stating that he pushed O’Connor out of his way with his left arm and “(O’Connor) kind of pushed his chest more against me.” At least two other times during the trial, Wonderly testified O’Connor pushed against him.
Wonderly also testified that “(Williams) had to physically grab onto Jameson (O’Connor) to get him out of my way,” which contradicts still photos taken from the video footage of that night.
O’Connor’s defense attorney obtained the video footage of the incident and submitted it to the Lawrence Municipal Court. During the trial, the defense presented stills from the footage instead of the video because of the video’s poor quality, O’Connor said.
Williams, who can be seen in the photos, was not close enough to make contact with O’Connor until Wonderly had already passed by.
After Wonderly made the above statements, O’Connor’s attorney asked, “What you did recall at the time (of the arrest) was that Jameson didn’t grab you or push you, he just didn’t want to back up, correct?”
Wonderly testified, “Correct.”
To Wonderly and the APD, his testimony in court did not constitute a lie or discrepancy, Snelling said.
The Arvada Press asked to speak with Wonderly. Instead, Snelling said he would speak with Wonderly regarding the Press’s questions and provide a statement on the officer’s behalf.
According to Snelling, Wonderly and the department believe Wonderly’s testimony was not a lie, because when Wonderly told Williams he had not been “pushed or grabbed or anything,” he meant he had not been battered, as opposed to meaning O’Connor had not pushed his chest against him. Snelling said this is clear from the context of the conversation — the context being that Williams and Wonderly were discussing whether to charge O’Connor with battery.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a lie,” Snelling said. “He felt (interference) was the appropriate charge.”
To O’Connor, the discrepancies do constitute a lie.
“He’s outright fabricating,” O’Connor said. “Just looking at the pictures, I’m already turned to the side before I would be close enough to bump him with my chest. It just didn’t happen.”
O’Connor’s case went to court in July 2019 but found its way back into the media after Wonderly’s partner, Williams, was involved in an August 2020 court case in Kansas against a man named Duc Tran. In that case, attorney Mark Schoenhofer has moved for the case to be dismissed, claiming that Williams, who arrested Tran, has been shown to be unreliable based on his past in the O’Connor case.
The motion was heard on Aug. 24 and is under advisement as the judge awaits documents, including the investigative file on Williams’s involvement in the 2018 case, Schoenhofer said on Aug. 27.
The O’Connor case’s potential effect on other cases now stems from court case Giglio v. United States. Giglio established a requirement for the prosecution to inform the defense of any evidence in an officer’s past that could call the officer’s integrity into question, such as past criminal convictions or specific instances of dishonesty. That evidence can then be submitted to the court, where the officer can be cross-examined about his or her previous actions.
If Giglio disclosure information is not made available during a trial, the defense attorney may push for the decision made in their case to be overturned.
In other words, if an attorney on a recent case could show evidence that suggests an officer previously acted dishonestly, “They may say, `We could have cross-examined him about that and maybe the jury wouldn’t have believed him,’” said Ian Farrell, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
Given brief details about the O’Connor case, Farrell said it sounded possible that defense attorneys could point to Wonderly’s past to help their defendants’ cases.
“There is a reasonable chance the judge would agree with that,” he said, “and that the conviction is overturned and potentially, there could be a new trial.”
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