Two South Bend police officers suspended, one may be fired after gas station prank
SOUTH BEND – A South Bend police officer disciplined for punching an inmate at the St. Joseph County jail is in trouble again. This time, the interim chief is asking the Public Safety Board to fire Patrolman Theo Robert for interfering with an internal investigation.
It stems from a prank two other officers played on a local gas station clerk last summer on Miami Street.
WSBT sat down with the clerk a few months later, in October, to get his side of the story but chose not to report it until now because we wanted to wait for the truth to come out.
“I looked up to these guys,” 7-Eleven clerk Jonny Ferguson said in an interview last fall.
He said one big reason he respects police officers is he always wanted to be one.
“They’re protecting me and everything and I know when I’m there. I’m safe because of them,” he added.
Ferguson said he never minded when midnight shift officers stopped by the gas station to use the restroom or grab a cup of coffee while he worked the register, but one night last summer patrolmen Eric Mentz and Aaron Knepper took advantage of their friendship and his ADHD learning disability.
He also said the officers offered him money and a meal if he’d take the “cinnamon challenge” and eat a teaspoon of cinnamon without throwing up.
“The first one was like $32 and a free meal at Applebees,” he recounted.
When he couldn’t complete that, they challenged him to eat 10 saltine crackers in a minute, offering more money and another free meal.
“I puked for like a good four hours,” Ferguson added.
Knepper even recorded it on his cell phone then posted it to the internet but took it down when Ferguson expressed concern that he might lose his job.
At the time, Ferguson’s sister said she was angry.
“It makes me feel horrible. I may be his little sister, but I’m still his sister and I love him, but Jonathan would break his back for you and he doesn’t even know you. So just because he may have a disability he’s not retarded,” Amber Coppler told WSBT.
Interim Police Chief Chuck Hurley said an internal investigation determined those officers acted inappropriately, but he doesn’t think they took advantage of Ferguson.
“I think at that point in time, they should have said, ‘Hey, we’re police officers, we’re on duty, we have no business being involved in this,’” said Hurley.
Ferguson said he’s embarrassed but still sees the good in police.
“I still want to dedicate myself to being a cop. I know that at least I won't be one of those type of cops,” he said.
After an internal investigation, Hurley suspended Mentz for one day and Knepper for two for pulling the prank. In his disciplinary notice, Knepper wrote, “I would like to apologize for my actions – I never intended to act unprofessionally or attract any unwanted media attention on the department.”
Patrolman Robert is accused of making two trips to the gas station a few weeks after the incident, alongside a phone call to the manager identifying himself as a police officer and demanding the surveillance video be released to a local TV station, even though he had nothing to do with the prank itself.
Hurley recommended Robert’s termination because of his history on the department. He served a 30-day suspension after a July 2010 incident when he punched an inmate at the St. Joseph County jail.
The 7-11 incident has resulted in accusations that Robert violated the department’s code of ethics, used his position as a police officer to get information, lied to the department’s internal affairs officer and publicly criticized the department.
He has the opportunity to contest Hurley’s request to the Board of Public Safety.