He was 26, married with children. She was 19, single and not interested. He kept paging her frequently. He followed her to a fast-food restaurant and, uninvited, sat down at her table. He was clearly a nuisance, but he was also a cop. Last July, the young woman found herself in his squad car, after dark, in a secluded area.
Michael E. Waisner, a Webster Groves police officer, was on duty and in uniform when "physical contact" occurred.
No more details are known about this latest allegation that has surfaced regarding four Webster officers and their preoccupation with teenage girls last summer. All the earlier incidents involved hot-tub parties with the girls.
The sketchy details about the new charge against Waisner have been gleaned from a petition filed Feb. 23 by the Missouri Department of Public Safety to determine whether Waisner's law-enforcement license should be revoked. The department is seeking the same for the three other officers: Paul E. Ponder, 43; Steven C. Ceriotti, 31; and Scott D. Kunza, 26. All four will get their day in court, so to speak, when the attorney general's office will argue the case before the Administrative Hearing Commission on June 28. Until then, all lips are sealed.
But plenty of salacious details are already known to Webster Groves and state officials regarding the behavior of the officers, both on and off the job. Three of the officers were fired by the police department when the incidents came to light; Kunza resigned before the investigation was completed.
Besides the new allegations involving the 19-year-old woman, Waisner is accused of meeting a 16-year-old at a church parking lot on Big Bend Boulevard and kissing her. The allegations against Waisner seem tame compared with the hot-tub encounters the other three officers had with that girl and her 17-year-old friend. Kunza and Ceriotti are accused of having a party with the two teens at a Residence Inn in Richmond Heights. According to the state complaint, Kunza was licking the back of one of the teens and kissing her. Ceriotti, who was on duty at the time, was kissing and licking the back and toes of the 16-year-old, as well as drinking alcohol. The teens also said Ceriotti provided them with alcohol.
Ponder had his own hot-tub encounter with the same girls, except this one occurred at his home. He doesn't deny he was in the hot tub with the girls. He simply says he had no idea they were high-school students and thought they were "of age." The details about the incident were only revealed after Ponder decided to fight his firing. The Webster Groves Personnel Board denied his appeal to get his job back.
After a review of the explicit details contained in the "statement of facts" issued by the personnel board, it isn't hard to understand why they upheld his firing. The girls testified before the city's personnel board that last July they met Ponder at a train station while he was on duty. He told them his wife and children were out of town for the weekend. One of the girls told Ponder she was four days past 17. Ponder retorted that she was "of age." Several days later, the teens and another officer, Ceriotti, arrived at Ponder's house. In the backyard of the quaint ranch house on Colebrook Drive, right next to the swingset, is a hot tub. The teens said that Ponder told them, "You can't have a hot-tub party without being naked," and proceeded to take off his swim trunks. The 16-year-old took off her top. The other girl went one step further and took off her entire swimsuit. She ended up sitting on Ponder's lap. Both of them were naked, and she testified he was clearly aroused. There was some massaging and touching. She became uncomfortable when Ponder tried to kiss her, and she started to cry. The claim is confirmed by her younger friend.
Ponder gave a similar version to the personnel board, but with a couple of crucial differences. He admits to meeting the girls on duty and even telling them his wife was out of town. But he says he had no idea they were high-school girls. When they arrived at his house, he says, one of the girls asked whether he was getting in the tub. He changed into shorts. Once in the tub, he took his shorts off. He testified there were no "exposure problems," because it was dark and the hot tubs jets were on. One of the girls slid onto his lap. He didn't object to her being there. In fact, he even admits to putting his arm around her. She was there for two minutes when he learned one of the girls was 16. Immediately, he says, he put his shorts on underneath the water and got out. He said he had "trusted the other officer."
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch determined that no crimes were committed and filed no charges against the officers. McCulloch reached the same conclusion in the latest allegations against Waisner.
The city's personnel board, on the other hand, determined that Ponder's defense of trusting Ceriotti to bring girls who were of age was inadequate and therefore supported his firing. On the day the state Department of Public Safety filed its complaint against Ponder, he filed a petition in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeking to overturn his firing. The filing says Ponder's termination was based on noncriminal and consensual acts and was done solely on the testimony of the girls, testimony he claims was fraught with inaccuracies, bias and contradiction. The case is pending.
While the state commission and the county court consider the charges against the four officers, two of them are now gainfully employed as police officers. Kunza is working for the O'Fallon (Mo.) Police Department, and Ceriotti is an officer with the Berkeley Police Department. Neither police department would comment about the matter.
If the AHC finds the officers guilty, their licenses could be revoked or suspended, effectively preventing them from serving on any police force in Missouri that serves more than 2,000 people.
Whatever the result of the hearing, the officers wont be working in Webster Groves. Dale Curtis, the city's police chief, is trying to regain the public's trust in his department, as well as some of his own. "I think the fact we dismissed them certainly shows it is clear we don't want anybody like that working in our community." he says. "I don't want to impress my own judgments and values in relationship to the discipline on their certification. I will leave that up to the Department of Public Safety. They are very competent to handle that."