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Suspect in suitcase deaths had unethical side job

Published On: Jul 12 2014 12:03:48 PM CDT
Steven Zelich

Steven Zelich

MILWAUKEE -

The suspect in the deaths of two women whose bodies were found in suitcases dumped on a rural Wisconsin road stalked women while working as a police officer — and tried to sell them cellular service in a side job that ethics experts said abused his authority.

Steven Zelich, 52, held at least three side jobs while working for the West Allis Police Department, according to personnel files released this week. One of those enterprises was a partnership with another office in cell phone service sales. Women told officers during an internal investigation that Zelich would hand out business cards and promote his service while on duty. One said he had even asked to see her cell phone bill, saying it would tell him how much she could save by switching services.

Police said the case represents abuse of power and provides a warning about what can happen when departments fail to establish and enforce policies against conflicts of interest and misuse of authority. Several agencies said they didn't track complaints tied to side jobs, and officials said they thought such instances were rare. But Greg Peterson, president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group, which sets standards for police agencies, said the lack of numbers also reflects a lack of awareness.

"I think it's not on the radar," said Peterson, the police chief in Grand Chute. "Now, that's not to say there are problems that have gone undetected. But I think that the potential exists for problems to emerge."

Agencies accredited by his group must have policies requiring officers to obtain permission in advance for any outside work and outlining acceptable employment, documentation and review procedures. Twenty Wisconsin agencies, including the West Allis Police Department, are currently accredited.

West Allis Police Chief Charles Padgett was a detective when Zelich was forced to resign following an internal investigation in 2001. He couldn't recall the policy back then but said today he must approve any outside work.

"We look for any kind of potential conflict," Padgett said. And, he added, "If it's affecting their work here, we investigate it."

Zelich came under suspicion after a struggle with a prostitute at his apartment while he was off duty. Officers determined he ran dozens of unauthorized license plate searches to get personal information about women he was pestering for dates. Several strip club dancers and managers also told officers Zelich had tried to sell them cellular service. One woman said Zelich made a sales pitch after pulling her over in a traffic stop. All said they never complained because he was an officer.

"That is the nightmare for police departments . . . you're abusing your authority for pecuniary gain, financial gain," said Stan Stojkovic, a criminal justice professor and dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He said the burden is on supervisors to monitor officers and enforce ethics rules because citizens tend to defer to police.

The Madison Police Department has a detailed policy governing outside employment, including a ban on jobs at bars or companies with city licenses. All work must be reviewed annually.

"We have to avoid even the appearances of impropriety," said Chief Michael Koval, who long oversaw the department's recruiting and training. Most officers do good work, he said, "but when you get these outliers, as I call them, it has an incredible abasement of public trust, and it has implications far beyond your own jurisdiction."

Padgett said the violent end to Zelich's "very unique" story has saddened his department.

"Our thoughts are with the families of the victims," he said. "We feel for them and the loss that they are trying to deal with."

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