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    Captain, police part ways

    After a turbulent ride, police Capt. Robert Hempel is no longer with the Pinellas Park department.

    By ANNE LINDBERG

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    PINELLAS PARK -- Though the details remain secret, one thing is now clear: Capt. Robert Hempel, once touted as the next chief, no longer works for the Police Department.

    Confirmation of Hempel's exit came in a three-paragraph letter from Assistant City Attorney Tom Reynolds to Pinellas Park human resources director Tom Owens:

    "Effective as of April 6, 2001, Robert Hempel is no longer an employee of the city of Pinellas Park."

    Despite the fact that Hempel has been the subject of a sheriff's and internal affairs investigation into his use of his private computer on city time and city business, Reynolds classified him as being " "in good standing' for purposes of entitlement to accrued vacation pay and normal separation benefits."

    An injunction temporarily is preventing the release of investigators' findings and details regarding Hempel's departure from the city. Hempel believes publication of the investigative report would be embarrassing and would permanently damage his career. A hearing is scheduled for May 3.

    Peter Walsh, the St. Petersburg attorney who represents Hempel, declined to release the resignation. He also defended his client's decision to fight the release of the investigation and other information.

    "This is a case of a right to privacy," Walsh said. "Just because you're a public employee doesn't mean you waive your right to privacy in your personal effects and papers. . . . It's as simple as that."

    Also Tuesday, Chief Dorene Thomas confirmed Capt. John Green as her second in command, once Hempel's place, and promoted three other officers.

    Hempel, 46, had joined the police force on Sept. 15, 1982, and worked his way up through the ranks to the level of captain. He was earning about $62,800 a year.

    The news is no surprise. For the past year, Hempel's star has fallen as problems in the department became more public.

    There were accusations that he had once beaten his wife. Both Hempel and his wife, Sherry, deny the allegations, and no charges were filed. There was his defense of former Chief David Milchan and his criticism of City Manager Jerry Mudd's leadership abilities.

    Soon came charges that he had created a "hit list," targeting officers who were known for being outspoken. An outside investigator found no written list but said credible evidence existed that Hempel had told another officer there were five employees he'd like to see gone. Hempel has denied that he had such a list.

    About the same time, a morale survey revealed that officers saw Hempel as a stumbling block to change and reform. The comments regarding Hempel were uniformly disparaging.

    Most recently, Hempel had been placed on administrative leave with pay while the Sheriff's Office and the city investigated allegations that he had used his private computer on city time for city business.

    Until next month's hearing, investigators' conclusions remain sealed.

    That investigation appears to be complete, but Hempel obtained a temporary injunction that blocks the release of the records. Hempel says he would be embarrassed by the information in the documents and that it would ruin his career.

    The injunction also is serving to keep information secret about Hempel's departure.

    Tom Owens, the head of Pinellas Park's personnel department, said Tuesday that Hempel's written resignation could not be released because it was considered to be subject to the injunction.

    The city clerk's office confirmed that stance, saying in a written response to a request for Hempel's resignation: "I have been advised by assistant city attorney (Tom) Reynolds that this information cannot be released due to a temporary restraining order."

    Mudd, the city manager, also was close-mouthed, although he did confirm that Hempel no longer works for Pinellas Park.

    But Mudd declined to comment on Hempel's reasons for leaving, if the city had made a deal with him, or if Pinellas Park had paid him to leave.

    "It would be inappropriate to comment further on this particular issue at this time," Mudd said. Hempel's departure cleared out the last of the triumvirate that once ruled the Pinellas Park Police Department.

    The exodus of top leadership began late last summer when Chief Milchan quit after he was suspended. City Manager Mudd had accused Milchan of threatening him and called him incapable of leading the department. Milchan still denies those charges.

    Next to follow was Capt. Mike Vetter, who had been third in command under Milchan. He was moved up to second in command by Milchan's replacement, Dorene Thomas. Vetter retired in February after 36 years on the force.

    Mudd named Thomas, one of Milchan's lieutenants, to lead the department, bypassing Hempel and Vetter.

    On Tuesday, Thomas named her top leaders and issued other promotions.

    Second in command will be John Green, a 14-year department veteran. Green, who served as a lieutenant under Milchan, was made an acting captain this year. Thomas made that promotion permanent on Tuesday.

    Michael Haworth also was promoted to captain. Sandy Forseth, 40, was promoted to acting lieutenant. Also promoted was William Lowe, from officer to sergeant.

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