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A top cop talks about doing the dirty work

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


Every boss has faced the unpleasant task of firing somebody.

Few, though, have been in the sticky position Rick Stelljes found himself in two years ago at the St. Petersburg Police Department. Fewer still have had their actions made embarrassingly public.

In 1998, Stelljes was assistant chief and the boss of then-Maj. John Womer.

Chief Go Davis wanted Womer gone.

Stelljes didn't.

It's not entirely clear why Davis wanted to get rid of Womer, then in charge of District 3. And getting him out wasn't going to be easy. The guy had a terrific record.

That didn't stop Go Davis. Words are words. Just marks on a page.

And you can have somebody else write down the words. That way, you don't look so responsible for what happens next.

According to a deposition Stelljes gave last month, Davis told him to write a memo on Womer's shortcomings in May 1998.

Never mind that Stelljes had been the one evaluating Womer every year and giving him excellent ratings.

Like several others dumped by Davis, Womer has filed a lawsuit. Womer, a 25-year veteran of the department who is working as a Pinellas court bailiff, is suing for breach of contract and age discrimination.

Writing the memo about Womer made Stelljes feel lousy, Stelljes said in the deposition. He admitted he thought Davis was just plain wrong. He also thought that if he didn't write it, Davis might fire him, too.

"(It) wasn't one of the things that I certainly took any pleasure in ... I didn't agree with the path we were taking. ...

"I felt that I could work with John (Womer) and try to remediate what (Davis) felt were the problems," Stelljes said.

The memo put in writing conversations that Davis and Stelljes had about Womer's performance -- based largely on events that took place between January and May 1998. Davis had been named chief the previous June, and heads soon began rolling.

In the memo, Womer was faulted for being responsible for four incidents in which citizen gripes resulted in complaints to the chief or the mayor, or to the newspaper, which published stories about them.

Can you imagine?

Sometimes Womer was brusque when he talked to his subordinates.

Heaven forbid. He wasn't all warm and fuzzy like Chief Davis.

Once, Womer didn't respond as fast as he should have during an incident when drug dealers threw rocks and bottles at police.

Once.

As you can see, these obviously were the crimes of a first-class boob. And Stelljes must have also been a boob for previously saying that Womer was a terrific cop.

Remarkably, Stelljes still has a job.

But now we have a member of the police brass publicly at odds with his my-way-or-the-highway chief, on a matter that could cost the city thousands if Womer wins his lawsuit.

Womer's lawyer, Michael Keene, said Monday that he eventually will call the chief to a deposition to get his version of the events Stelljes described.

Keene wondered why Womer never got a chance to prove himself. After all, Davis has given every break possible to Donnie Williams, who was promoted to lieutenant while he was under investigation for possibly dealing drugs -- an investigation that the city insists isn't over yet.

"There just seems to be a trash heap mentality" at the department, Keene said.

At least regarding some people.

Rick Stelljes didn't return my call Monday. Which was a wee bit odd, for the man who now is the St. Petersburg Police Department's official spokesman.

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