A new kind of vigilante

In the small town of Gerald, Missouri, Bill Jakob seemed a godsend. With support from the local police department, the federal agent took on the local methamphetamine problem. Over nearly five months, the man colloquially referred to as “Sergeant Bill” led the charge, searching homes, seizing evidence, and arresting suspects in the town of less than twelve hundred, a place so wracked by the drug trade that its mayor calls the area “a meth capital of the United States”.

And then a reporter—always a pesky reporter—decided to look into the story, and what Linda Trest of The Gasconade County Republican discovered brought the whole operation to a scandalous collapse. As Monica Davey explains for the New York Times:

Sergeant Bill, it turned out, was no federal agent, but Bill A. Jakob, an unemployed former trucking company owner, a former security guard, a former wedding minister and a former small-town cop from 23 miles down the road.

The fantastic vigilante is now the target of a federal criminal investigation, and Gerald has lost three of its five police officers. The drug allegations themselves are in doubt. Seventeen plaintiffs have filed a civil rights lawsuit, and Mayor Otis Schulte is the target of of an impeachment petition.

This is your War on Drugs.

Many questions loom large in the wake of Mr. Jakob’s stunt. To start with, the situation seems a stark reminder of the importance of legal representation:

Those whose homes were searched … grumbled about a peculiar change in what they understood — mainly from television — to be the law.

They said the agent, a man some had come to know as “Sergeant Bill,” boasted that he did not need search warrants to enter their homes because he worked for the federal government.

At the outset, any good defense lawyer should have picked up on this point. It seems absurd that it took nearly five months and a reporter to unravel the deception. But Gasconade County is small, just over fifteen thousand people spread through 526 square miles. Its county seat, Hermann, boasts a population, according to the year-2000 census, of 2,674. Of the ten and a half thousand people within the county over the age of twenty-five, only ten per cent are college graduates. This, of course, suggests a fairly small pool of lawyers. Davey’s article mentions only three: Mr. Jakob’s attorney Joel Schwartz, a lawyer named Chet Pleban who represents two of the dismissed police officers, and an unnamed city attorney who, according to Mayor Schulte, recommended the firings.

For his part, Mr. Schwartz asserted that his client had no nefarious intent:

How did Mr. Jakob wander into town and apparently leave the mayor, the aldermen and pretty much everyone else he met thinking that he was a federal agent delivered from Washington to help barrel into peoples’ homes and clean up Gerald’s drug problem? And why would anyone — receiving no pay and with no known connection to little Gerald, 70 miles from St. Louis and not even a county seat — want to carry off such a time-consuming ruse in the first place?

Mr. Jakob’s lawyer, Joel Schwartz, said that what happened in Gerald was never a sinister plot, but a chain of events rooted in “errors in judgment.” Mr. Schwartz said he believed that at least three Gerald police officers, including the chief, knew that Mr. Jakob was not a federal drug agent or even a certified police officer.

“It was an innocent evolution, where he helped with one minor thing, then one more on top of that, and all of the sudden, everyone thought he was a federal agent,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I’m not saying this was legal or lawful. But look, they were very, very effective while he was present. I don’t think Gerald is having the drug problem they were having. I’ve heard from some residents who were thrilled that he was there.”

But no mention is made of whether the suspects have lawyers. I’m inclined to presume they do not. Maybe I’m simply being naîve here, but the first thing I would have my lawyer do is attack the lack of a search warrant. The second is to find out a few things about the cops who busted me. That process certainly would not take a period of months.

But that’s just me. I could easily be wrong on that point.

To the other, though, while the situation is certainly no laughing matter for the victims of Mr. Jakob’s ruse, there does seem to be something of a comedic side to this:

There were numerous arrests during Mr. Jakob’s time in Gerald (the exact number is uncertain, local law enforcement officials said, as legal action surrounding the case proceeds), but Mayor Schulte said that Mr. Jakob had, in fact, gone to elaborate lengths to deceive local authorities, including Ryan McCrary, then the police chief, into believing that he was a federal agent — with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Marshals Service or some other agency.

In addition to having a badge and a car that seemed to scream law enforcement, Mr. Jakob offered federal drug enforcement help, Mr. Schulte said. (Local officials thought the offer must have somehow grown out of their recent application for a federal grant for radio equipment.) Mr. Jakob even asked Chief McCrary to call what he said was his supervisor’s telephone number to confirm Gerald’s need for his help, the mayor said.

When the call was placed, a woman — whose identity is unknown — answered with the words “multijurisdictional task force,” and said that the city’s request for federal services was under review, the mayor said. Mr. Schulte said he now suspects that Mr. Jakob adapted the nonexistent task force name from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies starring Eddie Murphy.

Does it not seem strange that the mayor and police department would so willingly follow the lead of a mysterious federal agent who could not even resolve what service he was with? Who borrowed an idea from an eighties comedy?

Now add to that the city aldermen, who the day before Mr. Jakob’s fantasy came crashing down voted to make him a reserve police officer.

Yeah, that’s right. A random stranger with a misdemeanor sex offense (admittedly, an old issue) on his record and no real credentials wanders into town, starts busting heads in a manner that any good attorney should have seen through, and the freaking city council wants to give him even more authority.

And the Hollywood references don’t stop with Eddie Murphy. According to Mayor Schulte, “It was the movie, ‘Catch Me if You Can’ all over again. I’m telling you, with this guy, everything was right.”

Maybe in rural Missouri, this kind of con passes for everything being right. Maybe in a town beset by the methamphetamine market, people want to believe that everything about a potential savior is right. But it is a tough sell to convince me that a lack of credentials, a half-assed excuse for not needing warrants, and a joke pulled from a two-star comedy is the appearance of everything being right.

“He was definitely in charge — it was all him,” said Mike Withington, 49, a concrete finisher, who said Mr. Jakob pounded on his door in May, waking him up and yanking him, in handcuffs, out onto his front yard.

Mr. Withington said he had not yet been charged with a crime; Gary Toelke, the Franklin County sheriff, confirmed that no local charges had been issued against him. But the mortification of that day, Mr. Withington said, has kept him largely indoors and led him to consider moving. Since the search, residents have tossed garbage and crumpled boxes of Sudafed (which has an ingredient that can be used to make methamphetamine) on his lawn, he said, and he no longer shops in town, instead driving miles to neighboring towns.

“Everybody is staring at me,” he said. “People assume you’re guilty when things like this happen.”

Casualties of the Drug War.

Who knows? Maybe Leo DiCaprio can be convinced to play the role of “Sergeant Bill”. It certainly sounds like a bad movie. And, yes … it would be a comedy.

5 thoughts on “A new kind of vigilante

  1. I heard Linda Trest’s interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation this morning. Mayor Schulte and the rest may not want Gerald, MO to be known as a Hooterville, but I think its too late. It sure doesn’t help when neighbors trash their neighbors who were extrajudicially accused and illegally harrassed.

    The mayor, aldermen, and individual police officers (if you dignify such a bunch of clowns with that title) may escape liability, however, precisely because their town is such a Hooterville.

  2. Well this is not the first time Sgt. Jakob scamed a bunch of folks…. He came in just as the 1438th Eng Co (Missouri National Guard Unit) from Rolla, Mo was about to head for Iraq and pulled some of the same crap. He came from no where and told all of us that he was a Navy Seal and had been all over the country. And we believed him. He had the uniform and all the ribbons. The one day out of now where a bunch of high ranking officials came in and took him away… Then three years later I see his picture in the National Enquirer! I just couldnt believe it! He is very smooth… We all fell for it too.

  3. If he took the US Army then why do you think it is such a big deal that he took a small town. The mayor and board of alderman never ment the guy until a thursday night when he asked to become a reserve officer and the board and city attorney approved it, then the next day he was discovered and arrested without ever pulling any duty as an officer for the city of Gerald

  4. All the people that took the city to court never fooled the jury and only got a few thousand dollars divided between the ones that stayed, some of them dropped their case during the trial, instead of the millions they asked for, even the attorneys that thought they would get thousands for the case only got a few hundred dollars for almost 2 years of work.

  5. Hey Just Astonished, our mayor, alderman and police officers are not a bunch of clowns, this is a very nice community with a lot of good hard working citizens. Most small towns would think it is an honor to be called Hooterville or Mayberry. At least we have small town values and not all the fighting and murders that goes on in the cities. Look at the people that want to get out of the cities and move to the rural areas where they can have piece and quite.

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