Craig Nelson worked for the Mono Sheriff’s Department between 2005 and 2011. Nelson said he ended his twenty-year law enforcement career because of the “abuse of power” in the Sheriff’s Department and a culture of selective enforcement and cronyism. Mono Sheriff Ralph Obenberger describes his Department as well-managed and thoughtful in its handling of employees and the public.
Nelson responded to the case of Mono Deputy Jon Madrid who was fired, made to sit in a chair for eight hours a day and then exonerated of any wrongdoing and reinstated by an arbitrator. Former Sergeant Nelson said, “The Madrid case is but a tiny fraction of the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to personnel matters. What happened to Madrid has happened to many others to one degree or another.”
Several other officers, no longer with the Mono Sheriff’s Department, confidentially confirmed Nelson’s comments. They described “bullying, cronyism and selective law enforcement.” Nelson said there are two kinds of people at the Sheriff’s Department – those who want to go somewhere else and those who can’t go somewhere else.
In a two-page written statement responding to Nelson’s comments, Sheriff Obenberger describes a completely different Department. To allegations of bullying and favoritism, the Sheriff said that if a problem is solved, “it is not ‘selective law enforcement’ as long as you are taking care of public safety.” He said employees who do not respond to instruction may require discipline. Obenberger said, “Although some of those individuals on that end of the spectrum might want to absolve themselves of personal responsibility and call it cronyism, it is actually good management practices.”
Former Segeant Nelson said discipline in the Mono County Sheriff’s Office was “arbitrary.” He said, “If they liked you, they were understanding. If they didn’t, you couldn’t do anything right.” He said before Jon Madrid was terminated, “I was told to write him up for everything.” Nelson said he did write up Madrid for some things but said Madrid responded as an “honest and forthright” person. At the same time, Nelson said, he had written up another deputy three times for insubordination and Lieutenant O’Hara “threw that away.”
Nelson said he witnessed a deputy who was made to sit “in the dunce chair” in Lieutenant O’Hara’s office. Nelson said the deputy’s misdeed was writing traffic tickets. Said Nelson, “He was a good cop, and it was hard for him not to write tickets.” Nelson said the same Lieutenant “called people names, and he threatened my career.” Nelson confirmed that a memo was issued by Sheriff Scholl which resulted in officers’ fear of enforcement. He said when officers were proactive they would “get taken into the office and get a verbal warning.” Other sources confirmed this same policy. One source referred to an actual memo discouraging enforcement.
However, Sheriff Obenberger denies it. He said, “I have never seen anyone placed into a fixed post for writing too many tickets in my tenure with the agency, nor would I condone it.” The Sheriff did say that former Sheriff Scholl wanted deputies to spend time within the communities and “not just work traffic on Highway 395.” Obenberger said, “We are not aware of any memo that was directing employees to ‘not write tickets.'”
In his statement, Sheriff Obenberger does make it a point to say that when he became Sheriff in December, he “instructed the supervisors to let the deputies and public safety officers do their job.” Although he earlier said there was no issue with writing tickets, Obenberger said he specifically instructed deputies to work traffic if they want and write tickets if they’re warranted.
Nelson said former Sheriff Scholl and his administration never did make it clear what they wanted from their troops. Nelson said he was ordered by a sergeant and Scholl not to conduct bar checks at Tom’s Place or Rhino’s in Bridgeport.
Nelson said the lack of accountability caused him to believe that only a state or federal investigation would clear things up. The former sergeant said he quit “because as a sergeant and a police officer, I wanted to do the right thing and set a good example. I had no support for that.” Nelson said he hopes the Mono Board of Supervisors and residents of Mono County “won’t tolerate this any more. Law enforcement has to be held to a higher standard.”
He also pointed to what he says is promotion of those with the least experience who have not spent the necessary years to build a career track. He said Officer Jeff Beard was promoted to sergeant after 18 months. Nelson said Ralph Obenberger was a deputy and in eight years became Sheriff. Said Nelson, “He was a sergeant for less than a year when he was promoted to lieutenant.”
Nelson said he believes those of higher rank hire people with less experience because “it’s the only way they can control what goes on. The least experienced are more willing to look the other way and keep their mouths closed.” The former sergeant repeated that those who “tried to step up and do the right thing had to sit in a dunce chair, get no overtime and no promotions. The Mono Sheriff’s culture was to do things not by the book but to look the other way.”
Nelson said he was particularly upset over the Sheriff Department’s lack of support when it came to light that his daughter was one of the victims in the sex crimes of a Coleville coach. He said the Department administration “quit talking to me. Ralph Obenberger said it was my problem not the Department’s.” Nelson said he and his family “were treated like criminals” by the Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Obenberger called Nelson’s claim “utterly false.” He said, “As peace officers, our hearts go out to all victims and their families, including Mr. Nelson’s.” The Sheriff said he wholeheartedly believes that the Department supported Nelson during the incident.
Nelson and other sources close to the situation maintained that the atmosphere in the Sheriff’s Department was uncertain and hostile. Sheriff Obenberger said, “I do not believe there is a hostile environment in our office, nor was there ever.” Officers willing to speak to Sierra Wave Media point to the arbitrator’s opinion in the Deputy Madrid case as clear evidence of biased and mean treatment.
One other report from two informed sources said that Mono Sheriff’s administration officers engaged in a punishment called “The Gauntlet” in which employees were forced to sit silently while higher-ups screamed degrading statements at them about something they didn’t like. Sheriff Obenberger did not comment on our question about that. One former officer said deputies were “frequently subjected to this demeaning practice.”