St. Charles County, MO (KSDK) - St. Charles County is ground zero in a polarizing case that is pitting law enforcement officers against each other and tearing the fabric of a typically unbreakable brotherhood.
The Sheriff of St. Charles County is forbidding his officers from aiding law enforcement in Warren and Montgomery counties. While tax payers in St. Charles County are footing the bill to defend an officer just convicted of burglary and assault.
The I-Team's Leisa Zigman investigates the events and consequences of this unprecedented case.
St. Charles County Deputy Chris Hunt is an 18 year veteran of law enforcement and the Marines.
Depending on who you believe, he is either a dedicated, fearless officer or a rogue cop with a vendetta.
"If he was a rogue cop, he wouldn't be with the St. Charles County Sheriff's department," says Sheriff Tom Neer.
Sheriff Neer is one of Officer Hunt's greatest supporters. He's even contributed his own money towards the defense.
"I've never been eaten up like this. I spent every waking hour of every day trying to figure out how the could happen," says the sheriff.
The case began nearly four years ago. In February of 2009, about a dozen drug task force members surrounded this Montgomery County trailer.
They were looking to arrest Phillip Alberternst, a known methamphetamine maker wanted on several felony drug charges. But authorities did not have a warrant so they set up surveillance.
Leisa sat down with Montgomery County Prosecutor Nicole Volkert. "Officers testified that Chris Hunt pulled up to the residence, got out of his truck, and he approached the front door which they knew to be locked because they already checked it. And that Chris Hunt took a couple of kicks to it and kicked in the dead bolted front door," said Volkert.
The prosecutor said Officer Hunt had bad blood with Alberternst, threw him to the ground and began beating him. She pointed out that Officer Hunt wasn't supposed to be at the bust but had shown up anyway.
While authorities found meth making material, Alberternst wasn't charged. The drug task force was made up of officers from several different agencies. Some of those officers felt it was Hunt who broke the law that night. The Missouri Highway Patrol conducted an independent investigation and recommended prosecutors charge Hunt with assault, and unlawful entry, which is legally called burglary.
Sheriff Neer was shocked. "There are no words to really describe it. Very angry. Frustrated in the judicial system that we are sworn to uphold. And it's turned and used against us."
This case is unprecedented on so many levels. It is highly unusual for police officers to testify against fellow officers. And Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist the University of Missouri said he's never heard of a case where an officer is charged with burglary for entering a home without a warrant.
Seven officers from Warren, and Montgomery counties, and the Missouri Highway Patrol testified against Hunt.
Sheriff Neer said several of those officers changed their story, first saying Alberternst resisted arrest, but in trial saying he did not.
"I think it is very unfortunate that Sheriff Neer is calling those brave men liars because those officers had nothing to gain form telling the truth of this," said Volkert.
It took jurors six hours to return a guilty verdict. Before Circuit Judge Keith Sutherland sentenced Hunt to five years in prison, he said, "The defendant is intoxicated with the badge..."
Terry MacCauley is a friend of Hunt. He launched a campaign called "Hunt for Justice."
"It is a safer world with guys like Chris Hunt. And when we have a society that starts putting guys like Chris Hunt behind bars, we've got a big problem," says MacCauley.
MacCauley set up HuntForJustice.net, a website that features Hunt as a Marine and family man who was railroaded by a corrupt system.
MacCauley said, "The question I pose for everyone, had behind the door a child been molested or a woman was being raped and chris hunt did the exact same thing, would we be giving him awards and calling him a hero? And if the answer is yes, then you just don't hate meth enough."
St. Charles County tax payers spent $23,000 for Hunt's defense and the County Executive plans to pay for his appeal. The County also paid $65,000 to Alberternst to settle a civil suit stemming from the case.
Despite the conviction, Hunt is out on an appeal. He still works at the St. Charles County Sheriff's Office, doing administrative work.
Sheriff Neer and the state and national Fraternal Orders of Police, who are backing Hunt, say this case sets dangerous precedent for all officers doing their job.
In the meantime, the rift between agencies is growing.
"We will not provide law enforcement to Montgomery County or Warren County under the circumstances because I'm not going to take a chance of one of my personnel being charged with a crime while they're on duty, doing their jobs in either one of those counties," says Sheriff Neer.
Attorneys would not allow Officer Hunt to comment for this story, but supporters are determined to save his career and keep him out of prison.
Former Supreme Court Justice Chip Robertson is handling Hunt's appeal. In the meantime, the sheriffs of Montgomery and Warren counties say they are disappointed with Sheriff Neer's comments and if they were called to assist in St. Charles County, they would. Two other officers involved in the meth bust face misdemeanor assault charges.