ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — The jury foreman called it a Perry Mason moment.
It happened during the discrimination trial of then-St. Louis County Sgt. Keith Wildhaber – now a lieutenant after winning a jury verdict of about $20 million.
Wildhaber, as many of you might recall, sued the department in 2017 alleging Chief Jon Belmar and his administration were refusing to promote him because he is gay and retaliated against him for filing an EEOC complaint about it. The county and Wildhaber have since settled the case for $10.25 million.
On day four of the five-day trial, the county put Belmar’s commanders on the witness stand. One by one, their stories differed. Some claimed Wildhaber wanted to be transferred to the graveyard shift in a north county precinct instead of continuing to work day shifts closer to his south St. Louis County home. Some insinuated Wildhaber was a racist. Some commanders said other examples of discrimination Wildhaber’s legal team brought into the trial were false – even though some of those involved were disciplined. In one case, though, Belmar intervened and reversed a sergeant’s discipline.
But it was obvious at trial that the most egregious example of conflicting testimony involved Capt. Guy Means and a woman named Donna Woodland.
Woodland is dating a former county police officer, and the widow of another officer. She told jurors that Means once told her during a police fundraiser that Wildhaber was “too fruity” to get a promotion. It happened during a fundraiser for the county’s Police Welfare Association. And Wildhaber was standing nearby after having just won an auction for a puppy, she recalled.
The next day, Means took the stand and said he “couldn’t recall” attending the fundraiser, or ever having been to where it took place. And then he denied even knowing Woodland. County Counselor Mike Hughes pointed to the jury box and asked Means if he could pick her out of the jurors if she was sitting among them.
“No,” he told Hughes.
About 24 hours later, Woodland returned to the stand. She came armed with a series of photos her and Means took together inside a photo booth at the very event in question. In one pose, Means is standing behind Woodland giving her a bear hug.
Some of the jurors’ reactions were audible as they chuckled to themselves and shook their heads in disbelief.
It was clear they had been dealt their final insult.
She went on to produce a receipt of a picture she had made of Means’ badge for his office. And she spoke of how close they were at one time, having confided in each other about the losses in their lives.
The moment happened less than an hour before the jury broke for deliberations.
Following the trial, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell announced that he would be conducting an investigation into allegations of perjury committed by St. Louis County commanders. He has yet to say whether he will charge any of them.
Means was transferred out of the north county precinct he oversaw and put in charge of logistics at police headquarters in Clayton days after the trial. The position involved the supervision of issues such as police vehicles and uniforms.
The logistics commander who replaced him in his precinct was none other than former Capt. Mary Barton.
Her name should sound familiar.
She’s now Lt. Col. soon-to-be Chief Barton.
Means’ transfer to Clayton separated him from Wildhaber, who worked his midnight shift as a sergeant in that precinct for about a month before Belmar promoted him to lieutenant and put him in charge of the newly-formed Diversity and Inclusion Unit.
That promotion brought with it a return to the day shift as well as an office at police headquarters – not far from Means.
And life, it seems, has improved for Means.
Belmar named him Acting Commanding Officer of the Division of Operational Support on March 16.
Now, all of the department’s dispatchers, academy staff, records clerks and other administrative staff report to him.
Meanwhile, the county will have to pay Wildhaber the first $7 million of his settlement. That’s due April 9.
If Means completes two pay periods, or 30 days, in the position Belmar just gave him, he will get a 10% raise.
Two weeks after that, Barton will become chief.
And she will have to decide how to handle the fallout from the Perry Mason moment.