July 1, 2020 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile and Tennessee Watson, Wyoming Public Media , WyoFile
In February, Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley dismissed concerns raised by a Laramie resident about a controversial deputy by telling a county human resources official that the complainant needed “professional help” and was “difficult to listen to.”
Kati Hime, the sister of Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling, had reported concerns that her brother was using a fake social media account to defend his lethal use of force against Robbie Ramirez following a November 2018 traffic stop.
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As the social media activity continued nearly a year after filing her report, Hime followed up with the county human resources director. When the director asked O’Malley via email if he needed to discuss the complaint, O’Malley wrote that he did not because Hime “has more issues than anything.” WyoFile and Wyoming Public Radio obtained the emails through a records request.
“She probably needs some professional help,” O’Malley wrote, “I have spoken to her on more than one occasion and she is very difficult to listen to.”
“She has been the same in my dealings with her,” Christina Snowberger, the Albany County Human Resources Director, replied.
Hime told reporters she first went to county officials after observing heated discussion online and believing it could be her brother using an alias. Other Facebook users had also accused the profile of being fake. In one argumentative thread a user called it a front for Colling. Several users reported the profile to Facebook.
Hime does not have proof that her brother created a fake Facebook account. Her belief was based on her familiarity with her brother’s style of writing and arguing, she said, as well as some comments that expressed detailed familiarity with police procedure and incidents from Colling’s past, including the Laramie shooting and an alleged assault on a videographer in Las Vegas.
Reached by reporters last week, Colling said he did not make a fake account.
A message and a “friend request” to the account from a WyoFile reporter went unanswered.
Facebook removed the account following an inquiry by WyoFile and Wyoming Public Media. A spokeswoman for the company said Facebook removed the account because it violated its authenticity policies. Those policies require users to go by the name they use in everyday life.
There were three names associated with the account, Michael Seward, Vince Acetullo and most recently Sancho Panza, the fictional squire of windmill jouster Don Quixote. The account carried a graduation date from Cheyenne Central High School in 1983. A librarian at the Laramie County Public Library could find neither Seward or Acetullo in yearbooks for that high school from 1981-83.
A sister’s worries
Undersheriff Josh DeBree found no cause to believe the account was Colling’s, he told reporters. He asked Colling this month if the deputy was using the account and Colling said he was not.
“I determined that Mrs. Hime was making bold claims that Corporal Colling was using the name Michael Seward as an alias on social media, without proof,” DeBree wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Since there was no criminal activity noted, it wasn’t possible to investigate the subscriber’s information or IP address to determine the identity of Michael Seward.”
Hime reached out to the Sheriff’s office because she worried her brother could use the account to pick fights and target Laramie residents who were upset by his shooting of Ramirez in November 2018, she said. She worried her brother had not received the mental health support he needed in the wake of the Ramirez shooting, she said, and was instead using the fake account as an outlet for his anger at a community outraged by Ramirez’s death.
She also wanted to bring county officials’ attention to what she considered unethical online behavior, whether by her brother or any other law enforcement officer, she said. Hime felt Albany County residents should be aware of how police and sheriff’s deputies use social media, she said. She pointed to an incident in Burlington, Vermont that drew national media attention when two police chiefs left their postsafter it was revealed that they used fake accounts to argue with citizens.
“I’ve rattled every cage I can think of,” Hime said, adding that doing nothing felt riskier than reporting her suspicions and being proven wrong. “I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t [reported the concerns].”
Hime was disappointed to learn of O’Malley’s response, which was provided to her by reporters. Contrary to O’Malley’s claim, Hime has only spoken to him once that she can recall, she said. That conversation came after the Ramirez incident. O’Malley never talked to her about her concerns over the Facebook account, she said.
“They clearly didn’t even consider my concerns,” she wrote in an email. “They just skipped straight to belittling the nut job who brought the concerns forward. It really shed some light for me into the reality inside the sheriff’s department.”
O’Malley did not make himself available for an interview and declined to discuss the email exchange with Snowberger. “You are not aware of the totality of circumstances surrounding this whole issue,” he wrote to reporters. “Because of the personal sensitive nature of it, I can not and will not address particulars about my contact and or dialogue with Ms. Hime.”
DeBree suggested it’s not unusual for officers to consider the mental health of citizens who file complaints against officers. “Peace officers are frequently engaged in dialogue with people that require an assessment of a person’s personal status,” he wrote. “That is something that is potentially discussed internally, but never externally, and particularly with the media.”
Hime, who works as a medical sonographer, publishes magazines and owns small businesses, said O’Malley dismissing her concerns with an arbitrary assessment of her mental health demonstrated poor leadership. “I’ve led a number of things in my adult life and that behavior goes against everything I have ever learned or felt as a leader,” she wrote.
Raising her concerns
Hime first brought her concerns to the county in May 2019, according to the records. She contacted two Albany County commissioners, Pete Gosar and commission chairwoman Terri Jones.
Several county officials spoke with Hime at length about her concerns, initially impressing her, she said. Hime provided reporters with a copy of a long letter she gave to DeBree earlier this month documenting her concerns and the steps that she’d taken. In it, she called Albany County’s HR director Snowberger “a lovely person” who was “very considerate in her listening [to] me,” and a “class act.”
In early June 2019, the commissioners directed Snowberger to look into Hime’s allegations about the Facebook account.
“Due to the nature of the allegations, the recent shooting and [Colling’s] return to Albany County I have decided to open an investigation in this matter,” Snowberger wrote to O’Malley on June 3.
Jones declined to discuss the social media concerns. County officials are under a “gag order” from the county’s liability insurance provider and are unable to speak about Colling because of the possibility of litigation from Ramirez’s family, Jones said.
Jones also said the commissioners had no authority over the sheriff’s department. “The Sheriff’s Department and the commissioners are all elected officials,” she said. “We do not have power over the sheriff. We’re equals to the sheriff.”
But the commissioners’ concern was great enough that the commission held an executive session and asked O’Malley to attend to discuss Hime’s allegations. Emails suggest that meeting occurred, though neither Jones nor Snowberger would discuss with reporters what transpired in the executive session.
The county does not have a policy governing social media use by its employees, Snowberger said.
The sheriff’s department, however, does have a social media policy for its officers, implemented in 2012. “To achieve and maintain the public’s highest level of respect, we must place reasonable restrictions on our conduct and appearance, and hold to these standards of conduct whether on or off duty.” the policy’s statement of purpose reads. “An employee’s actions must never bring the Sheriff’s Office into disrepute, nor should conduct be detrimental to its efficient operation.”
The policy does not address officers’ creating fake social media accounts. Facebook’s own policy is more explicit. Facebook’s guideline page for law enforcement includes a warning that “misrepresenting your authentic identity” is not allowed.
Snowberger said she “did a short investigation,” and looked up the Facebook account before handing the matter off to O’Malley. “There’s no proof so there’s no conversation on my end to be had,” she said to reporters.
Officials in the sheriff’s office told Snowberger they had asked Colling if the account was his, she said. He told them no.
In February, Hime called Snowberger to follow up. That call led to the email exchange between O’Malley and Snowberger. Hime told reporters she followed up because the Facebook account was again active and she was concerned.
In an interview, Snowberger said she wasn’t agreeing with O’Malley that the sister of his deputy needed “professional help.” She was agreeing that Hime was “difficult to listen to,” she said.
“She is very across the board with all of the findings that she has and it’s very difficult to really understand what she’s trying to say other than she believes this person is Derek Colling and he’s posting all these things,” Snowberger said.
Hime has extensively documented the Facebook account’s postings. She needed to, she said, to make a clear and convincing case why she believed the poster was her brother, and why it was a concern. Hime told reporters the decision to report her suspicions about her brother wasn’t easy, but she opted to reach out to officials because not doing so would allow behavior that worried her to continue.
“I didn’t want anyone to honestly be able to say that I didn’t tell them what was going on, didn’t make it clear, didn’t voice what my concerns were, etc,” Hime wrote. “I wanted to be overabundant in my information as an insurance of sorts.”
The records show Hime initially sought to keep her identity as a Colling family member hidden, requesting Snowberger not share it. Hime contacted reporters and ultimately agreed to speak on the record because she felt Albany County officials ignored her concerns, she said.
But characterizing Snowberger and O’Malley as dismissing Hime’s allegations is not a fair assessment, Snowberger said. There was just nothing she could do without proof, she said.
Nothing from O’Malley in the public records includes any discussion of evidence for or against the suggestion Colling created the fake account, or describes any investigative steps O’Malley took. Describing Hime as needing “professional help” appears to have ended the inquiry for him.
Treating the complaint that way was O’Malley’s choice, Snowberger said.
“Unfortunately if that’s how Sheriff O’Malley portrays it … and that’s what he’s stating, that’s out of my control. I can’t control what he does,” Snowberger said.
It remains a mystery who was behind Sancho Panza and his previous iterations. But DeBree said the sheriff’s department will now be reviewing its policies. “We will be discussing our current social media policy regarding the use of fake or ghost accounts and will consider changes moving forward,” he wrote.