State patrol's No. 2 officer suspended

Investigators say he lied about friendship with another trooper in trouble

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 02:51 AM

By Randy Ludlow
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

From the time recruits arrive at the State Highway Patrol Academy, the patrol's nine "core values" are repeatedly drummed into their minds.

"Honesty" is the first.

Now, Lt. Col. Peyton Watts, the patrol's second-in-command, is accused of lying, prompting Public Safety Director Thomas Stickrath to suspend him.

A report released yesterday by Inspector General Thomas P. Charles found that Watts maintained inappropriate contact with an officer who came under investigation after he was discovered in his cruiser with a 16-year-old girl.

Watts lied about his frequent telephone calls and personal friendship with former Staff Lt. Roger Norris in undermining patrol and criminal investigations and staining the patrol's integrity, the report concluded.

The report also faulted Col. David Dicken, patrol superintendent, for resisting his bosses' advice to suspend Norris and failing to ensure that Watts had no contact with his longtime friend, as suggested by Stickrath. Dicken said he did not recall the meeting at which Stickrath said he relayed the advice to the superintendent.

The report recommends that Stickrath take "appropriate administrative action." The report is under review while patrol investigators finish an internal exam of Watts' conduct, a spokeswoman said. Watts, who was placed on paid leave, declined to comment.

Watts told investigators that he spoke with Norris by telephone only three or four times and denied that the two were close, despite widespread patrol knowledge of a friendship dating to 1987 and their days at the Zanesville post.

Records show the men exchanged 94 calls between June 11 and Aug. 6, with 29 calls consisting of conversations of two to 41 minutes, often at key points of the Norris investigation.

Watts' claims that he and Norris were not personal friends were dismissed by the inspector general. One patrol officer said Watts called the Norris investigation a "witch hunt."

"His downplaying of the incident and ridicule of the subsequent criminal investigation shows a lack of good judgment and professionalism that one would not expect from the assistant superintendent," the report said. The probe found no evidence that Watts or others obstructed the investigations.

Norris, 43, retired on Aug. 28 as patrol officials moved to fire him after investigating his on-duty meeting with the girl behind a building in rural Belmont County on June 8.

A building caretaker who came across the cruiser told investigators that Norris was clad in a T-shirt but not wearing his uniform shirt or gun belt, as required by patrol rules. He did not see any illicit activity. Norris denied any wrongdoing.

Patrol officials concluded that Norris told differing stories about his reasons for meeting the girl and disobeyed an order not to contact her or her family. He was charged with making false statements, conduct unbecoming an officer, improper use of equipment and failure to follow orders.

The Belmont County sheriff's office, which is conducting a criminal investigation, reported that Norris and the girl exchanged 182 text messages in 12 hours before their meeting on June 8. The investigation is continuing.

Watts, 56, was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel on Jan. 8. The 33-year veteran was one of three finalists for superintendent, with the job going to Dicken.