Law enforcement officers can find themselves in touchy situations, and sometimes things go wrong.
Melodie Pooler and her family have witnessed firsthand one horrible day for the Riley County Police Department — and she believes more training and preparedness might have avoided some of the bitterness she feels.
Pooler remains upset about how the RCPD reacted on Nov. 7, 2009 — the day her son, 33-year-old Matthew Tessendorf, took his own life.
Pooler claims she doesn’t want other families to feel disrespected and discarded by police the way she said hers did while they struggled to understand what was happening.
While authorities from other jurisdictions worked to locate Matthew, who had been threatening to harm himself and possibly others, the RCPD seemed to have more important things to do, Pooler said Monday during the Riley County Law Board meeting.
When Riley County police did contact the family, it was with a detached indifference and lack of empathy, Pooler said.
POOLER SAID she knows her family’s experience with the RCPD isn’t that unusual.
“We’re not the only family (in the community) that’s had situations like these,” she said. “We’re the only family willing to speak up about it at this point.”
RCPD director Brad Schoen responded that the department tries to handle suicides on a case-by-case basis, because each event is so difficult for all involved — including his officers. He added there’s always room for improvement in any difficult or dangerous situation.
“It’s a truly difficult scenario for everyone involved,” Schoen said. “And, to that extent, I feel her pain. To the extent that we can do better with these matters – always. I rarely believe that we ever do anything perfectly.”
Just getting to the point of having an open discussion has been a battle, Pooler told the board as her husband, Ned Valentine stood by with a comforting hand on her shoulder.
In the four-and-a-half years since her son’s death, Pooler has approached both a former and a current Riley County commissioner about meeting with Schoen to discuss their concerns about how they were treated.
AT A private meeting on April 2, Pooler and Valentine finally had the chance to speak with Schoen about what they’d been through on Nov. 7, 2009.
On the morning of Tessendorf’s death, Pooler and other family members began to receive text messages from Matthew, she told the board.
Matthew had also sent her a picture of a gun. An RCPD police report, obtained by The Mercury through a public records request, described the gun as a silver revolver belonging to his roommate.
“He stated that he was ‘done’ and that he was on his way from Lawrence to Manhattan to end his life where it had begun,” Pooler said.
Lawrence police and the Kansas Highway Patrol began searching for Matthew. Authorities from those agencies encouraged the family to stay positive and reassured them they were doing what they could to help.
“Unfortunately, our own police department was not as accommodating,” Pooler said as she fought back tears.
“We were told that since they were busy with the K-State/KU football game, they didn’t have time to deal with Matthew Tessendorf.
“It was the Lawrence police that sternly requested that the RCPD send an officer to visit with us, the family.”
ACCORDING to the police report, an RCPD officer was dispatched at 10:28 a.m. to meet Pooler to talk about Matthew, who had made comments “about harming his girlfriend and then harming himself.”
Riley County police had information suggesting Matthew may be in the Lawrence area looking for his girlfriend.
While at the house, the officer gathered information about what led the family to fear for Matthew’s and others’ safety.
Pooler told the officer she believed Matthew had “lost it,” that he needed to be in a hospital and that she was scared, according to the report.
She told the officer that Matthew had a history of violent behavior, suicide attempts and was a drug abuser. She said he had been calling and texting family members and friends, talking about killing himself and anyone who tried to stop him.
MATTHEW’S behavior that day had been strange, Pooler said, according to the report. When she talked to him on the phone, he had been singing a line from the song “American Pie,” although she didn’t know why.
According to the report, a friend of Matthew’s — who was present when the officer visited Pooler — told the officer she believed Matthew was heading to her house, 1016 N. Juliette Ave.
At 11:21 a.m., the officer drove to the friend’s house, around the block and headed down an alley. There, the officer saw an older, white Corvette parked in a lot.
The car matched the description of the one Matthew was believed to be driving.
Then, the officer saw Matthew walking to the car with a gun case in his hand.
GETTING OUT of his patrol car, the officer pulled out his gun as Matthew began “yanking at the gun case like he was trying to get the gun out,” according to the report.
The officer pointed his gun at Matthew, repeatedly telling him to drop the gun. But Matthew kept backing up toward the house. He then put the gun to his head.
Finding cover behind a nearby vehicle, the officer continued to order Matthew to drop the gun and insisted they could “talk about this.”
Matthew said he wasn’t putting the gun down. The officer called for assistance.
After more officers arrived at the scene of what had become a standoff, a crowd of onlookers began to swell.
Around that same time, an RCPD dispatcher had called Matthew’s family, Pooler said, telling them to head to an address on Juliette Street across from Bluemont Elementary School.
“WHEN WE arrived, the area was surrounded with police officers,” Pooler told the board. “My husband, daughter and I approached an officer in an attempt to tell him that we were Matthew’s family, and although we were instructed to go to the scene, the officer was not interested in speaking with us.
“We were sternly instructed to stand with the crowd of onlookers that were quickly beginning to multiply. It was shortly thereafter that some of the college-aged onlookers began to chant, ‘Do it! Do it!’ referring to my son shooting himself.”
Horrified by what was happening, Pooler’s daughter ran to the people, telling them that the guy with the gun was her big brother. She pleaded with them to stop chanting.
It was too late.
“We were still among the crowd when a gun went off,” Pooler said. “Matthew had shot himself in the head and later that day, in Topeka, we were told that Matthew would not survive his injuries.
“You know, I have to tell you that being forced back into the group of onlookers to endure the ignorance of such negative group mentality only added to our trauma and pain.”
SCHOEN SAID he told Pooler during their meeting earlier this month that the officer they contacted at the scene was likely focused on keeping a perimeter around the scene secured because Matthew had a firearm.
“I will grant you that, if we knew they were coming and where they were going, it’s possible we could have done a better job of having someone meet them there,” Schoen said.
“But I can pretty much guarantee you that the officer they ran into was pretty preoccupied with his focus towards the center of the scene instead of the rear.”
Schoen added it’s probable that Matthew didn’t hear the crowd’s “appalling” chants.
“That doesn’t ease the pain of her having heard them,” he said. “But I was at least able to let her know that since our people who were closest to Matt at the scene didn’t hear them, it was in all likelihood probable that Matt didn’t, either.”
LEFT TO wonder about the details of Matthew’s death in the hours after it happened, the family went to the RCPD Law Center, 1001 S. Seth Child Road.
They were not allowed inside, but rather were met outside by two young police officers “with little if any knowledge of what had happened,” Pooler said.
“We felt as though we were being patronized when the officers offered no information and instructed us to go home,” she said. “I could not comprehend why the RCPD could not invite a mother who had just lost her son in a public suicide and her family a place to sit inside the Law Center. This experience only added to the frustration, anger and confusion my family was experiencing.”
After Pooler’s sister made another request to RCPD that someone with knowledge of the incident speak to the family, the department the next day sent the officer in charge, along with another officer who was on the scene, to their home.
“EVERY PERSON in my home when the officers arrived was shocked by the treatment we received by the officer who did the talking,” Pooler said. “He was cruel and callous. When I approached him to thank him for coming to speak with us, he put his hand on my chest and pushed me away. He ordered everyone to sit down and kept repeating that he was going to be blunt.”
The officer then pointed at Pooler’s 10-year-old granddaughter, she said, telling her he was “going to be blunt,” so she better leave the room.
“This officer’s comments basically ranged from ‘Well, it was most likely an accident because Matt’s hand probably got tired of holding the gun,’ to ‘Knowing Matt, it shouldn’t be a big shock that he would do this,’” she said. “We were left feeling more like criminals than a grieving family in shock and that the department was covering up something.”
SCHOEN SAID in his discussions with those officers, the encounter has been portrayed in a better light.
“If I listen to my staff that were out there, their impression was different,” he said. “Not saying that it went well or poorly, but it was substantially different.”
Since her son’s death, Pooler said she and her family have been told that this same officer, whom she didn’t name, freely discusses Matthew’s suicide – even jokes about it.
Pooler, a former Manhattan schoolteacher, said she couldn’t imagine a public employee speaking so openly about a matter like this.
However, she said, “one of the most painful discoveries” began about a week after Matthew’s death and continued for almost two years.
AT LEAST four people they didn’t know came to them separately. Only two of them knew each other. All were very upset or disturbed, Pooler said.
“These individuals were able to directly see Matthew holding the gun to his head and the officers surrounding him,” Pooler said to the board. “They each told the same story of hearing one officer taunting Matt, while telling him to ‘Hurry up and blow your brains out so I can go home.’
“Not long after that comment, our son did just that.
“Knowing that Matthew was within earshot and most likely heard the officer’s comment is heartbreaking and will haunt each member of our family forever. We can only imagine how this added to Matthew’s crushing pain and feelings of isolation in the last moments of his life.”
Schoen said he had difficulty believing an officer employed at the RCPD would say something so terrible.
“I’VE TALKED to a number of people who were actually at the scene and inquired specifically as to whether anybody ever heard any officer say anything remotely close to what she asserted about, you know, taunting Matt. And no one (said they did),” he said.
“In order to understand how hard that would be to hide, one needs to understand, I think, the nature of the scene like that. Not everyone’s standing around in close proximity to Matt. And for anyone to be heard, they would have to have been raising their voices to the extent that they could have communicated over some distance.
“And no one I talked to at the scene heard anything remotely close to that.”
Two years later, an out-of-state friend who is a paralegal was able to get a complete copy of the police report regarding Matthew’s death, Pooler said.
IT WAS only then that she learned RCPD had personal property belonging to Matthew, but had destroyed it.
“We were never told about Matthew’s property or asked if we would like to have it returned,” she said. “What may have seemed to some to be insignificant personal items were, to us, a token of our loved one, something tangible, something that was a part of Matthew and something that held meaning and purpose in our lives.”
Reading through the police report, the family discovered that Matthew had written a suicide note. The family was never told of his final message, either, until they read Matthew’s note in the report.
Pooler said reading the note two years later isn’t how a parent should read their child’s last written words.
“We discussed this issue with Chief Schoen,” she said. “He told us that the police department is not always sure how to best address suicide notes with families. We understand this, but we would suggest that every family who loses a loved one to suicide should be informed, at least in a general sense, of all the circumstances surrounding the death. It is the family that owns the right to decide what they want or do not want to know.”
POOLER suggested it would be beneficial for the RCPD to look into programs to train its employees on how best to help people who are suicidal.
After thanking Pooler for sharing her story, board member and Riley County Commissioner Dave Lewis said he agreed.
“We’ve had some discussions on mental health matters and situations,” he said. “And there needs to be some resolution.”
Lewis mentioned that there’s a Riley County Mental Health Task Force that needs to start creating solutions.
Board member Robert Boyd, also a Riley County commissioner, said the RCPD has a position on that task force.
He said the task force hopes to improve partnerships with organizations like Pawnee Mental Health Services.
“WE ARE looking at expanding Pawnee’s reach and capabilities,” he said. “We hope we can get to a much better state than we are at, but we recognize the shortcomings that currently exist.”
After speaking at the meeting, Pooler said she and Valentine want to believe the law board and Schoen are sincere about wanting to improve how the RCPD handles mental health issues.
“We want to believe that,” she said. “We really want to believe that. That’s what our hope is.”
Still, Pooler said she wasn’t comforted by Schoen’s frequent rebuttal to parts of her story.
“It just saddens me that we have a chief that is making excuses for everything that is said,” she said. “At least that’s what it feels like today.”
HOWEVER, she at least got the discussion started on Monday. She said that was part of what needs to happen for the RCPD and Manhattan community to fix this problem.
“The major thing is working together,” Pooler said. “We’re all in this together, right?”
Schoen said he realizes the department’s shortcomings but added it’s headed in the right direction.
“Suicides happen, but each one is a unique, one-off event in trying to determine how best to deal with it,” he said.
“And to the extent that we didn’t deal with it in a manner that helped Ms. Pooler and her family, I regret that.
“Some of that is the nature of the beast, and some of that is probably some of the things we did.
“But we’ve talked about those internally, and we took some steps to conduct some of the training that she and I both believe is necessary,” he said.
“And I believe we’re on the path to making things better.”