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Report: Wis. deputy assisting at ND pipeline protest drunk at helm of squad car

St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office deputy Ryan Fowler, shown in a 2015 photo. (RiverTown Multimedia file photo)1 / 2
Hennepin (Minn.) County deputies were among outside agencies that, like St. Croix County, sent officers to North Dakota last year to assist with protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline project. (Forum News Service photo by Michael Vosburg)2 / 2

A St. Croix County (Wis.) sheriff's deputy likely consumed at least 15 shots of vodka before getting behind the wheel of his squad, where he was found passed out with the vehicle's transmission in drive and his foot on the brake.

Those findings were detailed in an internal investigation report on former deputy Ryan Fowler, who resigned his position Dec. 1, as part of a separation agreement with St. Croix County.

The documents, released by the county to RiverTown Multimedia through a data request, chronicle an Oct. 12 incident while Fowler was on assignment with a four-person attachment sent to North Dakota to assist with Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.

Fowler was arrested by Bismarck police and was later charged in Burleigh County (N.D.) with one misdemeanor count of having physical control of a vehicle while intoxicated. He has pleaded not guilty; a jury trial is set for March 3.

Fowler was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 13 during the internal investigation until his final day of employment — Dec. 1. According to county data, Fowler's annual salary was $60,486.

A separation agreement negotiated among Fowler, the county and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association states the sheriff's department solicited his involuntary resignation.

A termination letter sent Oct. 27 from Sheriff John Shilts to Fowler outlines various violations stemming from the internal investigation and noted a history of failure to comply with department policies.

"The incident in North Dakota is such that it has caused and continues to cause this agency to have suffered a significant loss of public trust and support," Shilts wrote. "Your behavior in this matter warrants disciplinary action. In accordance with the policies of St. Croix County and the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office the appropriate discipline is a discharge from employment."

A message left with Fowler's attorney in the criminal case, Lloyd Suhr, was not returned. Fowler admitted to some, but not all, allegations during an interview conducted as part of the internal investigation.

"Deputy Fowler stated he believes he should have never been arrested but wasn't able to articulate what made the incident an unwarranted arrest," the report states. "He only stated the whole situation should have been taken into account."

On assignment

The North Dakota incident occurred while Fowler — a member of the department's K-9 unit — and three other deputies were on assignment to assist the sheriff's departments from Morton and Burleigh counties with protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

The St. Croix County team was pulled off the assignment Oct. 13 and sent home after department administration learned of the arrest.

According to an internal investigation report completed by St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Lt. Cathy Borgschatz:

Bismarck police were dispatched at 11:34 p.m. Oct. 12, after a gas station attendant called on behalf of another man.

That man, identified as Daylan ChasingHawk, reported a fight at the Comfort Inn Hotel, where he claimed he witnessed a deputy drunk inside his squad car. The deputy stole ChasingHawk's sweatshirt, according to a 911 call.

An officer arrived to find a St. Croix County sheriff's squad car in the driving lane at the hotel. A look inside revealed a sleeping man in the driver's seat and a police dog inside. The car was running.

The officer "noticed that the squad was in drive and Deputy Fowler had his foot on the brake," the report states. She and other officers had to beat on the car's window for more than a minute before Fowler stirred.

Fowler stepped out of the car and smelled strongly of alcohol. When asked his name by the officer, he told her it was "John." Officers later learned his actual name after finding his driver's license inside the car.

A sweatshirt was also found inside the vehicle. Other Bismarck officers were interviewed during the investigation, including one who relayed ChasingHawk's account: That he encountered Fowler asleep in the squad car, shook him until he woke up and received an offer from Fowler to buy his sweatshirt for $5.

"The deputy drove off in his squad car, with Daylan's sweater and hadn't paid Daylan the $5," according to the officer's statement.

Fowler was then run through field sobriety tests, some of which he failed, some of which he didn't complete.

Fowler was arrested and taken to the Bismarck Police Department, where a breath test revealed a 0.23 blood-alcohol concentration.

Asked by Bismarck police how much he had to drink that night, Fowler said he had three drinks in the hotel bar and one in his room, prompting the officer to ask if he had more after he got back to his room. "Deputy Fowler stated that it was possible," the report states.

Incident 'not appreciated'

Borgschatz later interviewed officials in charge of the law enforcement effort at the protest site. Morton County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bryan Steele told her that officers from St. Croix County and other assisting agencies were allowed to drink when not on duty, but needed to be available within 30 minutes in the event of a "code red" call-out to the Mandan Airport command site. That, Steele said, meant officers should have no more than a beer or two.

One officer interviewed, Bismarck police Lt. Jason Stugelmeyer — described as a member of the command structure at the Mandan emergency operation center — expressed frustration to Borgschatz over the Fowler incident.

"He stated this incident was not appreciated," the report states, which goes on to note the loss of St. Croix County's four deputies "added additional stress to their plan."

Stugelmeyer said the removal of the other deputies was understandable due to the distraction and safety concerns. "Lt. Stugelmeyer stated for the first few days, the law enforcement officers working the protests were reminded often and yelled at by the protesters about Deputy Fowler's arrest," according to the report.

Borgschatz learned the incident was preceded by an incident in Fowler's hotel room at about 10:30 p.m. Oct. 12, when a Dane County (Wis.) deputy heard loud sounds coming from inside the room. The deputy later went to the room and told the men inside — a K-9 handler and another officer — to quiet down.

St. Croix County Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Kelly, also a member of the four-person assignment, had earlier told Borgschatz that he and Fowler were in the room playing with Fowler's police dog, Dugan, when they were told to be quiet.

"It seemed likely that Deputy Fowler, Deputy Kelly and the canine were only playing and the disturbance was due to the playful conduct with the dog and not any altercation," the report states.

The Dane County deputy said as he was going back to his room, he saw one of the room's occupants heading toward the exit with a dog.

Borgschatz later interviewed Fowler about the incident.

He said he took medication before going to the hotel bar, where he had "four or five" vodka-Red Bull drinks. Fowler said he had set an alarm for 9 p.m. that was going to be his reminder to go to bed, but he hit the snooze button since he had a full drink in front of him. He said he and Kelly stayed for another drink after that.

Fowler said that was the last thing he remembered, but noted that he didn't feel drunk at the time. He said his first recollection after that was looking at paperwork inside the Bismarck police station. The medication, he later said in the interview, was a mitigating factor in the incident.

"Fowler is excusing his behavior because of a new prescribed medication," the report states. "He was not able to admit that being a 0.234 affected [sic] his decision-making or memory. He blamed the bartender for getting him intoxicated."

Borgschatz, who inspected the bar pours — 50/50 mixes, she reported — at the Comfort Inn as part of her investigation, concluded that Fowler had between 12 and 26 shots of vodka in less than three hours.

"It is likely he had more than 15 shots of vodka," the report states.

The report outlines 12 department violations Fowler committed, ranging from refusal to follow orders to breaking the law.

Mike Longaecker
Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker
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