Robin Huebner Reports: Lieutenant's widow Sherrie Skuza named Forum's 2014 Person of the Year
FARGO - Before they went to bed on March 10, Jeff and Sherrie Skuza searched for new jobs on their computer.
Jeff, a Fargo police lieutenant, feared he was about to be fired for lying about accidentally discharging his Taser weapon more than three weeks earlier.
Sherrie recently recalled her husband’s hesitation when a job application asked why he was leaving his previous position.
“I don’t know how to answer that – I don’t know how to go forward,” he said.
Hours later, a ringing phone woke Sherrie sometime after 4 a.m. She figured it was one of Jeff’s work phones and that he would answer it, but it rang and rang, then stopped.
“I turned, and Jeff wasn’t there,” Sherrie said.
She later found out it was a police dispatcher calling. Lt. Skuza, an officer for 23 years with an otherwise unblemished career, had shot himself in the head in a cemetery just outside of city limits.
Skuza’s suicide sent his family and his department into a deep state of shock and mourning, leading to renewed questions about the leadership and disciplinary procedures of Fargo’s police chief.
Nearly six months later, immediately after reading a story in which Chief Keith Ternes again contested that criticism, Sherrie sat down at the same computer to write a letter she’d composed in her head “a hundred times before.”
“I couldn’t be quiet anymore,” Sherrie said.
Her letter was sharply critical of Ternes, tying Skuza’s death in part to the length of the internal investigation he had faced. Days after it was published in The Forum, the City Commission convened a panel to review the Police Department – a step that eventually led Ternes to resign in November.
Because of the cascade of change sparked by her words, the newspaper editors have named Sherrie Skuza as The Forum’s Area Person of the Year.
Long before Skuza himself came under scrutiny, Sherrie said she used to tell him she was going to write a letter to the editor about the dysfunction he saw in the department, but he always warned it would jeopardize his career.
“Sometimes I think he would be like, ‘Well, you got to do it, didn’t you?’ ” she said of the letter she wrote that ran on The Forum’s front page.
After his death, she held off so she wouldn’t be viewed as a “hysterical, grieving widow.” But she changed her mind after reading a Sept. 7 story in The Forum, in which some former officers linked Lt. Skuza’s death to issues in the department.
Sherrie said exit interviews from those officers, and Ternes calling them a disgruntled few, prompted her to act. He had faced similar criticism before and addressed it in much the same way, by minimizing it, she said.
“For him to just fleck it off like a piece of dandruff on his shoulder, I couldn’t let him get away with that,” Sherrie said.
In her letter, Sherrie placed some blame for her husband’s death on Ternes and his handling of the internal investigation.
“Jeff chose to pull the trigger, but Chief Ternes gave him the bullets and released the safety,” she wrote in the letter.
To allow him to respond, The Forum provided a copy of the letter to Ternes. His response ran with Sherrie’s criticism.
Ternes wrote that anyone who knew Lt. Skuza “would give anything to turn back the clock so we could try to exercise some control over his final decisions so as to try to change the outcome. Unfortunately, none of us can.” But he did stand by his handling of the internal probe, calling it thorough, fair and transparent.
The former chief declined to comment for this story.
Sherrie said Ternes shared her letter with police employees before it was published. As word got out, a former officer contacted her to say “my phone is going crazy.”
“He said people were calling him from their squad cars,” Sherrie said.
She was told officers were worried Ternes would find out they supported her, but still “wanted to say thank you, bless you, this needed to be said.”
Skuza’s only sister – who Sherrie consulted before submitting the letter to the newspaper – said her sister-in-law isn’t one to seek the spotlight.
“She wrote the letter to save others from going through what Jeff went through,” said Sally Venema of St. Michael, Minn.
David Todd, who was named interim chief after Ternes resigned, said Sherrie’s letter was a big catalyst in bringing about change.
“I guess you could say painfully positive,” said Todd, who was one of the three deputy chiefs who had recommended that Ternes fire Skuza for purposefully covering up the Taser incident.
“A lot of frustration pent up over the last few years, and the situation with Jeff – and Sherrie’s letter – it just all of a sudden blew up,” Todd said in an interview this week.
Skuza’s widow and sister both say he carried out the chief’s discipline despite his own reservations with what he believed were often unnecessarily severe reprimands.
When the lieutenant found himself in that very spot, it was torturous for him, Todd said.
Though Skuza did come clean about the Feb. 14 Taser incident to his family and Todd, his direct supervisor, the damage had been done.
“If he said it once, he said it a dozen times, ‘Why didn’t I just say that I did it?’ ” Sherrie said.
She said a combination of guilt, pride and regret began leading her husband down a path of despair. She said he started talking about suicide, though he’d never shown signs of depression or any other mental illness before.
“I understood his frustration and anger at himself,” she said.
But she believes a rigorous disciplinary process also played a role.
“The environment at the Police Department led to his suicide, and there’s no doubt in my mind about that – not even an inkling,” Sherrie said.
The day before his death, Skuza learned that the deputy chiefs were all recommending he be fired.
With Ternes’ final decision still days away, Skuza asked to resign but was told by the chief that they needed to complete the process – a claim Ternes has refuted, saying he couldn’t stop him from resigning.
‘Just a total nightmare’
When the phone rang in the early morning hours of March 11, Sherrie called out for her husband. He hadn’t been sleeping well, so she thought he might be at the computer or watching a movie.
“No answer,” Sherrie said, “and I just knew something was wrong.”
She saw his truck was gone and realized it was their home phone that had rung, from a city of Fargo number.
“I realized what he had done or had probably done, or was in the act of doing, and I needed to find him,” Sherrie said.
She and the couple’s youngest son, Nicholas, a high school senior at the time, went out to look for their father and husband. They checked the bridges in downtown Fargo before going to the police station a few blocks away.
Sherrie said she stood in the lobby and was told repeatedly that an officer would be sent to speak to her, but no one came.
“I was beside myself, and at that point, I was extremely angry,” she said.
Finally, a door opened and a chaplain appeared.
While she demanded to know what happened, she still didn’t get an answer.
“At that point, I told them I wanted Ternes,” Sherrie said. “I said to the chaplain, ‘I want him, and I want him here.’ ”
The chaplain finally confirmed what Sherrie feared to be true.
“Just a total nightmare,” she said. “You think, ‘Seriously, I’m going to wake up, and this is not going to have happened.’ ”
To this day, she’s not sure who was supposed to deliver the bad news, but she thinks the breakdown was due to a police staff also in shock and disbelief.
“This was happening to them, too,” she said.
Sherrie never did see Ternes face-to-face, as she changed her mind over fears of what she’d say.
An officer friend arrived at the police station to drive Sherrie and Nicholas to break the news to her older son, Travis, who was a student at North Dakota State University at the time.
An honors funeral
That friend – who she declined to name – would be Sherrie’s liaison with the department while planning the funeral and in the time that followed.
She was told that while officers would stay away if she wished, they wanted to pay their respects. Despite the way his career ended, she decided she still wanted him to have a funeral with the honors of a fallen officer.
Sherrie was adamant, however, about who should not attend.
“I said under no circumstances whatsoever could Ternes be there,” she said.
One person suggested that the chief be present, “otherwise it may cause a ripple effect.”
“And I said, ‘I totally and completely expect a ripple,’ ” Sherrie said.
While police attire was welcome at the funeral, it was not at the prayer service the night before.
“If they (officers) want to come, come because he was a friend, but I don’t want uniforms,” Sherrie recalled saying. “The prayer service to me is completely and totally personal.”
Trying to heal
As is true for any family faced with tragedy, the Skuza family is working through their grief.
Sherrie still works in the IT department at Sanford Health, while 21-year-old son Travis just graduated from NDSU with a degree in zoology, and 19-year-old Nicholas is enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he’s majoring in astrophysics.
Sherrie said her husband and their sons were very close.
“We liked to travel, go to the lake, he loved fishing,” she said. “He transferred all of that to our boys.”
Sherrie paused and tears built as she spoke of the hardest adjustment for her – no longer having her sounding board and soul mate.
“When I talked about Jeff, it was with respect and love, and that’s the way he spoke about me,” she said.
She scoffs at those who say The Forum took advantage of a grieving widow by printing her letter.
“I contacted you,” Sherrie said, “and I knew I would be putting myself out there if I did that.”
Sherrie understands her decision to go public affected people’s jobs and may influence how the department is run in the future. She said she’s received only love and support from others, no backlash.
“Because I feel Ternes was not good for the department – that he needed to be out, that he’s not a good leader – doesn’t mean I’m anti-Fargo Police Department,” Sherrie said. “It’s totally the opposite.”
She said the Police Department has almost 100 percent “good eggs” and that she wants them to heal.
“The part that bothers me the most is that of all these people who’ve had not a lot of control over what was going on – one of the people who had some control, which is Ternes, to this day, has never admitted or verbalized that he could have done something differently,” Sherrie said.
She believes if Ternes had taken past criticism to heart, Lt. Skuza may have had a different fate.
“If it can help in other officers’ careers going forward, then it was meant to be that I spoke up,” she said.