FREMONT — Sometimes a journalist can’t help but become part of a story, something Sandusky Register Editor Matt Westerhold learned this week.
Mr. Westerhold has both reported on and led coverage as an editor for years at the Register about the drama in the Sandusky County Sheriff’s Office, most recently the indictment of former detective Sean O’Connell on charges related to his conduct in the investigation of Heather Bogle’s death.
But in that indictment was a felony charge unrelated to that case: A fifth-degree felony county of unauthorized use of the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway, an online database through which Ohio law enforcement agencies share information such as photographs. Mr. Westerhold was the person Mr. O’Connell is alleged to have illegally searched for in the database.
“It's very uncomfortable to learn that this occurred. I'm still wrapping my head around it,” Mr. Westerhold said. I don't know what is in that database, I don't know what motivated the detective to look me up ... and I don't know how he intended to use it.”
Mr. O’Connell, 53, was indicted Friday by a grand jury on three counts of tampering with evidence, all third-degree felonies; a first-degree misdemeanor count of falsification; second-degree misdemeanor counts of coercion, dereliction of duty, and obstructing official business, and the OLEG charge.
He was arraigned Tuesday in Sandusky County Court of Common Pleas, and released on a personal recognizance bond. Henry County Prosecutor Gwen Howe-Gebers, who is the special prosecutor assigned to the case, said a pre-trial hearing was set by Sandusky County Common Pleas Judge Robert Hart for Feb. 14, and a trial date set for March 27.
Mr. O'Connell led the initial investigation into Ms. Bogle's murder while former Sheriff Kyle Overmyer led the department.
Ms. Bogle, 28, was found April 10, 2015, in her car's trunk at a Clyde apartment complex, a day after she had gone missing after leaving work. An autopsy determined Ms. Bogle died of two gunshot wounds and blunt-force trauma throughout her body.
Mr. O'Connell resigned in September, 2016, before facing a disciplinary hearing about accusations he shared confidential documents related to the case.
Those accusations came amid an investigation of Sheriff Overmyer, who ran for re-election after being accused of stealing prescription drugs to feed an addiction to painkillers.
Overmyer eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges of theft in office and deception to obtain dangerous drugs, among others, and was sentenced in December to four years in prison.
Mr. O'Connell cooperated in the Overmyer investigation, and the Ohio attorney general's Bureau of Criminal Investigation claimed the sheriff had launched the internal investigation about the detective to retaliate for that cooperation.
Last year, BCI took over the investigation into Ms. Bogle's murder. Sheriff Chris Hilton made refocusing on Ms. Bogle's killer a priority, not just during his campaign but after he was elected in November, 2016.
In June, the sheriff's office arrested Daniel Myers and charged him in Ms. Bogle's death. The previous inquiry never included Mr. Myers as a suspect, and investigators never searched electronic communications, Sheriff Hilton said.
Mr. Westerhold and the Register staff have aggressively covered Ms. Bogle’s death, the Overmyer investigation, Mr. O’Connell, and others in and related to the office. He only learned Tuesday that he was the target of the search, and said he’s now in a difficult position as both a journalist and victim of an alleged crime. For now, he has recused himself on coverage regarding the OLEG charge, but will be involved with the rest of the paper’s coverage, he said.
“It really has been discombobulating to suddenly be injected into a news story that you've been covering for quite some time,” he said.
Sheriff Hilton said no new guidance was given to deputies after Mr. O’Connell’s use of the system came to light, because all officers are told explicitly what is and is not an allowable use of the system.
“If you are a brand new officer, you know it can only be used for criminal investigated purposes, period,” he said.
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