December 22, 2015

Two county deputies reassigned pending their criminal cases

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger has reassigned two of his deputies, both facing criminal charges, to administrative duties while their cases work their way through the judicial system.
Schwartzenberger stated that he removed Det. Michael Schmitz and Cpl. Travis Bateman from their normal duties after the two were charged in unrelated incidents over the last several months.
Schmitz, the first McKenzie County deputy to be charged this year, was charged with two counts of Providing False Information to Law Enforcement, both Class A Misdemeanors, after providing false information to law enforcement during a state investigation earlier this year. Bateman, the third McKenzie County deputy to be charged this year, was charged with Reckless Endangerment, a Class C Felony, following a high speed motorcycle chase on U.S. Highway 85 late this summer.
Schwartzenberger was also charged this year with Misapplication of Entrusted Property, a Class A Misdemeanor, for allegedly using a county credit card to charge almost $1,000 in unauthorized expenses during a trip to Las Vegas earlier this year with his wife.
However, Schwartzenberger continues to serve as sheriff of the county while his court case plays out.
Det. Michael Schmitz
According to the Complaint, the first misdemeanor charge states that Schmitz willfully gave false information to a law enforcement officer, which he knew to be false, and the information may have interfered with an investigation or may have materially misled a law enforcement officer.
Specifically, during an investigation into possible controlled substance violations, Schmitz informed Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI) Special Agent Dale Maixner, that he had not received any early or extra narcotics prescriptions, nor had he received narcotics prescriptions when he visited the emergency room in Sidney, Mont., a few months earlier. According to court documents Schmitz had obtained and filled a prescription for narcotics in September of 2014, when he went to the emergency room in Sidney.
The second charge alleges that during an investigation into possible state-controlled information violations, Schmitz informed BCI Special Agent Maixner that he had an estimated three or four telephone contacts with John Tennant III prior to Aug. 22, 2012, and none afterwards. Telephone records indicate in excess of 40 telephone contacts between Schmitz and Tennant.
The Complaint also alleges that Schmitz informed Maixner that he had not offered or provided any assistance to Tennant with finding a bondsman to assist Tennant with bail or an attorney to defend Tennant. According to court documents, Schmitz did provide Tennant assistance with finding a bondsman or recommended an attorney.
Schmitz also allegedly informed Maixner that he had been trying to observe an unidentified male associated with Jennifer Tennant, Tennant’s wife, based on information Schmitz had received from a confidential informant. Court documents state that Schmitz was trying to observe this unidentified male at the request of Tennant, and Schmitz lacked any confidential informant in this regard.
Schmitz’s trial has been scheduled for May 11 in McKenzie County in front of Williams County Judge Joshua Rustad. Seymour Jordan, of Divide County, will serve as prosecutor.
Cpl. Travis Bateman
According to court documents, on Aug. 31, North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Austin Hilzendeger was involved in a stop where a motorcycle traveling south on U.S. Highway 85 failed to stop for him after he had activated his lights and sirens for an alleged speeding violation in McKenzie County.
When the motorcycle driver didn’t stop for Hilzendeger and continued to drive closer to the city limits of Watford City, additional units were notified, including the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office. McKenzie County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Bateman responded and started heading toward Hilzendeger on the same road.
Court documents allege that upon observing the trooper’s vehicle, Bateman entered the opposite lane of traffic’s shoulder so that his patrol vehicle and Hilzendeger’s patrol vehicle were heading head-on. Hilzendeger was still following the motorcycle at this point.
As Bateman’s patrol vehicle and Hilzendeger’s patrol vehicle got near one another, the motorcycle (still in-between the two vehicles) began to turn left to likely avoid a head-on collision with Bateman’s patrol vehicle. As the motorcycle turned left, court documents state that Bateman also turned in the direction the motorcycle was turning until Bateman struck the motorcycle with his patrol vehicle, at which point both the driver and passenger of the motorcycle were ejected from the motorcycle.
Court documents also state that after the driver and passenger of the motorcycle were properly treated, Bateman was recorded via a body cam video shrugging his shoulders while making a derogatory statement, referring to the driver of the motorcycle.
Bateman is scheduled to appear at a Preliminary Hearing and/or Arraignment on Feb. 4, 2016, at 8:30 a.m. Judge William Herauf of the Southwest Judicial District was assigned to the case after judges in the Northwest District recused themselves to avoid possible ethical conflicts. Divide County State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan will also serve as the prosecutor on this case.
Sheriff Schwartzenberger
According to Special Agent Tim Erickson with the BCI, Schwartzenberger made various unauthorized purchases and charges for his personal use and consumption to the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office credit card account while attending the Western States Sheriff’s Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas.
The court documents outline charges that totaled approximately $980, which included a $556 plane ticket for his wife, a $96 upgrade for a convertible, $120 for a meal at the South Point Casino - in excess of the allowed per diem amount, and nearly $120 for a golf outing Schwartzenberger attended.
According to court documents, the charges were made without prior approval, which is county policy. And it was several months later that the charges were repaid; however, not before the bank shut down the credit card due to several late payments. The documents say that Schwartzenberger paid back the money to the county several months after numerous attempts by the auditor’s office seeking repayment.
However, Schwartzenberger says when his personal credit card was declined on a trip to a law enforcement conference in Las Vegas, he asked the county auditor if he could use the county’s credit card.
“The auditor’s response via email was, ‘Go ahead, we do it all the time. You can reimburse us when you get back.’ I honestly believe my use of the county credit card was appropriate,” Schwartzenberger said. “When I got back home, there was no policy in place for dividing personal expenses from county expenses, which led to a long process of trying to fill out the paperwork correctly.”
“There were some forms that were submitted to me,” stated Schwartzenberger. “The first one was wrong. The second one, we filled it out incorrectly so there was a few mistakes back and forth as we were trying to get it done.”
Because it took so long to pay back the $980 he charged the county’s credit card, Schwarzenberger says he was charged with misapplication of entrusted property. But he claims ulterior motives might be in play.
“As I have tried to implement positive change,” Schwartzenberger stated, “some county officials have tried to threaten me with comments, that some could construe as unbecoming of an elected official.”
Schwartzenberger says he has done nothing wrong, despite what others are saying.
“I am doing the right thing,” stated Schwartzenberger. “I am innocent. I have served 26 years in the Marine Corps, honorably. And I’m going to continue to serve here as your sheriff, honorably.”
Schwartzenberger pleaded not guilty in Burleigh County Court on Dec. 2. He’ll be back in court on March 28.
“I stand behind my deputies 100 percent,” stated Schwarzenberger. “I reviewed the footage from the body cam with regards to Travis Bateman’s case and I didn’t see anything criminal in nature. I trust everything will be justified in the end in not only my case, but in both Michael Schmitz and Travis Bateman’s cases as well.”