Karen DePaepe started working as a South Bend dispatcher 25 years ago.
“I just wanted to try and make a difference,” she said.
She climbed civilian ranks and was eventually promoted to director of communications – the first civilian to ever hold that position.
But her career suddenly ended this week.
When asked why she lost her job, DePaepe responded that she had “no clue.”
“I was told that the higher feds said [the Mayor’s office] had to make personnel changes [in the police department,]” she said. “I was the custodian of records. I spoke with an FBI agent that told me that as the custodian of records, I had a right to review anything that was recorded on the system.”
DePaepe told WSBT she accidentally stumbled across recorded conversations she found offensive in early 2011. She said the department’s phone recording system had crashed three times between December 2010 and February 2011, and when she tried to make sure the system was working properly she accidentally discovered recorded phone conversations she found offensive.
She said she told former Chief Darryl Boykins about the recordings.
Fast forward more than a year later. Now, DePaepe said trying to do what she thought was right cost her job.
She claims Mayor Buttigieg’s Chief of Staff, Mike Schmuhl, asked her to go to his office Tuesday afternoon. When she arrived, DePaepe said she met with Schmuhl, Interim Police Chief Chuck Hurley and a man named Rich Hill, who identified himself as a special attorney retained by the city in light of the FBI investigation into recorded phone lines at the police station.
“Then Mr. Hill stated, ‘As you know we've made one personnel change and that leads us to a second personnel change, which is you. We're giving you the chance to resign,’” she recounted. “I said, 'No, I will not resign' and he said, ‘Then we'll have to terminate you.’”
She also said she feels Schmuhl threatened her.
“Mike Schmuhl said to me, ‘You realize if you or anyone else talks about the federal investigation or any of the recordings then you would be arrested,'” DePaepe said.
She added that her attorney, Scott Duerring, advised her not to talk with reporters about what was said in those recordings. But she and several South Bend police officers have told WSBT they signed an agreement when they were hired that states all phone conversations may be monitored.
DePaepe said the department switched to a computerized phone recording system in 1998 and after that, each police chief got to decide which lines were recorded. When Darryl Boykins became chief, he did not make any changes to which lines were recorded, she added.
“He never came to me and said, 'I want you to check this.' That is what people don't understand. They make him out to be a bad guy. He did not go after anybody. He was a victim,” she said.
On March 29, Boykins and his attorney said the city forced him to resign as chief. He’s now a captain on the department.
But many questions remain. What was said in those recorded conversations? Who’s involved? Why won’t the city or FBI release information about an investigation that the mayor indicated is closed?
As for those questions, the Mayor Buttigieg told WSBT after his State of the City address Wednesday night that he cannot talk about personnel issues. Schmul was not available for comment today.
The city attorney denied the South Bend Tribune's Freedom of Information Act request for the recordings, saying the FBI has those recordings. WSBT filed a request Thursday, asking for the recordings and personnel files for Boykins and DePaepe.
Robert Ramsey, supervisory special agent of the FBI’s Northern District of Indiana in Merrillville, confirmed to WSBT the FBI was contacted and worked with local prosecutors and South Bend Police. But Ramsey said he could not comment on the case because all comments have come out of the Mayor’s office.
Ramsey then called WSBT back an hour later saying the FBI had no comment. He directed all questions to the US Attorney’s office in Hammond. Spokeswoman Mary Hatton told WSBT the US Attorney’s office had no comment.