Hilliard Division of Police Chief Bobby Fisher outlined the division's investigation of former Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department deputy director Heather Ernst for theft in office in a Jan. 22 letter addressed to Hilliard City Council President Albert Iosue.

The letter was a response to the city paying an attorney to inquire how the division had conducted its investigation of Ernst.

Here is a summary of the letter and follow-up interviews with Fisher and other police officials:

In late 2015, Hilliard police received information from a confidential source that Ernst had deposited an "unusually large amount of money" into her personal checking account.

A “cursory check” did not indicate any criminal activity, Fisher wrote.

In late 2016, Hilliard police received information from the same confidential source that Ernst again had "deposited an unusually large amount of money" into her personal checking account.

In an effort to appear unbiased and transparent, the police division resolved to seek the assistance of a third party to conduct the investigation.

Hilliard police also notified Mayor Don Schonhardt of the suspicious information about Ernst "in or near November 2016," Fisher wrote.

In February 2017, Hilliard police reached out to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but based on the limited amount of information available at the time, the BCI declined to open an investigation.

The rejection by the BCI was unexpected, Fisher told ThisWeek.

After being turned down by the BCI, Hilliard police in early 2017 made the decision to begin an investigation and sent subpoenas to state agencies and financial institutions.

“Investigators worked to determine if there was any criminal nature behind the funds described by the confidential source,” Fisher wrote.

The information gathered over the course of a few months indicated Ernst was making deposits that did not appear to be reflected in tax filings, and Hilliard investigators contacted the Ohio Department of Taxation, which started its own inquiry.

"HPD then took a secondary role in the investigation while the Ohio Department of Taxation took the lead," Fisher wrote.

In September 2017, the Ohio Department of Taxation informed Hilliard police it had been “successful” in recovering taxes due and had closed an investigation of Ernst.

However, after requesting copies of the tax investigation, Hilliard investigators still believed the affidavits received by the Ohio Department of Taxation were false and indicative of criminal behavior, Fisher wrote.

"Looking at the affidavits provided to us from taxation, in order to calculate the amount of money the affidavits account for, we came up with the following: $2,400 loan payback, $47,500 in gifts, $5,000 in gifts and $23,600 in unreported income by Moses (Ernst, Heather Ernst's husband)," police spokeswoman Andrea Litchfield told ThisWeek. "That totals $78,500 – which was much lower than the deposits listed on her bank accounts."

(When the investigation was made public, Hilliard investigators had said they believed the city was missing more than $500,000 in daily admission fees from the city’s two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017. Jeff Blake, an assistant prosecutor for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, said during the Oct. 3 proceedings that investigators had determined Ernst had used $271,898 as “lifestyle spending” and as “regular things people spend money on,” and Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain on Nov. 16 ordered her to make restitution of $271,898. The city's civil complaint – which was filed March 15 and amended in September, according to common-pleas court records, to include Moses Ernst as a co-defendant – claims that during the course of Ernst’s employment with the city, the “defendants retained at least $541,000, depositing at least $270,000 into accounts owned or controlled by the defendants.”)

By September and October 2017, Hilliard investigators decided the affadavits provided to the Ohio Department of Taxation were "indicative of criminal behavior."

"There was reasonable suspicion to believe a crime had occurred, and a criminal investigation was proper," Fisher wrote.

At this point, investigators needed to ascertain how cash was received and deposited, and Fisher and Deputy Chief Eric Grile met with recreation and parks director Steve Mazer. (Mazer was fired by Schonhardt fired a few months later in March 2018.) 

They emphasized to Mazer not to discuss the conversation with Ernst, but on Oct. 17, 2017, Ernst appeared at the Hilliard Municipal Building and told law director Tracy Bradford that Mazer had informed her that she was being investigated by police.

Fisher wrote that investigators were not prepared to interview Ernst that day, as they had not determined the source of the deposits, but "once Ernst knew about the investigation, it prevented investigators from conducting the investigation as planned.”

(Mazer's actions did not rise to the level of criminal interference of a police investigation, Grile told ThisWeek, but it did cause the investigation to play out differently than planned.)

"During the interview, investigative techniques were used in an effort to compel Ernst into confessing to committing a crime," Fisher wrote. "Specifically, Grile attempted to use Ersnt's social status as a well-known member of the community to convince her it was in her best interest to solve the case and wrap up the investigation.

"It has been suggested by others unfamiliar with law-enforcement techniques that these comments signal 'a cover-up' of the case. The allegation is completely false. During the interview, Ernst is told she is going to have to plea to a criminal offense, and no promises will be made when it came to punishment or restitution."

Ernst did not confess during the interview, but her behavior suggested “theft in office was a strong possibility,” and three days later investigators officially numbered a file.

It was about this time, in October 2017, that Schonhardt notified council members of the investigation.

“Council was informed of the Ernst investigation in October 2017 when we had sufficient reason to believe that city funds were likely involved in a crime perpetrated by Ernst,” Schonhardt said Jan. 25.

Hilliard investigators then reached out to the Ohio Auditor of State's office, which provided guidance on how to prove a theft-in-office crime.

"They agreed to assist us in the investigation but declined to take a lead role," Fisher wrote. "They warned us proof of theft, in a cash case, is difficult to establish and very hard to prosecute."

Hilliard police also reached out to the Ohio Department of Taxation again.

Investigators then focused on "records and the flow of money through the recreation and parks department," Fisher wrote, and interviews with several employees were conducted.

Investigators received information from the cash registers at the city pools "on or near Nov. 16, 2017."

"This was the first concrete number we had that showed the amount of money the city took in at the pool gates," Fisher wrote. "We then compared it to the amount that was deposited into the city's accounts and came up with a figure for missing deposits, comparing it with the unexplained deposits into Ernst's accounts.

"It was this amount that was chosen to present to the grand jury for consideration for indictment."

On Nov. 21, 2017, Hilliard police publicly announced the investigation but did not name Ernst as the target.

Ernst, 48, was charged Dec. 22, 2017, with theft in office.

A Franklin County grand jury on March 1, 2018, indicted Ernst on eight felony counts, to which she pleaded not guilty two weeks later, March 15.

On Oct. 3, 2018, Ernst pleaded guilty to two charges: theft in office and attempted tampering with records, and on Nov. 16, 2018, she was sentenced to a 12-month prison term that began Jan. 2.

"HPD demonstrated our conviction for justice through our investigation," Fisher wrote. "It was our desire that this matter be investigated by an independent authority.

"However, when it was obvious that was not going to occur, HPD chose to investigate, regardless of political risk."

Fisher told ThisWeek after the letter was sent to Iosue that no council members had asked about the investigation process after Ernst pleaded guilty in October.

“Once the prosecution was completed and Ernst received her sentence, Hilliard police could have provided a timeline to council had the agency been asked,” he said. “It was the continued perseverance of Hilliard police that justice was done.”

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo