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Thursday, July 3, 1997

Lavon police department reels after losing two officers

LAVON, Texas (AP) - The police department of the city that became known as "Speed-Trap, Texas" because of its reliance on ticket money is now waging another war to repair its tarnished image.

Jeff Gardner, a lieutenant whose successful drug operations were beginning to erase the department's notoriety, and another former officer are facing criminal charges.

"I hate what it's done to our city and our police department," Mayor Chris Wess said. "It's hurt our reputation. It's stirred up hard feelings and may cost us part of the department."

Critics say the recent trouble just shows that the small Collin County town of 350 people doesn't need a police force.

"We can't afford it, and we don't have any crime," said resident Will Morrow. "The police department is the only criminal element in this town."

The city lost two of its five paid officers June 10. Gardner, 44, is facing federal charges of stealing money during drug raids. He is free on $20,000 bail and confined to his home with electronic monitoring.

Thomas Wayne Merryman, 30, resigned after his arrest on charges of stealing a shotgun and supplying a firearm to a minor. He is free on $10,000 bail.

Three Lavon officers were with Gardner April 10 when federal agents say they secretly videotaped him putting cash in his waistband during what he thought was a drug raid. The sting was set up by state and federal authorities and is included in the complaint against Gardner.

Gardner's drug raids brought in $79,989, more than a third of the city's total income this year, Lavon records show.

The mayor and police Chief Ed Waynick agreed that the city trusted Gardner too much, letting him work at home and not checking his paperwork.

"Mine haven't been the only tears around here," Waynick said. "That man had our respect and our confidence."

"Jeff Gardner was an exceptionally good narcotics officer. I'm not talking about his character, but his ability."

Merryman made a "stupid mistake" in trading what turned out to be a stolen shotgun for a pistol at a Wylie pawnshop, the chief said.

The backlash against the small police force began because of the city's reputation for relying on ticket revenue. In response, the Legislature limited the amount of money cities can raise with traffic fines.

Now, a city with fewer than 5,000 residents can raise no more than 30 percent of its total budget from traffic enforcement.

"It's dreadful. We just built up our image after the speed trap mess, and then this happened," said Mary Krause, a former City Council member. Send a Letter to the Editor about This Story | Start or Join A Discussion about This Story
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