Michigan town’s feud over military gear gets ugly
Thetford Township — The two-man police department in this rural community outside Flint has amassed a massive amount of surplus military equipment over the last decade.
The free material, received through a federal program, includes mine detectors and Humvees, tractors and backhoes, hydroseeders and forklifts, motorized carts and a riding lawnmower. The landlocked township also has gotten boat motors and dive boots.
While much of the gear worth $1 million has never been used by the township, some has been given to residents, township officials said.
The township supervisor and a trustee said the police have stymied their attempts to find out what equipment they have, where it’s located and why some of it has been given away. The police didn’t keep track of what they had or what they had given away, according to a township audit last year.
In response to the audit, Police Chief Bob Kenny compiled an inventory that showed the police had 950 pieces of equipment, which were located at six public and private properties in and outside the township.
But nearly a third of the items, 314, were listed as “off-site,” without giving a specific location, according to the inventory.
“I don’t know where off-site is,” Supervisor Gary Stevens said.
The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, which was contacted by the township, has begun an investigation of the handling of the equipment. It declined to discuss the probe.
Kenny, after a brief conversation with The Detroit News, didn’t return emails or phone calls to discuss the issue.
Meanwhile, police supporters have launched a recall campaign against Stevens and Trustee Stan Piechnik. One of the organizers is farmer Eugene Lehr, who has 21 pieces of equipment on his property, including a motorized cart, tractor, forklift, two trailers and three all-terrain vehicles, according to the inventory.
Lehr declined to discuss the goods.
“They gotta go,” he said about Stevens and Piechnik. “They’re nothing but troublemakers. We’ve been railroaded so far.”
In May, Stevens and Piechnik drove onto Lehr’s farm to see what was being kept there. Lehr filed a complaint with Kenny, who charged the two township officials with trespassing. The township prosecutor dropped the charge.
This type of bare-knuckle fighting is nothing new in Thetford Township, a farming community of 6,800 people located 15 miles north of Flint.
It began receiving military equipment in 2006 but the amount dramatically rose after Kenny became chief in 2008, according to Pentagon statistics. The material comes from a Department of Defense program that distributes excess goods to law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S.
Among the items listed in the township inventory are two earth movers, six tractors, seven trucks and nine trailers.
Critics say there’s no need for such things in a tiny police department in a lightly populated township that has little crime.
Thetford Township is the fourth safest municipality in Michigan, according to the latest survey by SafeWise, a home security firm. The township had 1.3 violent crimes and 1.5 property crimes per 1,000 residents in 2015, according to FBI crime statistics.
“What’s happening here?” asked resident Theo Gantos. “Are they getting ready for terrorist action? Is there armed insurrection? This is not something we really want in our police department.”
Police supporters said some of the equipment has been useful. The two Humvees were used in two rescue operations, storage bins hold old township records, and cots and blankets were used when township hall was used as a shelter during a Christmas ice storm several years ago, supporters say.
Former supervisor Eileen Kerr, who supports Kenny, conceded the equipment is used sparingly but quoted the chief as often saying it was better to have the gear and not need it, than the other way around.
She said the equipment originally had been stored on township property but she asked the chief to move it because the lot began to look like a junkyard. That’s how it ended up on several private properties, she said
“I said this is something that looks like ‘Sanford and Son,’” she said about the 1970s sitcom. “We had all this crap all over the place.”
‘It was never listed’
Federal guidelines allow law enforcement agencies to dispose of the equipment after one year.
Kenny has said he gave some of the material to businesses to compensate them for transporting it from military sites to the township.
But some residents are concerned he had too much discretion in giving away the gear. Until recently he wasn’t required to document the transactions or receive the board’s approval before giving items away, said critics.
The inventory list doesn’t show which items were given to businesses.
During its audit, Plante Moran said its partial survey of the equipment discovered one item missing and three others given away. It didn’t identify the items or to whom they were given.
“We don’t know what he’s got,” said resident Jon Erber. “It was never listed or turned in or documented. I don’t know any business that operates like that.”
Dave Niec, who owns Great Northern Transportation, a Clio trucking firm, told Stevens and Piechnik he received a front-end loader for arranging the transportation of equipment, said Piechnik. Niec didn’t respond to emails or phone calls asking for comment.
Mike Walther, who runs a Montrose towing company, has 18 items on his property, including a tractor, two trucks, two trailers and a riding lawnmower.
He told a local reporter he occasionally used some of the material for parts but that most of it was in poor condition. He said he is storing the equipment for the police, but it wasn’t clear whether he transported it.
When called by The Detroit News, he hung up.
Down on the farm
Piechnik, a longtime critic of the police department, began looking into the military equipment program after becoming a trustee in 2016.
He asked Plante Moran to look into the program the following year. After doing so, the auditor said the pieces of equipment were township assets that should be inventoried. It also recommended the board sign off on the giving away of items.
The trustee board adopted the recommendations in June. It requested an inventory and implemented a policy where the disposal of items valued over $500 needed their approval. Disposal of items with less value should be noted in police reports to the board. But Piechnik was frustrated with the inventory because so many items were listed as off-site.
“This program is so loosey-goosey,” said Piechnik. “There’s a chance for people to use in the wrong way. He’s (Kenny) doing it on the dark side — not open, not telling us, not giving us names.”
The Department of Defense said it suspended the township’s participation in the military equipment program pending the sheriff’s investigation.
During Piechnik’s attempts to learn what was happening with the equipment, he and Stevens drove onto Lehr’s farm in May after learning from the chief that some gear was stored there.
When driving onto the property, they encountered Lehr’s girlfriend, Maggie Baker. They asked if they could look at the trailer and she said it was OK, Baker and the men told police.
Baker said she thought the two men, whom she didn’t recognize, were there to examine the site for a proposed trailer park, according to the police report.
When questioned by the police chief, Stevens said that, after reconsidering the matter, he probably shouldn’t have entered the property, according to the report.
Kenny charged the two men with trespassing, but the charge was dismissed in October. Shortly after the dismissal, Stevens gave Kenny a written reprimand for filing the criminal charge.
Stevens needs the board’s support to fire Kenny, but four of the seven trustees continue to support the police chief.
“I told him (Kenny) we had permission to be on property but he went with the property owner,” said Stevens.
The controversy has turned personal.
During a trustee meeting in December, someone urinated on Stevens’ car near the gas tank, said witnesses. No one was arrested in the incident.
Then, Stevens used the township snowplow to clear the parking lots of township hall and other buildings after a December snowfall. When he stopped off at home for lunch, someone snapped a photo of the vehicle in his driveway and posted it on Facebook, accusing him of using the plow for personal reasons.
“Perhaps someone should tell Mr. Stevens that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” wrote John Sherman, a Clio resident who supports the police.
Lehr and resident Gregg Bryan began the drive to recall Stevens and Piechnik in December. They have until June to get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November.
A pamphlet addressed to Thetford Township residents, which contained the phone numbers of Lehr and Bryan, said the criticism of the police’s use of military equipment was a disguised attempt to disband the department.
The leaflet referred to Stevens and Piechnik as miscreants.
“THIS EVER WIDENING REIGN OF TERROR, LIES AND ABUSE MUST COME TO AN END,” read the pamphlet. “The survival both as a community and a municipal body is at stake.”