Documents: OPD officer fired following allegations of sexual assault, false statements; read investigation report here

March 1, 2024 | 12:08 am

Updated March 4, 2024 | 4:53 pm

Photo from Owensboro Police Department Facebook page

Information has been made available that details the circumstances that led to an Owensboro Police Department officer’s termination earlier this month. Documents show the allegations involved a complaint of sexual assault as well as making false statements about the incident. Read the 53-page investigation report here.

Ex-officer Aleph Zavala was terminated on February 21, but police and City of Owensboro officials gave little insight into the allegations. Owensboro Times has obtained more details through an open records request. The request yielded documents related to the complaint against Zavala, OPD’s internal investigation, and notes from the Kentucky State Police officer investigating the incident.

KSP’s criminal investigation against Zavala remains open. Trooper Corey King said KSP is still waiting for lab results and could not comment on the investigation.

According to documents, Zavala was fired after OPD’s internal investigation found he had violated department guidelines, including providing false statements, abusing his position, and unbecoming conduct. 

Documents show that on December 8, 2023, Zavala and two other officers responded to 2815 West Parrish Avenue in reference to a burglary alarm at the U-Haul Storage facility. The officers made contact with a woman who was staying in a U-Haul storage unit inside of the building.

After learning that the woman had permission to be in the unit, the officers left and returned to their vehicles, according to the documents. 

Records show that when the other two officers left in their vehicles, Zavala remained and reentered the U-Haul building and went to the unit where Ms. P. was staying. 

On December 9, the manager of the U-Haul facility informed OPD that the woman told a female employee that on December 8, after the officers left, Zavala returned to the unit where she was staying. 

According to records, the woman reported that Zavala tried to pull down her pants, pulled down her shirt, choked her, and committed a sexual act in front of her. 

The allegations were reported to Ealum, who contacted KSP to ask for an investigation to determine if any criminal conduct occurred, according to the documents. It is standard policy for OPD to contact KSP regarding allegations that an OPD officer may have been involved in criminal activity. 

According to the documents, OPD allows the law enforcement agency leading the criminal investigation to conduct its interview of the officer before OPD completes an interview for its internal investigation. 

“When Officer Zavala was interviewed by a KSP Sergeant, Zavala at first denied that he had reentered the building, but then acknowledged that he had done so, but denied he had done anything else that (the woman) alleged,” the OPD internal investigation report reads. 

OPD Professional Standards Unit (PSU) Officer Lt. Tristan Russelburg conducted the internal investigation. 

According to the report, the woman told Russelburg that Zavala “came up behind her and startled her while she was in her unit a short time after he and other officers had left her and that he then tried to pull her pants down from the back.” She alleged that when she told him no, he turned her around and pushed her into a seated position on a laundry basket, the report says.

The report also describes the woman’s account of the alleged sexual act. She reported that after she said no, Zavala grabbed her by the throat and performed a sexual act in front of her.

According to the report, during the interview with Russeulburg Zavala was “evasive at first and said he had reentered the building just to make sure that it was secure and denied the allegations” of the woman.

“After the PSU Officer pressed Zavala more on the details and on the inconsistency of his accounts, Zavala finally admitted that he (performed a sexual act) in front of (the woman),” the report reads. 

The report notes that Zavala made “numerous false statements” to Russelburg regarding his actions related to the allegations made by the woman and “repeatedly denied all allegations against him before ultimately admitting that he did return” to the unit.

Documents also show that Zavala “failed to activate his body-worn camera for a citizen contact and failed to notify Central Dispatch of his exact location in accordance with OPD procedure. Officer Zavala did this knowingly and purposefully to avoid detection during his encounter with (the woman).” 

OPD officials had no comment following the release of the documents.

The Owensboro City Commission unanimously approved terminating Zavala on February 21, 2024, following a closed session during a special called meeting. Zavala was sworn in as an OPD officer in May 2022.

Following the meeting, City Manager Nate Pagan said that Zavala received “serious allegations of alleged misconduct” in December 2023. Pagan said OPD’s Professional Standards Unit began the investigation, which included interviews with officers, the complainant, and Zavala.

According to Pagan, the investigation “substantiated misconduct and various policy violations” and Zavala was suspended without pay on January 4. Pagan said that based on the results of the investigation, OPD Chief Art Ealum recommended Zavala be terminated.

The full statement from the City can be read here. Officials would not comment further on the details of the allegations or investigation.

OPD officials did not respond to a request for comment from Owensboro Times on January 9 when KSP confirmed it was investigating misconduct complaints involving two OPD officers. An OPD official declined to comment on February 20, and officials did not take questions directly following the City Commission meeting on February 21.

OPD’s first comments on the matter came from Ealum later on February 21 during a press conference. You can watch the full press conference here.

Ealum said the incident occurred on December 8, and a complaint was made to OPD on December 9.

“Once we learned of the potential allegations that day, it didn’t take an hour, it didn’t take 30 minutes, it took less than 5 minutes. Because of some of the information that we discovered, I reached out to KSP to have them conduct a criminal investigation,” he said.

Ealum said launched conduct an administrative investigation into Zavala, saying that the investigation concluded and resulted in the officer’s termination. He said Zavala was placed on administrative leave “at the point at which (Ealum) confirmed there was some validity to the allegations against him.” 

Ealum declined to give many specifics about the alleged misconduct, saying: “We’re talking about unbecoming conduct, interacting with the public without the use of body cams, and such.”

OPD’s Body Worn Camera policy states that patrol officers should wear their body cam at all times except for 15-minute breaks, restroom breaks, being in their private residence, and when having a meeting with another City of Owensboro employee.

Ealum said OPD doesn’t plan to change its policy following the incident.

“The policies are in place and they are good, but just like anything else, (some) people don’t abide by the rules,” he said. “Once an aggressive action like was taken today, it sets an example, it sets the tone for others that you’re supposed to wear your body cam. You don’t want to be accused of something and didn’t have your camera on because it just looks bad on you as an officer.”

Ealum said OPD is dedicated to maintaining public trust.

“At the very core of what we do involves public trust. For years we’ve had a dedicated professional standards unit to investigate allegations against officers,” he said, later adding, “We are in a position of public trust and that means that we’ve got to be held to the highest of standards. That’s what the community can expect from us, and anytime there’s issues they are free to call and report it.”

March 1, 2024 | 12:08 am

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