South Lake Tahoe police officer Johnny Poland pleaded guilty to a federal obstruction charge Wednesday following a more than yearlong investigation into his alleged connections to gang members and involvement in sexual activity with teenage girls.
He faces up to 20 years in prison for the plea, but may not serve any time behind bars.
Poland’s attorney, Mark Reichel, said Thursday he hopes to keep Poland out of prison as part of sentencing proceedings scheduled for Aug. 7. Four additional federal charges, including additional witness tampering and obstructing allegations, will be dropped as part of Wednesday’s plea, Reichel said. Poland has acknowledged his mistakes and hopes to move forward with his life following this week’s plea, Reichel added.
“He’s determined to right the ship and sail straight,” Reichel said.
According to a complaint filed by FBI Agent Chris Campion in January, Poland provided police intelligence to a woman with known gang connections and also engaged in extramarital sexual relationships with two teenage girls he met while working as a school resource officer at South Tahoe High School. Campion’s complaint said Poland encouraged each of the women to destroy evidence of their relationships with him following the launch of the investigation.
“According to court documents, on June 29, 2011, Poland interfered with a federal investigation of a South Lake Tahoe gang member,” according to a Wednesday statement from federal prosecutors. “Poland persuaded the gang member’s girlfriend to conceal and destroy evidence. In October and November 2011, Poland tampered with this witness in an investigation into his own conduct as well as the conduct of the gang member. Poland instructed another witness to conceal and destroy evidence rather than provide it to federal authorities. Poland admitted that he corruptly attempted to alter, destroy, mutilate, and conceal evidence material to an official proceeding.”
Although Poland pleaded guilty to only one of the five counts charged in the criminal complaint, he admitted to all of the alleged conduct, said U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Lauren Horwood in a Thursday email.
Former El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Hans Uthe has previously said county prosecutors were looking into the possibility of pursuing sex charges against Poland for his relationships with the teenagers. Following Uthe’s retirement last month, the status of that investigation is unclear.
Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.
Reichel said there are numerous reasons why he doesn’t think the state will pursue sex charges against Poland, but declined to elaborate.
“He’s just looking to go forward and live a good life,” Reichel said.
South Lake Tahoe Police Department’s administrative process reviewing Poland’s employment with the department could take two or three more weeks, Police Chief Brian Uhler said.
He said he hoped Poland would resign to allow a new police officer to be hired sooner.
“I would like to get that slot filled for the benefit of the community as soon as possible,” Uhler said.
Poland was placed on paid administrative leave in November 2011 as he was being investigated. He was moved to unpaid administrative leave after the federal charges were filed in January.
The department has faced shortages of officers in the past three or four months due to personnel issues and injuries, Uhler said. The shortages have resulted in up to 20 percent of the department’s officer positions being unavailable for duty at times, Uhler said.