Merrill Police Department: A look at 22 months of change
Retirements, new hires, new roles reflect an evolving MPD
TINA L. SCOTT
The Merrill Police Department (MPD) experienced significant staff changes in the last couple of years. Many of Merrill’s finest officers in blue had been with the Department long-term, so it was bound to happen. Long-familiar officers began to retire, and new names and faces took their place. “It’s a normal, anticipated cycle but still a little bittersweet,” Merrill Police Chief Corey Bennett said back in early 2021.
The Dec. 31, 2020, retirement of Lieutenant Investigator Pat Wunsch, after 22 years with the MPD, set off a chain of retirements and a corresponding series of new officers joining the Department and advancements and realignment of duties within the Department.
◙ On Jan. 29, 2021, the MPD hired Bryan Allen to fill the opening for a Police Officer left by Wunsch. Having worked as a Police Officer in Madison, Wisconsin, for three+ years and in Columbus, Georgia, for more than five years prior to that, and with a bachelors in Psychology, Allen was a welcome addition to the Department. He and his family were happy to relocate to Merrill because his wife’s family had ties to the community.
◙ Lieutenant Don Seubert moved from Patrol to the Detective Division to fill the role Wunsch formerly occupied. Seubert’s experience, having been with MPD since 1995 and serving in multiple roles during that timeframe, including Police Officer, Temporary Investigator, Temporary SRO, Field Training Officer (FTO), Patrol Lt., FTO Supervisor, Instructor, and others, made him the ideal candidate for the position, and his detail-oriented approach to case supervision in the active Detective Division made him an asset to the Department in this new role.
◙ Seubert’s move then created a vacancy for a Patrol Lieutenant. Multiple Police Officers within the Department applied and were considered, and ultimately, Officer Tyler Tesch was promoted to the position of Patrol Lieutenant. At the time, he had just celebrated 14 years with the MPD, during which time he had served as a Patrol Officer, Field Training Officer, Instructor, Northcentral Technical College (NTC) Instructor, and one of the most recognized Drug Recognition Experts (DRE’s) in Wisconsin. He was designated FTO Supervisor to oversee the field training of the Department’s new employees to be hired in 2021.
◙ On Friday, April 2, 2021, Mark Heckendorf officially retired from the MPD.
In 1987, Heckendorf became the 20th officer in an agency that was previously staffed with 19 sworn officers, Bennett said. Previously, Heckendorf had worked as a Park Ranger for the Marathon County Parks Dept. from 1984-1985 and as a Corrections Officer for Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office from 1985-1987.
Through the years, Heckendorf served as a Police Officer (PO, PO1, PO2), on the Drug Team (working narcotics cases in conjunction with primary role), Field Training Officer, DARE Officer, Temporary Investigator, ALICE Instructor, and more. Since 2006, he was MPD’s School Resource Officer/Investigator as a dedicated resource for MAPS and to handle any issues arising in the district. This expanded to instructing ALICE (active shooter response) in the schools and throughout the community. He was the primary coordinator for the Student Police Academy and served as the primary coordinator for the MPD scholarship award presented to a Merrill High School (MHS) student planning to enter the criminal justice field.
During the summer months, and sometimes during the school year, he dual-purposed as an Investigator for the MPD. He was a critical resource for many MPD staff, providing field training, responding to critical crime scenes when staffing was limited or expertise was needed, identifying people and kids in the community along with their interpersonal relationships and sometimes complete family tree information, and coordinating or assisting with ALICE presentations and training to school staff, government agencies, and local businesses in a proactive manner. He celebrated 34 years on the MPD and 37 years in public safety before retiring. And he is currently enjoying the role of first-time grandparent and enjoying his retirement!
◙ With Heckendorf retired, the MPD needed a new School Resource Officer. For this role, MPD and Heckendorf had been proactive, preparing to fill the position early “much like a promotion process,” Bennett said. Of the multiple qualified candidates who stepped forward to be considered, Police Officer Jamie Jaeger was selected and has been serving in that capacity since the day after Heckendorf left the schedule in early March.
Jaeger began with the MPD in 1995 and quickly became the MPD DARE Officer, a role she has filled ever since. In 2020, she was recognized as the Wisconsin Dare Officer Association (WDOA) DARE Officer of the year. She also serves as the MPD Safety Patrol Coordinator across the District, and has served in that role “for as many years as I can remember,” Bennett said. In addition, she was previously a Temporary Investigator.
All of these roles helped Jaeger develop real relationships with school staff, parents, and students. That was important. “I can’t think of anyone more ideally equipped to serve as our next School Resource Officer in partnership with MAPS,” Bennett said.
◙ On April 5, 2021, following Heckendorf’s retirement, the MPD hired Christina Doering as a Police Officer. A 2018 graduate of MHS and a 2020 graduate of NTC, Doering was also the recipient of the Merrill Police Association Scholarship Award as a Senior.
Doering was actually in the final pool of candidates being considered in late 2020, and Bennett knew there would be a need for multiple new hires in 2021, so the MPD took a chance and “put an offer of employment in her hand months ahead of time, in hopes she would commit to working in her home town,” Bennett said. It worked. She accepted, despite several other career prospects in the works. “To understate it, we are pleased to witness such a level of commitment to this City so early in a career,” Bennett said.
◙ MPD’s third retirement in less than six months came when Greg Hartwig officially retired on June 2, 2021, after 31 years of service. His dedication to his career and to Merrill was admirable. “He literally spent his last day at the Merrill Police Department helping us evaluate candidates to fill his vacancy as a Supervisor,” Bennett said.
Hired as a Patrol Officer in March 1990, Hartwig moved through the ranks of Patrol responsibilities, serving years on Patrol in the various rank and grade roles of PO, PO1, PO2 before being promoted to Lt. by Chief Seubert and then in 2017 being promoted to Patrol Captain when the Department restructured to provide for a Narcotics Detective. “In that role Greg took on extra administrative duties to share the load of administrative functions on top of his continued role as a Patrol Supervisor,” Bennett said. “He provided direct supervision to his officers on day shift and indirect supervision to the nightshift on his schedule rotation. All of this while still having to balance his own case load of incidents on Patrol. It can be a thankless and overwhelming role sometimes.”
Through the years, Hartwig participated in the informal drug team and was a Field Training Officer, DAAT instructor, ECD (Taser) instructor, MPPA representative, MPBA (Benevolent) representative, and stepped up in innumerable other ways.
Retirement hasn’t slowed Hartwig down a whole lot. He ran for and was elected to the Lincoln County Board in April and is still very active with the River Bend Trail and other community projects and events.
◙ In June 2021, Detective Matt Waid was awarded the 2019 State of WI Eagles Aerie Law Enforcement Award (normally awarded in 2020), for the second time. COVID led to inevitable delays.
◙ The next order of business was to fill the vacancy in the Department that resulted when Officer Hartwig retired.
On June 3, 2021, Officer Brandon Brost began his career with the MPD. A graduate of DC Everest High School, Brost attended NTC for coursework and Police Recruit Academy; attended Crown College for coursework related to pastoral leadership; and served six years in the US Marine Corp Reserves.
◙ As with previous retirements, Hartwig’s retirement also resulted in internal advancements. Multiple internal candidates expressed interest in taking on new responsibility and, after review of all candidates, Officer Pete Borchardt was promoted to Lieutenant, effective July 23, 2021. “Pete consistently performed the highest across the measured categories of the promotion process. His experience and work ethic certainly paved this path for him,” Bennett said.
“Aside from being a lifelong member of this community, Lt. Borchardt stays involved with community organizations and currently serves on the HAVEN Board of Directors. That is a little bit of a peak into one of his strengths in this Dept.,” Bennett said. “For anyone that has had Lt. Borchardt respond to their call, it is well known that he aggressively investigates crimes and is primarily focused on working for victims of crimes. On countless occasions he has worked to make victims whole (recovering property or damages) on the front side of the investigation rather than through court proceedings. This is essential in reducing the impact of crime in our community by providing immediate recovery for victims and encouraging the voluntary accountability of suspects. At times this requires a skill and a work ethic that not everyone possesses. We are fortunate to have it here.”
◙ On January 3, 2022, the MPD learned of the untimely and off-duty death of active duty Merrill Police Officer Riley Kurtz due to medical complications. Officer Kurtz was just 24 years old, and had served approximately 2 years with the MPD and over a year with the Kronenwetter Police Department, as well as 6 months as a Reserve Deputy with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office. His death left a hole in the MPD and an even bigger hole in the hearts of the officers, friends, family, and community who knew him.
◙ On Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, John Stubbe was sworn in as a Police Officer with the MPD. “We have been working on hiring John since late last year,” Bennett said at the time. A 2005 graduate of MHS, Stubbe was a full-time Police Officer with the Owen and then Colby-Abbotsford Police Departments since 2012 and also worked part-time as an Officer for Spencer Police Department.
◙ On Monday Jan. 31, 2022, two more new Police Officers joined the Merrill PD. David Clark and John Sass, both graduates of Antigo High School and NTC, both applied to the MPD in the Fall of 2021 while they were still attending NTC Recruit Academy and then graduated in Dec. 2021.
◙ On Feb. 28, 2022, the Merrill community said good-bye to Retired Captain Richard Dabbert who passed away on Feb. 22 at the age of 69. Dabbert began working with the MPD as a Police Officer on May 13, 1974, at age 21; was promoted to Sergeant on Jan. 1, 1982; was promoted to Lieutenant on Jan. 1, 1986; was appointed Safety Director on Apr. 1, 1990; and was promoted to Captain on Apr. 17, 1998. He had retired on Dec. 31, 2006 after 32 years of service and remained actively involved volunteering in the community and his church in many capacities.
◙ Most recently, the MPD hired three new officers in Aug. further strengthening the existing force and helping to build up the Department of and for the future.
◙ On Aug. 1, 2022, Police Officer Ben Hintze was sworn in. Hintze has three years of experience working at the Neilsville Police Department and Ashland Police Department.
◙ On Aug. 8, 2022, Trevor Asmundsen and Brandon Lor joined the MPD. Asmundsen is a MHS graduate, graduate of Fox Valley Technical College (Associates Degree), and an active duty member of the Wis. National Guard. Lor is a graduate of Wausau West, Northcentral Technical College (Associates Degree), and UW-Eau Claire (Bachelors Degree).
Both completed the law enforcement academy at NTC in May 2022 while also applying for, testing, and competing for positions with the MPD. “Obviously, both performed very well and captured our attention,” Bennett said.
◙ Finally, staff changes effected the K9 component of the MPD. The end of Sept. 2022, marked the retirement of Eros, the MPD’s first K9 Officer. Eros had served for more than eight years.
“We are grateful our first K9 experience was with Eros who most certainly seeded the value of this program for the City,” Police Chief Corey Bennett said. “We are also extremely grateful to the Bierman Family Foundation for their generosity in standing up this program with Eros and into the future.”
◙ Merrill will soon have a new K9 Officer on duty, beginning in early November. Dasty (pronounced Dah-stee), comes to the MPD through Steinig Tal Kennel where he is currently training with Officer McCaskill. “Dasty hails from the same bloodlines as Eros and is proving to be an excellent young canine officer,” Bennett said. “Dasty is about a year younger than most working dogs at this stage but excels at drug indication and tracking. In fact, we have received informal offers to purchase him when other handlers have witnessed his abilities.”
This is the MPD’s second K9 Officer. “The police canine and necessary equipment were once again provided via a grant by the Bierman Family Foundation who has supported all law enforcement canine programs in Lincoln County,” Bennett said. “We thank them for the continued generosity and commitment!”
The Merrill Police Department is still looking for more qualified Police Officers who want to work in the Merrill community. Ideally, they are looking for candidates who can become the embodiment of the Department’s guiding principles, lead by those values, and make a deep commitment to serving the City of Merrill and the citizens of Merrill. Those guideing principles are: INTEGRITY, COMMITMENT, PROFESSIONALISM, RESPONSIVENESS, and TEAMWORK.
Candidates who are up for the challenge are invited to apply.
“Applications are now being accepted to fill an upcoming vacancy and to establish an eligibility list,” the Department posted on their Facebook page on Oct. 14, 2022. “In the next 10 years a significant number of the Department’s sworn officers will be within the retirement window. This is a great opportunity to be part of vast internal growth and organizational building.”
In addition to “new” officers, the Department is looking for experienced officers to help round out their staff and has created incentives designed to entice Police Officers from other areas to come to Merrill. In addition to the charming appeal of a small town with a low crime rate, “the Merrill Police Department is now providing lateral transfer opportunities for experienced officers seeking to relocate to the Merrill community. Credit for up to seven (7) years of similar full time experience may be granted for purposes of pay and vacation benefits.”
Applicants must be U.S. citizens, age 18 or older (preferably 21 or older), with a high school diploma, 60 college credits, drivers license with a good driving record, in good physical condition, who are eligible for Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board certification. They must also have the ability to possess a firearm, no felony convictions, no domestic abuse convictions, good verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work unconventional hours, weekends, and holidays, and the ability to perform essential functions of the position and use all standard law enforcement equipment.
Salary is based on current contractual agreement, according to the post, with benefits to include paid vacation, health and life insurance, sick leave, annual clothing allowance, educational incentive, shift differential, Wisconsin Retirement System, holiday pay, and deferred compensation.
To apply, candidates must complete the current DJ-LE-330 application form (rev 6/22) available online at https://wilenet.widoj.gov/ or at the Merrill Police Department/City of Merrill website.
Applicants must answer all three questions in section 6, and incomplete or incorrect applications will be rejected.
Completed applications are due by 4:00 p.m. on Friday, November 11, 2022. Completed applications and any questions should be directed to Police Chief Corey Bennett at the MPD, 1004 E 1st St., Merrill, WI 54452. Email: [email protected].