DURHAM — If three Duke University lacrosse players face a jury this spring, defense attorneys likely will take aim at Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, the Durham police officer who supervised the investigation into the March 13 party at which an escort service dancer says she was raped.
The 43-year-old detective could be the prosecution's most important witness aside from the dancer herself.
In recent weeks, an attorney for one of the lacrosse players questioned the plausibility of Gottlieb's case notes, provided to the defense as evidence. Attorneys also have criticized Gottlieb for not following the Durham Police Department's guidelines in a photo lineup that he showed the accuser.
Members of the defense team are now closely examining the arrests Gottlieb made before the rape case. Records show that the sergeant arrested a disproportionate number of Duke students, all on misdemeanor violations such as carrying an open beer on a public sidewalk or violating the city's noise ordinance.
Such charges usually earn an offender a pink ticket such as those issued for speeding. But court records show Gottlieb often arrested Duke students on such charges, taking them to jail in handcuffs.
Reached by telephone, Gottlieb declined to be interviewed for this story. A department spokesman said this week the sergeant is on leave, though what kind was not disclosed.
Some residents of neighborhoods where Gottlieb worked and victims' advocates say that the sergeant is a dedicated and fair officer.
A native of Ohio, Gottlieb is married and the father of young twins. The couple is expecting another child soon. Over the past 18 years, Gottlieb has worked as a paramedic in Wake and Durham counties, as well as a Durham police officer.
A barrel-chested man, Gottlieb tends to walk with his shoulders back and chin up. Among his colleagues, he is known as outspoken and sometimes headstrong. In a 2005 court affidavit that noted his qualifications, Gottlieb listed several community colleges he has attended and professional certifications. The affidavit did not mention an academic degree beyond high school.
Students go to jail
Gottlieb got the lacrosse case weeks after serving 10 months as a patrol shift supervisor in police District 2, which includes about a quarter of the city. The district has neighborhoods as disparate as the crime-ridden Oxford Manor public housing complex and Trinity Park -- the blocks of historic homes across from a low stone wall rimming Duke's East Campus.
From May 2005 to February 2006, the period during which Gottlieb was a patrol supervisor in the district, court and police records examined by The News & Observer show that Gottlieb arrested 28 people. Twenty were Duke students, including a quarterback of the football team and the sister of a men's lacrosse player. At least 15 of the Duke students were taken to jail.
In comparison, the three other squad supervisors working in District 2 during the same 10 months -- Sgts. Dale Gunter, John Shelton and Paul Daye -- tallied a combined 64 arrests. Two were Duke students. Both were taken to jail.
Gottlieb often treated Duke students and nonstudents differently. For example, Gottlieb in 2004 wrote a young man a citation for illegally carrying a concealed .45-caliber handgun and possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana, but records indicate he wasn't taken to jail. He was not a Duke student.
Trinity Park residents have long complained to university and city officials about the boisterous parties thrown by the students who live there. That spurred Duke in February to buy a dozen rental properties in the neighborhood, including the house where the lacrosse team threw its spring break bash two weeks later.
The Durham police officers who responded to 911 calls about the parties were sometimes on the receiving end of defiance and disrespectful taunts. Trinity Park resident Ellen Dagenhart praised Gottlieb's get-tough tactics as a direct response to community concerns about disruptive, drunken behavior.
"There were a lot of homeowners and taxpayers who were calling the cops saying, 'Please come and make yourself seen,' " said Dagenhart, who has known Gottlieb for years. "Anyone who's seen kids passed out in a puddle of vomit is certainly happy to see the police show up. You can't blame Mark Gottlieb for that."
Durham City Manager Patrick Baker said that cracking down on Trinity Park partying was a priority for police last year.
The police department's official policy gives officers discretion in whether to transport someone to the lockup downtown. Factors other than just the "elements of the crime" can be considered, such as whether the suspect is belligerent.
"Our general order, it basically gives the officer room to use his or her own judgment," said Cpl. David Addison, a police spokesman.
But a standing order encourages officers to use alternatives to arrests for misdemeanors, including the use of written citations because of "jail overcrowding, crowded court dockets, staffing problems and the intrusiveness involved in a physical arrest."
On Oct. 8, Gottlieb and officers he supervised responded to a call about a rowdy student at a duplex at 203 Watts St. -- a Trinity Park address familiar to the police as a party house.
In an affidavit, Gottlieb wrote that officers arrived about 6:30 p.m. and told partygoers to be quiet. After the police left, party-goers urinated on neighbor Lee Coggins' home and threw a beer bottle in her direction that shattered on the sidewalk, Gottlieb wrote.
Police obtained a search warrant, and Gottlieb's squad entered the duplex at 3:19 a.m. They seized three beer kegs -- one empty -- and "beer bong tubing." On the wall was what Gottlieb described as a "stolen Duke flag." A Duke flag had been reported stolen from an administrative building on campus the previous spring.
Five students there were arrested by Gottlieb for violating the city's noise ordinance and alcohol-related misdemeanors. Another housemate, Mike Kenney, was arrested the next day.
Kenney, then 21, was charged with a noise ordinance violation and possession of an open container of alcohol on public property and taken to jail. Two days later, records show, Kenney was arrested a second time and taken to jail on charges of possession of stolen property. The flag had been in his room.
When the case went to trial in January, Gottlieb testified that in the wake of rowdy parties in Trinity Park, the department's policy was to take alcohol-related violations seriously. But the judge threw out the charges against Kenney, citing a lack of evidence.
Glen Bachman, Kenney's attorney, successfully argued that Gottlieb couldn't prove the college senior was home during the party or that the flag in his room was the same flag that had been stolen.
Coggins, the woman who called police about the party at the duplex, said Gottlieb's actions seemed responsive and professional. He doesn't have a vendetta against Duke students, she said.
"It's not like he's hanging out at their house waiting for them to do something," Coggins said.
Kathy Summerlee, Kenney's mother and a lawyer in Minnesota, called the arrest and prosecution of her son "frivolous."
Though the charges were thrown out, Kenney could have faced suspension if convicted. He graduated from Duke in May and now is looking for a job, she said.
"It was clear to all of us that the police were feeling a lot of pressure to make a difference in the behavior in that neighborhood," Summerlee said this week. "I think there was a lot of damage done in this process. It cost us money. It cost us a lot of worry. It rearranged Mike's life."
Still, some in Trinity Park cite Gottlieb as a dedicated officer. He prides himself on being a victim's advocate, often recounting stories from his years as a domestic violence investigator.
Dagenhart said she remembers seeing him at a vigil for domestic violence victims.
"This was not something he had to do as a part of his job," she said. "It's something he did as someone who cared. I know he cares about Durham. It's not just a job for him."
(News researchers David Raynor and Denise Jones contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or email@example.com.