Fired Dane Co. deputy impaired when reporting fake Festge Park attack, Sheriff’s Office reports

Sarah Bortz-Rodriguez was fired less than a month after the incident
Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 4:12 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2022 at 10:36 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The former Dane Co. Sheriff’s deputy who was fired after an unsubstantiated report she was attacked at Festge Park last fall told investigators she may have hallucinated the entire encounter.

Sarah Bortz-Rodriguez was fired less than a month after the incident, in which she reported a man cut her with an edged weapon and she fired her service weapon at him, following an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.

“I don’t remember the stuff you are telling me happened. I would never have consciously made these decisions,” the letter informing Bortz-Rodriguez of her termination quoted her saying. The comment came after an investigator pointed out inconsistencies between what she said happened and the evidence found.

The letter was released to NBC15 News along with the 100 pages of reports from other law enforcement officers who were there that night, and reports related to a prior locker room incident that resulted in a letter making her aware counseling services and referencing professional boundaries, but explicitly stated was not disciplinary in nature.

Another report from the Law Supplemental Narrative filed March 1, 2022, details another Dane County deputy’s account with Bortz-Rodriguez. In it, the deputy says he was assigned to help train Bortz-Rodriguez at the Dane County Jail. It was then the deputy says he heard Bortz-Rodriguez made comments about “possibly faking a medical retirement.” Portions of the report are redacted.

Initially, Bortz-Rodriguez claimed she was investigating a suspicious person at the park shortly after 8 p.m., on October 21, when a man dressed in a black hoodie, black pants, and a hockey mask, similar to the one worn by the “Jason” character from the Friday the 13th movies. On that night, she thrice told fellow deputies the man stabbed her before she fired once at him as he fled into a wooded area.”

The letter, signed by Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, detailed the discrepancies between her retelling and what investigators eventually determined, saying her “explanation about encountering another person at the park is not credible and was not supported by any evidence.” After the documents’ release, Barrett agreed to an interview on Wednesday with NBC15 News regarding the findings, but he has since canceled, saying he wants to wait until the Dane Co. District Attorney’s Office had made a decision on whether to press charges.

After being presented with the differences in the accounts, which are detailed more in depth below, Bortz-Rodriguez expanded on her version of events, saying that the series of events started when she needed to calm herself following a critical incident review, the letter continued. The page of the letter provided to NBC15 News of this account included ten redactions that obscures some of what the letter states she said at the hearing which will be noted.

Needing to calm herself, Bortz-Rodriguez reportedly claimed she returned to the precinct to get a redacted item that she consumed near Riley’s Tavern, in Verona, with plans to continue her shift. Uncomfortable with the number of people where she was and because of another redacted reason, Bortz-Rodriguez told investigators she felt unable to defend herself and went to Festge Park to be in a more isolated setting. She also claimed to have recognized she was not in a condition to drive. The letter interjected that she did not, in this time, request to take sick leave or report her condition to the Sheriff’s Office.

After the redacted item took effect and she felt like she may have been intoxicated or impaired, the letter continued, the former deputy said she wanted to clear the park. It was while driving through the park, she recounted, that she saw the man whom she claimed to have really believed at the time was there but at the time of the investigation suspected she may have hallucinated it.

The Night of Oct. 21

The letter laid out what happened in the moments and hours after Bortz-Rodriguez reported having been attacked, starting with her telling dispatchers around 8:10 p.m. that she planned to check out an individual wearing a hockey mask. Approximately 30 seconds later, she was back on the radio to report shots fired and, later, that she had been stabbed.

Deputies found Bortz-Rodriguez injured in the back of her police cruiser, and she said the suspect had fled from the scene, heading southwest. She was transported to the hospital for treatment for her wounds.

Patrol units, detectives, Tactical Team members, drone operators, K-9 units swarmed to the park, as did officers from other jurisdictions wanting to assist, the letter stated. A perimeter was established that lasted well into the night and nearby roads were closed. Both the Sheriff’s Office and Cross Plains Police Dept. alerted the public to the search. Neighbors were asked to stay inside during the search and many people contacted the Sheriff’s Office concerned for their safety.

One person who was awaken by a phone alert about the incident told NBC15 News on the night of the search that she was “really frightened, and I made sure everything was locked up.”

The manhunt ended with deputies saying that a suspect had not been located, while the police department added that investigators did believe the individual was no longer in the area. Cross Plains Police Chief Tony Ruesga said that his officers would still monitor schools the next day to ensure children get home safe.

“Your actions also had a tremendously negative and costly impact on your law enforcement colleagues and on the community,” Barrett wrote in the termination letter. “You caused unnecessary worry to the public who was upset and frightened by the possibility of an attacker in their community.”

In the aftermath of the search, investigators spent the next two days collecting evidence at the park – evidence Barret wrote that conflicted with what Bortz-Rodriguez claimed.

The letter stated that investigators had combed through audio recordings of the calls to dispatch as well as audio and video captured at the scene before Bortz-Rodriguez returned for two more interviews over the next 11 days. On November 5, the administrative hearing that provided the bulk of the information in Barrett’s letter commenced.

The Administrative Hearing

The Administrative Hearing included particulars of Bortz-Rodriguez’ story that had not been released prior to Tuesday. She claimed she first saw the suspect on a paved path illuminated by her headlights. As the suspect approached, she continued, he was making slashing movements as he approached, and she put up her arms to defend herself. After firing her weapon, a fact that the Sheriff’s Office never refuted, Bortz-Rodriguez claimed she froze as the suspect fled.

Bortz-Rodriguez explained that she did not chase the suspect because she had dropped her flashlight during the encounter, the letter added. That’s when she reported being attacked and firing at a suspect before heading for her patrol vehicle, noting that she tripped along the way. The hearing also included revisiting pictures taken from the scene, including where the cruiser was parked, where the clash occurred, and her route back to the vehicle. During the hearing, she also drew a picture of the weapon she stated the suspect had, which the Sheriff’s Office described as a foldout box cutter.

After delivering her version of events during the hearing, a Sheriff’s Office lieutenant began listing issues with her story, according to the letter. Among them the letter listed five:

  • Based on where her vehicle was parked her headlights would not shine on the spot where she said she saw the suspect;
  • She had claimed to check on the individual immediately, but investigators determined she had waited over three minutes;
  • She never dropped her flashlight;
  • Video did not show her running to her cruiser or tripping. Instead, the Sheriff’s Office states it recorded her walking over 130 feet along where she reported the suspect ran;
  • She gave a description that included sex, race, and build, but had also said she could not see the suspect’s face or body.

After hearing them and being told honesty was the most important part of the hearing, she reported said, “I’m telling you what happened that night, I have no reason to make something like this up.”

After more inconsistencies were presented, she began explaining how she had consumed the redacted item and why she went to Festge Park before saying she may have hallucinated what happened. She also gave a possible reason that she suffered the cutting wounds, which was redacted in the letter, and said if her department-issued boxcutter was not in her squad bag, then it was likely the one investigators found in the park.

The Findings

Between the hearing and the investigation, Barrett determined Bortz-Rodriguez mixed and consumed items that were redacted in the released letter and she drove in that impaired state. It also cited her impaired state when noting she had fired her gun. Barrett wrote that he believed the wounds that she reported came from the stabbing were self-inflicted. The investigation found no evidence that anyone else was there that night. Finally, the hearing determined that she did not tell the truth in her recounting of that night.

The letter noted six violations of the Sheriff’s Office’s Code of Conduct and three more violations of work rules that resulted in her termination.

“Your failure to uphold the standards of a sworn member of the DCSO undermines the integrity and reputation of law enforcement and damages the reputation of, and the public’s trust in, the Dane Co. Sheriff’s Office,” Barrett wrote, adding that her actions also opened the Sheriff’s Office to potential liability.

While that investigation was completed and Bortz-Rodriguez was fired in November, a month after the incident, the Sheriff’s Office had not revealed her fate until February. That was when the Wisconsin Dept. of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation wrapped up its investigation into the former deputy’s actions.

The results of DCI’s investigation have not been released and its findings have been handed over to the Dane Co. District Attorney’s Office, which will determine if charges are warranted in the case.

Sarah Bortz-Rodriguez was fired less than a month after the incident.

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