Police officers convicted of rape, murder and other serious crimes are collecting tens of millions of dollars during retirement

By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, CNN

September 29, 2021

Editor's note:
This story contains graphic language depicting a sexual assault, as described by police in investigative and court records, in order to convey the full nature of the crime.

Tens of millions of dollars are flowing into the bank accounts of retired police officers convicted of breaking the very laws they were sworn to uphold.

They have been found guilty of sexual and violent crimes, including murder and rape, or other serious job-related offenses, such as bribery and embezzlement. Some have admitted to molesting young children. Others have used their badges to enrich themselves or wield power over vulnerable members of their communities. Many are still sitting in prison cells. Yet the checks keep coming and will for the rest of their lives — all as taxpayers help foot the bill.

The promise of these unlimited monthly retirement checks is one of the biggest perks of going into the physically demanding and dangerous field of law enforcement. It is only in rare cases that governments strip disgraced officers of these benefits, using a harsh penalty known as pension forfeiture.

Now, in the face of growing calls for police reform, some lawmakers, academics and police reform advocates say forfeiture of these coveted police retirement packages could be used as a tool to discourage the worst behavior. Recent research backs this up, suggesting that states with strict pension forfeiture laws have experienced lower levels of police misconduct.

Nationally, however, there is no consensus on when and if pensions should be taken away. Laws, if they exist at all, vary widely from state to state and don’t always target the same crimes — meaning that whether convicted cops are able to keep their benefits largely depends on the state where they worked.

More than 350 officers convicted of felony crimes have already received pension payments or are eligible in the future, according to a CNN analysis. Reporters identified the officers using individual member pension data from more than 70 funds obtained through records requests, retirement vesting schedules, and data on convicted officers arrested between 2005 and 2015 from Bowling Green State University’s Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database. Officers convicted of sexual and violent felonies, as well as felony crimes committed within an officer’s “official capacity,” were included in the analysis. And this is just a snapshot of those eligible for taxpayer funded payments in part because pension data is kept confidential in more than 15 states and not all funds queried by CNN responded to requests.

Of the officers identified by CNN, more than 200 have already received benefits and collectively taken in roughly $70 million, the analysis of pension data shows. Current retirees will take in more than $8 million this year alone — not including payments from states where pension amounts are confidential. They stand to receive hundreds of millions of dollars during the course of their retirements.

“There’s got to be a way to hold their feet to the fire,” said D. Bruce Johnsen, a George Mason University law professor emeritus who has studied pension forfeiture specifically for police officers. “If you have more serious penalties for misconduct, you’re going to have less misconduct.”

The dark parking lot

The woman in the burgundy van already sensed she was being followed. Then, the police lights began flashing in her rearview mirror, illuminating the midnight sky.

Officer Bradley Stewart Wagner had noticed the woman filling up with gas moments earlier. When she drove off, he followed, stopping her vehicle as she headed toward a secluded, industrial part of town not far from Disneyland, in Anaheim, California.

Wagner approached the driver’s window, looked inside and asked whether she had a license or legal papers. As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, these were questions the woman feared being asked every time she got in her car. She said she didn’t.

"You know I can take you to immigration,” he warned her, “and from there to deportation.”

She begged him to let her go home. “No, no please, I have my children,” said the mother of four, still wearing her blue uniform from the auto parts plant where she had worked the night shift.

Unfazed, the officer directed her to follow him across the street to another parking lot.

There, he told her to get out of the van. He asked if she had any drugs, and proceeded to search her even when she said no. He squeezed her breasts and put his fingers through the zipper on her pants as her body shook uncontrollably.

His overhead lights had gone dark. Grabbing her by the arm, he forced her into the backseat of his patrol car and drew his wrists together to look like they were in handcuffs. She worried this meant he was about to arrest her and have her deported, but he instead presented her with a solution. “You sexo for me, no problema,” he explained.

The story of Bradley Wagner

The narrative of Wagner’s case is based on detailed accounts from more than 1,000 pages of police investigative records, interview transcripts, court filings, medical records and other documents. CNN also obtained audio of Wagner’s police interview and reviewed pension data and employment contracts for the decades Wagner worked at the department. Reporters interviewed several former Anaheim Police Department officers about the investigation and also interviewed the first woman to come forward to police.

He made her move her van once again and led her to yet another, even more secluded, parking lot. For a second, she considered turning and pressing on the gas to flee, but she worried that would land her in even more trouble. Instead, she grabbed a stray napkin and balanced it against her steering wheel as she followed him, jotting down the license plate number of his patrol car. She feared he was going to kill her. This way, she figured, his information would be found in her car, alongside her dead body.

This time, Wagner pulled her pants down to her knees. She again told him no, saying she was menstruating. He shined his flashlight at her underwear, laughing when he saw that she was telling the truth. “Oro,” she heard him say in response. After first thinking he was asking for jewelry, she realized what he wanted. He told her to “shut up” when she started to cry again.

He loosened his belt, unzipped his pants and forcefully pulled her toward his penis. He would only let her head up when she gagged, laughing and saying “Más, Más,” the Spanish word for more, before forcing it back down again. She screamed, but there was no one there to hear her. She tried to push him away but panicked when he put his hand on his gun.

Wagner finally stopped when she began to vomit. As she used the napkins in her car to clean her mouth — in the hopes that his DNA would be left behind — the Anaheim police officer masturbated outside of the van and ejaculated onto the ground of the barren, dark parking lot.

He warned the woman she would need to continue to meet him for sex “forever,” including the next night, and not tell a soul what had happened if she wanted to stay in the country. He knew where she lived, he told her, before telling her she could finally leave.

She hurried out of the parking lot with her eyes anxiously checking the rearview mirror for any sign of his lights behind her. Disoriented, she drove aimlessly until she came across a street she recognized and was able to find her way home — the uncooked chicken and tortillas she had bought for her son’s lunch the next day still in the car with her.

Her family found her around 3 a.m. vomiting in the bushes outside their home, so ill that she had leapt from her car before turning it off. They could tell that something wasn’t right, that something bad had happened.

Hundreds of convicted officers cashing in

What is a pension?

Unlike the retirement savings accounts that many private workers use, a pension promises its recipient a set amount of money each month throughout retirement, often with a cost of living increase. They are not directly linked to the amount of money an employee and their employer has paid into the fund; instead, police pensions have historically promised around 3% of an officer’s final average salary for each year of service. (In recent years, many jurisdictions have made these pension formulas less generous for new officers). So an officer who worked for 30 years and retires making $100,000 would receive $90,000 a year through retirement. Pension benefits typically protect their recipients from the risks of the stock market, meaning local governments are forced to make up the difference when pension funds run low on cash. This is different from private investment accounts such as 401(k)s, which don’t guarantee monthly income for life.

Police officers tend to be rewarded with some of the most lucrative retirement benefits among public employees, allowing them to retire far earlier — and with bigger payouts — than most Americans.

Increasingly rare in the private sector, pensions remain common for public employees and guarantee monthly income for life regardless of investment returns — unlike 401(k)s. They are funded through contributions from both workers and their government employers, typically paying out far more than employees have paid into them.

Many state and local governments have struggled to afford their cost, but unions and some pension law experts say they are a form of compensation that cannot be reneged on even if the recipient is convicted of the most heinous of crimes. They argue that employees and their families rely on this money and that officers help fund pensions out of their own paycheck — though an officer’s own contributions are refunded to them if a pension is forfeited.

Norman Stein, a pension law expert and professor at Drexel University, argued that convicted officers should not have to pay an extra fine by losing their pension when they have already paid criminal penalties and fines associated with any conviction. “The pension is to support them -- and as important — their spouse after they no longer can work,” he said.

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People in Houston watch the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20. The convicted former officer was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, but he will still receive a roughly $1.5 million pension. Credit: Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters

Still, public outrage erupts when officers get paid after committing crimes. Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer convicted in the murder of George Floyd, remains eligible for roughly $1.5 million in pension benefits when he reaches retirement age. And Kim Potter, the former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota officer who shot and killed 20-year old Daunte Wright and is charged with second-degree manslaughter, will also keep her pension worth around $2 million, according to a CNN analysis of her employment data and pension plan guidance. Officials have said the shooting was accidental; she will keep the benefits whether or not she is found guilty.

After more than a decade of heading up police departments in several major cities, Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo said the threat of a pension being taken away could serve as a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.

“Imagine if this type of consequence had prevented officer Chauvin from sitting on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” said Acevedo. “Imagine if all of a sudden it clicked in his mind if something happens to Mr. Floyd, I could lose my retirement … if we could avoid one George Floyd I’m all for it.”

CNN attempted to reach hundreds of the convicted officers, both in and out of prison, and those who spoke with reporters provided a range of opinions on the issue. Some said they needed the money and were grateful to still be able to give money to their families, though one acknowledged it would have been reasonable to strip him of his pension. Others said it is unfair for pensions to be taken from officers unless they were warned about such policies when they were hired. “I don’t think that’s fair because I paid into it, and they didn’t tell me beforehand,” said former Tennessee police officer Edwin Millan, who received around two years of benefits before the state initiated a forfeiture earlier this year. Millan, who was convicted of insurance fraud and tampering with evidence, said that the threat of his pension being taken away would have “greatly” impacted his decision making.

Some officers also receive Social Security payments on top of their pensions, but unlike with Social Security, which is cut off to retirees if incarcerated, pension checks continue to be sent to those behind bars. The officers identified by CNN were sentenced to an average of around 7 years in prison, according to Bowling Green University’s conviction data.

Richard McKeon Jr., a former university police officer from New York, has been sitting in prison for more than a decade after being convicted of strangling his girlfriend, putting her body in his car and driving it to a rural road to set it on fire. Yet taxpayers are going to be on the hook for helping to support McKeon’s roughly $500,000 pension, according to public records.

Where CNN obtained police convictions data

Bowling Green State University houses the only comprehensive national dataset of the thousands of non-federal, sworn law enforcement officers charged with crimes. It’s called the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, and was founded and overseen by criminal justice professor Phil Stinson. CNN relied on this data, along with other information and data, to conduct its analysis.

Close to half of the officers eligible for pensions committed their crimes on the job. Of those who committed their crimes off duty, nearly half were convicted of sexual crimes with minors — a kind of offense that would trigger forfeiture in at least a few states under current laws, even if it occurred off the clock. More than a dozen of the off-duty officers were convicted of killing someone.

Of the around 200 officers whom CNN confirmed are currently collecting benefits, almost half receive pensions larger than the annual median income for an individual, and some take in as much as six figures each year. Most of those with known pension amounts get benefits worth more than $18,000 a year, the average Social Security payment received by American retirees.

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Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension benefits from his prison cell. Credit: Ted Soqui/Corbis/Getty Images

Ousted Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca currently receives nearly 14 times that amount, around $250,000 a year (not including additional benefits that go to his ex-wife), from his federal prison cell. Baca stepped down in 2014 and was ultimately convicted of helping to orchestrate a widespread cover-up of inmate beatings and other abuses at the county jail that included lying to federal investigators and threatening an FBI agent with arrest.

He had already received around $1.4 million by the time he began his three-year prison sentence last year.

The interrogation

Less than 24 hours after assaulting the woman in the burgundy van, on November 11, 2005, Wagner was back on patrol. As he drove around Anaheim, a call came over his radio. He needed to report back to the station immediately.

He thought he was being given a new assignment, but as soon as he walked into the department, he saw one of his bosses waiting for him. The lieutenant gestured for Wagner to follow him upstairs and led him to an office where two detectives were seated.

The lieutenant left and one of the detectives closed the door.

Wagner had been coming in and out of this building for decades. He had worked a variety of beats at the department, giving speeding tickets as a motorcycle cop and investigating burglaries as a Disneyland resort detective. He spent the longest stint, around a dozen years, as an officer on the vice squad, where he arrested sex workers and busted illegal gambling or bars that stayed open too late. Close to three years before the assault, as he neared retirement age, he returned to a patrol role — a move sometimes made by officers hoping to secure fatter pension checks given the extra pay that came with the late and unpredictable hours that were required.

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Bradley Wagner

The interrogation began uncomfortably as the detectives warned Wagner that he was the subject of a criminal investigation. He didn’t have to say anything he didn’t want to, they told him, and he was free to leave at any time.

Wagner agreed to talk.

A tape recorder sat on the desk as the detectives peppered Wagner with questions about the night before.

“Did you make a car stop yesterday between 10 and 1 in the morning?” “Did you make any car stops?” “Did you make any contacts with people in vehicles?”

“Uh uh.” “No,” he continued to reply. “I’m kinda like in retirement mode.”

The detectives kept pushing.

“Do you recall making contact with anyone in a burgundy van?”

“No.”

“A burgundy Ford Windstar van, no?”

“No.”

“Not at all?”

Silence.

The clock ticked toward morning. The questions continued.

“This picture, do you recognize her?” Sgt. Jack Sharkey asked, holding up a photo of a 40-year-old woman.

“No.”

Wagner became defensive, asking what he had been accused of and whether he needed a lawyer present. The detectives told him they received an allegation that he had engaged in sexual contact with a woman the night before. Not only did she have his patrol car’s license plate number, but she had clearly remembered both his white hair and distinctive white mustache.

“That’s why we’re here okay. Now I don’t know what happened there, I don’t know what the situation was," Detective Robert Conklin said.

“Believe me, this is, this is, this is tough for everybody here, okay, all right…the truth is I want the opportunity to hear your side of this.”

But even after the detectives told him how serious the allegation was — and that it involved forced oral sex — Wagner continued to lie.

Forty-five minutes into the interrogation, Conklin cleared his throat and tried one more time.

“Did you get involved with her last night, Brad… Physically?”

Silence.

“I mean really, did you?” Conklin snapped, seemingly exasperated.

“Turn it off,” Wagner said, pointing at the tape recorder.

“You must think I am a real a**hole," he said once the recorder stopped running. "Erase everything I said before and give me a chance to start over."

Patchwork of laws

In the majority of states, a pension would not be removed from an officer found guilty of raping or murdering someone, even while on the job.

Fewer than half of all states have laws that allow for pensions to be taken away from police and other public employees convicted of any kind of on-the-job felony, while other states only allow pensions to be taken away for specific crimes such as bribery or extortion, but not for the conviction of an officer for using excessive force or other violent crimes. A few laws target elected officials or teachers, but do not include police officers.

Around a dozen states have imposed some kind of forfeiture laws in the last decade -- often spurred by public outrage over a single high-profile example of a convicted government employee still eligible for benefits — and certain state or local police departments have their own forfeiture rules as well.

Forfeiture laws by state

Forfeiture laws affecting police officers and other public employees vary widely across the country. Of those that do have laws, around a dozen take pensions from officers convicted of any on-the-job felony, while others target only specific crimes, such as bribery or extortion.
  • Pension forfeiture for all felony crimes
  • Pension forfeiture for certain crimes
  • Partial forfeiture based on date of crime
  • No forfeiture laws affecting police

Notes (click to expand)

  • State laws that call for the forfeiture of benefits from any spouse or other beneficiary convicted of murdering a member of a public retirement system and laws calling for potential restitution for government employers are separate from felony forfeiture provisions so are not included in the map.
  • Many recently enacted state laws only affect officers hired after the laws were passed.
  • States listed as having no forfeiture laws may have laws that would affect non-police, such as teachers or elected officials.
  • Arizona’s law would forfeit pensions from officers convicted of Class 1-5 felonies, but not Class 6.
  • New York has a forfeiture law that may affect law enforcement officials who are deemed “public officials,” including those who are elected or appointed.
  • While Wyoming does not have a forfeiture law for crimes committed on duty, public retirees can lose their pensions if convicted of a felony while retired.
  • A separate Michigan law specifically states that state troopers cannot receive a pension benefit if “at the time the member submits his retirement application the member is on suspension without pay for conduct involving the breach of the public trust.” This does not affect local police.

The relatively new nature of a number of these laws means they haven’t applied to many previously convicted officers. And certain states, like California, only forfeit the portion of a pension earned after a crime occurs, meaning in some cases payments are left relatively unscathed. The laws that do exist aren’t always enforced and also typically only apply to felony convictions, and most officers who are fired for brutality or other misconduct are never formally charged, let alone convicted.

In most cases, the laws don’t touch pensions when crimes are committed off the clock either. But there can be gray area if an off-duty offense is somehow related to an officer’s job or position of authority, with final decisions often ending up in the courts.

In Massachusetts, one former officer lost his pension after shooting a colleague with his service revolver even though he was off duty at the time. A judge ruled that he had “engaged in the very type of criminal behavior he was required by law to prevent.” More recently though, the state Supreme Court reinstated the pension of an officer who was caught trying to solicit sex from a 14-year-old boy in an undercover sting, finding that the retirement board’s decision to forfeit his pension because his conduct violated the principles of being a state trooper was too sweeping.

An arrest and a quick retirement

It was nearing 3 am by the time Wagner’s interrogation ended.

In the final minutes of the interview, he admitted to what he described as a consensual sexual encounter and was promptly met by internal affairs officers, who placed him on administrative leave.

Before heading home, he went out on the department’s patio and smoked four cigarettes in a row. Seeking his DNA, detectives grabbed the butts and entered them into evidence.

They then followed him to his house, which was more than 40 miles away, to retrieve his pants as evidence for testing at the department’s crime lab. Later, DNA from the victim’s saliva would be found on the zipper fly.

Officers came back with a search warrant the following week, seizing items such as shoes, clothing, a police baton and the Cobra revolver stashed under his bed.

The same day as the search, Wagner returned to the Anaheim Police Department. His employment status was still in limbo. Wanting to end his career on his terms, he decided to retire a couple weeks earlier than he had planned.

Right after submitting the paperwork, he was placed under arrest. Shackled at his waist and ankles, his former colleagues led him down the main hallway, while the police chief gave a press conference nearby to a crowd of reporters and television cameras.

Attempts at reform

Calls for police reform have dominated headlines and inspired rare action from state and local lawmakers after the killing of George Floyd ignited protests around the country.

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A protester carries an American flag upside down next to a burning building in Minneapolis last year. Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

While much of the focus has been on changes such as limiting the sanctioned use of force by officers, mandating body cameras and cutting back on the legal immunity given to police, pensions are part of some of these discussions.

New York City officials, for example, recently called for a state law that would reduce or remove pensions from officers who use excessive force that results in serious injuries or death — saying “pension forfeiture must be a more meaningful and used disciplinary penalty for the most egregious instances of misconduct.”

Acevedo, Miami’s police chief, said he is hopeful more lawmakers will take on this issue. He said it has been frustrating to watch officers file for pensions after disgracing their departments and hurting the reputation of law enforcement as a whole and that forfeiture should be an option — saying that he also believes it could help change department culture.

In his view, forfeiture should only be triggered by egregious crimes, officers should be given due process and families need to be accounted for — as they are in certain states where laws provide some level of benefit to a so-called “innocent spouse” who wasn’t involved with the crime.

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Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo said he believes that pension forfeiture laws could help curb misconduct among officers. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP

But going up against powerful police unions makes passing pension related legislation — especially anything targeted at police specifically — extremely difficult. Unions have fought hard to keep pensions intact, saying that governments must honor the checks they have promised both current and future retirees.

Lawmakers in Connecticut went head-to-head with local unions when they tried to pass pension forfeiture legislation four years ago. Under the state’s current law, which only forfeits pensions from public employees convicted of corruption-related crimes, retirement benefits were taken from a state trooper who stole money from a dying motorcyclist in the aftermath of an accident, but were not taken from an officer convicted of assault for brutally kicking a handcuffed man. The proposed legislation would have specifically allowed pensions to be taken from police who were convicted of crimes related to their jobs. But it never made it to a full vote.

“The pushback on that particular bill was really unlike any I’ve seen before,” said Connecticut ACLU executive director David McGuire, who lobbied in favor of the bill. “The police unions came out loudly and in droves.”

Sounding off on pension forfeiture

D. Bruce Johnsen

a George Mason University law professor emeritus who has studied pension forfeiture specifically for police officers

“If you have more serious penalties for misconduct, you’re going to have less misconduct.”

Johnsen’s research showed strong pension forfeiture laws are associated with lower rates of police misconduct.

Glenn Terlecki

president of the Connecticut Police and Fire Union

“At what point is enough — enough? We don’t ask for a lot. In fact, all we ask is that in return for a long and distinguished career, promises that were made to us regarding our pay and benefits are kept.”

Terlecki delivered a scathing indictment of what he viewed as yet another attack on police in 2017 testimony opposing a Connecticut bill that would have expanded the state’s forfeiture law.

Jill Carter

Maryland state senator

“We need to create a new model for policing and police integrity, and this is one of the many tools.”

Carter was one of the sponsors of landmark police reform legislation passed in Maryland this year. Early versions of the bill had attempted to enact pension forfeiture for police officers, but this provision was ultimately removed.

Norman Stein

a pension law expert and professor at Drexel University

“The reasons justifying(forfeiture) are largely emotional: those criminals who were getting paid by the public should not be getting a pension if they betrayed the public trust.”

Stein said that while the emotional argument may be strongest for police officers, he still considers it a weak argument.

Art Acevedo

Miami Police Chief

“They’re not just violating the criminal statute, they are violating the public trust…there should be consequences when you violate that oath, on or off duty.”

Acevedo said he would support carefully implemented forfeiture laws for serious crimes, saying that it shouldn’t matter if officers are technically on the clock.

Clyde Boatwright

president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Maryland State Lodge

“If you have someone who has made the determination they want to violate someone, no one is going to be able to stop that, and if they are police officers we want them out of the profession and in jail.”

Boatwright said he is supportive of police reform, but that he doesn’t believe that a punitive measure like forfeiture would result in police being held accountable.

More recently, Maryland lawmakers tacked on a forfeiture provision to landmark legislation that repealed the “bill of rights” given to officers accused of misconduct. And while the largest police union in the state said it could accept this repeal, it came out in adamant opposition to the part of the proposed legislation that would have allowed pensions to be taken from officers convicted of felony crimes.

Clyde Boatwright, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Maryland State Lodge, said police officers were being unfairly targeted by the provision since, unlike laws in other states, it wouldn’t apply to other public employees. “Attacking someone’s pension goes too far, whether they are convicted or not,” he said, adding that he does not believe forfeiture would serve as a deterrent for misconduct. “This is not about police reform this is about police revenge.”

When the massive reform package was signed into law earlier this year, the pension provision was deleted from the final text.

More women come forward

The woman from the burgundy van, referred to in police reports as Jane Doe, nervously wrung her hands together and tapped her feet on the floor.

“I started crying,” she told a Spanish-language news reporter of that night in the dark parking lot. Only portions of her face were shown during the television news segment to protect her identity. “I swear to you that I thought after he did what he was going to, he was not going to let me live.”

Joe Vargas, an Anaheim Police captain at the time, also appeared in the news report, representing the agency that both employed Wagner and arrested him. He said the incident was "an embarrassment to this department and to the police profession here in this country.”

The first woman to come forward shared her story on local spanish-language television at the time. Credit: Courtesy of KMEX

The piece aired shortly after Wagner’s arrest and while the investigation into his conduct continued. Given Wagner’s long tenure at the department and how he had used the threat of deportation to prey on an undocumented immigrant, city officials suspected there were other victims out there.

Jane Doe said one of the reasons she was speaking out was that she worried she was not alone. “I hope if other women have been through this that they report him,” she said.

Three did come forward.

Two were also undocumented immigrants. Wagner allegedly fondled one in a dark alley after pulling her over late at night and threatening to have her deported. She told investigators she used her lip liner to jot down his license plate number after the second time he pulled her over. A coworker told police she had noticed an officer with a mustache lurking near their workplace. The other woman said Wagner pulled her over four times, making her uncomfortable and terrified to get behind the wheel, though he did not physically assault her.

The other woman to come forward was Wagner’s cousin.

She told detectives she was 8 or 9 years old when she was assaulted, making Wagner 16 or 17. She said they were at their grandmother’s house in Anaheim when Wagner signaled for her to follow him into the bathroom. He closed the door, pulled down his pants and exposed himself, she claimed. He allegedly told her to perform oral sex on him — forcefully holding her head down when she tried to pull away. She said she told him “no,” and as her voice became louder, he hushed her. “OK, OK, go ahead and leave,” she recalled him saying, instructing her to leave the bathroom first and he would come out in a few minutes since family members were also in the house. She also told police he specifically warned her not to tell anyone.

To back up her claims to detectives, the cousin provided evidence that at least a decade earlier, she had spoken to a therapist about being sexually abused by Wagner. Wagner later denied his relative’s account.

At the time, she had thought it was an isolated incident. But when she heard about what had happened to the woman in the burgundy van, she decided to turn to police.

The high cost of pensions

Many of the convicted officers raking in large retirement benefits worked for departments that have struggled to keep up with rapidly growing pension bills — forcing local governments to decide between employee layoffs, deep cuts to community services and higher taxes for residents.

Making them even costlier, police are often able to begin receiving pensions, or at least partial pensions, in their 50s, 40s or even their 30s so governments are on the hook for longer.

In San Jose, former police officer Stephen Gallagher began drawing on his pension in 2010 when he was 54 years old, five years after he was caught molesting his 11-month-old daughter on a nanny cam. Gallagher, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005, will receive more than $70,000 this year and will collect more than $2.5 million by the end of his 85th year. A coworker of Gallagher’s, Kenneth Earl Williams Sr., also filed for retirement in his mid 50s, despite being sentenced to two years in prison in 2008 for soliciting nude photos from a girls basketball player at a local high school. He will receive roughly $90,000 this year and stands to collect more than $3 million.

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Kenneth Earl Williams Sr.’s felony conviction did not affect his ability to collect a large public pension. Credit: Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/Zuma Press

Around the same time these officers began collecting benefits, their former employer was struggling with a ballooning pension bill — paying nearly $250 million for all retiree health care and pension costs in the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year, up from just $70 million a decade earlier. Staffing for city parks and recreation, meanwhile, was cut nearly in half and basic infrastructure improvements like road repairs were put on hold.

Pension bills continued to climb, and more cuts followed, resulting in everything from reduced library hours to a shrinking police force, despite the city’s status as one of the wealthiest in the country. “If San Jose can’t afford its basic public services, what city can?” an Atlantic article asked in 2016. San Jose is now forecasted to spend roughly $470 million on its pension plans this fiscal year, more than half of which will go into the police and fire pension fund.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said he is well aware of the continued effects to city budgets and services and that the city has taken a number of actions to stem rising pension costs. But he said he was outraged to learn from CNN about the two convicted officers still receiving pension benefits. In response, he has pushed to revise the city’s municipal code to forfeit all pension benefits from employees convicted of felonies, with a provision to allow for the allocation of the benefits to spouses or minor children who do not live with the retiree.

‘I believe I did wrong:’ A letter from prison

Former school resource officer Alan Manchester was convicted of sexual battery of a minor and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014. His pension is currently around $20,000 a year, including a portion of which he says goes to his ex-wife.

First, yes I am at present receiving a pension and have been receiving such since August of 2013, and I receive 55% of my base pay at the time of my arrest. Due to my ignorance of that aspect of the law I believed upon my arrest I had lost my right to a retirement. The idea that I had lost my retirement was particularly depressing to me because I was the sole provider of income to my children. I wasn't until an employee of my department who had been designated to deliver my termination letter to the jail told me I was still entitled to my retirement. It was a couple of weeks there after that the mother of my children (we were never married) showed up to the jail with the paperwork for me to fill out to get my retirement. I was arrested June 7 2013, terminated around the 10th about two weeks after that filled out the paperwork for retirement and received the first payment at the end of August.

I believe that I did wrong so to me it wouldn't have been unjust to have been stripped of my pension, but God knows I am greatful [sic] that I do receive it because of the support I could still provide to my kids. My retirement now goes to my parents who have my kids because of there [sic] Mom losing parental custody. This money helps my parents raise my children with little to no expense out of their pocket which is a huge blessing to them and me. I also receive some of it monthly which my parents place in my inmate account so I can purchase items from the canteen that are not provided by DOC.

I guess I would and others would say I am a little biased about whether you should after an arrest receive a pension or not. On the one hand should a person still get their retirement after an arrest probably not, but on the other hand I know how hard it would be if I didn't, and how hard it would be on my family if they didn't receive that money monthly. It gives me a sounder mind knowing even though I am in prison I can still provide for my kids and eventually when I get out I do have an income to help me start life all over again. I have seen too many inmates have no support and no money struggling in prison and then having tons of anxiety knowing they have nothing on the outside to go to. I am truly greatful to have what I have.

In reference to my conviction all's I can say is that it was just. I had allowed my personal life to get out of hand due to bad marriage, stresses on the job, a form of PTSD that probably a lot of officers who have been through critical incidents have. None of this justifies what I did at all, I allowed all these problems even though there was help out there to overwhelm me. I didn't get the help because whether most former officers will be truthful or not they didn't want to appear weak to their peers. I hope I didn't get to far off track with any of this and that I answered most of you questions the best I could.

Sincerely Alan

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George Mason University’s Johnsen, who examined how pension forfeiture could reduce police misconduct, also studied the potential financial implications of these laws — noting how “state and municipal pension systems are frighteningly underfunded.”

Not only did the 2008 financial crisis wipe out years of investment returns that pension funds were relying on, but a number of government agencies also made benefits more generous, significantly upping the percent of salary officers could retire with in the 90s and early 2000s and even in certain cases ”picking up” employee contributions, during better financial times.

And subsequent benefit reductions for new hires at many departments haven’t addressed the rising bills for checks already promised to the rest of the workforce, as well as current retirees.

Taking pensions away from disgraced officers isn’t going to solve the country’s pension crisis, Johnsen said. But he noted that a reduction in problematic policing could still give a significant boost to local budgets, given the hundreds of millions of dollars cities and towns spend on settling lawsuits alleging police wrongdoing.

It is these employers that typically end up on the hook for payouts to victims, given the legal immunity usually provided to officers. And even in those rare cases when the officers themselves have been hit with civil judgments, pensions can be very difficult for victims to go after.

A million dollar retirement

It has been more than 15 years since the woman in the burgundy van worked up the courage to report Wagner’s sexual assault, but the experience still haunts her daily life — influencing everything from the clothes she wears to the streets she drives on.

A visit to a random gas station can trigger a debilitating panic attack; she once fled one without even filling up her tank as soon as she spotted a sheriff’s car pull in near her. She avoids short skirts or dresses and usually wraps a sweatshirt around her waist as a protection of sorts.

Memories of that day still visibly affect her. She wiped tears from behind her large sunglasses as she recently recounted the ordeal to reporters.

Though a detective helped her get legal residency in the country, she feels Wagner ruined her life. “Everything changed after that,” she said in Spanish from her porch, where faded pillows proclaiming “family” and “love” sat on a small outdoor loveseat.

To her frustration, the criminal case dragged on for years, as the court granted continuances and Wagner suffered serious injuries after hitting a horse on his motorcycle — taking painkillers that he said made him incapacitated.

Wagner spent years denying the allegations from the three immigrant women. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to charges of sexual battery, forceful oral copulation, false imprisonment and detaining a person against their will related to Jane Doe and the two other victims in exchange for a four-year prison sentence. He was placed on the state’s sex offender registry and ordered to pay around $1,000 in restitution.

Before accepting the plea deal, he had tried to convince one of his attorneys that there was a simple explanation as to why his story to detectives kept changing: “I was trying to save my retirement benefits,” the attorney recalled him saying.

At Wagner’s sentencing in 2010, Jane Doe told the judge that the former cop deserved to be put behind bars for the rest of his life. “I want to know that there’s justice,” she said. “Not only for me, but the other ones who he has hurt as well.” At the time, she said no amount of therapy would erase what he had done; she now says she had to stop therapy years ago when she couldn’t afford the high cost.

Even when she sued the city of Anaheim and Wagner, her attacker paid nothing. Anaheim, which did not admit any liability, settled the suit in 2011 for $500,000, a significant portion of which went to Jane Doe’s attorneys. “While a disgrace to our city, we are proud of how Anaheim Police led Wagner’s investigation and arrest, played a key role in his conviction and worked to restore public trust,” the city told CNN in a statement.

Prosecutors never charged Wagner related to his cousin’s decades-old accusations, though they told a judge the allegation was relevant to his legal case since it fit the same pattern — with Wagner acting in a position of trust and exerting power over “women much younger than him by isolating them and manipulating them with fear.”

When it came to his pension, it turned out that no matter what had happened, or what crime he had committed, Wagner had little to worry about. When he retired, California didn’t have any forfeiture law on the books. Even the one lawmakers passed years later could only slightly diminish his benefits since the law strips only benefits accrued after a crime has occurred and he committed the crimes at the very end of his career.

For a number of years, Wagner hadn’t even been required to contribute any part of his own salary toward his pension, since the department’s contract with the police union called for the city to not only pay its required contribution to the state pension fund, but the officer’s required contribution as well.

Wagner received his first retirement check just months after the sexual assault, and he collected monthly benefits throughout his stint in state prison. Thanks to an annual cost of living increase, his annual benefits have grown from around $55,000 in 2006 to around $75,000 this year. After inquiries from CNN, public data shows that the state pension fund initiated a modest forfeiture of around $2,100 a year starting in August and continuing for Wagner’s remaining retirement years, but fund officials would not comment on why this only just occurred. In its statement to CNN, the city of Anaheim condemned “the abuse of power and preying on the vulnerable seen in the Wagner case,” adding that “it brings no satisfaction that Wagner continues to draw a public pension after his conviction.”

Jane Doe was stunned to learn from reporters that Wagner was receiving a pension, saying that based on what detectives had told her she had envisioned him living out his final years penniless and homeless due to his status as a registered sex offender.

“I live my life in fear, but what about him? I have to go out to work and he’s getting money at his liking. It’s not fair,” she said in Spanish. “It’s not fair that he’s getting paid when the people he hurt are still suffering,”

In 2019, Wagner and his wife purchased a $650,000 house in San Juan Capistrano, a 15 minute drive from the beach, an address absent from his profile in the state sex offender registry. He refused to discuss his case or pension when visited at the house by CNN reporters, and public records show that the next day he transferred sole ownership of the house to his wife. Wagner did tell CNN he had plans to again challenge his 2010 conviction in court, saying he had been under the influence of pain medication when he accepted the plea deal — the same argument an appeals court found to be without merit in a 2012 ruling.

Wagner is now 73 years old.

He has received $1,022,889.42 from the pension he was so worried about losing.

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