MILWAUKEE (CN) - Milwaukee allowed a police officer, a No. 1 ranked competitive shooter, to terrorize co-workers and did nothing when he threatened to kill everyone in his department, two fellow officers claim in court.
Ted Puente has been an officer with the Milwaukee Police Department for more than 20 years, serving as a patrol officer and primary firearms trainer, according to the lawsuit.
Puente is also a national shooting champion, winning back-to-back U.S. Practical Shooting Association Championships and a Limited Division National Championship in 2009, according to the Universal Shooting Academy website, where he is listed as an instructor.
He represented the academy in 2011 at the International Practical Shooting Confederation World Championship in Greece, where he won a bronze medal.
Fellow arms instructors Denise Gabler and Peter Pfau sued the City of Milwaukee in Federal Court, claiming the police department retaliated against them for reporting Puente's bullying and threatening behavior.
Puente is not a party to the lawsuit. The city is the only defendant.
Gabler has been a Milwaukee police officer since 1992. She claims Puente routinely made jokes about her weight, bragged about violent encounters with strangers while walking his dogs, and threatened to kill her and co-workers in the department, causing her to start packing heat and to take out an insurance policy on her life.
Pfau, who has been a Milwaukee police officer since 1995, says he received similar treatment, with Puente repeatedly insinuating that he was "gay," criticizing his job performance and "dry-fir(ing)" weapons at him.
In May 2012, Puente told Gabler that "he was going to kill you all" while they were in the department's firearms section, according to the complaint.
"This made ... Gabler fear for her safety, based on Puente's world-class shooting abilities (ranked No. 1 in the U.S.), notorious bad temper and his personal animosity towards her. He lives two blocks from her," the complaint states.
On another occasion, he told Pfau "That's it! You're the first one I'm going to kill," according to the complaint.
The bullying and threats affected the entire department section, Pfau and Gabler says.
"The members of plaintiffs' unit were all afraid for their safety and the safety of their families due to Puente's threats and had an agreement that they would text a 911 code to all other members of the unit if Ted made an attempt on any of their lives," the complaint states.
Gabler and Pfau say they both filed complaints with the department, and were retaliated against "in terms and conditions" of their employment.
The information about Puente eventually reached internal affairs and an investigation was initiated. Puente claimed that "the threats were a joke, that he was working in a hostile work environment that had caused him to make the threats, and that he was being discriminated against because he is Hispanic," according to the complaint.
Puente was suspended for the threats, Gabler and Pfau say, but he was quickly reinstated before the investigation was complete and before he received a psychological evaluation.
The plaintiffs claim that's because, in part, he is "protected" by "good friends" in management and because his older brother, Robert Puente, is a Milwaukee alderman, who "protects Puente's job at all cost" and "spoke with internal affairs regarding Officer Puente."
Gabler and Pfau say they were asked to testify during the investigation, increasing their fear Puente would carry out his threats.
"When Gabler was asked to testify against Puente during the investigation, she strongly feared being murdered by Puente in retaliation," the complaint states.
Gabler and Pfau, who expressed concern for his wife and son, nonetheless read separate statements before the internal affair's department.
"I remember Ted making a comment, 'If I ever went down, I'd take everyone with me," Pfau said in his statement.
Puente was transferred to a different district on May 22, 2012, but Gabler and Pfau said he should have been arrested and fired, as were other former police officers who exhibited similar behavior in the past.
According to the complaint, Puente was involved in about three off-duty confrontations with civilians "toward the end of 2012" and in February 2013 he "brutally beat a suspect at a gas station in an incident that was widely televised."
Gabler and Pfau add: "When other officers at defendant's police department engaged in threatening behavior and comments, they were disciplined and banned from the building, unlike Puente, who had his guns taken away for only a couple of days and had his police powers restored quickly."
The internal affairs investigation was concluded Dec. 17, 2013, but Puente again received little more than a slap on the wrist, the plaintiffs say.
"Plaintiffs were informed that Puente's investigation was complete, that he would not receive punishment for his behavior, and that he was to get a department reprimand," according to the complaint. "Plaintiffs ... witnessed defendant police department's command staff state that if Puente was suspended or fired because of our allegations against him that he would 'go crazy and kill us,'" according to the lawsuit.
His brother, Alderman Puente, has established a locker area at the department and "has made a point of stopping near ... Gabler's and Pfau's offices in the department many times," according to the complaint. Gabler and Pfau say he "checks on them when he is in the area while not doing so to people who did not complain about Puente."
Pfau said Alderman Puente went so far as to file a complaint against him "for staring at him with a leering glare that made him feel uncomfortable."
Pfau says he was subsequently denied a promotion and transferred from the firearm academy to another district.
Plaintiffs' attorney Janet Heins, of Heins Minko, told Courthouse News she believes the department is truly afraid of what Puente is capable of if he were to be fired, and also of what could happen financially.
"That's what the evidence said to us when we looked at it," Heins said. She added that Alderman Puente "is in a position where he can control the purse strings for the department. He is also a prior department member."
A spokesman for the City of Milwaukee said: "The Milwaukee City Police Department is unable to comment on pending litigation."
The plaintiffs claim that despite his transfer, Puente continues to threaten them.
Heins said she cannot "comment on those details at this time."
The plaintiffs seeks back pay, front pay and compensatory and punitive damages for discrimination and retaliation in violation of the 14th Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The Heins Minko law office is in Mequon, Wisc.