Manitowoc County Sheriff’s officers never should have been allowed anywhere near the investigation into the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005 because the county was being sued at the time by prime suspect Steven Avery for $36 million over his wrongful rape conviction in 1985.
As chronicled in the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” however, Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Colborn and Lt. James Lenk — key players in Avery’s lawsuit — were front-and-center in the Halbach murder investigation, present an apparent conflict of interest, according to legal experts.
“By acknowledging a conflict right at the start, you have to walk the walk and live by that,” said Gregg McCrary, a prominent retired FBI agent who teaches policing at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. “It’s not just something to say, but something to do. The one overriding issue is the integrity of this investigation. You can’t compromise that. This goes to public perception of law enforcement.”
Lieutenant Lenk testified at Avery’s trial that he never disclosed that he was embroiled in Avery’s eight-figure lawsuit against his employer.
“Everybody gets tainted when this goes on,” McCrary said. “Both Manitowoc and Calumet County sheriff’s offices are now stained by this. It’s a big problem. They just created this huge problem for themselves for this case. Here, it was unusual to have officers involved in a civil lawsuit also actively investigating the crime. Nobody can throw stones or make any allegations if you’re not involved in this case. They opened this door for conspiracy theories themselves.”
Lieutenant Lenk’s and Sergeant Colborn’s recurring presence at the Avery crime scene prompted Avery’s lawyers, lawyers Jerome Buting and Dean Strang, to accuse them of planting blood and manufacturing false evidence, experts said.
“Having full knowledge of the lawsuit by Avery against them, they should have avoided participating in the investigation,” said James Adcock, a forensic consultant on homicides with the Center for the Resolution of Unresolved Crime, in Memphis, Tenn.
“I do not feel the detectives planted evidence but their mere presence, while under the lawsuit cloud, gives the appearance of improprieties and that is all that is needed as a conflict of interest,” Adcock said. “Without that appearance, there was no case for the defense.”
Sheriff’s detectives should have remained at their offices to act as consultants only. By not doing, Sergeant Colborn and Lieutenant Lenk gave the appearance of conflict of interest.