On March 30, Phil Otto — a father and husband who loved animals, nature and most of all, his family — took his own life.
Otto had worked for the Department of Corrections for more than two decades. His career was extremely important to him, said his widow, Peggy. He was within months of retiring with full benefits from the state when Otto decided to end it all.
While most of his time working for the state had been fulfilling, Otto’s final nine months at Oakhill Correctional Institution were “miserable,” Peggy Otto said. Phil Otto had transferred to the Fitchburg prison in 2011 after the state closed Ethan Allen School, a juvenile correctional facility in Wales where he had worked for 20 years.
Those who knew Otto described him as quiet, professional and respectful of the people under his care. But Peggy Otto said that after his transfer, Phil told her he was being harassed by co-workers who resented the addition of Ethan Allen staffers to Oakhill, which made it harder for Oakhill employees to earn overtime.
“I knew that things were rough at work with some staff,” she said. “Phil never really went into detail about what was said. He was the type of person — he kept a lot to himself, his feelings.”
The details of what Phil Otto allegedly endured came out after his death. An investigation by retired law enforcement and correctional officers launched by the agency concluded that Otto and two other Oakhill staffers were subjected to repeated verbal bullying for months. As a result, in October, four people were fired, one took early retirement and one returned to a lower-ranked position. Some are appealing, saying they were falsely accused.
Hundreds of pages of investigative reports released by the department to the State Journal under the state’s open records law reveal a poisonous work climate at the minimum-security prison.
Otto was called gay, a “snitch” and falsely accused of inappropriate conduct with inmates, employees told DOC investigators. The others, a married couple, were taunted with often sexually-charged statements aimed at humiliating them and undermining their authority in front of inmates, the reports said. One of them has since quit Oakhill, telling investigators that she left to take a new job “but the real reason was because of the harassment. I wanted to get the hell away.”
Small group identified
Peggy Otto said her husband had reported the bullying to a supervisor, who “told him to work it out” with the other employees. Corrections spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie said the department has no record of any written complaints filed by Otto or by anyone on his behalf.
During the investigation, officials interviewed 60 Oakhill staff members. Many identified a small group of employees — Sgts. Sherri Mudd, Justyn Witscheber and Matthew Seiler and officer Rachel Koester — who allegedly targeted Otto or the two others. The shift supervisor, Capt. Michael Buettner, was fired for allegedly failing to act on verbal reports of the harassment. All five were placed on leave, and four were terminated in early October; Mudd retired.
Oakhill’s security director, Ryan Blount, failed to pass his probation and was returned to his previous position, Guthrie said.
Since Otto’s death, Oakhill Warden Deidre Morgan has been promoted to deputy secretary of the corrections department.
Peggy Otto said she doesn’t blame Morgan for what happened to her husband.
“She was very supportive, very empathetic,” Peggy Otto said. “She was outraged that this happened on her watch.”
Accused investigation a 'witchhunt'
The four fired employees say they are fighting their terminations, charging that the allegations are the result of score-settling and a rumor mill gone wild. Koester, Witscheber and Seiler have filed formal appeals with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. Buettner issued a statement saying, “I will be appealing my unjust termination.”
Koester described the investigation as a “reprehensible one-sided witchhunt.” And the state Department of Workforce Development has approved unemployment compensation for the four fired employees, finding the allegations of misconduct against them were not proven.
In an interview with the State Journal, Koester and Witscheber were adamant that they did not bully Otto or the two others. All five employees who were forced out consistently denied to investigators that they engaged in any harassing behaviors. Koester told them the married couple who claimed to have been harassed had themselves acted inappropriately in the workplace, telling sexually-charged stories to co-workers.
Witscheber alleged he was targeted by management after he wrote to then-Secretary Gary Hamblin and two lawmakers complaining about what he believed was unfair treatment of Koester and the others.
“They just wanted to put a big Bandaid over all this to make people feel better (about Otto’s suicide),” Witscheber said, “and I was part of that.”
Koester and Witscheber also charge they were fired in retaliation for previously reporting problems at the prison, their past union activities and for refusing to wear a black mourning band over their badges to honor Otto as suggested by managers at Oakhill. Seiler, who did not respond to two email requests for comment, told investigators that he refused to wear the band because suicide is against his religion.
“For professional, personal reasons, we refused to wear it,” Koester said. “These are reserved for officers killed in the line of duty — not people who kill themselves.”
Guthrie declined to comment on the terminations, noting they are under appeal. She also declined to describe what steps, if any, Oakhill has taken to curb harassment.
‘Inappropriate and unprofessional’
The alleged bullying is laid out in investigative reports and termination letters sent to the five employees. In them, Otto is referred to as “Officer X.”
“A clear pattern emerged in which you were continually identified by nearly every employee and by several supervisors as being part of a small group of employees engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional behaviors,” read the termination letter sent to Koester. “You partnered with Sgt. Mudd and others to demean Officer X. This included shunning him, taunting him and name calling and humiliating him in front of staff and inmates. Officer X referred to you and Sgt. Mudd as his tormentors.”
The letter sent to Seiler charged that the sergeant falsely told Otto that he had “filed a confidential incident report accusing him of inappropriate sexual conduct with an inmate during a strip search.” No such report was filed, but Otto told co-workers he was afraid of being arrested or fired.
Investigators alleged that Witscheber harassed all three fellow employees — charges he flatly denied. And the investigative report involving Buettner accused him of “not only knowingly permitting harassing and demeaning behavior but also engaging in it himself.” Buettner repeatedly denied the allegations to investigators.
“If Otto would ever come to me, I would have handled it swiftly,” Buettner told investigators, according to the report. “I’m not this person you are making me out to be.”
Sgt. David Tomaszewski was among several employees who said Otto complained to him about the bullying.
“I just want to say that Otto was a very respected guy and he always did his job,” Tomaszewski told investigators. “I don’t know why these people had to be this way to him. He ... never bothered anyone.”
Watching the Packers
The most serious allegations were levied against Mudd, a 31-year veteran of the department whose duties included supervising the mandatory strip searches that Otto conducted after inmates returned from work outside the prison.
According to the reports, Mudd’s animosity toward Otto began on Nov. 6, 2011, when he called a supervisor to ask whether he should skip strip searches and just pat down inmates because Mudd was unavailable to witness them. She acknowledged to investigators she was watching the Green Bay Packers and wanted to see the end of the game before returning to duty. She thought Otto had “thrown me under the bus.”
After that incident, several staff members reported that Mudd started referring to Otto as gay and a “snitch.”
“You ... proceeded to torment Officer X by shunning him, openly mocking him, calling him names and inciting others to follow suit,” according to the termination letter sent to Mudd. “You told others not to take Officer X’s orders, told them he was snitching on everyone and told them he was inappropriately touching inmates during strip searches.”
In a phone interview, Mudd said the allegations against her are false and come from people who don’t like her style.
“I was firm but fair,” she said. “I worked by the letter. I’m not a social worker type.”
Mudd acknowledged she avoided talking to Otto. She also said she told others she didn’t trust him but she insisted she never called him names. Mudd said it was inmates who called Otto gay after he reported an inmate for becoming aroused during a strip search. The records indicate the inmate was punished for inappropriate sexual activity.
Mudd, 58, said she retired early because of stress and is now living with her sister in Florida. She said she felt bad that Otto decided to end his life, but that it is unfair for her to be blamed as “the cause that that man committed suicide.”
Left to agonize
Peggy Otto and her daughter, Sara, 21, are left to agonize over why their gentle husband and father apparently was so tormented. Sara said in his final days, her dad was making moves to escape the bullying.
“The night before he died, he said there were two positions (he was interested in) and he was going to apply for them,” Sara Otto said. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, good. He’ll get out of that situation with Mudd ... he’ll get away from her.’ ”
Peggy Otto, 60, retired early from her nursing job at UW Hospital. Sara Otto is continuing her nursing studies at UW-Madison but is left in “absolute shock” over the loss of the father she adored.
“I would always ask him about the job. He made it sound as though things were getting better,” Peggy Otto said. “Looking back, I realize things were not getting better.”