An Edgar County Jury deliberated about 45 minutes Wednesday, Oct. 30, and found Justin Hefner guilty of a Class 2 felony of false impersonation of a peace officer while attempting to commit a felony and a Class 4 felony of false impersonation of a peace officer.
The case arose from a Feb. 17, 2018, incident when Hefner appeared at the Edgar County Jail, armed and dressed in a bulletproof vest with a partially obscured badge, claiming to be an agent from the Department of Defense. He told deputies he was in town to make an arrest and requested assistance in the task.
It took almost all morning Tuesday, Oct. 29, to impanel a 12-member jury. In addition to the normal questions to determine if jurors had any prejudices for or against law enforcement, any knowledge of the defendant and if they understood the Constitutional guarantees that defendants are innocent until proven guilty and are not required to testify, public defender William McGrath also asked if any jurors believed in Bigfoot, aliens and UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, the moon landing was a hoax, Obama’s birth certificate was a fake, the Earth is flat and global warming and climate change is false. One prospective juror indicated a belief in Bigfoot and another backed aliens and UFOs.
In the end, a jury of seven women and five men was selected to hear the case.
Edgar County State’s Attorney Mark Isaf called five witnesses: Bradley Collier, Paris police officers Jacob Robinson and Roger Finley and deputy sheriffs Matt Smith and Dee Burgin. McGrath had only one witness, his client.
Robinson and Finley testified they were contacted by the Paris Police Department dispatch on Feb. 9, 2018, that Justin Hefner was at the police department requesting a welfare check on city resident Carrie Collier.
“He was in full military gear,” said Robinson, describing Hefner’s clothing as camouflaged shirt and pants with a partially obscured badge.
The defendant had a folder and showed Robinson one sheet of paper that was headed Constitutional Wounded Warrior and had Collier’s name and address printed on it.
Robinson drove to Collier’s home with Hefner following in a different vehicle and Finley met them at the location.
According to Robinson, Bradley Collier answered the door and was reluctant to admit Hefner.
“Both of them became agitated over access for the welfare check,” said Robinson, adding Collier finally relented and both he and Hefner entered the house for about five minutes and left.
Following the visit, Robinson had more contact with Collier who remained concerned about Hefner’s insistence on the need for a welfare check. The officer called Hefner later that evening to advise him the police would arrest him for trespass if he attempted another visit.
Findley confirmed Robinson’s version of the events.
During testimony, Collier acknowledged knowing Hefner.
“He is married to my wife’s high school friend. I hadn’t seen him for a year and was surprised to see him at my front door,” Collier said.
The witness said he admitted Hefner after the police said it was OK to do so.
“After the visit, I contacted the sheriff’s department and the police department about why he came to my house,” said Collier, noting his wife has health issues. “I also got an order of protection.”
Hefner was back in town Feb. 17 but this time he went to Edgar County Jail and identified himself as a Department of Defense agent investigating an FBI security breach and wanted assistance in arresting Bradley Collier, returning him to the Edgar County Jail and contacting Homeland Security. Hefner claimed to have seen FBI documents on Collier’s Facebook page.
Smith and Burgin told the court they did not know Hefner but they were aware of him from information shared by the police. They said the police department had posted an officer safety bulletin based on some of the writings on Hefner’s Facebook page.
Hefner was again wearing military style camouflage clothing and partially obscured badge so the only part visible was the word investigator. He was also wearing tactical body armor and a chest holster with what appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol. That weapon later turned out to be a BB pistol, but an AR-15 equipped with a bump stock and magazines of ammunition were removed from his vehicle.
The state’s most compelling evidence was the video and audio recording provided by Smith’s body camera and the recording system in the interview room.
Hefner claimed multiple times a connection with the department of defense as either a contractor or an agent with authority to investigate and vested with arrest powers.
When asked if he had arrest powers in Illinois, Hefner replied his authority was nationwide. He was not able to provide any official identification from the department or the Pentagon and was unable to give officers the name of his supervisor or a phone number to confirm his story. The only identification Hefner presented as official was a small leather case with a business card reading Constitutional Wounded Warrior.
Hefner grew increasingly agitated at the delay in going to Collier’s home to make the arrest, and at one point yelling he outranked Burgin and the deputy was interfering with a federal investigation.
“I’m military. You guys are getting in the way,” said Hefner on the tape.
At one point, Burgin left the room saying he was going to call the Pentagon for confirmation, but returned almost immediately with other officers.
Hefner rose to his feet insisting, “You aren’t going to cuff me. I outrank you. If you cuff me, I’m going to have you all arrested.” As Burgin was securing the cuffs, Hefner kept saying, “You are all going down for this.”
The testimony Hefner offered from the witness stand was conflicting. Under questioning by McGrath, Hefner said his Constitutional Wounded Warriors is a not-for-profit business to help veterans and protect the country.
“As combat veterans, we don’t like the Constitution being broken by civilians,” said Hefner.
He said the purpose in going to the jail was to obtain assistance in investigating Collier and the FBI documents on the man’s Facebook page. He claimed to have previously reported his concerns to the FBI but was rebuffed.
“I just wanted them (the deputies) to listen to me and figure out what to do,” said Hefner. “I have PTSD. I was trying to bring the problem to their attention.”
He said at that point in the testimony he wanted to investigate his concerns but it was up to the police to make an arrest.
Under cross-examination by Isaf, Hefner backtracked and admitted he wanted to arrest Collier and was equipped with both metal and zip tie handcuffs for that purpose. Hefner made a brief allusion to the concept of citizen’s arrest for his authority. He later returned to the idea he was a duly authorized representative of the department of defense but was not able to provide the name of a contact person or phone number.
After the jury returned the guilty verdict, Judge Steven Garst ordered a presentence investigation and set sentencing for Dec. 5. Hefner was remanded to the custody of the sheriff.