Tensions rise in Mesquite, online newspaper calls for end

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A tumultuous 2020 mayoral campaign sparked growing tensions in Mesquite, leading to the resignation of city officials, the shutdown of the local online newspaper and the loss of reporters by reporters.

“It’s a civil war unfolding here,” former city councilor Dave Ballweg said on Thursday. “There are a lot of scared people in this town.

The Mesquite Citizen Journal closed its doors this month after the publisher said it received anonymous threats in retaliation for an article it published on allegations against the city’s police chief.

“It’s one thing to fight against the town hall. It is quite another to fight the Mesquite Police Officers Association union when they make threats and publicly verbalize acts of intimidation against advertisers, people who dare to speak to a newspaper that is not. maybe disagree with union positions and anyone else who disagrees with their agenda, ”the editor said. and publisher Barb Ellestad wrote in her last post, May 13. ” I’m done. The Mesquite Citizen Journal will cease publication effective today.

Allegations against the Chief

Ballweg, who served on Mesquite City Council from 2017 to 2018, said a culture of fear surrounds the Mesquite Police Department and the Mesquite Police Officers Association, who have been accused of exercising retaliation against those who oppose it politically.

According to Ballweg, when he ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 2018, the police union did not like his plans for the future. He alleged that he was followed and harassed by the police, but the ministry denied his allegations. Nonetheless, Ballweg said he had lost all faith in the officers he had supported for a decade.

“I cannot speak to an officer,” he said. “I would be afraid to call them if I needed help. “

Ellestad wrote an article in late April about an investigation by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office into allegations that Mesquite Police Chief MaQuade Chesley had exchanged inappropriate messages and photos with underage girls while he was captain of the department from 2015 to 2019.

Attorney General Aaron Ford said in a letter dated May 18 that a preliminary investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing.

“As such, we believe this issue has been addressed at the appropriate levels within the law enforcement system,” Ford wrote. “Accordingly, we have closed our investigation.”

Chesley on Wednesday denied having had an inappropriate relationship with underage girls.

“Honestly, it was nothing more than rumors started by people who have a political vendetta against the police department, I guess the union,” Chesley said, adding that people often confuse the department and the union, although they are separate entities. “I have no jurisdiction over the police union, but of course I am the head of the police department, which for some reason put me in this position of political retaliation.”

Elestad’s reporting attributed the allegations to anonymous sources and she said she kept the names confidential for fear of possible repercussions on the sources.

But opponents of Elestad saw the anonymous source as proof that the allegations were unfounded and, because Elestad wrote both opinion pieces and news articles, considered the website. like a gossip blog.

The Mesquite Citizen Journal was approved for membership in the Nevada Press Association on May 13, the same day Ellestad went out of print and laid off its employees, which included paid and unpaid journalists.

Chesley is not the first police officer in Mesquite to be accused of inappropriate behavior with a minor. Former Detective Gary Erickson pleaded guilty in 2019 to one count of child sexual abuse after being accused of sending inappropriate photos and messages to a 15-year-old boy in St. George, In. ‘Utah. Court records show he was sentenced last May to five years in federal prison.

Closure of the Mesquite Citizen Journal

Ellestad said “hell broke loose” after posting her story on the Attorney General’s investigation, and she received an email from Chesley’s attorney threatening legal action if she continued to sue the lawyer. ‘story. She also received voicemail messages from anonymous numbers which she said came from the police union.

“I noticed you didn’t want any comment,” one of the anonymous callers said of the story in a voicemail message. “I guess it’s because you know you’re going to blow yourself up because of this.”

Ellestad received a cease and desist email from Chesley’s attorney, Philip Trenchak, on April 27, about 30 minutes before he published his article on the investigation.

“I understand you are considering printing some clearly false and defamatory allegations in an online news feed,” Trenchak wrote in the email. “Sir. Chesley will be compelled to seek all available legal remedies if this publication takes place.”

She said she has lived in the same house in Mesquite for 20 years and has never feared for her safety, but now takes great care to drive safely to avoid any interaction with the police and has installed a home security system with cameras.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of bad guys. I’m afraid of the so-called good guys, ”Ellestad said of his strained relationship with the police. “If someone breaks into my home, who am I going to call?” “

The 2020 municipal elections

Then-city attorney Bob Sweetin was running against incumbent mayor Allan Litman in 2020, and the Mesquite Police Union publicly endorsed Litman, who won. Rick McCann, executive director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, said the approval sparked a brawl.

“The MPOA did not support this person – and the MPOA has the right to provide this expression of who they support and who they approve of – did not support this particular person, and that person took out the guns “said McCann. “A lot of these things, I believe, were started or at least reinforced as a result of the dissatisfaction between this candidate and his supporters over those who did not support this candidate. “

The Mesquite Police Union referred the Las Vegas Review-Journal to the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, which McCann said represents more than a dozen law enforcement associations in Nevada, including the Mesquite union.

McCann explained that the police department disagreed with Sweetin’s handling of a previous sexual assault case involving two teenagers, and the disagreement “has become a matter of campaign.” The community took sides and he said the gap has only widened in recent months.

Mesquite City Council voted to terminate Sweetin’s contract “without cause” in December.

Mesquite is a small, growing town in Clark County, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, with a population of about 18,450. Although the community has seen a growth spurt in recent years, longtime residents say it has maintained a small town culture where everyone knows each other and rumors quickly circulate.

McCann said if the chief had acted inappropriately or if the Mesquite Police Union threatened Ellestad, he would have conducted a full investigation and there would have been repercussions. But he saw no evidence.

Community tensions were evident at recent Mesquite City Council meetings, in which then-city manager Aaron Baker was the target of many harsh comments, Mesquite Police Sgt. Wyatt Oliver said in the April 27 meeting that Baker’s office “bulldozed” the police department.

“Time and time again we have strived to make the city a better place, but we are put in a position to be belittled by the CEO, to be ignored, not to receive the information we ask of the city. during negotiations, and that’s unacceptable, ”Oliver said.

Baker resigned on May 12. He was not available for a phone interview this week, but said in a text message to the Review-Journal: “I love and care about Mesquite, and I am grateful to the community members, employees and staff. elected and wish them only the best.

Contact Alexis Ford at aford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. To follow @alexisdford on Twitter. Review-Journal editor Rio Lacanlale contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story mistakenly characterized the Mesquite City attorney’s handling of a sexual assault case. He also incorrectly indicated the year that former Detective Gary Erickson pleaded guilty in a separate case.



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