With his badge and gun and take-charge bearing, Steve Pancoast seemed like justice personified as he investigated the death of a World War II vet who had been parboiled in a whirlpool bath at an Oklahoma state veterans center back in 2012.
Pancoast had been widely described in the press as the chief investigator for the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA), and he acted as well as looked the part.
His investigation established that 85-year-old Jay Minter had suffered second-degree burns over 50 percent of his body when he was placed in a whirlpool that lacked a working thermostat. Minter very well could have survived if he had been rushed to a hospital capable of treating him effectively.
But a physician’s assistant named Ken Adams allegedly opted to keep Minter at the Claremore Veterans Center. Adams happened to be married to Cynthia Adams, the center’s administrator at the time.
The next day, Minter died. Ken Adams filed a report with the ODVA attesting that the primary cause of death had been arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, with the burns only a secondary factor. The medical examiner reached a different conclusion following an autopsy.
“Complications of thermal injuries,” the medical examiner reported, making no mention of the supposed heart disease.
In the course of the investigation, Pancoast decided that Ken Adams had also played a role in the death of 86-year-old Louis Arterberry at the center. The World War II vet is said to have been in need of urgent care following an apparent stroke, but Adams had allegedly been preoccupied with arranging what court papers term “a sexual liaison.”
Adams was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and caretaker neglect. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
In the meantime, there has come another shocker. And this one concerns not a vet but Pancoast himself.
Last week, the Office of the Oklahoma State Attorney (OAG) announced that 31-year-old Pancoast had been arrested for impersonating a police officer, after he allegedly lied about being a certified cop.
He also was charged with possessing a weapon while a convicted felon. He was said to have neglected to tell his employers that he had served three years in prison for larceny and weapons possession in New Jersey in the 1990s, before he moved to Oklahoma.
On top of all that, the ODVA announced that Pancoast had never been an investigator at all and that the agency does not in fact have any investigators.
“We do not have an investigative unit, we do not have an investigator,” an ODVA spokesman told The Daily Beast last week. “That’s a title that was never given by us.”
The spokesman said Pancoast’s real title was “safety programs administrator,” with duties including fire drills and “non-skid in the shower rooms so that nobody slips and falls.”
“We take care of veterans,” the spokesman said. “We don’t investigate crimes or possible crimes.”
The spokesman added, “If someone’s carrying a badge, that’s something he got on his own.”
The spokesman concluded, “It’s a bizarre story.”
The bizarre becomes doubly so when you consider what recently ousted interim ODVA director John McReynolds was quoted as saying back in 2012 after questions arose over the agency’s handling of abuse reports in its seven veterans centers.
“In most cases we have investigators assigned to each facility who are trained to conduct lesser investigations,” said McReynolds. “But if it requires someone outside the facility…then it goes to the administrator, who will call me and I’ll dispatch Mr. Pancoast to that location and he will initiate the investigation.”
That is exactly what Pancoast did after the deaths of Minter and Arterberry. He was still doing it in June 2014, when he signed an affidavit for a warrant to search the residence of an American Legion official who was suspected of embezzlement.
As described in court papers, a fellow ODVA employee named Amanda Lomonaco saw Pancoast as he prepared to join cops from various jurisdictions in conducting the search.
“Lomonaco stated she had been present and had personally witnessed Pancoast wearing a police tactical uniform, a badge and a pistol on June 10, 2014, when he and several other police agency officers, including officers from Mustang Police Department, Oklahoma Highway Patrol and Office of Homeland Security served a search warrant,” the papers say.
The papers further describe Lomonaco as having “witnessed Pancoast wearing pistols to work almost every day for the past two years.”
“Lomonaco stated she had witnessed Pancoast in possession of a .223 caliber AR-15 type assault rifle as well as several shotguns,” the papers say. “She had seen Pancoast with three Glock semi-auto pistols he said he had received for Christmas, 2014.”
Pancoast again seemed the quintessential lawman after a Korean War vet named James Laughlin died from head trauma at the Norman Veterans Center in October of last year.
“I’ll tell you what, he sure looked the part,” Joan Laughlin says of the man who announced to her that he would be investigating her husband’s death. “He’s very official looking. He impressed me.”
The widow says she had initially been told by the center that her husband had fallen out of bed and bumped his head. She reports that Pancoast discovered surveillance video that seems to suggest another story.
By Joan Laughlin’s account, the video that Pancoast obtained and she subsequently viewed shows James Laughlin—who suffered from dementia—absently wandering into the room of a patient who was known to be violent.
She reports that the video then shows staff rushing into the room. They drag out a battered James Laughlin.
“[The violent patient] had like to beat him to death in there,” Joan Laughlin says.
She contends that the video shows the staff piling on James Laughlin as if he had been the assailant. They end up dragging him into his room and out of view of the cameras.
“I don’t know what happened in there,” Joan Laughlin says.
She ventures a guess from his apparent condition afterward.
“They did worse than [the violent patient] did,” she says.
She scoffs at the staff’s report that her husband had been “combative.”
“The most laid-back, meek little guy you ever saw, 123 pounds and he was feeble,” she says.
In her view, the investigation was well on the way to establishing the truth of her husband's death when she suddenly stopped hearing from Pancoast. She called his office and a woman answered.
“She said, ‘Well, I’ll have him call you back,’” Joan Laughlin recalls.
The widow then got a call from the OAG.
“‘Sorry to tell you, but he’s been fired,’” the window remembers being told.
She then learned that Pancoast had been arrested and that the investigator whom she had been speaking with for six months had not been an investigator at all.
“I just about went nuts,” the widow says. “I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.”
As set forth in an Affidavit of Probable Cause filed by the OAG, its agents had been contacted by a senior ODVA official who asked them to took into Pancoast’s credentials.
On March 9, the OAG’s chief investigator interviewed Pancoast, seeking to confirm that he was a certified law enforcement officer, as he had claimed in court documents and on the witness stand. Pancoast allegedly replied in the affirmative, but said he had neither the certificate nor his Oklahoma driver’s license with him.
Later that day, Pancoast hand-delivered to an OAG receptionist a photocopy of what he said were his law enforcement credentials. OAG investigators determined that the certification was in fact for a security guard and apparently bore a forged signature—it was dated after the supposed signatory ceased working at the certifying agency.
The affidavit says Pancoast told the OAG that his date of birth was March 11, 1974. A criminal record check showed that a Steven Pancoast—with matching fingerprints, but a date of birth of June 23, 1973—had served time in New Jersey from 1992 to 1996.
“Two felony convictions were noted on Pancoast’s New Jersey criminal record," the affidavit says.
Pancoast was arrested, and he pleaded not guilty. He reportedly denied being the Steven Pancoast who had done time in New Jersey, despite the apparent fingerprint match.
“Don’t believe everything you hear, man,” Pancoast told a reporter for The Oklahoman. “I’m saying it’s false...I really don’t want to be made out to be a bad guy because I’m not.”
Prosecutors sought to determine what impact the arrest might have on the cases that Pancoast worked, including the two outstanding murder charges against Adams.
And then there is the death of James Laughlin. His widow says she called the ODVA and was told to call the OAG, only to be told to call the ODVA.
She is left wondering if justice will ever be done now that the man who seemed like justice personified is himself under indictment. She is no less fervent in her belief that her husband should not have died the way he did.
“He did not deserve that,” she says. “He was a good guy. He never hurt anybody in his life.”
She is left with the letters he wrote to her as many as five times a day when he was off serving his country in time of war.
“‘To my dearest darling, I love you so much and I miss you so much,’’” she recited last week.
An ODVA spokesman told The Daily Beast that the local district attorney had looked into the case and confirmed what ODVA had initially told Joan Laughlin.
“He fell in his room,” the spokesman said. “He fell backward and hit the back of his head. That is the cause of his death.”
The spokesman allowed that the ODVA had fired several nurses present at the time of the incident.
“Because that’s obviously not the way we treat our veterans,” the spokesman said.
But the spokesman insisted that neither the nurses nor the encounter with the other patient were contributing factors to the patient’s death.
“The altercation played no part in it,” the spokesman said.
That being the same spokesman who reported that Pancoast had never been an investigator and that the ODVA has no investigators.
The press and the recently ousted agency director have said otherwise.
What seems clear is that the ODVA has trouble keeping track not just of its vets but also of its own staff.
And where did Steve Pancoast get that badge, anyway?