How one police chief and his 110 reserve officers have split the village of Oakley and its 286 residents

Small town soap opera

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The history of Oakley is as brief as a drive through the town.

Situated in a pocket of southwest Saginaw County, the area was originally called Mickleville, according to a historical account of Oakley by Alice Shindorf. It was named after Philip Mickle, who also opened a tavern in 1842. A quarter-century later, a plot of land was purchased and recorded as the Village of Oakley, in honor of a judge who was the uncle to one of the parcel's proprietors.

In 1880, Oakley had a population of 350. Today, that number is 286, according to recent estimates. In the 1880s, a glut of businesses dotted the landscape — two hardware stores, two grocery stores, two hotels, three dry-good stores, two drug stores, a wagon shop, and a couple blacksmith storefronts. Today, Oakley consists of one party store, two bars, a pair of churches, one hair salon, a tire shop, and one diner.

In other words, it's a quintessential small town. Everyone has grown old together, got drunk together, said prayers in the same church, and pumped gas at the Marathon station off M-52. They're a lively group.

And there has never been much crime to report.

"We had one police officer [on duty] for 50 years," says Patrick Coe, an Oakley resident. "And everything was fine." (Oakley has yet to respond to a public records request from MT for a summary of 911 calls made in 2014.)

One of those officers was former police Chief Larry Briggs, who was fired in late 2007 after being convicted of stalking a 21-year-old woman. The subsequent search for a replacement led to Reznick.

A town-established police commission conducted the search and, after a background check came up clean, offered Reznick the job, which paid $100 per month. (He now makes $500 a month for the part-time work, and previously earned an additional $46,000 serving as police chief for neighboring Waterloo Township until that town disbanded its police force.)

The donation drive for reserve officers started almost immediately after Reznick arrived.

Reznick has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including a stint as an undercover narcotics investigator in Genesee County. He worked as an officer in the Flushing Police Department in the '80s but left the department in 1992 as part of a lawsuit he filed against the city. It's unclear what Reznick alleged; the Flint Journal previously reported city officials are not allowed to discuss the reasons he left the department.

The chief's private-donation model of police funding emerged as he bounced around various departments after his departure from Flushing, during stops as chief in Coleman and the Village of Gaines. Those previous efforts were also the subject of intense scrutiny.

For example, a community police fund Reznick oversaw in Gaines, which also operated off private donations, was investigated by the state for misuse before it was shut down. The probe found "no basis for allegations" that Reznick and other village officials "had used the funds illegally," the Flint Journal reported. (In 2000, Reznick was fired from Gaines after a long-running dispute.)

The bigger looming question is how a small town in no-man's land can receive enough private donations through its police force to cover its annual budget and then some.

It's unclear exactly how Reznick has managed to rub shoulders with some of metro Detroit's wealthiest benefactors; he simply says he put out a call to friends he made over the years.

"There's nothing remarkable about it," he says. "I ask. I'm not bashful about asking. And you know what? I ask them to ask their friends and family members."

Reznick's contact with the region's powerful and elite who would one day fill his coffers can probably be traced to his job in the private sector. Since 1992, he has owned and operated a firm called Due Process of Michigan, which collects and seizes money or property from individuals on behalf of law firms. In legalese, it's known as "writs of execution." In layman's terms, it's known as debt collecting. In this arrangement, Reznick had the added benefit of being deputized as an officer of the state.

And Reznik was quite good at it, saying in one deposition that he has conducted "hundreds" of these searches over the years.

"I was a sheriff's deputy in numerous counties, and that's all you need to be to serve executions against property," Reznick said in the deposition he gave last year.

Thanks to this side-work — if you can call it that — Reznick is no stranger to depositions. Since 2007, he has been a named defendant in 27 federal cases related to his work with Due Process. Some cases have reached settlements, according to court records, but Reznick says he, nor Due Process, has ever paid a dime to end a case.

"Attorneys who obtained those writs of execution and their insurance company, I'm sure [they] settled but I know we never settled," he says.

Federal complaints and police reports paint the picture of an aggressive enforcer of the law, something corroborated by residents of Oakley MT spoke with. For example:

• A June 2004 article in the Flint Journal examined the work of Due Process. The owner of a real estate company hired Due Process to conduct an eviction of an apartment resident, something Reznick's firm was authorized to do by Lapeer County.

The owner of the company, Jeff Papadelis, told the newspaper he expected Due Process to charge $250 for its work, but in the end received a nearly $2,100 bill. When Due Process came to collect, Papadelis said Reznick and his crew acted like "thugs."

"They used strong-arm, thug-type tactics," Papadelis said. "I felt like I was dealing with the mob."

• In July 2004, Reznick's team was hired to execute a nearly $64,000 civil judgment against DaimlerChrysler at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills. One of the officers from the Auburn Hills Police Department who responded to the scene wrote that he "didn't understand why a Genesee County Sheriff's Deputy with full arrest powers would be enforcing a court order issued by an Oakland County judge," according to an incident report from Auburn Hills police.

Later on, the officer spoke with Reznick about why he was at the auto giant's doorstep.

Reznick, according to the report, wasn't pleased by the officer's questioning, telling him, "[You're] stepping all over my dick here." Three years later, a Midland County sheriff explained that he didn't renew Reznick's license to seize property on behalf of the county after hearing about the Auburn Hills incident, which he described in a deposition as a "horror story" he was embarrassed by.

• In December 2006, Reznick was hired to seize property from a Sterling Heights woman, Cynthia Lekki. Upon arrival, "Reznick stated he was not leaving Ms. Lekki's home without either a flat-screen TV or a minimum of $2,000 dollars in cash," according to a federal complaint filed later by Lekki.

When the woman forked over $2,000, Reznick told her "he would be back for an additional $2,000 and that if he did not receive it he would kick in the front door of Ms. Lekki's home and remove everything from the house." The case was settled.

Reznick continues work with Due Process. He says he doesn't conduct "nearly as many" seizures as he used to but maintains the business on the side.

Ask some patrons of the Little Bar off M-52, and they'll tell you they never visit the Bittermans' Family Tavern anymore. Walk down the block to the Bittermans' watering hole, vice versa. There's a bitter tinge in the voices of residents when they get to talking about the police. Ask just about anyone, and they'd simply like their small town back, thank you very much.

The daily gripes aren't uncommon. Many residents, in the wake of media attention, don't feel comfortable giving their name (which is beautiful irony given the situation at hand), but routinely talk shop about Oakley's problems. Most just don't want to have their name involved in the hubbub. One business owner declines comment because of a landlord who harbors a view of Reznick unlike theirs. Some residents, chatting over beers at the Little Bar, simply believe the polarized environment stems from only two people in town — Reznick and Dennis Bitterman — like a divorced mom and dad pitting their kids against each other.

Bitterman has a history of discontent with Reznick. He believes Reznick excessively policed an annual motorcycle run at his bar for the past four years. He also believes the chief sent undercover reservists into his bar to find code violations. Reznick has reported several alleged violations to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, but records and published reports show Bitterman only admitted to one, for not posting an occupancy limit sign, a $50 fine. Bitterman has appealed separate citations on alleged topless activity, failure to make records available for inspection, and failure to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Prior to Reznick's arrival, the Family Tavern hadn't received a citation since receiving its license in 1982.

His litigious relationship with Reznick began in 2012.

Aileen Gengler, a bartender at the Family Tavern, accused Reznick of harassing her after the chief offered her a job as a private detective, which she declined. (Ever the persistent, generous fellow, he also offered her money to clean his house.) She said Reznick threatened to put her in the trunk of his vehicle, a point Reznick contends was a joke. Gengler said she took to carrying a knife with her when she left work because she was so afraid.

"It's all bullshit," Reznik says bluntly when asked about the allegations. "That's all I can tell you."

That 2012 lawsuit is still the subject of conversation among residents, and police reports and court records dating back as far as the 1990s show Reznick has been accused of similar issues in the past.

For example, in 2001, an Ypsilanti woman reported she was being harassed over the phone by Reznick, who was sent to collect a $660,000 civil judgment from the woman's husband of four months. The woman was home at the time Reznick and his team arrived to collect payment. She gave Reznick her number, according to a Michigan State Police incident report.

"On 11/30/01, at about 1:45 p.m. [the woman] stated that Mr. Reznick began to verbally discuss getting together with her," the report says. "She said that he said he was available and that she needs to leave her husband because he's an old man. [The woman] went on to say that Mr. Reznick stated that he [had] sex with other women and that it was fun to play."

Reznick told the state officer the woman opened up about her life as soon as he arrived, and that he "interacted and tried to be communicative." At no time, Reznick stated, did he talk to the woman in an inappropriate manner.

"Mr. Reznick immediately said that all calls to [the woman] will cease immediately," the report says.

About The Author

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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