A 28-year-veteran of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office filed a $2.5 million federal lawsuit against the county, the Sheriff, and two private investigators for alleged civil rights violations and retaliation.

In his lawsuit, Capt. Deron McMaster claims Sheriff Shane Nelson withheld evidence incriminating Nelson and his wife in an internal investigation into another deputy. The lawsuit also alleges Nelson retaliated against McMaster for speaking out about Nelson’s improper actions.

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“Defendant Sheriff Nelson acted with evil motive or intent toward [McMaster] when Sheriff Nelson intentionally concealed damaging testimony given by his wife,” the lawsuit states. And in so doing, the lawsuit alleges Nelson “acted with reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of [McMaster].”

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, right, speaks during a press conference in Portland, Ore., June 28, 2017.

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, right, speaks during a press conference in Portland, Ore., June 28, 2017.

Don Ryan / AP

The lawsuit, which claims McMaster’s first and fourteenth amendment rights were violated, stems from a string of incidents involving a Deschutes County Sheriff’s Deputy, his romantic partner, and a subordinate with whom he was having an affair. An internal investigation found McMaster failed to report suspected domestic and sexual abuse by the deputy against his live-in romantic partner and that McMaster lied during the investigation.

McMaster maintains the allegations are false and said he reported the alleged abuse to the deputy’s supervisor and the Redmond Police Department. Nelson lives across the street from the deputy in question, and McMaster said Nelson’s wife — a former Bend police officer — was interviewed at some point during the three investigations into the abuse. McMaster claims Nelson tried to cover up his and his wife’s knowledge of the domestic abuse. When McMaster spoke out about the cover-up, he says Nelson retaliated against him.

“The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the complaint filed by Mr. McMaster’s attorney,” DCSO Spokesperson Sgt. Jayson Janes told OPB in an email. “Sheriff Nelson disputes the allegations made in this complaint and plans to vigorously defend the Sheriff’s Office against these allegations. No further information will be released due to the pending litigation.”

Two private investigators, Timothy Moore and Matthew Ellington, are also named in the lawsuit. Nelson has leaned heavily on the two investigators to conduct internal investigations, spending over $430,000 on their services since taking office. But people familiar with the investigations, including multiple lawyers who have sued the agency, say their work was unreliable and incomplete.

Text messages reviewed by OPB suggest Moore and Nelson have a close friendship.

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The lawsuit alleges the two investigators violated Oregon state law when they failed to provide all pertinent information to McMaster before questioning him. McMaster also alleges Moore and Ellington were involved in withholding the interview with Nelson’s wife and the evidence she and Nelson were aware of the possible abuse.

The lawsuit comes after years of internal turmoil under Nelson’s leadership. Since 2015, the year Nelson was appointed Sheriff, agency employees have filed at least 25 complaints against the Sheriff and the agency.

In that same time, the county has paid out almost $3.5 million to defend and settle claims against Nelson and the sheriff’s office.

In August 2021, a federal jury awarded former deputy Eric Kozowski over $1 million after finding Nelson retaliated against Kozowski for running against him for sheriff in 2016. The following month, the county settled a federal lawsuit for $527,000 with former deputy Crystal Jansen, who alleged multiple instances of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

In depositions for the Jansen case, Nelson claimed his agency’s policies don’t apply to him.

“The Sheriff’s Office policies do not apply to the sheriff,” Nelson told Jansen’s lawyers. “I’m not a Sheriff’s Office member or an employee. I’m the elected sheriff and therefore work for the 190,000 citizens that are in this county.”

McMaster spent his entire 28-year law enforcement career at the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, rising through the agency ranks alongside Sheriff Shane Nelson. As the captain in charge of the detectives division, McMaster was initially a member of Nelson’s trusted inner circle until the incidents leading to this lawsuit.

This lawsuit could stand out from previous lawsuits involving lower-ranking deputies if it goes to trial. As a former captain, McMaster has intimate knowledge of a command team and sheriff which has for years been at the center of controversy.

“McMaster knows where Nelson has buried all the bodies,” McMaster’s lawyer Randy Harvey told OPB last year after filing a tort claim.

In September 2021, citing McMaster’s “questionable judgment,” Nelson demoted him to lieutenant. McMaster resigned soon after.

In his resignation letter, McMaster called out Nelson, Moore and Ellington directly.

“As long as this Sheriff is in place, and he is using the services of Tim Moore and Matt Ellington, no Deschutes County Sheriff’s Deputy is safe from their disreputable investigation practices and their willingness to conceal and distort evidence and testimony of witnesses,” McMaster wrote in his resignation letter. “I refuse to work for a leader who is dishonest and unethical.”

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Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson speaks at a press conference Dec. 7, 2018.

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Since 2015, Deschutes County has paid almost $3.5 million to defend and settle claims against Sheriff Shane Nelson and the sheriff’s office. In that time, the sheriff’s own employees have filed at least 25 complaints against him and the office, portraying a law enforcement agency where women are sidelined and intimidation is routine.