How one woman dismantled the largest, per capita, police department in St. Louis County

FOX Files

UPLANDS PARK, Mo. – Donah Sandford could be the one person responsible for dismantling an entire St. Louis area police department.

The village of Uplands Park in St. Louis County once had one police officer for every 14 people who lived in the village.  That made it the largest per capita police department in Missouri.  Many of the officers were volunteers, some with dark sides. 

Donah Sandford
Donah Sandford

“I was a victim, so turning that around and becoming a survivor is very empowering,” said Sandford.

Sanford spoke publicly for the first time about her 2009 kidnapping and rape by former officer Leon Pullen.

“When did you get to the point where you felt you could talk about it?” asks reporter Chris Hayes.

Sandford answered, “Yesterday. Ha ha! I’m serious. Yesterday. It’s taken that long.”

Pullen was one of more than 30 police officers who once patrolled the Village of Uplands Park. It’s an area so small you may not have heard of it, unless you received a speeding ticket driving by on Natural Bridge Road near the campus of UMSL.  Sandford, however, still shudders when she thinks about her assault there.  She now lives in New Orleans.

“I was scared for a while because when you are victimized by a police officer you are very worried that they will find you, that they have friends that will contact you and that they will try to re-victimize you. I was very worried about that for a very long time,” said Sandford.

That’s where she met now retired agent Gregory Lacomb and victim specialist Amy Cunningham. She’s not sure where she’d be without them. 

“I might not even be alive,” Sandford said.

Sandford was already in a vulnerable position 11-years-ago, being trafficked for sex when Pullen lured her to the village where she says he robbed, kidnapped, and raped her.  When officer Pullen let her go she had the courage enough to return to law enforcement for help.  She called the cops.  St. Louis County connected her with an FBI task force specializing in civil rights cases. 

First the FBI had to find where she was kidnapped and raped.  Donah was not familiar with the area.  Lacomb and another agent drove her around, asking her what looked familiar.

“She referred to Hollywood. We don’t have a Hollywood anywhere in St. Louis but we do have a town called Beverly Hills,” said retired agent Lacomb. 

They were now just a few blocks and one town away.  Next Sandford described a police station in a house.

“When she identified that particular make-up of the police station in Uplands Park, it’s very unique. It was a remodeled home for the city hall and the jail is in the basement of that home. She described it to a ‘T,’” added Lacomb.

Sandford not only got justice for herself, but also for other women who came forward. Pullen pleaded guilty and is serving a 25 year sentence.

Leon Pullen

But the FBI’s job wasn’t over.  Next it was Amy Cunningham’s job to help Sandford.  She told us, “My job is to go in, triage the needs, do a victim needs assessment, see what they need and try to meet those needs as quickly as possible.”

“I was so scared to go outside they were sending counselors to my home. I didn’t want to come outside and once I was well enough to start going outside, she kind of pushes me out the cradle,” said Sandford. “It couldn’t have been a better experience for me because I followed through with everything they said would help me and that’s why I’m here today.  I consider them family now! Ha ha!”

Many people are not aware that there is money for crime victims to get help. 

Today, Uplands Park contracts out for services with the North County Police Cooperative.

Previous FOX 2 investigations into Uplands Park Police:

  • Police force run by an attorney: In the fall of 2013, Fox 2 discovered Uplands Park Trustees were resisting paying for credible police service through the accredited St. Louis County Police Department. The village was instead running the department with an attorney rather than a police chief.
  • Criminal records revealed: In the winter of 2013, Fox 2 uncovered criminal records of officers in Uplands Park, including one officer who had been arrested for rape and murder.
  • Cleaning up the department: In 2014, officer Harlan Smith took over as Uplands Park Police Chief and began the process of cleaning up the Department.
  • We first talked to Donah Sandford in 2015.  She asked for her identity to be protected at the time.   Her complaint against an officer led to the end of St. Louis County’s biggest per-capita police department.

Map: Uplands Park

Letter to withdraw guilty plea:

Leon Pullen did not respond to multiple requests for a response to this report.  In 2010 he wrote this letter to a federal judge, asking to withdraw his guilty plea.  Pullen did not follow through.  He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Donah’s Poem:

Did We do that?

Did We reveal the hands of abusive power?
Did We meet them in the naked hour?

Did they skip a beat and pass through the sheet
of emotionless terror…..

Stood emotionless knowing that my path is blessed
Knowing that they will never understand
What is meant to be a God’s man….

A woman Earth
A sudden rebirth of all the negativity they have grown to be.

The threat of my freedom
Before me…..

The threat of life can bring pain to your eyes and better yet chain to your eyes
So they cannot see the passion
The truth of their path before me….

They pray

That I will never tell of their mistakes
I have shown them the way….

I have given them the platform to pray
Not only with me but for me….for thy and they.

Yet they had not listened to my thoughts
Let alone listen to yours
Instead They insisted to go against the grain
Because of the failure of their uncontrolled power.

The force of power with them lies against them.

They could never prevail
They continue to be wrong because they may have thought often
That they were right….

But deep inside it is not what you will spend but what you will be worth.

Either you are nothing worth nothing, you are everything worth nothing, or you are worth nothing and have everything.

Did We do That?

Donah SandfordDid We do that?

Did We reveal the hands of abusive power?
Did We meet them in the naked hour?

Did they skip a beat and pass through the sheet
of emotionless terror…..

Stood emotionless knowing that my path is blessed
Knowing that they will never understand
What is meant to be a God’s man….

A woman Earth
A sudden rebirth of all the negativity they have grown to be.

The threat of my freedom
Before me…..

The threat of life can bring pain to your eyes and better yet chain to your eyes
So they cannot see the passion
The truth of their path before me….

They pray

That I will never tell of their mistakes
I have shown them the way….

I have given them the platform to pray
Not only with me but for me….for thy and they.

Yet they had not listened to my thoughts
Let alone listen to yours
Instead They insisted to go against the grain
Because of the failure of their uncontrolled power.

The force of power with them lies against them.

They could never prevail
They continue to be wrong because they may have thought often
That they were right….

But deep inside it is not what you will spend but what you will be worth.

Either you are nothing worth nothing, you are everything worth nothing, or you are worth nothing and have everything.

Did We do That?

Donah Sandford

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