It was just a joke, they said, a prank modeled on a black comedian's skit the day before a black civil rights icon's holiday.
But the two officers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol involved in a camera-phone photo shoot in which one posed with a crude KKK-costume over his uniform while the other snapped away are out of work after a governor-ordered investigation.
The highway patrol announced Monday night that Craig Franklin and Eric Wlodarsky, who appeared in Columbus last weekend at hearings in front of superior officers, have been fired for the photo. It features Franklin holding a piece of paper with holes punched out for eyes in front of his face like a mask, and wearing a makeshift robe and paper cone on his head.
The photo was taken on Jan. 20, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The reference is apparent to anyone familiar with the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States — and the white robes and pointy hoods Klansmen ceremoniously wear.
"There was just cause for discipline and the termination was carried through," patrol spokesman Anthony Bradshaw said.
The pair had already been disciplined for the photo, which arrived at the Sandusky State Patrol headquarters with an unsigned letter that read, "Sergeant Wlodarsky on duty at the Sandusky Post on January 20, 2008. What a way to represent the Ohio State Highway Patrol!"
In late March, Franklin, the costumed trooper and a 12-year veteran of the state patrol, was suspended without pay for five days. Wlodarsky, the cameraman, was demoted from sergeant to trooper and transferred out of the Sandusky post, where none of the 13 troopers assigned are black. Both of the troopers were required to take part in diversity awareness training. A third trooper who received the photo but did not report it to superiors — instead forwarding it to a subordinate — was suspended for a day.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, unsatisfied by the punishments, met in late April with the state's public safety director and the head of the state patrol to discuss the internal investigation. "This morning, Strickland determined that the sanctions which had been imposed by the Patrol were inadequate," according to an April 22 release form the governor's office, "and he asked … to immediately begin the proceedings to terminate the employment of the trooper and the sergeant involved."
Strickland described the photo shoot as "insulting" and said that it "undermines public confidence in the important work the Patrol does every day." Strickland's pressure came after the Sandusky chapter of the NAACP called for the troopers to lose their jobs.
The two officers have described the photo shoot as a "joke" that mimicked a sketch by black comedian Dave Chappelle. In one Chappelle skit, he plays a blind Klansman who does not know he is black and at one point removes his hood in front of other Klan members to reveal his race.
Wlodarsky's mother, reached by ABC News, said that her son was not taking any more media phone calls, but in an interview with the Sandusky Register, he apologized for his role in the incident.
"We've been punished and we've lost jobs over it," Wlodarsky said. "We're very remorseful."
The two officers or the Ohio State Troopers Association have 14 days to initiate an arbitration process that could earn them their jobs back, Bradshaw, the patrol spokesman, said.
Larry Phillips, president of the Ohio trooper's union, said the labor group believes that the firing was a breach of the contract reached on April 3 when the officers received their initial punishment. A grievance was filed on behlf of the pair in order to pursue arbitration, he said.
Last month in a similar episode, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee released a report about an infamous 2007 Halloween party held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement in which ICE assistant secretary Julie Myers judged a costume contest won by a contestant wearing a prison uniform, a dreadlock wig and had his face darkened with makeup.
Myers took responsibility for what she described as an error in judgment after the contest. In addition to a public apology, she ordered that all of the photos of the event be destroyed and employees attend sensitivity training.
House Democrats have urged a deeper, independent investigation into the ICE Halloween costume party, but for now, Myers has survived the controversy — unlike the Ohio patrol officers.