LUMBERTON -- The rumors persisted for years: Some Robeson County deputies were beating up drug dealers and stealing their money. Carlton Mansfield and other criminal defense lawyers say they repeatedly tried to tell former Sheriff Glenn Maynor and the District Attorney's Office about the corrupt lawmen.
"Their attitude was, 'Well, your clients are drug dealers, and we are not going to put any stock in what they say,'" Mansfield said. It took a 3 1/2-year investigation by state and federal authorities to determine that the lawyers might be right.
On June 9, a U.S. attorney outlined charges in a 29-page indictment against three former drug enforcement deputies -- Roger Hugh Taylor, Charles Thomas Strickland and Steven Ray Lovin. The three Lumberton men were arrested that morning. The indictment accuses them of stealing tens of thousands of dollars seized during traffic stops for drugs. It says that the men firebombed homes and that Taylor repeatedly paid off confidential informants with marijuana and cocaine. Six sheriff's deputies and two Lumberton police officers have been charged since Operation Tarnished Badge began, and investigators say more arrests are likely. All six deputies worked -- at one time or another -- in the sheriff's Drug Enforcement Division. Two deputies are accused of kidnapping drug dealers and holding them for ransom.
The arrests leave another stain on a county that has long suffered from poverty, racial division, high crime and accusations of political corruption.
"In my opinion, this is one of the worst black marks that we can have against us here in the county," former Sheriff Hubert Stone said. "It really bothers me that this is happening. Most of our law enforcement officers in Robeson County are good, clean, hardworking, underpaid guys. That's what makes it so sad. Everybody is looking down on them, and most are really good law enforcement officers." Sheriff's Office search Operation Tarnished Badge reached its zenith in March 2005, when federal and state agents arrived at the Sheriff's Office with a Ryder rental truck and spent the next four hours seizing documents and computers. During detention hearings Wednesday for two of the accused deputies, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wes Camden described what investigators found during their search of the Sheriff's Office.
Camden said investigators entered the Drug Enforcement Division and discovered large quantities of drugs lying around the room. Seized drugs are supposed to be packaged, tagged and given to an evidence custodian for safekeeping until trial.
Instead, District Attorney Johnson Britt said, drugs were found in deputies' desks, in their cars and out in the open. Camden said some packages had been tagged, but the drugs that were supposed to be inside were missing. Shortly after the search, Britt said, current Sheriff Kenneth Sealey requested a meeting with him. Britt said he told Sealey that deputies had been in the drug division far too long. He said too many drug dealers knew them, and the potential for corruption heightens the longer low-paid deputies stay in the drug unit.
Britt said he advised Sealey to reassign his drug enforcement deputies. Sealey took the advice, Britt said, and within about a week five of them -- Lovin, James Hunt, Billy Hunt, Kevin Mears and Joey Smith -- had turned in their badges and resigned.
No charges have been brought against any of those men except Lovin, but the investigation continues.
Sealey and Maynor did not return telephone calls last week about the problems in the Sheriff's Office. Britt said Sealey has cooperated fully with state and federal investigators and is not considered a suspect. But Britt said Sealey and Maynor -- the sheriff from 1994 to 2004 -- failed to supervise their employees.
The drug division is adjacent to Sealey's office. Drug deputies have reported directly to the sheriff since Maynor had a falling out with Mark Locklear, his former chief deputy, Britt said.
As for Maynor, Britt said, "Officially, he is not a suspect, as I understand it. "I think from the public's perception there are certain questions about what Sheriff Maynor knew and how much he knew and was he involved in any of this?" Maynor resigned in December 2004, citing health reasons. Investigators say deputies had been corrupt almost from the time Maynor became sheriff 10 years earlier.
But allegations of corruption surfaced long before then. In 1988, Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs held 20 people hostage at gunpoint inside The Robesonian newspaper until state officials agreed to investigate their allegations of corruption, including drug dealing by law officers. A state task force later determined the allegations to be unfounded. Stone was the sheriff back then, and some of the men under indictment today worked for him. Stone served as sheriff for 16 years before retiring in 1994. "When I left," he said, "I don't believe anyone could say they were not real clean, straightforward guys. With no supervision, over time they just changed." Indictment allegations According to the indictment unsealed June 9, former deputies Taylor, Strickland and Lovin went to the home of drug dealer Hubert Ray Locklear on March 14, 1997.
Britt said the deputies had arrested Locklear many times before, only to see him released from jail and back home dealing drugs. Britt surmises that the deputies wanted to intimidate Locklear enough to put him out of business for good. They went to his home, beat him up, placed him under arrest and forced everyone else to leave, Britt said. Then they firebombed his home, burning it to the ground, he said.
Britt said the Robeson County Sheriff's Office never investigated the firebombing.
That same year, according to the indictment, Taylor was providing informants with large amounts of drugs. One time, he gave an informant about 3ounces of cocaine. Another time, the indictment says, he gave away two trash bags full of marijuana.
On July 1, 1998, Camden said, Taylor paid someone $1,600 to burn an occupied home owned by Lewis Vernon, a personal enemy. A week later, Camden said, someone poured gasoline through a back window and down a wall of Vernon's pawnshop in downtown Lumberton. The business was destroyed. Camden said Taylor paid the arsonist with between 20 and 25 pounds of marijuana. Those are just some of the many charges in the 10-count indictment. Others describe six thefts of money during drug interdiction stops on Interstate 95, beatings of drug dealers, the filing of false vouchers to steal thousands of dollars from county taxpayers and tens of thousands in federal drug-seizure money.
Britt said part of the reason the investigation began was that the deputies were living far beyond their means. Investigators seized a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Ford F-250 from Lovin.
Evidence mounts It took Mansfield, the pony-tailed criminal defense lawyer, to finally put the focus on the allegedly crooked lawmen.
Mansfield, who makes a living off defending drug abusers, said Operation Tarnished Badge began to unfold in 2002 because of one of his cases. That year, Mansfield said, he accused Strickland -- the drug unit's supervisor -- of lying on an affidavit to obtain a warrant to search the home of drug dealer Chris Logan.
Unlike previous times when he had accused deputies of lying, Mansfield said, he now had the evidence to prove it.
Mansfield said Logan's girlfriend was mad at him and sought revenge by having him arrested on drug charges. The girlfriend met with Strickland and another drug agent in February 2002 and set up a sting in which her friend would buy cocaine from Logan.
In his affidavit for the search warrant, Strickland said the informant had been to Logan's home before and had bought cocaine there. He also said the informant was reliable because she had provided truthful information in the past. In reality, Mansfield said, the informant had never met Strickland before and had never bought cocaine at Logan's home. Mansfield said the informant came to him and was willing to testify against Strickland. In May 2002, Mansfield filed a motion to suppress all evidence gathered in the search of Logan's home and vehicles. Judge Gregory Weeks upheld the motion that September, and District Attorney Britt was forced to drop the case. Mansfield said Strickland did not face any form of punishment until the two squared off again in court months later. On cross-examination during the second case, Mansfield asked Strickland whether he had lied on the affidavit to search Logan's home. Strickland was trapped.
"That man is the only man we know for sure is a liar," Mansfield told the court. Again, charges were dropped.
Britt said he wrote a letter to Maynor saying he had no choice but to dismiss all of Strickland's cases because his credibility was shot. Strickland was forced to resign in June 2003.
While that was happening, Britt had called for his own SBI investigation of two other sheriff's deputies -- Taylor and Sgt. J.W. Jacobs -- over allegations that they allowed informant Scott LeClaire, a convicted felon, to carry a 9 mm handgun during a sting operation in November 2001. Court records show that Jacobs and Taylor tried to cover up LeClaire's role in a case in which three men allegedly stormed into a home wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word "police" on their chests.
At Britt's direction, LeClaire went to the SBI to outline his involvement as an informant for the Sheriff's Office and the Lumberton Police Department. The information LeClaire provided also led to allegations of wrongdoing by police officers Leon Oxendine and James Jordan. Those two were accused of having LeClaire plant a computer disk containing an image of a counterfeit $100 bill at the home of a suspected drug dealer.
Jordan pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for his testimony against Oxendine, who was convicted in 2004 of tampering with a witness, making false statements to the FBI and five counts of making false declarations. The day before LeClaire was to have testified against Jacobs and Taylor, Britt said, his home was firebombed. Terry Kenworthy of Maxton was charged with arson, and LeClaire was placed in protective custody. Britt called the arson "very suspicious, very coincidental." While Operation Tarnished Badge gained momentum, a bizarre crime happened that would again implicate sheriff's deputies.
In February 2004, investigators say, former sheriff's deputies Vincent Sinclair and Patrick Ferguson kidnapped two alleged drug dealers from Virginia Beach, Va. The men managed to escape in Smithfield and alerted police. Sinclair and Ferguson also are accused of kidnapping a St. Pauls man and holding him until a $150,000 ransom was paid. The men are accused of robbing several drug dealers in Robeson County and other areas. An indictment says they beat and robbed the dealers. Sinclair is accused of burning a man with lighter fluid during a robbery in April 2004.
Lasting effects Robeson County officials say it will be hard to heal from the allegations of police corruption.
Britt, the district attorney, said he will have to throw out more than 300 drug cases, further eroding the public's confidence in the county's judicial system and the people who enforce its laws.
Britt makes no excuses for what happened, but urges people to consider how it could. Robeson is a large and poor rural county in which 60 deputies are required to patrol 1,000 square miles. By comparison, Cumberland County has more than 200 deputies to oversee less area.
Law officers work day in and day out with drug dealers, many of whom are arrested only to return to the streets in a matter of days. Money and drugs are everywhere.
"The temptation is great," Britt said. "Police officers don't get paid a lot of money." Many work two or three jobs to make ends meet. "You can fall into the trap," Britt said.
Now, he said, it's time to try to heal. "As a county, we are going to have to come together to improve our self-image," Britt said. "I think the Sheriff's Office has to work hard to improve its image.
"One way of improving that image is to go to work and go to work hard and show your commitment to the community." A good place to start, Britt said, is for the Sheriff's Office to form its own internal affairs division as a way to police itself. He said the office is the only law enforcement agency in the county without one. It's been that way for years.
Meanwhile, Operation Tarnished Badge will continue. "Nobody knows when it will end," Britt said. "It's not going to end until we're satisfied that we have been able to uncover all that has gone on."
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