Published on Sunday, August 13, 2006
Drugs, money and the law
By Greg Barnes
LUMBERTON — The Robeson County district attorney says he has no vendetta against the county Sheriff’s Office or its former leader — Glenn Maynor.
But Johnson Britt acknowledges that a rift between the two offices has simmered at least since 1998.
That year, Britt had to dismiss 235 drug charges against 66 people because a key witness — a former drug enforcement deputy — could not be found to testify.
Maynor, then the sheriff, publicly blamed Britt for not trying hard enough to find the missing lawman.
Eight years later, Britt again has had to dismiss drug charges — at least 180 of them this time — because a state and federal investigation has led to corruption charges against former drug enforcement deputies.
Three of those deputies — Roger Taylor, C.T. Strickland and Steven Lovin — have been charged in a 10-count federal indictment. The indictment alleges that they burned two homes and a business, assaulted people, paid informants with drugs, and stole and laundered public money.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bobby Higdon said he has been told that a trial date for the three men has been set for December.
Two other former deputies — James O. Hunt and Kevin Meares — pleaded guilty within the past three weeks to stealing drug money and have agreed to testify against the indicted deputies. Other deputies appear to be prepared to do the same.
Since the indictments were handed down June 9, Britt has revealed little — if anything — to the media unless directly asked. He did confirm a tip that Maynor used on-duty deputies to help him move into a house he bought in 2003.
Britt said he knows little more that could be revealed since the state Bureau of Investigation and the federal Internal Revenue Service began Operation Tarnished Badge almost four years ago.
Although Britt said the two notoriously tight-lipped agencies have given him periodic updates, they have provided few specifics. Britt said he prefers it that way. He said he needs to separate his office from the investigation as much as possible.
Regardless, it’s clear that no love has been lost between Maynor and Britt. Britt said Maynor was a constant critic of the DA’s Office, publicly admonishing it for dismissing the cases in 1998 and for accepting plea agreements over the years instead of seeking the maximum punishment for drug dealers. Britt counters that the system allows him little choice.
Despite the criticism, Britt said, he finds no pleasure in the recent bad publicity that has besieged Maynor and the Sheriff’s Office. The allegations of corruption are bad for everybody involved, Britt said, especially the people of Robeson County.
He said the credibility of the county’s law enforcement and its judicial system have suffered severely in their own ways.
Records show that the 180 charges Britt dismissed included 19 people accused of dealing drugs.
Of those 19, the records show, seven were accused of selling more than 400 grams of cocaine.
Under state law, people found guilty of trafficking more than 400 grams could face the maximum punishment — nearly 11 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Instead, the seven men walked free.
“It’s very difficult to accept that we had to do that because the officers had lost their credibility, not only with us, but it had been proven time and time again that they lost their credibility with citizens who were serving as jurors,” Britt said. “That angers me, particularly in light of the criticism they leveled at me when they were not doing their jobs properly, legally or ethically.”
It’s not yet known how many more cases will have to be dismissed because of Operation Tarnished Badge. Britt said cases in which accused deputies worked tangentially will also have to be tossed out if those deputies’ testimony becomes necessary.
Britt said it’s also possible that people convicted by the deputies’ testimony could have their sentences overturned.
The conviction of one Robeson County resident — Eugene Scott of Shannon — has already been overturned. Scott was convicted in 1997 of trafficking cocaine. Britt said evidence uncovered through Operation Tarnished Badge accuses Taylor of planting drugs on Scott’s property and then arresting him. Scott could not be reached for comment.
The conviction of a Pembroke man, Brian Keith Oxendine, was dismissed in 2003 in part because Taylor had been charged with obstruction of justice, court records say.
Oxendine, a convicted felon, was charged in 1996 with illegally taking a 1979 Cadillac, a pager and $2,200 from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. Court records do not say how he got those items. Taylor was the lead investigator. Strickland and Lovin were listed as witnesses on the court documents.
It also is not known how many cases will have to be dropped against people arrested by the Robeson County deputies on federal charges. At least two deputies — Hunt and Lovin — are accused of stealing money during drug interdiction stops along Interstate 95. Some of those cases became federal.
Higdon, the assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh, said he does not believe any of those cases have been dismissed.
Carlton Mansfield, a Lumberton lawyer whose clients include people with drug charges, said they should not get too optimistic.
“I don’t think it’s going to be open up the floodgates and let everybody go,” Mansfield said. “A lot of folks have a lot of false hope.”
Britt said he called for the investigation that became Operation Tarnished Badge as a result of a case that started in November 2001.
By that time, he said, he had grown suspicious of deputies in the Drug Enforcement Division, partly because they were spending a lot more money than they had the means to make.
Britt said the deputies were buying boats, motorcycles, designer clothes and new cars. He said they vacationed on cruise ships together and once went as a group to have laser eye surgery. They held big parties at Strickland’s timeshare at the beach, he said. At times, Britt said, cases had to be continued because the deputies were on vacation.
“It seemed like if one went, two, three or four of the others might be going,” he said.
At least some of the deputies had second jobs.
Incorporation records with the N.C. Secretary of State show that Hunt formed a business — Blue Light Interdiction Inc. — in December 2002. Britt and others said Hunt and Lovin used the business to train lawmen across the South on how to make drug stops along interstates.
Nobody argues that Hunt and Lovin weren’t good at finding drugs, but their tactics apparently left a lot to be desired. In a hearing last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Evenson accused the men of racial profiling, primarily stopping clean-cut Hispanics driving rental cars.
Four years before Hunt filed the incorporation papers — while he and Lovin were themselves being trained in interstate drug interdiction — Hunt got shot in the chest during a drug stop on Interstate 95.
Afterward, he was heralded as a hero. Maynor presented Hunt a plaque and a “purple heart” during a memorial service for fallen officers in 1999. The National Sheriff’s Association named Hunt national deputy of the year in 2000. People donated money toward his recovery, and Hunt found himself honored at banquets and parades.
Last month — eight years after he was shot — Hunt pleaded guilty to stealing about $160,000 from six drug stops along I-95. Britt said the actual amount stolen is probably much higher. He said convicted drug dealers with ties to Miami told investigators that they had $500,000 when Hunt stopped them. Hunt turned in $350,000 as evidence, Britt said.
While Hunt and Lovin supplemented their incomes through Blue Light Interdiction Inc., Strickland was supplementing his by mowing yards. He also was spending a lot, Britt said.
“There is not that much grass that can be cut to generate that kind of income,” he said.
But it took more than their lavish lifestyles and Britt’s suspicions to start an investigation. It took a bizarre case, followed by a couple more.
In late 2001, records say, Taylor and former Deputy J.W. Jacobs allowed a felon, Scott Eugene LeClaire, to have a 9mm handgun as part of a sting operation that resulted in the arrest of three people who stormed into a home wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Police” on their chests. LeClaire was being used as a confidential informant in the case.
As a result of allegations against Taylor and Jacobs in that case, Britt requested an SBI investigation in 2002. Taylor and Jacobs were charged the following year and kicked off the force.
Meanwhile, Strickland was having problems of his own. A judge found that Strickland had falsified information to get a warrant to search for drugs in Christopher Logan’s home. Strickland was forced to resign in June 2003 because his credibility with jurors had been ruined.
Logan, a major drug dealer in Robeson County, was shot to death during an unrelated domestic argument in January 2004, Britt said. Drug charges against Gary McLean, the man Strickland arrested along with Logan, were among the 180 charges Britt has thrown out because of Operation Tarnished Badge.
The other dismissed charges involve cases in which former deputies Strickland, Lovin, Hunt, Kevin Meares, Joey Smith and Billy Hunt served as the lead investigators.
Meares pleaded guilty Aug. 4 to stealing about $25,000 in drug money through the federal forfeiture program and has agreed to testify against the indicted deputies. Meares told investigators that Strickland, his supervisor, taught him how to steal the money.
Smith and Billy Hunt have not been charged. Smith has received a target letter from investigators saying he is a subject of the investigation and asking for his cooperation. Britt said both former deputies would have no credibility with jurors.
Maynor also has not been charged. He resigned as sheriff in December 2004, citing health reasons, and friends say he is rarely seen in public anymore. He has not returned repeated telephone calls.
U.S. attorneys have declined to comment on whether Maynor is a suspect in the investigation. Britt said he doesn’t know for sure.
As the investigation intensified, Britt said, unfounded rumors about Maynor flourished:
The SBI searched his house and found $1 million.
A federal grand jury in Wilmington had indicted him, and Maynor was cooperating.
The SBI arrested him in his house, and he came out wearing handcuffs.
“After awhile, it just got ridiculous,” Britt said. “If he went out of town, the allegations were that he’d been arrested. It just went nuts.”
In time, he said, the rumors ended and people started to forget about the investigation until the indictments came down in June.
“It caught everybody by surprise who was not knowledgeable about what was going on,” Britt said.
He said he tried to be silent and professional before the indictments were made. Now that part of the investigation has been publicly revealed, Britt feels more freedom to talk.
“Some say I have a personal vendetta,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Britt said law officers must be held to a higher standard, and whatever punishment may come from this will be justified.
“I know that some people are blaming me,” he said. “The bottom line is the people who end up getting charged, they have no one to blame but themselves.”
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3525.
||Truth in Justice