Phone key in police vs. town trial
Published 8:54 am Thursday, May 12, 2016
By Lynn Hall
A Tracfone, a disposable cell phone meant to be untraceable, was supposed to keep their identifies a secret.
Instead, three former Mocksville Police officers believe it may have been their undoing.
In testimony in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina last week, two of the officers, Jerry Medlin and Ken Hunter said, “We made a mistake.”
That mistake was using their department-issued cell phones to make contact with the Tracfone.
The officers testified last week that they had serious concerns about the management of the Mocksville Police Department, under the leadership of Chief Robert Cook, and felt efforts to have those concerns addressed at the local level had been unsuccessful.
Taking their concerns anonymously to first the Attorney General’s Office and then to the office of then Gov. Beverly Perdue, was a last resort to seek an outside investigation of the department. That call was made on or around Dec. 14 and the officers were terminated on Dec. 29. The officers contend they were acting as private citizens relaying issues of public concerns to the governor’s office and that contacting the governor was not something they would normally do in the performance of their regular duties.
Their concerns had to do with Cook drinking alcohol while on duty and in uniform, driving while intoxicated, his use of blue lights and siren while not being a certified law enforcement agent, mishandling of funds, interference with investigations and a suggestion of possible racism.
The firings, they contend, were wrongful terminations in violation of their rights to free speech. Defendants in the case are Cook, Mocksville Town Manager Christine Bralley and the Town of Mocksville.
It is the plaintiff’s contention that instead of being contacted by someone from the SBI in Raleigh, a local SBI agent, D.J. Smith, showed up at the Mocksville Police station on Dec. 22 with a slip of paper in his hand, asking to see Chief Cook. Cook was out and he asked to speak to assistant chief Daniel Matthews.
Medlin testified that he was at the copy machine when Smith entered the building and shortly after going into Matthews office, the assistant chief called to the administrative assistant, Donna Lawrence, to get Cook on the phone. Matthews and Smith left the building together a short time later.
Hunter was also in the office at the time, but neither he or Medlin saw what was written on the scrap of paper. Their assumption was that it was the Tracfone number and that Smith shared that information with Matthews and Cook.
Paula Carson, head of the Northwest District for the SBI, testified that she received a call from Raleigh and was provided the Tracfone number and informed it was associated with a call to the governor’s office and allegations of corruption within the Mocksville Police Department.
Called to the stand by the plaintiff’s attorney, Capt. Chris Shuskey, Davie County Sheriff’s Office, told the court he was contacted by Smith and asked to run a phone number through the department’s database. The request was to locate the owner of the phone but not to investigate. Shuskey told the jury he was told the phone was used in connection to a call to the governor’s office and allegations against Cook.
Shuskey ran the number and came up with a connection to a Hispanic female who did not live in Mocksville.
“I called Lt. (Nelson) Turrentine with the Mocksville Police Department to have him run the number through their database,” Shuskey testified. He also shared with the police lieutenant that in his own search he came up with the name of the Hispanic female. He said Turrentine told him the name sounded familiar and after checking, reported it was in association with a drug case involving Ken Hunter’s nephews.
Turrentine was the next witness and he told the court it was common for he and the sheriff’s office to work together on drug cases. He was asked if he had any paperwork on the case and he said he did not take notes. He said he entered the cell phone number into his own phone, but did not let the call go through. He then gave the number for the administrative secretary and another detective and asked then to check the number.
Turrentine said that he never heard anything about a call to the governor and any allegations against Cook.
Smith called the Tracfone and left his name and asked for a return phone call. Hunter and Medlin testified that when they realized the case had been assigned to Smith, they had been compromised.
“We expected it would be someone from Raleigh who would do the investigation,” Medlin told the court. “When it was turned over the the Davie SBI agent we knew we’d been compromised.”
Hunter testified that fearing retaliation, he disposed of the Tracfone. He did not return Smith’s call because of the agent’s close ties to law enforcement in Davie County.
There was subsequent testimony that the Tracfone number appeared on the Mocksville Police Department’s telephone bill in association revealing an exchange of calls between that phone and the officer’s cell phones. The bill covered a period from November to late December. The date of the invoice was Dec. 27. The officers were fired on Dec. 29.
The defendants deny ever knowing about any call to the governor’s office or allegations of corruption. Cook testified to a lengthy list of complaints against the officers and their job performances. He did not have paperwork to back up his allegations, however, as he stated he did not operate his department by keeping notes or doing personnel evaluations.