by David M. Reutter
The sheriff’s office in Cherokee County, North Carolina lost five veteran deputies to abrupt firings and resignations in just two months following an October 2018 news report that described allegations of staged fights between prisoners in a crude form of “jailhouse justice.” In December, two former deputies were indicted for assaulting a detainee at the Cherokee County jail. Another high-profile dismissal in March 2019 followed a probe by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), which was the third time the sheriff’s office had been investigated since Sheriff Derrick Palmer’s election in 2014.
The most recent investigation began in December 2018, when former guards Wesley “Gage” Killian and Joshua Gunter were indicted on misdemeanor assault charges for an altercation with prisoner George Victor Stokes, which occurred at the jail in May 2018. Stokes, who was handcuffed, was allegedly shocked with a stun gun by Gunter and then kicked in the head by Killian. Both deputies were fired later that month.
Claims depicting a pattern of detainee abuse were verified by Joseph Preston Allen, who retired as a sergeant in March 2018 after 11 years at the jail, and by Tom Taylor, a veteran guard of seven years who quit in August 2018. Both said inexperienced jailers encouraged prisoners to fight each other using a practice called “pop the locks,” in which a detainee’s cell was opened so other prisoners could attack him.
Allen pointed to the March 14, 2018 attack on detainee Corey Hall, who “got the piss beat out of him” by other prisoners. Over a six-week period, Hall was moved out of the medical wing four times but returned within days. Allen protested to Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen and the jail administrator, Captain Mark Patterson, citing a policy that gives newly arrived prisoners a chance to alert guards to possible issues with other prisoners in the unit they are assigned to, but his concerns were disregarded.
“Captain [Patterson] told me, ‘This is jail, they might as well get used to it,’” Allen said.
The death of Joshua Shane Long after he was booked into the facility on drug charges on July 11, 2018 was also addressed in the SBI investigation. Long was acting erratically and seen consuming a pill upon his arrest. He was taken to the jail and placed in an observation cell; about five hours later he collapsed, and efforts to revive him failed.
“If he ingested something, he shouldn’t have even been in that jail,” Allen said. “I would have sent him to the Murphy Medical Center.”
However, Thigpen first spent around 45 minutes calling court personnel to get Long’s bond unsecured before finally having him transported by helicopter to a Tennessee hospital, where he was pronounced dead. In November 2018, the SBI turned over its investigation to District Attorney Ashley Welch, whose office is still completing its review.
Another incident at the jail involved prisoner Steven Hall, who was chained to a floor drain while naked. Thigpen claimed Hall was out of control and harming himself, but jail policy requires a detainee to be placed in a restraint chair and a nurse to be called in such situations, Taylor said. Cherokee County deputies dressed Hall in a jail uniform from the neighboring Graham County Detention Center, then dropped him off at that facility.
After the SBI investigation, Chief Deputy Thigpen was fired from his $54,000-a-year job in March 2019 – reportedly for allowing his wife, Libby, to make personal use of a Sheriff’s Office cell phone. Libby Thigpen, a former deputy, was fired in December 2018 after resisting a transfer to the county’s Department of Social Services (DSS), where Sheriff Palmer’s wife, Cindy, is a former director and current business officer. DSS has also been the subject of a recent SBI inquiry.
By the time Thigpen left, Patterson had already retired as jail administrator after learning he was being demoted. Three other veteran jailers – Lt. Tom Beasley, Lt. Sally Lawson and Lt. Jeremy Bresch – quit or were forced to resign around the same time.
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