How Unchecked Power and No Oversight Gives Rise to Abuses
by Anthony W. Accurso
On December 15, 2000, Derwin Brown was returning from a party when he was gunned down. He was holding flowers he had purchased for his wife, Phyllis, when assailants opened fire, striking him at least 10 times and cutting short his life at age 46.
Yet this was no run-of-the-mill shooting. There were four men charged for participating in the murder, and all of them were employees of the Sheriff’s Office in DeKalb County, Georgia, which includes the eastern portion of Atlanta and all of Decatur. They executed Brown at the direction of Sidney Dorsey, the county’s lame-duck Sheriff, who had recently lost his bid for re-election to Brown. Allegedly, Dorsey promised preferential treatment for his employees if he retained office after the hit.
The tenure of Dorsey, then 60, who served as sheriff from January 1997 until December 2000, was marred by allegations of corruption and sexual harassment. Brown was three days from assuming office and replacing him when he was murdered.
Patrick Cuffy, one of the deputies charged in the shooting, struck a deal with prosecutors and told them he had acted with other deputies at the direction of Dorsey. He explained that two deputies waited in the bushes for Brown to arrive, while another deputy was down the street in case the Sheriff-elect tried to escape. Cuffy was in the car that transported the deputies to and from the scene.
“My mission was to follow through with what Mr. Dorsey asked, and that was to kill Derwin Brown,” Cuffy said to The Los Angeles Times. Using the word “mission” in his statement was likely no accident, as he almost certainly saw this instruction from his superior officer as an order, not a request.
Dorsey was subsequently convicted for arranging Brown’s murder and received life in prison for his crime. Almost seven years after the murder, he admitted to ordering the hit but claimed he had called it off and had no knowledge it would be carried out. He claims he told Cuffy prior to the hit, “I was crazy. I was out of my mind. I want to move on with my life. Forget that”—the last statement making reference to the note Dorsey gave to Cuffy ordering the assassination.
Dorsey’s fall from power is not an unfamiliar one in the annals of American history. A powerful politician, also married to another successful politician—then-Atlanta councilwoman Sherry Dorsey—is caught up in allegations of sexual harassment and corruption, and thus begins a descent into madness that results in more unethical, and sometimes criminal, behavior.
Yet this case is exceptional and extreme, not only because it involved a conspiracy to murder his political opponent, but because the crime was perpetrated by a sitting sheriff and his deputies—all persons properly labeled “law enforcement,” the very citizens expected to uphold the law, not violate it.
What Makes Sheriffs Special
2020 was a year that brought unrest across America in a way not seen since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and the anti war protests of the late 60s and 70s. Protesters took to the streets in many cities because George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, slowly strangling him to death in the street while a group of people stood helplessly by (and at least one filmed the act).
Multiple reporting sources over the past decade have indicated that over 1,000 people are killed on average each year during an arrest or other confrontation with police. According to the Raza Database Project, that number rises to over 2,000 people who are killed by law enforcement each year after accounting for deaths that occur in the presence of an officer, which includes many prisoners who die in county jails. [Editor’s Note: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average annual of over a thousand people died in county jails between 2008–2018, 75% of whom were unconvicted at the time of their deaths.To the extent we do not even know how many people die at the hands of police in the U.S., it is no accident. The government at every level has made the explicit choice not to track, document or publicize the number of people they kill. Much like the Pentagon has explicitly decided not to measure its success with “body counts” and long ago stopped publishing any data on the people it killed. One obvious conclusion is that the lives of people killed by the police and military are so worthless and devoid of any value they are not worth counting. Contrast this with how the government tracks and endlessly publicizes the number of police and military who die each year.]
But there was something about the video of Floyd’s lengthy murder that was both agonizing and uniquely outrageous. It was during the protests that followed that the Black Lives Matter movement garnered national attention, which it has used to highlight how law enforcement not only kills Black and brown people, but also the frequency with which police themselves break the law or otherwise commit acts of abuse.
Yet sheriffs are special. In the realm of law enforcement, no other position exists where a person is selected by a publicly held election. Further, the office of sheriff is one which comes with very little, if any, oversight. The position is authorized by state constitution or statute, yet sheriffs do not serve at the behest of a governor or the county’s commissioners.
They are responsible for housing prisoners, which involves the management of the county’s jail. These facilities can range in size from very small—think of the tiny jail in the Andy Griffith Show’s fictional Mayberry—to very large, like the Cook County Jail in Chicago, a sprawling 96-acre facility that housed 9,000 people daily until the COVID-19 pandemic, and which still holds almost 6,000 on any given day.
Sheriffs have control over budgets that can be in the billions of dollars (the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department budget for 2020 was $3.5 billion), or tens of millions, even in counties with few inhabitants. They may receive budgetary funds by entering into contracts to rent bunk space in the county jail to house federal prisoners and they almost all receive kickbacks from jail phone providers and other vendors that exploit prisoners and their families. They also benefit from taxpayer funds authorized by the county or grants from states or the federal government.
Sheriffs interact with citizens under their charge to “keep the peace,” meaning they conduct welfare checks, investigate crimes, execute search warrants, and arrest suspects. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, they can seize property from people who haven’t been charged with crimes. In many jurisdictions, the sheriff’s office is where sex offenders register with the state. In some districts, sheriffs may still deputize volunteers to act as official law enforcement.
The web of law enforcement jurisdictions covering any given place in America includes several agencies. In a big metropolitan area like Kansas City, Missouri, people may be stopped by an officer during their daily commute, and that officer may be employed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Kansas City Police Department, or the Jackson County Sheriff ’s Office. And yet, the sheriff’s department may be the only agency with which a person ever comes in contact, especially in rural areas.
It is for these reasons that when a sheriff or his deputies break the law, they often do so in ways that are unique to their position. They can, and do, commit crimes like those police commit—murdering a person in an unlawful shooting during arrest or mishandling evidence—but sheriffs often commit crimes that only they can commit by virtue of their roles in a community, such as by using jail prisoners illegally to build a shed on the sheriff’s private property.
Importantly, sheriffs are not necessary. Sure, someone needs to “keep the peace” in rural counties, but a few states have found different solutions. Both Alaska and Connecticut have no sheriffs at all, and instead rely on state police to handle those job functions. Hawaii and Rhode Island both technically have sheriffs, but their statewide law enforcement agencies appoint these people instead of having a county elect them, providing at least nominal oversight of policies, budgets, and actions performed in the name of upholding the law.
Even though the position of sheriff has been with us since its inception in ninth century England, Americans should take the opportunity afforded by the larger conversation about law enforcement in the modern era to reconsider whether sheriffs, as both politicians and agents of the law, should continue to be a part of our future.
If Georgia sheriffs were appointed by the state law enforcement agency, Derwin Brown might still be alive today. If sheriffs served at the behest of state governments, they would be supervised by larger agency systems that might at least in theory prevent, or more readily detect, fraudulent use of budgets or civil rights violations. In fact, many of the offenses committed by sheriffs and documented in this article could have been prevented if the persons performing the job functions of sheriffs were beholden to anyone other than the electorate at large.[Editor’s Note: Given how well this works with Department of Corrections, maybe not.]
Readers of Prison Legal News may recall Nicole Audrey Spector’s article on the cover of our June 2021 issue, “The 10 Worst Sheriffs in America.” That article covered current sheriffs whose policies are abusive or unethical, but not necessarily criminal. The sheriffs and deputies detailed below have all been convicted of crimes since 2009 and have been removed from office (with noted exceptions). Being a bad sheriff is an inherently subjective opinion and ultimately it is the voters who decide it. Being a criminal sheriff on the other hand, and specifically a convicted criminal sheriff, is a factual matter and not subject to opinion.
Unlike when low level employees of police agencies commit crimes, criminal activities by the agency head are a special concern. If leadership flows from the top, it is not unreasonable to expect that corrupt leaderships breeds corruption at every level of an agency. Law enforcement apologists and shills have long claimed that police committing crimes are “just a few bad apples.” But what if the tree itself or the whole orchard is rotten?
Jail and Custody-Related Abuses
Sheriffs manage most of the vast network of county jails in the United States. Large for-profit prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group regularly come under fire for abuses that occur in facilities they operate, but they are merely the most visible detention-facility providers and manage very few county level facilities. Prison Legal News frequently reports on sheriffs and their deputies who beat or rape prisoners, or deliberately ignore their serious medical concerns, often resulting in deaths. Sheriffs also treat jails like their own little private fiefdom, where they get to make all the rules and treat it like their own personal property, and that includes the prisoners inside them.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, develops the idea that the prison system is merely a legalized extension of American slavery, which treated Black Americans like property. Many of the sheriffs listed below treat prisoners, and sometimes their own staff, like property.
2021—Dawes County, Nebraska: Sheriff Karl Dailey was found guilty in March 2021 of official misconduct for refusing to book a suspect into his jail.
The suspect was wanted in relation to the kidnapping of a Lakota woman from Rapid City, South Dakota. She eventually turned up at a hospital in Chadron, Nebraska, where she informed staff that a man had raped, beaten, and threatened to kill her, and that he was staying at a motel in Crawford, Nebraska, in Dawes County.
Chadron police initially attempted to get Dailey to investigate the matter, but they were able only to leave a message with a deputy. The Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) then converged on the hotel room where the suspect was staying and obtained a warrant to search his room. It was at this point that Dailey arrived at the scene and began ranting about NSP investigating a crime in his county without first consulting him. The sheriff further said he wouldn’t accept any prisoner arrested by NSP, despite a clear legal duty to do so.
After the suspect was located in Chadron, he was transported to a local hospital due to a non-serious injury sustained in a fight. It was then that Dailey altered his rationale for denying to house the suspect due to alleged concerns over his “medical condition or high-risk status,” as U.S. News reported. The judge found Dailey’s excuse a clear fabrication because “evidence regarding the sheriff’s actions prove[d] otherwise.”
He was subsequently fined a mere $750, and he was not removed from office.
Dailey has “served” as the sheriff in Dawes County since 1986. As noted on state politics blog Seeing Red, court records indicated that Dailey considered the request to jail a violent rapist “as just a fuck you” and said, “I don’t get bitch slapped by anybody. I am Sheriff Karl Dailey.”
2021—Chester County, South Carolina: Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood was convicted at trial in April 2021 on charges of conspiracy, fraud, federal program theft, and deprivation of rights stemming from an incident in November 2018, when a horrific car crash outside his house brought Kevin Simpson onto his lawn. There he used his cell phone to record and livestream the police, fire, and EMS response, including a med-evac helicopter.
Sheriff “Big A” objected to being filmed and arrested Simpson, keeping him in jail for three days without filing charges. Simpson reported this civil rights violation, which kicked-off an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during which agents discovered that one of Underwood’s deputies—likely at his behest—created a police report three months after the fact which lied about Simpson wandering into the public roadway and cursing at police, an account easily disproven by Simpson’s video.
Further investigations by the Charleston Post & Courier found Underwood had skimmed funds from federal DUI task-force money, used county funds to pay for a first-class trip to Reno, Nevada, with a deputy and both of their spouses, and misused deputies to construct a “man cave” in Underwood’s barn, sometimes pulling them away from drug stakeouts.
The 55-year-old sheriff was suspended in 2019 and then convicted. Also convicted in these schemes were Lt. Johnny Neal—who helped illegally arrest Simpson— and Deputy Chief Robert Sprouse, whose charges included making false statements and falsification of records for trying to cover-up the illegal arrest.
Underwood first began serving as sheriff in 2012, but he worked in law enforcement for 28 years prior to his election, including a long career as an agent in the State Law Enforcement Division—the same state agency which investigates misconduct by law enforcement.
2020—Colleton County, South Carolina: Sheriff Andy Strickland, 42, pleaded guilty in 2020 to three charges resulting from an investigation into misuse of county resources. Unlike other sheriffs who used prisoner labor for their own benefit, it was his deputies that Strickland forced to do work unrelated to county law enforcement.
According to Creighton Waters, a prosecutor with the state Attorney General’s Office, the deputies even had a special radio code that told them they were being dispatched for this kind of work—a 10-48.
“That typically meant you were doing personal work for the sheriff,” said Waters.
Strickland was also convicted of punching his girlfriend after he found her communicating with another person about his deteriorating mental health.
Original reporting by the Charleston Post & Courier revealed that he “used county tax dollars for a $1,500 Myrtle Beach hotel charge” for “a separate room for his children during a sheriff’s conference.”
Subsequent investigations revealed that he “coerce[d] a female employee into a sexual relationship and illegally distribute[d] the prescription drugs Ambien and Adderall.”
These activities were in addition to forcing his “deputies to help him flip houses, sell used appliances—even do campaign work on county time.”
Despite all of this criminal behavior, Strickland was sentenced to just one day of jail and five years of probation, which includes 200 hours of community service. The judge cited “Strickland’s determination to be treated for his substance abuse and mental health problems” when assigning such a lenient sentence.
2018—Sedgewick County, Colorado: Sheriff Tom Hanna had been “accused in 2016 of taking a developmentally disabled woman from his county’s jail in Julesburg to his home in his personal truck and sexually assaulting her,” according to a report by Denver TV station KCNC.
At trial in May 2018, a jury convicted the 45-year-old sheriff on charges of official misconduct and transporting a prisoner to his home in a personal vehicle, but he was acquitted of sexually assaulting an at-risk person.
He was sentenced in July 2018 and received a mere seven months in jail.
“This sentence is what the public deserves,” insisted Senior Deputy District Attorney Danielle Jaramillo, though she made no comment about how difficult it is to convict a sexual predator serving in law enforcement when the only witness is an “at-risk person” accused of a crime.
2017—Fentress County, Tennessee: Sheriff Charles Cravens, 47, admitted that “between July 2016 and February 2017, he used his position as sheriff to provide extra benefits to female prisoners in exchange for sexual relationships with each woman,” according to a press release from the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).
Court documents detailed incidents where he “drove female prisoners from the jail and engaged in sex (with them) in a vacant trailer or in his vehicle.” In exchange, Cravens funneled money to the prisoners through their family members, allowed them outside the jail for cigarette-smoking and personally escorted them to visit relatives away from the jail.
On the same day that he was indicted in April 2017, Cravens resigned and pleaded guilty to three counts of honest services fraud and one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release.
2017—Los Angeles County, California: The FBI conducted investigations into unprovoked beatings and other civil rights abuses in the several jails run by Sheriff Lee Baca.
As previously reported in Prison Legal News, both Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, were convicted of various crimes—Tanaka in 2016, Baca in 2017—related not only to prisoner abuse but also to extensive efforts the two undertook to cover them up. Baca went so far as to open investigations into agents from the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad after learning they worked with a jail prisoner who had access to a cell phone (which was smuggled into the jail by a corrupt deputy).
While Baca lied to the FBI during this investigation, Tanaka had a history of evading responsibility.
“During his time as an executive, defendant [Tanaka] threatened to discipline supervisors who frequently referred deputies to Internal Affairs, transferred captains who tried to reduce deputy abuse and break up cliques, instructed deputies how to work in the ‘gray area’ of law enforcement, and expressed his desire to gut Internal Affairs,” according to prosecutors.
Baca, 75, was sentenced in May 2017 to three years in federal prison. Tanaka received five years in prison and a $7,500 fine. Twenty-one then current and former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department were also convicted and received between six months and eight years in prison for beating prisoners or covering up the beatings. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.42]
2015—Lexington County, South Carolina: After 42 years in office, a stint that made him the state’s longest-serving sheriff, 68-year-old Jimmy Metts pleaded guilty in April 2015 to one charge related to his “role in an alleged scheme to help [undocumented immigrants] housed at the county jail avoid federal detection,” according to a report by Columbia TV station WLTX. He was sentenced to ten months in federal prison and was released from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, in April 2016.
2014—Chesterfield County, South Carolina: Sheriff Sam Parker was found guilty in April 2014 on eight counts “including embezzlement, misconduct in office and furnishing contraband to inmates,” according to a report by Charlotte TV station WSOC. More details surfaced in a report by Columbia TV station WLTX that said investigations showed Parker provided “chosen inmates” at his jail with “access to women, weapons, alcohol and the Internet,” with the apparent motive of enriching himself.
After an emotional apology from Parker at his sentencing, the judge admonished him for violating “the trust of the general public,” and sentenced him to two years in prison—five if he violated his probation.
2013—Abbeville County, South Carolina: Sheriff Charles Goodwin, 61, pleaded guilty in December 2013 to charges that he “took kickbacks on repairs on county vehicles and used a state inmate to do work for him and his friends,” according to a report by Greenville TV station WYFF. Because he “had county vehicles serviced at a body shop from 1998 to 2011 and took a share of the money the county paid for the repairs,” he resigned and was sentenced to five years on probation and 100 hours of community service.
2012—Saluda County, South Carolina: Sheriff Jason Booth apparently took the idea of extending slavery to heart after a new prisoner arrived in his jail in 2006 who had skills as “an expert welder, electrician, engine repairman, and all-around handyman,” as reported by the Charleston Post & Courier. The 39-year-old sheriff was indicted for misdemeanor misconduct in office and pleaded guilty in 2012 because he had the prisoner “build him a party shed and an ornate gate [on his private property, as well as] dig a pond in his yard and complete other projects at his home.”
In exchange, the prisoner was housed in a trailer near Booth’s home, allowed conjugal visits with his girlfriend, ate out at restaurants with Booth, rode around on a four-wheeler and was escorted on trips out of town to visit family.
All of this occurred after the State Corrections Department counseled the sheriff in 2005 about the rules regarding prisoner labor.
Further, Booth lied to investigators about this arrangement in 2011, as did several other witnesses. Only after perjury charges were filed against some of the witnesses did the truth emerge.
Booth originally faced up to ten years in prison, but he was sentenced to one year in jail, and that was suspended in exchange for five years of probation and a $900 fine. Prosecutor Strom Thurmond, Jr.—son and namesake of the late racist U.S. Senator, who campaigned for President in 1948 on a platform of strict racial segregation—pleaded him down to a lesser charge of official misconduct, saying “[w]e found no evidence Sheriff Booth took any money from the coffers of Saluda County. He did, however, save himself thousands and thousands of dollars through the use of this inmate’s experience and free labor.”
2009—Custer County, Oklahoma: Sheriff Mike Burgess was convicted in January 2009 on 13 felony counts, including five counts of second-degree rape for his scheme to extort sex from several women participating in the county’s drug court program, which he helped supervise.
According to a report by the Oklahoma City Oklahoman, on the night of Jan. 3, 2007, Burgess arrested a woman at her home in Clinton for violating a drug court rule. He offered to keep her in drug court in exchange for sexual favors. He pulled over near a roadside barn off of State Highway 83 and forced her to perform sexual acts.
Burgess was convicted on two rape charges involving drug court defendants, as well as a sexual battery charge for groping a female deputy. Fourteen former prisoners in the jail also filed a civil suit—which included allegations that Burgess and his deputies organized wet t-shirt contests using female prisoners and gave cigarettes to those who flashed their breasts—winning a $10 million settlement. [See: PLN, March, 2012].
Burgess was sentenced to 79 years in prison and ordered to pay $15,000 in fines. This was an effective life-sentence for the 56-year-old former sheriff, and one of the few punishments documented in this article that appears to reflect the gravity of the crimes committed.
“What he did to those women is far more devastating than what we presented on the witness stand,” said Special Prosecutor Mike Boring. “We were very satisfied with the verdict.”
Drunk with Power
Attitudes like those evinced by Mike Burgess, Andy Strickland and Karl Dailey do not spontaneously manifest. They are cultivated over years in law enforcement spent othering people they see as mere criminals and less than human. Combining this attitude with the sense of entitlement that can result from winning unopposed election after election often leads to the kinds of hypocritical criminal abuses of power that violate “the trust of the general public” and damage communities.
Sheriffs are elected for the sole purpose of upholding the law in their county. Yet when they are faced with the opportunity to break the law, the lack of supervision inherent to their position allows them to believe that either they won’t get caught, or if they are caught, they will suffer few if any consequences (often aided by their role as custodians of evidence). Many of them plead for mercy that they had previously denied to the men and women they arrested, often for similar crimes. Except that when sheriffs commit crime, they do so with the full power of being an agent of government.
2021—Franklin County, Arkansas: On Aug. 9, 2021, Sheriff Anthony Boen, 51, was convicted by a federal jury of assaulting two prisoners in his custody, according to a report by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.
Almost three years earlier, in late Nov. 2018, Boen pushed a suspect onto the floor and grabbed his beard during an interrogation. Less than two weeks later, he repeatedly punched a prisoner who was shackled to a bench in the jail and not resisting.
Boen could get up to 20 years in prison at a sentencing scheduled for Jan. 12, 2022.
2021—Rio Arriba County, New Mexico: A jury hung while deciding a case in June 2021 against former Sheriff James Lujan that stemmed from a 2017 incident in which Lujan thwarted the arrest of his friend, Phillip Chacon, by serving him a restraining order and taking him from his house just an hour after the Española City Council member had led police on a high-speed chase. That led to felony charges against the sheriff of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness, on which he was retried on December 1, 2021.
This time, Lujan was convicted. According to a report by the Rio Grande Sun, the 60-year-old sheriff resigned, and he was sentenced to a three-year prison term, followed by a year and a half of probation, by First Judicial District Court Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood, who scolded him that he is “not above the law.”
“Nor can you ignore the law when it serves your purpose,” she added.
Meanwhile, Lujan faces additional charges of resisting, evading or obstructing officers earned in March 2020 when he showed up drunk at Chacon’s house as police returned with another warrant. Chacon, 39, pleaded guilty in March 2021 to two counts of aggravated battery, negligent use of a firearm and receiving stolen property, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
2020—Chisago County, Minnesota: Sheriff Richard Duncan, 55, pleaded guilty in October 2020 to an amended count of gross misdemeanor harassment and gross misdemeanor misconduct of a public officer for threatening email and text messages he sent to an employee of his in the fall of 2017.
According to his indictment, Duncan used the pseudonym “Control Freak” while threatening the victim’s children if she didn’t attend a law enforcement training out of town and share a hotel room and bed with him.
“The very person that took an oath to serve and protect is also the same person that invoked fear and harm in my life,” said the victim. “Duncan threatened my children’s lives, he did this to me, what else is he capable of?”
Despite calling Duncan’s behavior “troubling,” the judge issued a 2-year suspended sentence in December 2020 with 4 years on probation under psychological treatment. According to a report by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a separate civil suit filed by the victim against Duncan will be heard by a jury after a judge cleared the way in July 2021.
2019—Williams County, Ohio: Sheriff Steven Towns was convicted in November 2019 by a Bryan Municipal Court jury of a misdemeanor charge for “posting hundreds of pages of files related to county child abuse cases that contained confidential information on his official website,” according to a report by the Toledo Blade.
When he then filed an appeal to that conviction with the state Supreme Court in 2020, the sheriff charged county taxpayers to have the required transcript prepared of his trial, which he also ordered one of his deputies to attend on the county’s dime.
That earned him two new felony charges when state investigators caught up to him. But as reported by Toledo TV station WTVG, he avoided further prosecution by agreeing to resign and repay the county $2,349.28 for the cost of his transcript and the deputy’s time.
2019—Greenville County, South Carolina: Sheriff Will Lewis, 43, was convicted in October 2019, two years after his assistant, Savanah Nabors, came forward to talk about the months of sexual harassment she suffered, culminating in a sexual assault during a trip to Charlotte.
Lewis, a married man, admitted to the sexual relationship but claimed it was consensual. Two years and a four-day trial later, a jury convicted him on a charge of misconduct of a public officer but acquitted him on common law misconduct in office.
Nabors filed a separate civil suit relating to the sexual harassment, which the county agreed to settle for $100,000 in October 2018. After Lewis’ conviction, Greenville County master deputy Laura Jones told the Greenville News that “the past two years have been extremely stressful and taxing for the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office who work tirelessly to protect and serve the citizens of Greenville County.”
“In addition to our normal responsibilities,” she added, “we’ve had to deal with the tension, the divide this has created, and the constant limbo created by Will Lewis.”
Lewis was sentenced to one year in prison, the maximum allowable for his crime. He remained free while he filed an appeal, which the state Supreme Court denied in August 2021, sending the former sheriff off to jail two months later to complete his sentence.
“Sheriffs, solicitors, judges, we stand at a special place in the hierarchy of public officials, because the public invests in us so much power and authority over their daily lives,” commented Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who prosecuted the case. “So when we fail in that regard, we should be held to a higher standard.”
2019—Lincoln County, Washington: Sheriff Rene Rodriguez was convicted in November 2019 of child sex abuse. The sheriff, who was elected in 2016, had previously served as a deputy under contract from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office to the Bellevue Police Department and then the Hailey Police Department between 2007 and 2013. According to a report by the Idaho Mountain Express, it was during this period that he sexually assaulted his adopted daughter on at least six occasions when she was between the ages of 9 and 17.
Rodriguez was indicted in 2019 and subsequently convicted in November of that year on all six felony counts of sexual abuse, for which the 41-year-old was sentenced in March 2020 to 28 years in prison, though he will be eligible for parole after 14 years. He filed an appeal to his conviction in July 2020.
2018—Mississippi County, Missouri: Abusing a cellphone tracking service offered by prison and jail phone giant Securus Technologies, former Sheriff Cory Hutcheson was hounded from office in 2018 by allegations that he “applied for thousands of searches” without a warrant and “illegally accessed hundreds of people’s information,” skirting site requirements with uploads of “fake documents that he notarized himself, warrants that had nothing to do with his target and sometimes even random documents,” the Riverfront Times reported—“including his health insurance policy, his auto insurance policy, and pages selected from Sheriff training manuals.”
Prosecutors said that what apparently began as a shortcut to successful cases he made against drug dealers—boosting the former deputy into the sheriff’s office in 2017—eventually was used by Hutcheson to target a county judge and state troopers. One of the latter, Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeff Johnson, testified at Hutcheson’s 2018 sentencing that the sheriff was “the worst kind of person who could have ever been a law enforcement officer.”
As previously report by Prison Legal News, the then-36-year-old sheriff resigned to avoid prosecution on most of 28 charges against him, three of which were “related to a dispute with two elderly women who ran a hair salon (and) were withholding a paycheck from Hutcheson’s sister-in-law, who allegedly stole the salon’s appointment book.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2019, p.49]
2017—Maricopa County, Arizona: Much ink has been spilled discussing 89-year-old Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix. Some conservatives liked his version of tough-on-crime tactics: forcing prisoners in the Maricopa County Jail to live and work outside in the scorching heat of his “Tent City,” making them wear pink underwear and work on chain gangs.
Those same conservatives were less enthusiastic when, in the early 2000s, he began devoting nearly all of his office’s resources toward having his deputies pull over every Latino driver they could find in an attempt to stop illegal immigration, which resulted in a drastic reduction of investigations into other crimes, especially sex crimes. Some also complained that the detention of vast numbers of Latino citizens was a massive number of civil rights violations.
Regardless of these opinions, DOJ began investigating Arpaio and his deputies for civil rights abuses in 2008, under the administration of Pres. George W. Bush (R). The effort continued through 2011, after the White House had been won by Pres. Barrack H. Obama (D), culminating in charges filed against the sheriff in December 2011, accusing him of a “pattern of misconduct,” one “that permitted unlawful arrests and excessive force against Latinos,” as the Los Angeles Times reported.
That same month, the federal Department of Homeland Security quickly revoked Arpaio’s authority to detain illegal migrants, which is technically a function of federal law enforcement, though local police may be authorized to do so. At the same time a federal court—overseeing a civil rights case brought by a Mexican tourist who had been wrongfully detained—ordered Arpaio to cease making illegal stops and detentions.
But further investigations showed that his deputies did not stop but continued, at Arpaio’s direction, for another 18 months. For this wanton violation, Arpaio was convicted in July 2017 of civil contempt of court, a misdemeanor carrying fines and a maximum sentence of six months in prison. The following month, however—before Arpaio was sentenced—then-president Donald J. Trump (R) pardoned him, allowing him to escape accountability for his racist crimes.
Arpaio was first elected in 1993 to the position of sheriff in a county that covers much of the Phoenix metro area, and he remained in office until he lost re-election in 2016. The latter half of his term of office cost the taxpayers of Maricopa County over $100 million in legal bills to defend his willful disrespect of the constitutional rights of the citizens he was sworn to protect. Further, as a 2008 report by the Goldwater Institute concluded, Arpaio’s efforts had the net effect of undermining public safety. Yet for most of his tenure in public office Arpaio was the popular elected official in the state of Arizona. As PLN has reported previously, dozens of prisoners died in the Maricopa jail during his tenure and while the county paid millions to settle those claims, he was never held responsible for those deaths.
2016—Carter County, Oklahoma: Sheriff Milton Anthony, 65, agreed to relinquish his position and plead guilty to a felony charge of bribery in November 2016 so that prosecutors would drop a separate charge of sexual battery, after he extorted sex from a woman in exchange for agreeing to hire her husband. A conviction on both charges could have resulted in up to 10 years in prison.
Instead, as reported by TV station KXII in Sherman, Texas, he received a two-year sentence, which was suspended so he never had to spend time in jail. While he will no longer receive his monthly salary of $5,039 as sheriff, he will continue to receive his pension from the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System due to a provision in his plea agreement.
2014—Kent County, Delaware: Sheriff James Higden, 61, was convicted in September 2014 on two counts of stalking, two counts of harassment, and two counts of making terroristic threats after sending 11 text messages containing death threats to his ex-wife and making similar threats to another man.
As reported by the Wilmington News Journal, Higdon originally denied the charges, but investigators found evidence on his phone that proved he made the threats.
No information was available about the actual sentence he received, but he faced upwards of nine years in prison because he was on probation when he violated the no-contact order and stalked his ex-wife.
2014—Rio Arriba County, New Mexico: A predecessor of James Lujan, 53-year-old former Sheriff Thomas R. Rodella, was forced to resign after a jury convicted him in September 2014 of criminal civil rights and firearms charges. According to a DOJ press release, Rodella was off-duty and in his own vehicle and clothes when he and his son, Thomas Rodella, Jr., chased down another driver in March 2011, assaulting and dragging the man from his own car.
When the younger Rodella identified his father and the man asked to see his badge, the sheriff slammed his badge into the man’s face. Rodella then had his deputies arrest the man, detaining him in the county jail for two days until the charges against him were dropped.
Said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez, “Sheriff Rodella chose to abuse his power rather than uphold his oath to protect the public.”
2013—Jackson County, Mississippi: Sheriff Mike Byrd, who was indicted on 29 felony charges and two misdemeanor charges, pleaded guilty in December 2013 to a single state felony charge of intimidating a witness, as well as a federal charge of misleading conduct toward another person with intent to prevent communication to a federal law enforcement officer, according to a report by the Jackson Clarion Ledger. He served a sentence of six months of home confinement followed by three years of probation before succumbing to COVID-19 on his 71st birthday in November 2020.
Cases like Byrd’s frustrate the public administration of justice because much of the official misconduct goes untried in public. Though he confessed to kicking a restrained suspect and then lying about it—even having a deputy erase dashboard camera video of the arrest—Byrd also allegedly used his position and staff to attack enemies, raise contributions for private causes and get free lawnmower repair. He also skated by more serious charges, like suborning perjury before a grand jury, concealing a shooting at a county narcotics task force office and retaliating against a deputy who refused his sexual advances, though for that he was ordered to pay $260,000 in damages by a jury hearing the woman’s sexual harassment case in 2019.
2012—Ouachita Parish, Louisiana: Sheriff Royce Toney, 64, pleaded guilty in federal court on Aug. 2, 2012, to unauthorized access of a protected computer, one of 23 counts that included conspiracy, computer fraud, identity theft, and obstruction. As reported by the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, the other charges were dropped.
According to court documents, Toney, with the assistance of the department’s IT director, Maj. Michael Karl Davis, accessed a protected computer nine times between April and October of 2010 with the intent to illegally track a third party’s communications. He also accessed an email address belonging to his former chief of staff, itself an act of identity theft.
Upon learning that an investigation was underway, Davis, at Toney’s direction, reformatted the computer and reinstalled the operating system in an attempt to destroy evidence of their crimes.
Toney received a sweetheart deal that resulted in a fine of $15,225 and six months of home detention with electronic monitoring, followed by four years of supervision.
After serving only a year of supervision, Toney filed a motion to end it, claiming that doing so would be a “benefit to the community and a lessening of the case load in the probation system.” His motion was denied in December 2013.
Unchecked Greed and Lust
It is common that criminal defendants express remorse at sentencing, and sometimes this warrants a lower sentence. While many of the sheriffs covered here expressed remorse, many of them went to great lengths to obstruct investigations into their criminal behavior by destroying evidence or coercing witnesses to lie. Yet they were often afforded plea deals that most criminal defendants could only dream of. The notion that law enforcement officials should be held to a higher standard is just that. The reality is police who violate the law are rarely prosecuted and even when convicted get minimal or lenient sentences that poor people who are not high ranking police officials simply do not get.
This intimidation isn’t reserved for witnesses alone; as some of the cases above show, those closest to these criminal sheriffs suffer untold horrors when violent bullying is backed by the full force of the law and the unchecked power of the state.
And not only do these sheriffs abuse their power, but they are then often protected by their politician peers (since many district attorneys and state judges are also elected) instead of being held to the higher standard dictated by virtue of their authority.
The sheriffs catalogued below all took advantage of a lack of oversight to satisfy their lust for wealth or sexual gratification. Some mishandled funds, while others mishandled evidence for personal gain. Some distributed drugs into the community shortly after seizing them from other drug dealers. Others used their badge to shield sexual crimes.
2021—St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana: Former Sheriff Jack Strain, 58, was convicted in November 2021 “on eight charges of sex crimes against boys, including four counts of aggravated rape,” according to a report by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Before he was voted out of office in 2015, Strain had served five terms as sheriff. It wasn’t the child sex abuse that got him booted from office, either—that didn’t surface until after an investigation was begun into another scandal in which Strain set up a work-release program that he then privatized and gave to the adult children of close associates in exchange for kickbacks.
Strain still faces federal charges related to that corruption, to which two officials in the sheriff’s office have pleaded guilty to playing a role. It was one of those men, former Deputy Skip Keen, who alerted federal investigators that he had been a victim of Strain’s sexual abuse from the age of 10 up to and including his tenure at the Sheriff’s office, kicking off the investigation that culminated in the sheriff’s arrest and conviction.
2021—Texas County, Missouri: In September 2021, a judge found former Sheriff James Sigman, 49, guilty of forging a timecard for his chief deputy and lover, 39-year-old Jennifer Tomaszewski, who was also convicted in the scheme.
The couple was acquitted of other charges they faced, including endangering the welfare of a child, fraud and unlawful use of a weapon, after Tomaszewski began working before she was “legally commissioned to do so” and “pointed a gun at a family for possibly taking photos of officers who were executing a search warrant, beat up an inmate, and brought a child to the jail where there were unsecured inmates,” according to a report by the Springfield News Leader.
Sigman went on unpaid leave after the allegations surfaced in July 2018 and resigned under pressure from state officials in January 2020. But he demanded the back pay he had missed in the intervening months.
2021—Norfolk City, Virginia: On Aug. 24, 2021, former Sheriff Bob McCabe was convicted on 11 counts in federal court involving both conspiracy to commit and actual honest services mail fraud, as well as conspiracy to obtain and actually obtaining property under color of official right, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to reports by Portsmouth TV station WAVY, prosecutors introduced nearly 900 exhibits, spanning records between 1994 and 2016, when the sheriff quit to mount an unsuccessful bid for the mayor’s office. Those documents showed McCabe took bribes in exchange for altering contracts for vendors, granting contract extensions and renewals, and providing inside bidding information. He also received free catering service at his home and for his political events, went on luxurious trips for free, and he once took $6,000 in cash from a vendor at a Philadelphia hotel that he never reported.
McCabe, 63, faces up to 20 years on each of the 11 counts. His sentencing is scheduled for January 2022.
2021—Limestone County, Alabama: Mike Blakely, who was first elected sheriff in 1983, was fond of telling deputies that the best law enforcement training may have been the Andy Griffith Show.
“My hobbies today is ridin’ horses and helpin’ people,” Blakely said on the stand at his July 2021 trial. “My whole life has been public service.”
Well, at least some of it involved servicing his own wealth because he was convicted and removed from office in August 2021 for stealing $4,000 from his own campaign account by funneling it through a consulting firm, according to reports by the Birmingham News. He also took $29,050 from money belonging to jail prisoners in what was essentially an interest-free loan to himself.
The 70-year-old lost access to his retirement fund and was ordered to spend 3 years in jail in a neighboring county in September 2021.
2021—Chester County, Pennsylvania: Former Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, 77, an early booster of former President Donald J. Trump (R) in the 2020 election in this key swing state, pleaded no contest to illegally diverting county funds on June 9, 2021, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Before she left office in 2019, Welsh ran a fundraising operation to get money for the K-9 unit of the sheriff’s office. The unit was partially funded by state grant money funds which were subject to intense oversight, something that was not true of private donations.
So in 2018 Welsh used the department’s annual “Wild Game Supper” event to obtain private donations for the K-9 unit’s use. Though this was technically a private event, she assigned deputies to work it, and paid for their labor out of the overtime budget.
An investigation started that same year by County Comptroller Margaret Reif called into question nearly $200,000 in donations collected, and the State Attorney General found cause for concern. Prosecutors then brought charges alleging that Welsh used money from the K-9 Corps Fund to repay medical and accommodation costs for a family member’s pet who was not a K-9 officer.
On the same day she entered her plea, a judge ordered Welsh to cough up $17,000 to reimburse the county for salaries improperly paid to the deputies at the fund-raiser, along with an additional fine of $2,500. Her boyfriend and former employee, 65-year-old Harry McKinney, also faced related charges for diverting around $4,000 from Sheriff’s department funds to cover personal expenses. He was ordered to reimburse the county, as well.
In addition to this case, Reif sued Welsh separately in county court in 2019, seeking a reimbursement of $67,000 in overtime Welsh may have improperly paid McKinney. Reif’s lawsuit stated that overtime payments were “abnormal and inconsistent with county policy” and appeared to help “spike” retirement benefits for McKinney, whom the Inquirer said Welsh has lived with for 15 years.
In June 2021, the former sheriff was ordered to pay restitution in that case of $16,533.92, plus a $2,500 fine. McKinney was ordered to pay $12,167.93 in restitution, plus a $3,500 fine.
2020—Florence County, South Carolina: In January 2020, former Sheriff Kenney Boone, 52, was removed from office after pleading guilty to embezzling $17,000 in Florence County funds and drug-seizure money to buy personal items from Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop, Mainstream Boutique, Rapid Weight Loss, and other retailers. According to a report by the Associated Press, his own chief deputy reported the misconduct to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Shortly after that, Boone was sentenced to one day in jail and five years of probation, and he was ordered to pay back the $17,000 he stole. Then followed a February 2020 domestic violence incident, during which he took a baseball bat to his wife’s cat. For that probation violation, he was convicted and sent to jail in March 2020, serving four and a half months before his release in July 2020.
In December 2020, he went back to court on the domestic violence charge, where the cat lost and the former sheriff won the right to stay out of jail, provided he completes 26 weeks of domestic abuse counseling.
2020—Pike County, Ohio: Former Sheriff Charlie Reader, 47, struck a deal in 2020 to plead guilty to two counts of theft in office, one count of tampering with evidence, and one count of conflict of interest.
Appointed to fill a vacancy in the sheriff’s office in 2015, he subsequently won re-election in 2016. But by 2019, Reader’s gambling addiction had caught up to him, and he agreed to be suspended after receiving an 18-count indictment that included charges of racketeering.
According to the Associated Press, “Reader was accused of taking loans from sheriff’s office employees and a vendor and stealing more than $14,000 in seized drug money from evidence envelopes to fund his gambling habit.”
At his March 2021 sentencing, Reader sobbed, “Your honor, please don’t send me to prison.”
But Judge Patricia Cosgrove sentenced him to three years in a state lockup anyway. As Ohio Auditor Keith Faber remarked, the sheriff “was entrusted to enforce the law in his community and literally gambled it away.” The county filed suit in August 2021 to recover $128,00 in pay Reader collected while suspended and awaiting trial.
2019—Pickens County, Alabama: Sheriff David Abston, 68, had served in law enforcement for 41 years when he was ordered in November 2019 to serve 18 months in federal prison.
Abston pleaded guilty to one count each of wire fraud and filing a false tax return, resulting from a plot to obtain food donations from the West Alabama Food Bank—under the guise of distributing it through the church he attended—using it instead to feed prisoners in the county jail. Because Alabama law allows sheriffs to pocket unused jail food money, Abston was able to use the money he saved to enrich himself.
In addition to his prison term, he was ordered to pay $51,285 in restitution within 90 days, according to a report by the Tuscaloosa News.
“Abston tarnished his office and his badge,” said U.S. Attorney Jay Town. “He found out today he isn’t above the law. Those who believe they are will find themselves in federal prison.”
2019—Webster County, Mississippi: Former Sheriff Tim Mitchell pleaded guilty in June 2019 to embezzlement and trafficking in stolen firearms for taking guns from the sheriff’s office and selling them for his own enrichment. When he was arrested the previous December, he was also charged with trying to have sex with a prisoner at the county jail, according to a report by Tupelo TV station WTVA. A judge sentenced him to 15 years in state prison. His former investigator, Landon Griffin, pleaded guilty to similar charges and received a 10-year sentence.
2017—Lake County, Indiana: Pursuant to a county ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to choose a vendor to provide towing services for the sheriff’s office, which has vehicles impounded in Lake County and the city of Gary for ordinance violations.
As reported by the Northwest Indiana Times, former Sheriff John Buncich attempted to enrich himself and finance his re-election by soliciting bribes from two companies in exchange for awarding them the authority to tow vehicles for the sheriff’s office between February 2014 and October 2016, during Buncich’s fourth term in office.
He was removed from office when he was convicted by a federal jury in 2017 on felony counts of bribery and wire fraud, resulting in a $250,000 fine and a sentence of 15 years and 8 months in federal prison. After winning a 37-month reduction to that sentence in 2019, the 75-year-old former sheriff was back in court in November 2021 to argue for a reduction in his fine.
2017—Rutherford County, Tennessee: Sheriff Robert Arnold ran a business called JailCigs, which sold e-cigarettes to prisoners in the Rutherford County Jail, notably absent the approval of the county’s Board of Commissioners, as the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal reported.
Arnold clearly preferred a captive audience to which he could market his product.
Along with his uncle, John Vanderveer, and his administration chief, Joe Russel, the 41-year-old sheriff was convicted in 2017 of wire fraud, honest services fraud, and extortion—the latter relating to the coercive nature of Arnold’s business model. Russell was additionally convicted for witness tampering.
Arnold was sentenced to just over four years in federal prison, but he also spent his pre-trial time in custody because the court found he had committed domestic violence against his wife in 2016, around the time he was removed from office for his illegal business.
He was released from prison in April 2020. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017].
2016—Sandusky County, Ohio: Despite facing a 43-count indictment, Sheriff Kyle Overmyer won the 2016 Republican primary for re-election, though he eventually lost in the general election later that year and was convicted and sentenced to four years in state prison.
Overmyer had been under investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (OBCI) since December 2015, after the police chief in Lima, Ohio, told the media that the sheriff “had stolen drug take-back boxes filled with discarded drugs from various police departments in Sandusky County,” according to a report by the Freemont News Messenger.
The OCBI investigation then found that the “sheriff had misused public funds to go on family vacations and fund his campaign,” the paper added, citing special prosecutor Carol Hamilton O’Brien.
Overmyer later admitted to lying on ethics forms about being in debt, tampering with records, and that he was prescribed more than a thousand pain pills in a two-year timespan. After he went to prison, he admitted to having a drug problem, even receiving an incident report in July 2017 when guards recovered 15 different pills in his possession, stored in a vitamin bottle.
After his release in April 2020, the 46-year-old former sheriff told the News Messenger that “he wants to get back into the community, tell his story and work on helping people with addiction.”
2015—Williamsburg County, South Carolina: When Sheriff Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison in September 2015 for wire fraud and filing of false information, it marked the end of a remarkable fall from grace.
Just 34 years old when he first became sheriff in 2010, after his predecessor was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina, Johnson was elected to a four-year term in 2012. Yet he didn’t finish it. In fact, less than three years later, the 39-year-old former sheriff was out of a job, convicted and headed to prison.
Fun fact about credit repair: you can get a negative item removed from your credit report by claiming identity theft, so long as the claim is backed up by a police report.
Johnson conspired to file over 130 false police reports of identity theft for clients of Lester Woods, a Columbia businessman who ran a credit repair business, in exchange for kickbacks the two men then received.
As detailed in an FBI press release, the false reports caused over $11 million in trade liens and public debt to be suppressed by credit-reporting agencies for Woods’ clients.
2012—Winn Parish, Louisiana: Sheriff A.D. “Bodie” Little was convicted in February 2012 of one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of meth, one count of possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of meth, and two counts of the use of a communication facility to facilitate drug trafficking.
His crime spree began after he involved himself in an affair with a known distributor of methamphetamine in Winn Parish and the Shreveport area. According to federal prosecutors, Little also ran license plates and driver’s licenses on anyone his lover was considering doing business with in an attempt to prevent undercover drug enforcement agents from busting them.
As detailed in a DOJ press release, Little ultimately received a sentence of 13 years and four months in federal prison, plus three years of supervised release. He was on an early release when he made his way back into the news in May 2021, after he was arrested for trespassing on a woman’s property, the Winn Parish Enterprise reported.
2011—Whitley County, Kentucky: Former Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, 51, pleaded guilty in federal court in May 2011 to conspiracy to effect commerce by extortion under color of official right, conspiracy to distribute Oxycodone, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Elected in 2002, Hodge lost his bid for re-election to a third term in 2010. It was after he left office that investigators uncovered a vast web of criminal behavior fueled by his addiction to pain pills. According to an FBI press release, Hodge would bust drug dealers, but instead of arresting them, he would extort them for pain pills. Other drug dealers would be arrested and referred to Williamsburg defense attorney Ron Reynolds. If they hired Reynolds, the sheriff would receive a portion of the attorney’s fees in exchange for cooperating to reduce the severity of the charges.
Hodge also stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in county funds from accounts that were supposed to be used to cover operating expenses, tax payments, and to conduct undercover drug buys—so records showed that his department rarely logged any such drug buys. He also tried to cover these thefts by obscuring and hiding evidence.
In November 2013, a federal court ordered Hodge to reimburse Whitley County in the amount of $64,897, forfeit an additional $50,000 earned in his illegal kickback scheme, and serve 15 and a half years in federal prison.
He was also charged at the state level with 18 counts of abuse of the public trust, accepting a plea deal in November 2013 under which he agreed to repay $335,188 he stole from the county and serve a 17-year prison term. As reported by the Whitley News Journal, though, that sentence is to be served concurrently with his federal term, meaning he will be eligible for it to be paroled before he is due to be released from federal prison in 2024.
2010—Lee County, South Carolina: Sheriff E.J. Melvin, 48, resigned and was convicted in December 2010, after he was caught in an FBI drug sting. As reported by the Florence Morning News, federal agents suspected Melvin, who took office in 2001, had been selling drugs out of the back of his sheriff’s vehicle since 2004, and they suspected he was working with other drug dealers in the area, too. They gave him a list of suspected dealers in his county they intended to investigate. Then they tapped his phone and listened as the sheriff tipped-off the other dealers that the feds were after them. He was sentenced in January 2011 to 17 years in federal prison.
A Breeding Ground for Abuses?
Sheriffs have an enormous amount of both freedom and responsibility. They oversee vast and complicated budgets while also handling significant amounts of drugs and cash seized from suspects. This could be an accounting nightmare for even the most ethical of people but is clearly an overwhelming temptation for many.
Further, as many deputies are employed at the sole discretion of the sheriff, it takes exceptional courage for subordinates to report a sitting sheriff.
With these conditions in place, it is no small wonder that even this many crimes committed by sheriffs were brought to light. It boggles the mind to contemplate how much more wrongdoing would be discovered if every sheriff were thoroughly audited.
If, in reading the above list, you got the impression that South Carolina is overrepresented, you’d be right. Over 40 sheriffs are catalogued in this article, and approximately one third were from that state. However, those listed above were only the ones Prison Legal News was able to obtain detailed information about; at least two others were also involved in criminal offenses.
Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was sentenced in 2010 to 90 days in prison for financial offenses and lying to federal agents.
And in 2020, also from Union County, Sheriff David Taylor was indicted for misconduct after allegedly sending a sexually obscene photo using his county-issued cellphone. He was suspended by Gov. Henry McMaster (R) in July 2021, but his case was not adjudicated as of the writing of this article.
That makes 12 sheriffs accused or convicted of crimes from 11 counties in South Carolina, a state that has only 46 counties. And these cases account only for convictions from 2009 onward.
This means one of three things is true: South Carolina sheriffs are more blatantly corrupt than sheriffs in other states, the State Law Enforcement Division is exceptionally good at rooting out the bad ones, or other states have many more corrupt sheriffs who fly under the radar. This is a question which deserves further investigation.
Back to DeKalb County
Sidney Dorsey, the sheriff who ordered the assassination of his political rival, was not the only corrupt sheriff in the history of DeKalb County. He was just the most infamous.
Clem Jolly (served Jan. 1951 - Jan. 1953) was accused of stealing money from county funds. He admitted to using “bad judgement,” but he was acquitted by a jury in June 1951.
Robert Broome (Jan. 1953 - Dec. 1963) was charged with defrauding a “mentally incompetent” man in a property transaction, but he was acquitted in 1957.
J. Lamar Martin (Jan. 1964 - Jan. 1973) was found guilty in 1972 in a kickback scheme involving bail bondsmen. He was fined $12,905, the amount he made from the scheme, but he received no jail time.
Rayburn L. Bonner (Jan. 1973 - Dec. 1976) was indicted in 1976 for selling tickets to a fundraiser for a local hospital that received only 25% of the money raised. He was acquitted but lost re-election. He was indicted again in March 1977 for murdering a 16-year-old boy whom he said was attempting to break into his car, but he was acquitted on this charge as well.
Robert P. Jarvis (Jan. 1977 - Nov. 1995), a former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was convicted in another kickback scheme involving bail bondsmen but which also included food vendors and maintenance firms that contracted with the sheriff’s department. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Jeffrey Mann (appointed 2014, retired Dec. 2019) was arrested for exposing his genitals to an Atlanta cop after hours in the city’s Piedmont Park and then attempting to flee. He was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and given a $2,000 fine, but he retained his job while he appealed the decisions to revoke his law enforcement certification and remove him from office.
Sidney Dorsey was under investigation for unspecified “corruption” and sexual harassment when he was beaten by Derwin Brown in the general election. Since he was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for murder, we will likely never know the true extent of his corruption and can only speculate whether it involved a kickback scheme similar to those of his predecessors, or something more nefarious. But since DeKalb County covers Decatur and eastern Atlanta, you can be sure that whatever it was, it had the potential to reap immense profits and was enough to convince him to kill his rival. As we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, sitting sheriffs have the ability and the incentive to fabricate evidence to try to cover up their schemes, and maybe Dorsey just needed more time to do so.
“If you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.” —Robert G. Ingersoll
This article has catalogued the criminal actions of sheriffs who, despite a duty to uphold the law, and having taken vigorous actions to hold other people accountable, hypocritically fail to abide by it themselves. It is worth noting this list is not complete, and with over 3,000 sheriffs around the country we can only guess at the scales of corruption and brutality that are not otherwise reported.
A great many of them were enabled in their theft by little or no budgetary oversight or review. Others used the nature of their authority over drug crimes to distribute drugs themselves. Yet others suffered from all-to-common addiction problems, exacerbated by the unchecked power of their office.
Even more frighteningly, some wielded physical or sexual violence to force their victims, including family members and employees, into compliance with their desire for wealth, self-gratification, or merely more power. Some used their position to obstruct the search for truth and justice, undermining the very values they swore to protect.
Often, they used their sole discretion over the fate of their deputies to coerce them into going along with corrupt schemes.
A part of human psychology is that we feel entitled to the spoils obtained from conflict. When a law enforcement agent is given sole domain over money, property, and other people by virtue of having won a competition (i.e., an election), the resulting sense of entitlement can produce a righteous mindset that justifies even the most outrageous conduct, especially when there is a near total lack of accountability.
It should be no surprise that sheriffs are elected over and over again until they retire or are convicted of a crime. Most citizens never have an interaction with the sheriff’s department, and the many of those who do are labeled criminals and robbed of their vote.
To the extent that people can read this and agree there is a problem with accountability at the local law enforcement level, reforming our sheriff’s departments may be far less complicated.
If your county was listed in this article, or if your sheriff is suspected of corruption or abuse, criminal or otherwise, now is an excellent time to push for change. It is notable that the states with no sheriffs, or where sheriffs are appointed and managed by the state’s law enforcement agency, are not represented in this list. Abuses are still possible in these jurisdictions; they are just far less likely because of systems of accountability and a far-reduced sense of entitlement involved in appointment or promotion, compared to winning an election.
As Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely proved with his 38-year tenure before his corruption was uncovered, a sheriff can be popular and still unfit to serve. We all deserve law enforcement agents who are not corrupt or otherwise criminal. After all, they exist to protect and serve us, not just themselves.
Sources: Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Birmingham News, Charleston Post & Courier, FBI, Florence Morning News, Freemont News Messenger, Goldwater Institute, Greenville News, Idaho Mountain Express, Jackson Clarion Ledger, KCNC-TV, KXII-TV, Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Northwest Indiana Times, Oklahoma City Oklahoman, Philadelphia Inquirer, Raza Killings Database Project of Cal State University-San Bernardino, Rio Grande Sun, Riverfront Times, Seeing Red Nebraska, Springfield News Leader, Toledo Blade, Tuscaloosa News, U.S. Dept. of Justice, U.S. News, Whitley News Journal, Wilmington News Journal, Winn Parish Enterprise, WAVY-TV, WLTX-TV, WSOC-TV, WTVA-TV, WTVG-TV, WYFF-TV
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