A security gate at the Cherokee County detention center, in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press
A security gate at the Cherokee County Detention Center, in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Former Cherokee County Detention Center officer Wesley “Gage” Killian faces two misdemeanor charges of assault after a grand jury indicted him Monday.

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office fired both Killian and another guard, Joshua Gunter, on May 11, nine days after they were involved in a May 2 altercation with inmate George Victor Stokes.

If Killian is convicted of the misdemeanor charges, he could potentially face time behind bars.

The indictment says Killian assaulted Stokes “with his shoed foot, a deadly weapon, by kicking him in the face” and that he did “assault and strike George Victor Stokes by kicking him in the face, thereby inflicting serious injury.”

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office has so far refused to release detailed information about the incident and did not respond to another request Carolina Public Press made early Wednesday afternoon.

However, Gunter previously told CPP that he and Killian confronted Stokes after the inmate threatened to throw both detention center officers over the second-story railing if they didn’t give him a TV remote control.

At the time, Killian had worked at the Cherokee County Detention Center for only a few months as a part-time transport officer.

Stokes has a history of threatening guards, law enforcement officers and federal judges, court records show. In 2012, he was sentenced to 30 years after a conviction in Hoke County for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, robbery, kidnapping, possession of a firearm by a felon and being a habitual felon.

In a previous interview, Gunter described firing his stun gun to stop Stokes, with only one prong hitting the inmate. Stokes then struggled with officers and eventually handcuffed himself, Gunter said.

As they took Stokes down the stairs while handcuffed, the inmate struggled again, leading Gunter to club Stokes with the stun gun, according to Gunter. With Stokes on the ground, Gunter said, Killian kicked Stokes in the head, similar to the allegation described in the indictment.

Reached Wednesday, Killian’s attorney, Zeyland McKinney, said he had no comment about Monday’s indictment.

Gunter, who was just shy of his three-year anniversary when he was fired, said he’d heard the State Bureau of Investigation was trying to contact him during its investigation into the incident with Stokes. Gunter said he later learned the Sheriff’s Office had given the SBI the wrong phone number for him. An email to the SBI seeking to confirm this went unanswered.

After the SBI completed his investigation and Gunter was not facing potential indictment, Gunter said the Sheriff’s Office offered him his job back.

“I turned it down because I won’t work under that sheriff; that man puts his ego above his morals,” Gunter said of Sheriff Derrick Palmer, who is a former pastor at Vengeance Creek Baptist Church in Marble. “He’s a coward that hides behind a badge and a man who hides his sins under his Bible.”

Gunter added, “All he had to do was watch the video (of the incident). I did what was necessary. The only reason I was fired is because he (Palmer) didn’t want to put in the effort to help me.”

The surveillance video of the incident is not a public record and cannot be released to the public without a court order under North Carolina law.

As for Killian’s indictment, Gunter said he feels torn.

“Common sense tells you not to kick someone in chains,” he said, but Killian had “never been taught what could happen to him for doing it. He wasn’t the only one there that was untrained.”

Gunter said while he was under investigation, he unsuccessfully tried to find jobs in security. He now works in the manufacturing industry. Palmer did not respond to a request for comment.

Multiple investigations

CPP has reported on a series of other incidents at the Cherokee County Detention Center over the last two years, including allegations of a pattern of inmate abuse. Following an Oct. 29 article detailing many of these allegations, jail administrator Mark Patterson resigned.

It was later revealed that Sheriff Palmer asked the SBI to investigate the allegations of abuse at that time.

On Nov. 28, CPP reported on emails showing the sheriff was warned about an incident in which an inmate was kept chained to a drain in the floor while naked and screaming, possibly for several hours. Following this report, the sheriff asked the SBI to investigate his entire administration going back to 2014.

Legal dispute over records

Palmer has consistently declined to produce public records that CPP has requested, including details of the incident involving Stokes, Killian and Gunter.

Throughout, the sheriff has cited justifications for withholding records, such as the SBI’s ongoing investigations. County Attorney Darryl Brown has supported the sheriff’s position on these points and indicated that the sheriff is not obligated to explain why a requested record or information is denied in part or in full.

According to North Carolina media law expert Amanda Martin, lead counsel for the N.C. Press Association, their interpretation of state law on these points is incorrect.

“Anyone denying you access to a record needs to tell you,” Martin said, citing a portion of General Statute 132-6.2(c): “Custodians of public records shall respond to such requests as promptly as possible. If the request is granted, the copies shall be provided as soon as reasonably possible. If the request is denied, the denial shall be accompanied by an explanation of the basis for the denial. If asked to do so, the person denying the request shall, as promptly as possible, produce the explanation for the denial in writing.”

She also noted that even if certain reports might be withheld for legitimate reasons, General Statute 132-1.4 describes information to which the requester is entitled, including the general nature of an incident under investigation, which so far has been withheld in the case that led to the indictment.

As for the SBI investigation, that “has absolutely no bearing on anything,” Martin explained. Indeed, she noted that G.S. 132-1.4(f) specifically rules out this claim: “The use of a public record in connection with a criminal investigation or the gathering of criminal intelligence shall not affect its status as a public record.” The same provision also prevents an outside agency, such as the SBI, from ordering the sheriff not to release such records.

Editor’s Note: CPP managing editor Frank Taylor also contributed to this report.

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Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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