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As the State Bureau of Investigation looks into allegations of inmate abuse at the Cherokee County Detention Center, District Attorney Ashley Welch said the agency’s probe could be among the broadest state investigations in Western North Carolina in recent years.
Last month, Sheriff Derrick Palmer and Welch asked the SBI to examine allegations of two former guards who detailed inmate abuse and a culture of “jailhouse justice” at the Cherokee County Detention Center.
In late November, Carolina Public Press revealed that an inmate had been left chained to a grate in the floor, naked and screaming, possibly for hours, based on internal Sheriff’s Office emails. Palmer and Welch then expanded the request to include all four years of Palmer’s tenure as sheriff.
While SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan confirmed that an investigation was taking place, she did not answer questions about the scope of the probe.
“The SBI will look at any criminal wrongdoing,” McQuillan said in an email.
This is only the latest of three SBI investigations into actions at the Cherokee County Detention Center. A grand jury recently indicted a former guard on two misdemeanor assault charges for kicking a restrained inmate in the head last May, which the SBI investigated after Palmer and Welch asked the agency to look into possible excessive use of force.
In July, the sheriff asked for an SBI investigation after inmate Joshua Shane Long collapsed at the jail a few hours after deputies arrested him. He was flown to a hospital in Tennessee, where he was pronounced dead.
Welch, whose 30th Prosecutorial District includes Cherokee County, said Wednesday that the most recent SBI investigation, which looks at incidents at the jail as far back as 2014, could last longer than a year.
“It’s going to be a huge undertaking,” Welch said. “This is a very broad scope. … If we receive information about potential abuse or assault, they are going to dig.”
The SBI office based in Asheville is likely to conduct the bulk of that work, she said. Its dozen or so agents work 16 of the state’s westernmost counties.
Welch said she cannot think of another investigation as broad. One recent example started out smaller but has since expanded. It also involves Cherokee County.
“We have an ongoing (Department of Social Services) investigation in Cherokee County that’s pretty broad. It did not start broad,” Welch said. “Then, when they looked into allegations, sometimes you realize there’s more things that need to be looked into.”
DSS investigation expands
The Cherokee County Department of Social Services has removed children illegally from their parents for years, according to investigations by The Associated Press and television station WLOS. Department staffers encouraged parents to sign custody and visitation agreements without judicial oversight — perhaps for as long as a decade. Removing children from their homes requires a judge’s order.
Once discovered, the state took over the office, and a judge voided many of the custody and visitation agreements. Cindy Palmer, Sheriff Palmer’s wife, had been director of DSS since March 2016 and had previously served as interim director at times. A DSS employee since 1998, Palmer was suspended from her leadership role in April after the state stepped in. Later, the department hired Palmer back in a different position, and she continues to work there today.
The practice may have occurred for longer than 10 years, The Associated Press found.
Welch said the SBI has expanded the scope of its investigation into the department’s use of custody and visitation agreements.
“We need to see how far back these allegations went,” Welch said.
SBI resources thin
Welch said while SBI agents typically investigate officer-involved shootings, they also respond to requests from law enforcement and district attorneys. The office rarely turns down requests, Welch said.
“They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the people,” she said of the SBI. “They have to triage just like my office does.”
And though the investigation into inmate abuse and other problems at the Cherokee County Detention Center spans all four years of Sheriff Palmer’s tenure, Welch said she believes the SBI will conduct a full review.
“If it’s too broad, they will let us know,” she said.
What did sheriff know, when did he know it?
Palmer has said he has asked deputies and other employees to notify him or supervisors directly if they see anything that is “immoral, unethical or illegal” with how his office is run. Via email, Palmer said he’s troubled that nobody approached him to report alleged inmate abuses at the detention center, despite having multiple opportunities to do so.
In a semiregular appearance on a local radio show, Palmer said he wasn’t aware of any improper actions at the jail.
“I have never had an employee come to me and share any of this information with me,” Palmer said. “None. I think that’s disheartening to me.”
However, Palmer’s statements contradict the series of emails exchanged within the Sheriff’s Office last year, regarding the naked inmate chained to a grate.
Since first reporting Nov. 28 on the emails a deputy sent to the sheriff in July 2017 while the inmate was confined, CPP has obtained additional emails during the same period that show the sheriff responded while the situation was ongoing.
Palmer said in an email to the complaining deputy that he would call the jail captain, who at the time was Mark Patterson. Palmer then forwarded the email to Patterson. Patterson has since resigned and taken employment as a school resource officer.
Palmer told CPP on Monday that he doesn’t remember responding to the deputy’s email about Hall’s treatment in the jail, which occurred about a year and a half ago.
“My only memories of the events that weekend only consist of being briefed on Monday, July 10, 2017,” Palmer wrote in an email to CPP. He said he would “love to discuss” the details of the events, but “however, it is now being looked into by the SBI and is considered a criminal investigation” and declined to elaborate.
County attorney declines to release incident reports
Palmer and the county attorney, Darryl Brown, have also repeatedly declined to fulfill CPP’s records requests for incident reports.
In November, Brown said in a phone call that incident reports will not be released to CPP because of ongoing SBI investigations.
“I spoke with the District Attorney’s Office about the narratives, and they advised that it would be best if we did not do that because it was under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation,” Brown said.
Welch said her office gave no such advice.
“I don’t think they can make this blanket statement under the law that this isn’t a public record, or because something is under investigation that you can’t turn this over,” Welch said.
Brown recently told CPP in an email that none of the records in question are public, citing a law relating to law enforcement video recordings — which is not what CPP has sought. While the statute he cited requires a judge’s order to release certain surveillance videos, it does not affect any other type of record.
Now that the SBI is investigating incidents at the detention center since 2014, Brown said he won’t release any incident reports unless the district attorney or state attorney general authorizes their release or unless a judge compels disclosure.
Despite the county attorney’s claims, Amanda Martin, lead counsel for the N.C. Press Association, has advised CPP that the applicable statute is G.S. 132-1.4(f), which says, “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.”
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