A former jail guard in Cherokee County says someone altered his incident report regarding a scrap between a jail inmate and guards in May 2018.
County records have also revealed that a financial settlement with the inmate was in the works not long after the incident. According to former guard Joshua Gunter, Sheriff Derrick Palmer openly discussed an arrangement with the inmate while the Gunter was being terminated on May 11.
Although altered, the basics of the incident report hold true, Gunter told Carolina Public Press this week. But someone has changed details and added language he would not have used.
The report in question describes a May 2 altercation between two former guards and federal inmate George Victor Stokes, who was temporarily housed at the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. In December, a grand jury indicted one former officer, Wesley Killian, on two assault-related misdemeanor counts for what the indictment described as kicking Stokes in the face.
Several hours after the incident, both guards filed incident reports. The reports were among those the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office refused to release to Carolina Public Press until late last month.
The mid-December records release was accompanied by a letter from County Attorney Darryl Brown, who wrote the incident reports were “unedited and unredacted.”
However, after reviewing the report released by the sheriff, former guard Joshua Gunter said his narrative appears to have been modified, compared to what he remembers writing about the events that day.
The incident report details a situation that escalated after Stokes demanded access to a television remote control. When detention officers went to confront Stokes, he threatened to throw them over the second-story railing. One guard, Gunter, tried to talk Stokes down.
The report narrative released last month says Gunter used “soft hand technique” when he asked Stokes to stop resisting — a term Gunter said was new to him.
“I heard someone telling me I should use it (the term “soft hands technique”), but I didn’t include that in my report because I didn’t know what it means,” Gunter said this week.
He eventually drew his stun gun and fired at Stokes, but one prong missed and Stokes started struggling with officers.
Gunter has told CPP that he then clubbed Stokes in the face with the butt of the stun gun, which knocked Stokes to the ground. He said he remembers including that detail in the incident report, but he said it’s been changed.
“I was honest,” Gunter said. “I put in the incident report that I clubbed him with my Taser in booking.”
Instead, Gunter’s narrative says, “At this time I had to go hands on with Inmate Stokes again.”
Gunter and Killian were placed on leave, and ultimately fired nine days after the incident, according to county records.
Settlement with Stokes
The county also moved to approve a settlement with Stokes. After the assault Stokes was transported to Murphy Medical Center, where he received several stitches to his upper lip.
Then, on May 31, Stokes and Sheriff Palmer signed a settlement. The six-page document says that in exchange for $800, Stokes can’t sue the county for damages nor file a lawsuit regarding the incident.
But according to Gunter, the sheriff’s deal with Stokes may have been sealed verbally earlier and played a key role in his own termination.
Gunter said this week that the sheriff was well aware of the May 2 incident at the time it occured. “This is a federal inmate,” Gunter said. “It’s a very big deal.”
But when Gunter and others approached Palmer in days immediately following the incident, Gunter said the sheriff asked them to put it on the back burner.
At the time, the sheriff was preparing to face a challenger in the May 8 Republican primary, while his wife, Cindy Palmer, was under investigation by the SBI due to problems at the county Department of Social Services, which she headed.
Although Killian faced suspension immediately after the incident, Gunter continued to work at the detention center.
On May 11, three days after the sheriff won his re-election bid, a Chattanooga TV station began asking questions.
Gunter said he received a call on May 11 and was told he had to stand down for about a week, while the May 2 incident was investigated. About 20 minutes later, his boss called him into the office, Gunter said.
“He fired me the very same day so he can make it look like that entire time, since the day (that the altercation) happened that he was investigating,” Gunter said.
According to Gunter, as he met with then-jail administrator Mark Patterson and another supervisor, Palmer popped his head in the door to tell Patterson that Stokes had “accepted the terms.”
After Palmer left, Gunter turned to the others present, he recalled this week, and said, “That’s pretty messed up that they are going to make sure the inmate is OK with it, but not a man who has to support his family.”
Carolina Public Press attempted to contact the U.S. Marshal’s Service this week about whether it was aware that its prisoner, housed temporarily in Cherokee County, had been party to this agreement. However, due to the federal government shutdown, spokespeople for the Marshal’s Service were not available for comment.
During the final days of May, Carolina Public Press began seeking records from the sheriff about the incident. On May 31, Palmer’s office released a press release to regional media, addressing parts of the information CPP requested, though without a clear context or timeline. His press release did not disclose his contract with Stokes, which was signed the same day.
CPP’s initial article on the incident appeared June 1.
Cherokee County commissioners formally granted unanimous approval of the deal with Stokes in their June 4 meeting.
For Commissioner C.B. McKinnon, it was an easy choice since the dollar amount was low and the county did not admit guilt by signing the agreement, he told CPP this week.
“You can’t pay a lawyer for two hours hardly for that,” McKinnon said of the $800 settlement. “It seemed like probably the thing to do.”
Stokes had been convicted of North Carolina charges for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, robbery, kidnapping, possession of a firearm by a felon and being a habitual felon. He had also pleaded guilty to threatening a federal judge and was serving a federal sentence. Records show Stokes has filed claims against various prison officials.
Palmer did not respond to a CPP request for comment sent Wednesday, which included questions about the settlement and whether the incident reports were altered.
You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina
Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative reporting for all North Carolinians.
Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative journalism takes a lot of money, persistence and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.
So, if you value in-depth and investigative reporting in North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!