Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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The State Bureau of Investigation will not investigate the Cherokee County Detention Center from 2014 forward, as Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer said he requested.

In a press release sent Nov. 29, Palmer said he, along with District Attorney Ashley Welch, asked the SBI “to investigate any and all allegations of impropriety at the Cherokee County Detention Center since Dec 1, 2014.”

District Attorney Welch estimated in December that such an investigation could take more than a year and could be among the broadest state investigations in Western North Carolina in recent years.

Sometime after that, and before Christmas, Kelly Oaks, assistant special agent in charge of the SBI’s western district office in Asheville, called Palmer to tell him that wouldn’t happen, Oaks told Carolina Public Press this week.

“I had that discussion with the sheriff, that it was impossible, I remember telling him,” Oaks said. “And I believe the sheriff was fine with that.”

Palmer has requested investigations of the SBI before.

Earlier last year, he asked the agency to look at allegations of inmate abuse from a May 2 assault involving federal inmate George Victor Stokes. In December, a grand jury indicted a former detention center guard on two misdemeanor assault charges from that assault.

Though the SBI investigation of the Stokes case is essentially complete, Oaks said the agency asked the Sheriff’s Office for a record of who edited the incident reports after a CPP article last week, which detailed a former jail guard’s concern that someone altered his report.

The SBI also opened an investigation in July when inmate Joshua Shane Long died after collapsing in the detention center. Oaks said that investigation is now complete and a summary of findings was recently handed off to the District Attorney’s Office.

The SBI presents findings of its investigations to district attorneys, but the DA’s offices decide whether to charge anyone with a crime, Oaks said. The SBI investigates cases of criminal wrongdoing.

Oaks declined to comment on whether the SBI’s findings in Long’s death were likely to lead to criminal charges once the DA has reviewed them.

The only SBI investigation that remains active involving the Cherokee County Detention Center, Oaks said, is one prompted by a CPP article in late October in which two former guards alleged a culture of “jailhouse justice.” The former guards said some detention staff used inmates as “enforcers” to beat up other inmates and did not make an effort to protect inmates vulnerable to assault.

The sheriff requested that investigation in early November, Oaks said. Around that time, jail administrator Mark Patterson resigned. Palmer said on a local radio show that he intended to restructure his department, and since then the jail has seen a parade of resignations and firings along with new arrivals.

“We have limited resources,” Oaks said. “Sometimes we have to be selective in what cases we look into.”

Looking at a blanket investigation of Palmer’s detention center over a span of four years, she said, was just not practical.


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Kate Martin

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

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