A security fence surrounds the yard where inmates go out for recreation at the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. A retired rescue dog, Gunner, also roams the yard. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

A former high-ranking guard at the Cherokee County Detention Center has told Carolina Public Press that he was asked to delay reporting an altercation between two guards and a federal inmate until after the May primary election.

Jeremy Bresch, a former lieutenant and assistant administrator at the jail, also said that inmate George Victor Stokes asked Sheriff Derrick Palmer to fire the two guards involved in the incident as an unwritten part of a settlement deal. The county eventually paid him $800, and Stokes agreed not to file a lawsuit.

The assault occurred on May 2 last year between the guards and Stokes, who is serving state and federal sentences, but was temporarily housed at the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. The cuts to Stokes’ face were so deep be had to have his upper lip stitched.

According to Bresch, Sheriff Palmer knew about the late-night scrap the next day. However, Jail Administrator Mark Patterson, who has since resigned, told Bresch to keep quiet about the issue until after the May 8 primary election, Bresch said.

“He didn’t want nobody to know about it at all until after the election,” Bresch said last week.

At the time of the incident, the election was less than a week away. Palmer faced primary challenger Dan Sherrill for sheriff, while Patterson was in a tight, three-way contest for Cherokee County Board of Education against Joe Wood and Paul H. Brown. Patterson secured a spot on the uncontested November ballot with 30 percent of the vote but decided not to take office after winning.

Told about Bresch’s statements last week, Palmer disputed them on several fronts. Palmer said Stokes asked that the two officers involved in the incident, Wesley Gage Killian and Joshua Gunter, keep their jobs. Palmer said he asked for an internal investigation into the assault. When asked if he ever told anyone he wanted to wait until after the election to report the inmate assault, Palmer said, “No, that’s not true.”

Patterson has not responded to a CPP request for comment.

Letters that Stokes sent to the sheriff in the days following the incident show his early push for a monetary settlement from the county, bragging about past successes in representing himself against jails and prisons.

His first letter, dated May 9, indicates he was willing to settle the lawsuit instead of filing an excessive force lawsuit if the sheriff spoke with him alone.

“It is obvious to me from reviewing the video footage (which will be presented to a jury) that jail officers are being train to attack and strike inmates over a verbal altercation and striking inmates who has either abandoned resistance or effectively restrained behind their back,” Stokes’ handwritten letter says.

In the letter, Stokes also asked to speak with Palmer about “other issues” about the jail that can be resolved by Palmer.

In a follow-up letter dated May 14, Stokes asked for an $800 settlement. Three days later, he sent another letter accepting part of the sheriff’s proposal, which had to do with his access to a television remote control. Other letters from Stokes request extended hours to watch television and access to coffee and more food.

Stokes’ letters to Palmer do not indicate any request from Stokes about what should happen to Gunter and Killian. However, Bresch said Stokes told him he wanted to see the pair fired.

Gunter previously told CPP that as he met with Bresch and Patterson to accept termination on May 11, Sheriff Palmer stuck his head into the room and said Stokes had “accepted the terms.”

Bresch told CPP that he was eventually tasked with notifying the U.S. Marshals Service of the settlement with their prisoner and providing them with a copy of the county’s check to Stokes. According to Bresch, no one else in Cherokee County was aware that Bresch has already been talking with the marshals despite orders not to communicate with them.

Primary cause for delay?

Even though Patterson asked Bresch to delay reporting the assault, Bresch said, he notified the marshals the morning after the incident. Bresch said he had worked well with marshals in the past and had negotiated the Cherokee County Detention Center’s contract with the federal government to house federal inmates.

Bresch said he didn’t think Patterson or Palmer knew at the time that he had disobeyed those orders.

In addition, Bresch provided the marshals with supplemental reports to the existing incident report. Those reports, not included in documents that Cherokee County released to the public last month, include two narratives by jail inmates about what they witnessed, as well as what Patterson told Bresch after the sheriff was informed about the assault.

“He (Patterson) came back and said that we need to call him (Killian) in here and suspend him for a while and tell him that this is going to be investigated and when the election is over, this should blow over,” the supplemental report reads.

Bresch said he wrote the supplemental reports because he worried that he would somehow be implicated in covering up the assault and took notes to protect himself. He said he wanted evidence that he had reported the incident to his superiors.

Then on May 14, more than a week after the assault and after regional media caught wind of it, Palmer and District Attorney Ashley Welch asked for an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

“I told the sheriff if I was asked questions by the SBI, like ‘what is in the reports,’ I was going to tell them the truth. I wasn’t going to lie for them,” Bresch said. “I don’t think the sheriff and them liked that too much.”

Bresch said he gave the SBI a four-page report, as well as the two-page version that was released to the media recently by the Sheriff’s Office. Recently, Bresch shared the four-page version with CPP. Asked about the differing versions of the report, the SBI would not confirm which versions of documents it had in its possession for its criminal investigation of the assault.

Bresch said he was forced to resign in mid-October and was not given any clear reason. He said he suspects that the sheriff learned of his communications with the marshals and he was forced out as a reprisal. The Cherokee County human resources office does not have any record of disciplinary action against Bresch. He had worked for the Sheriff’s Office for more than seven years.

In early December a grand jury indicted former officer Killian on two misdemeanor assault counts. The indictment described Killian as kicking Stokes in the face. District Attorney Welch has told CPP that she decided, upon reviewing the SBI’s report on its investigation into the incident, not to pursue charges against the other guard, Gunter, who was fired on the same day as Killian.

Gunter recently told CPP that the two-page version of the report the county released last month had been altered. Bresch told CPP that he was not aware of anyone changing the report but agreed that the language now in the report does not represent Gunter’s words. Palmer has denied any knowledge of the report being altered.

Stokes is no longer housed in Cherokee County and is currently serving concurrent state and federal sentences at a North Carolina Bureau of Prisons facility.

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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