A sheriff's squad car parked outside the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Two separate state law enforcement investigations into possible criminal activity at the Cherokee County Detention Center have been turned over to the district attorney’s office.

District Attorney Ashley Hornbsy Welch confirmed this week that her office received the SBI reports but hinted that she’s working with other agencies at the state or federal levels.

“We are working in conjunction with partner prosecutorial agencies to determine what, if any, criminal actions might be taken and who the appropriate agency is to handle that prosecution, if there is one,” Hornsby Welch said of the two investigations.

When asked what other prosecutorial agencies she referred to, Hornsby Welch said, in general,  “Other prosecutorial agencies my office works in collaboration with on cases sometimes would be the state attorney general’s office and the United States attorney’s office.”

One of the two SBI reports delved into a pattern of inmate abuse by jail deputies, alleged by two former guards who first made their claims to Carolina Public Press in October 2018. The former workers said the jail had a culture of “jailhouse justice,” whereby guards goaded inmates to fight each other, and in some cases, guards would target an inmate for a beating by other inmates.

A second investigation looked at the death of an inmate in summer 2018. Joshua Shane Long died of a methamphetamine overdose several hours after being booked into the jail.

Sheriff Derrick Palmer, who has been in charge at the jail since his election in 2014, responded to Hornsby Welch’s remarks via email: “It would not be proper for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department or any law enforcement agency to comment on any ongoing investigation regarding FORMER employees,” emphasizing “former.”

However, Hornsby Welch declined to comment when asked whether she could exclude current employees from the SBI’s investigations.

The SBI investigations of Cherokee County agencies

Two guards who retired in 2018 told CPP that detention center guards encouraged inmates to beat up other inmates and, in some cases, left cell doors unlocked to provoke more attacks against inmates who weren’t favored.

The guards said there was a pervasive culture of “jailhouse justice,” where vulnerable inmates were not protected.

On the other major issue, the SBI seemed to have completed its investigation into Long’s death late in 2018. The agency turned its report over to Hornsby Welch’s office early last year, but Welch returned it to the SBI for more review following questions raised in CPP’s reporting.

District attorneys asking for more information is not uncommon, said SBI spokeswoman Angie Grube.

Both issues were under investigation by the SBI for more than a year.

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At the same time, actions by the county’s Department of Social Services were also under investigation. Social workers removed children from their parents without judicial oversight, using what’s called a “custody and visitation agreement,” or CVA.

When the SBI initially completed the child welfare investigation and gave the report to Hornsby Welch, she recused herself shortly after receiving the file.

One of the targets of the SBI’s investigation is Cindy Palmer, the wife of Sheriff Palmer. She led Cherokee County DSS for several years, until shortly after news media reports exposed the agency’s unlawful use of CVAs. Although no longer the DSS director, she remains a high-level official there.

Hornsby Welch handed the case to the N.C. Department of Justice in 2019. CPP reported in September that the SBI has continued since then to work on the case, which has also been the subject of extensive reporting from CPP.

Despite the earlier recusal in the DSS case, Hornsby Welch said she has not felt the need to recuse her office in the “jailhouse justice” case or the case related to Long’s death. She said that’s because “there is no need for a recusal” — at least for now.

This is not the first time guards’ actions during Palmer’s term have been under scrutiny. In an incident unrelated to the other two investigations, a former jail guard is facing felony charges from the 2018 beating of a restrained federal inmate.

If the U.S. attorney is on a case, it would be decided in federal court, located in Asheville, rather than by a jury in Murphy. Cases handled by local or state prosecutors could also be moved to a different venue under some circumstances.

Was meeting with feds about Cherokee County?

In July, Hornsby Welch traveled to Asheville to meet with staff at the U.S. attorney’s office, her expense reports show. In an interview about the mileage report, Hornsby Welch said the visit had to do with an unspecified “pending investigation” in her district.

On the same day as her visit with the office, CPP published an investigative article about Cherokee County DSS’ massive document shredding effort. When asked whether she could deny the article was a discussion topic with federal prosecutors, Hornsby Welch said she could not.

The DA also declined to comment when asked if she has talked with the U.S. attorney about the Cherokee County Detention Center investigations.

It’s uncertain whether the two cases would raise federal issues, but some possibilities about why they might are clear. The jail does house some federal inmates who potentially could have been affected by the alleged coerced fighting. Long’s death involved him being carried from the jail to a medical helicopter that transported him across state lines, where he was declared dead.

Multiple senior-level or long-term detention center employees either resigned or were fired by Palmer in the months after CPP investigations revealed allegations of improper use of force and inmate abuse, as well as questions about the death of inmate Long hours after his arrest.

Sheriff Palmer said via email this week that the detention center has made “a complete staffing change … with all new administrative staff and new detention center employees.”

The sheriff appears regularly on Christian radio station WKRK. During one of those broadcasts a year ago, he lamented that detention center employees never approached him with problems.

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“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, CPP later reported that a patrol deputy emailed Palmer in 2017 about the treatment of an inmate who was left naked and chained to a drain in the floor, possibly for hours.

Palmer later told CPP that by the time he saw the email mentioning the inmate’s treatment, he was told the inmate was no longer in Cherokee County’s custody and he did not follow up.

CPP found that the inmate had been released without proper paperwork to a neighboring county’s detention center, which was forced to release him.


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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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