Buncombe justice on trial

[Editor's note: Sheriff Bobby Medford did not respond to written questions concerning the allegations reported in this story. And despite repeated attempts over a period of months, Xpress has been unable to contact Jeffrey Medford.]

The lack of action following a State Bureau of Investigation probe of an alleged domestic-violence incident involving the son of Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford raises troubling questions. Are law-enforcement officials looking the other way and ignoring key facts when a case involves a well-connected suspect? A review of the alleged victim’s medical records and other evidence casts serious doubt on how the SBI, the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney Ron Moore have handled the case.

Our original investigation (“Questionable conduct,” Oct. 23, 2002 Xpress) revealed significant contradictions between eyewitness accounts and the official reports filed by sheriff’s deputies. It also disclosed odd similarities and discrepancies in the reports of various law-enforcement agencies. Because our story went to press shortly before the election, Medford and others charged that it was politically motivated.

Last October, Charles Moody of the State Bureau of Investigation told Xpress, “We are not conducting an investigation.” After we published our story, however, the bureau did decide to get involved. In early February, Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher told Xpress that our news reports are included in the SBI investigative file turned over to the DA’s office in January.

Now, based on new interviews with Moore, with the woman who placed the initial 911 call last Oct. 1, and with the alleged victim (as well as an examination of her medical records), Xpress must once again question the response of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and other law-enforcement agencies in a case with far-reaching implications.

The paper trail

Here’s what the official records show:

At 12:13 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2002, Buncombe County Emergency Services logged a 911 call from Leicester, near the Buncombe/Haywood County line. The caller reported that her neighbor, Nisha Sherlin, had burst into her home bleeding and bruised, claiming that her boyfriend, Jeff Medford, had beaten her. The caller told the operator, “She has blood coming from her head, her throat and stuff is cut, and she’s got bruises all over.”

Ten minutes later, the ambulance crew arrived and reported that the victim was missing. At 1:53 p.m., Sheriff’s Department documents report a deputy’s arrival on the scene in Leicester. Also at precisely 1:53 p.m., a Woodfin police officer reported that Sherlin had been involved in a motor-vehicle accident in his jurisdiction. The police report notes that there were no injuries. However, Sherlin was then taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Buncombe County Sheriff’s Deputy Brenda Fraser, the agency’s designated victims’ advocate in domestic-violence cases, was called in and may have arrived at the hospital before Sherlin. (The record is unclear on this point, and Fraser — contacted in October and again in April — refused to comment to Xpress.) Shortly thereafter, according to hospital records, Fraser phoned Sherlin’s parents and told them that their daughter had been involved in a traffic accident. Fraser is reported to have told emergency-room personnel that Sherlin had “threatened suicide — wanted to cut throat.”

Sherlin was received at the St. Joseph’s Hospital emergency room at 3:43 p.m. and told the triage nurse that she’d been beaten by her boyfriend. The nurse’s notes state: “Multiple scratches on patient’s arms, neck, chest and legs — note different stages of bruising on arms and legs — patient states ‘he hurt me a lot — hit me in the head — scratched me.’”

And during examinations by psychiatric nurses on Oct. 1 and 2, the records indicate that Sherlin repeatedly denied any attempt to harm herself and consistently maintained that she’d been abused. One nurse noted, “She is concerned that nothing will be done about Jeff’s assault on her because his father is sheriff.” The medical records also contain the following entry about the traffic accident: “Patient states she was trying to get away from boyfriend Jeff Medford and her brakes failed.”

At 3:15 p.m., the emergency-room physician made initial arrangements for Sherlin’s involuntary commitment to Broughton State Hospital — a mental-health facility. (Note that this is 28 minutes before Sherlin was officially admitted to the emergency room, according to Emergency Department records.)

This decision was reached two-and-a-half hours before Sherlin’s evaluation by the St. Joseph’s Psychiatric Department — but after contact with Deputy Fraser, who alleged (according to the ER nurse’s notes) that Sherlin “threatened suicide — wanted to cut throat. Tried to beat up another driver.”

St. Joseph’s spokesperson Merrell Gregory said hospital policy allows an attending physician to initiate contact with Broughton — to explore the possibility of committing a patient — without a psychiatric exam, based on information received from a law-enforcement officer involved in the case. Typically, said Gregory, this would involve someone who appeared to be a threat to self or others.

Two UNCA security officers were the first law-enforcement personnel to arrive at the scene of the traffic accident in Woodfin. Both officers, who declined to be identified, witnessed the events following the accident. One officer told Xpress that Sherlin had jumped into another vehicle, apparently trying to leave the scene. But he denied that Sherlin had made any attempt to beat up the other driver. This directly contradicts assertions made by Deputy Fraser (who was not a witness) and may also call into question Sherlin’s subsequent arrest. (Sherlin was charged with attempted common-law robbery — a felony — and was held in the Buncombe County Jail for three days. She was later found guilty of misdemeanor larceny as the result of a plea bargain.)

Contacted by Xpress, the other driver involved in the accident declined to comment.

The attending physician, Emergency Department head Dr. Joe Frazer, completed his ER report at 9:12 p.m. on Oct. 1. In it, he paraphrases statements attributed to Deputy Fraser and/or the EMS crew that delivered Sherlin to the hospital. Dr. Frazer’s report describes Sherlin as the victim of a motor-vehicle accident. There’s no mention of the alleged beating noted by both the triage nurse and another nurse in the ER, or of Sherlin’s repeated references to the beating in her psychiatric interviews. Frazer does note, however, “The patient has multiple old bruises involving all four extremities.” (St. Joseph’s Hospital would not allow Dr. Frazer to discuss this case with Xpress.)

Bruises may stem from many causes; they may be accidental or self-inflicted. But multiple medical experts contacted by Xpress confirmed that bruises of varying ages are frequently found in cases of abuse.

The following day, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department transported Sherlin to Broughton.

Who’s in charge here?

Once she arrived at Broughton, 60 miles from Asheville, Sherlin was more or less removed from public scrutiny. But this reporter was able to talk to her very briefly on Oct. 6. Her face appeared puffy and mottled; clothing covered most of her body. When I identified myself as a reporter, however, Sherlin became alarmed and ran back into the ward, shouting: “He’s a reporter! Get rid of him! He’s a reporter!” (see sidebar, “Mum’s the word”).

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the scene of the alleged beating reported “no signs of assault in residence re injuries” in the trailer where Sherlin and Jeff Medford lived. But witnesses — including the people who cleaned the mobile home and Sherlin’s relatives who collected her belongings from it soon after the deputy’s visit — wholly contradicted this statement, telling Xpress that there was blood in every room, bloody clothing and blood on the walls and curtains, shards of a broken glass-topped table jammed in the walls, and that everything breakable in the home had been broken. There is no Sheriff’s Department record of any contact with Jeff Medford, and no charges were ever filed.

In Sherlin’s medical records, the St. Joseph’s nurses who conducted the psychiatric evaluations noted that Deputy Fraser had told them that “patient has threatened to kill herself. Patient broke glass over the weekend and scratched her throat and wrist. Patient wrecked a car today and then tried to beat up a bystander and steal his car.”

When Fraser was asked by hospital personnel how she knew this information, however, she “said that patient’s boyfriend told her,” and also that “there was a ‘scuffle’ between patient and boyfriend,” the record states. The nurse also noted that Fraser had “never offered boyfriend’s [i.e., Jeff Medford's] name.”

Executive Director Valerie Collins of Helpmate (a nonprofit agency that provides support for victims of domestic violence) told Xpress: “The perpetrator’s dynamic is to minimize, deny and blame. It is typical for a perpetrator to say, ‘She’s crazy, she’s making a mountain out of a molehill, she caused it herself.’”

Fraser also asked the psychiatric nurse “if patient will be going to Broughton State Hospital,” according to the psychiatric assessment in Sherlin’s medical record.

Sherlin herself, however, had told the psychiatric nurse that Jeff Medford “had broken glass table and cut her throat.” Sherlin also “denies that she hurt herself.” And at one point, noted the psychiatric nurse, “She concluded the conversation by saying that ‘(Sheriff) Bobby Medford is running for re-election and I’m f***ed’ and pulled the blankets over her head.”

The following day (Oct. 2) at 12:25 p.m., Deputy Fraser phoned the hospital “to say she just ‘reassessed’ patient and she is ‘very very worried’ about patient because patient told her she is suicidal,” the hospital record notes. At 12:50, a woman claiming to be the patient’s cousin or aunt (it is recorded both ways in the transcript) called the hospital and said she was “concerned that patient may hurt self or others.”

Both of these statements specifically address the legal justification for involuntary commitment: appearing to be a threat either to oneself or to others. Curiously, the only two sources for these allegations — which Sherlin flatly and repeatedly denied to the medical staff, the records show — are Fraser and an unnamed caller.

At 3:05, Deputy Fraser phoned again to ask about the status of the patient’s commitment papers.

Deputy Fraser is the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department officer assigned to help victims of domestic violence. According to the Sheriff’s Department paperwork, she was put on this case because the initial 911 report was a domestic-violence call. Yet in each recorded contact with medical authorities, she talked about the patient’s supposed traffic injuries, alleged psychiatric problems, and/or the urgent need to have Sherlin committed to Broughton State Hospital. Fraser even relied on the alleged abuser as her source for information to contradict the patient’s allegations of abuse.

Furthermore, it appears that no one connected with the case ever contacted Helpmate, the local agency that typically assists local law enforcement in dealing with domestic-violence issues. “At no time that we know of was Helpmate contacted,” Executive Director Collins told Xpress.

Xpress asked Collins if the “different stages of bruising on arms and legs” noted in the ER report are typical in abuse cases. Collins replied, “Absolutely.”

Xpress also contacted Dr. Jim Haaksma, an Asheville physician who has worked with domestic-violence victims, and asked him whether finding “different stages of bruising” on a patient is consistent with a traffic accident. After reviewing the medical records, his response was: “No, that would sound much more consistent with abuse. I assume the medical personnel involved would contact Helpmate in a case like this.” When informed that Helpmate had not been called, he added, “I would consider it my responsibility to contact Helpmate if I saw these symptoms, particularly if accompanied by allegations of abuse.”

Helpmate confirmed that medical authorities usually do contact them in cases of alleged abuse.

Yet the ER physician characterized the patient as the victim of a motor-vehicle accident. And though he noted old bruises in his report, he did not comment on what might have caused them.

The SBI and the DA

The SBI delivered its report to District Attorney Moore in late January. After Moore had examined the report, he told Xpress: “Well, I’m extremely hamstrung about what I can say, because it obviously contains a lot of medical records about the lady [that are confidential]. … Based on the SBI investigation, medical records and other folks we talked to, I don’t see where there’s anybody that can be prosecuted for whatever may have happened out there. As I sit here right now, I’m not sure anything did happen.”

Xpress: “Do you feel that the report reconciles the stark differences between eyewitness accounts which said there was blood in every room of the trailer and the deputy’s official report that said there was no sign of violence in the trailer?”

Moore: “Well, I think that the medical evidence (which I am, again, hamstrung to talk to) did not indicate that there were any injuries that happened at the time of the reported or alleged incident. The medical folks didn’t find anything that would support anything having just occurred in terms of recent injuries.”

Xpress: “I guess you know from our coverage of it that there seem to be an awful lot of discrepancies between what we read in the official sheriff’s report and what witnesses were telling us.”

Moore: “Well, again, I have to go with what … I mean, one of the biggest things is the medical issues, what doctors find in terms of any fresh injuries and then subsequently what she told them with regards to her injuries.”

The official medical record obtained from the hospital by Xpress lists injuries consistent with Sherlin’s claim (recorded in the Sheriff’s Department 911 response report) that she’d been held captive and beaten for two or more days. The documented injuries were both new and old. And Moore is completely overlooking “what she told them with regards to her injuries”: Sherlin said Jeff Medford beat her up.

While we have no conclusive evidence that Jeff Medford assaulted Sherlin, we do have her allegations — detailed in both medical and sheriff’s department records — coupled with well documented injuries that could have stemmed from domestic violence. Why is there no record of an investigation?

After talking to Moore, Xpress contacted the woman who had placed the original 911 call and asked her about her subsequent statements to the SBI agent who interviewed her. She said, “I told them that [Sherlin] was standing in my living room bleeding and bruised all over, and she said Jeff Medford beat her up.” So this, too, should be in the SBI report turned over to Moore. (Because the SBI report is confidential, Xpress wasn’t able to examine it firsthand.)

Last October, the 911 caller told Xpress that Sherlin “was bleeding badly from a wound or wounds on her scalp and cuts on her hands and neck.” She also told us that Sherlin “showed me severe bruising from her knees to her abdomen and said that Jeff had tied her to a bed and beaten her for three days.”

In the two weeks following the incident, multiple witnesses described to Xpress the bloody havoc and destruction they had seen in the trailer, yet the sheriff’s deputy reported “no signs of assault in residence re injuries.” The SBI had the names of these witnesses, though it’s not clear how many were ever interviewed.

How can that agency and the district attorney reconcile this glaring discrepancy?

At the very least, it appears that — far from acting to protect a woman who repeatedly claimed to be a victim of domestic violence and who exhibited precisely the kind of injuries typically found in such cases — sheriff’s deputies, the SBI and the district attorney have chosen to ignore the testimony and physical evidence that support her claims. Instead of questioning the alleged perpetrator of a vicious assault, authorities forcibly spirited Sherlin away to a psychiatric hospital, charged her with a felony immediately after her release, and jailed her.

And between the time she was released from jail and Election Day, Sherlin alleges that Sheriff Medford provided her with cash and ran errands on her behalf (see box, “Mum’s the word”). Medford did not respond to written questions submitted to his office concerning these allegations.

In the end, whether by default or intent, the whole system apparently acted to protect an alleged violent offender while failing to take steps to ensure that justice — in the form of a legitimate investigation — was served.

Mum’s the word

In April, Nisha Sherlin — the alleged victim in this case — spoke with Xpress at length concerning the events of last fall; she also gave us permission to examine her medical records. Concerning this reporter’s visit to Broughton State Hospital, Sherlin said: “I really flipped out on you, didn’t I? I’m sorry. They told me not to talk to anyone.”

Later, we returned to that subject:

Xpress: “You said that when you were taken to Broughton State Hospital, and later when you were placed in the Buncombe County jail, ‘they’ told you not to talk to anyone. Who were ‘they’?”

Sherlin: “Bob and Jeff.”

Xpress: “Bob and Jeff Medford?”

Sherlin: “Yes.”

Xpress: “Not any other sheriff’s deputies or medical personnel?”

Sherlin: “Just Bob and Jeff. And you know the funny thing is, when I got out of Broughton, Bob sent a woman in his car to pick me up, and she took me to his office and I sat in his office for about an hour before he told me he was going to have to put me in jail. But he told me he would get me out the next day.” (Sherlin was held in the Buncombe County Jail for three days.)

“Later on, after my mom came and got me out, I had to go find Bob because all of my clothes from Broughton were still in the trunk of his car. And he said to me, ‘What are you doing out?’ I said, ‘I wasn’t going to wait for you — my mom came and got me.’”

Sherlin went on to state that between the time of her release from jail and the election, “Bobby ran errands for me, picked up my prescriptions. He couldn’t do enough. Then, after the election, he forgot I was alive.”

Sherlin later returned to this subject, saying: “I’d call him up and say I needed some money, and he’d come by and hand me $100. You know what that was? That was hush money!”

(Medford did not respond to questions concerning these allegations.)

Unanswered questions

• Is it mere coincidence that the times reported for the deputy’s arrival in Leicester and the Woodfin traffic accident are identical? Both reports were completed and filed days later.

• If Sherlin appeared bruised and bloody to the 911 caller at noon, and she arrived at the St. Joseph’s ER at 3:43 displaying both old and new injuries, why is there no mention of injuries in the Woodfin police report?

• Why did the attending physician’s report say Sherlin was the victim of a motor-vehicle accident when Sherlin had told both the ER nurses and the psychiatric nurses that she’d been beaten by her boyfriend?

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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