Former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford will be released from jail until his March 25 trial on extortion charges, federal Judge Thomas Ellis III ruled on Jan. 15, reversing a prior ruling by Judge Dennis Howell.
Medford will be electronically monitored and will stay with his sister and her husband. He will not be allowed contact with former or current law-enforcement officers, witnesses in the case (including his partner, Judith Bell), or witnesses’ family members. He will not be allowed to leave the house except for preapproved visits to his attorney or doctor.
Both Ellis and prosecuting attorneys noted during the hearing that Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies and other local law-enforcement personnel are targets in the government’s ongoing investigation of corruption and extortion surrounding illegal video-poker and gambling rings.
In announcing his ruling, Ellis said that although he found the evidence against Medford “substantial” and the charges of corruption “of the greatest gravity,” he couldn’t find a “clear and compelling reason” to incarcerate Medford until his trial. The judge said he didn’t feel the prosecution had concrete evidence that Medford had acted to obstruct justice since becoming aware that he might be investigated. Medford was released to house arrest last Friday, Jan. 18.
“I think we can craft a set of conditions that will prevent the possibility that he might obstruct justice,” said Ellis.
As an additional precautionary measure, the names of the jurors for Medford’s trial will be kept secret, the judge noted, and won’t even be revealed to Lindsay and Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards until the day of the trial.
Although Medford had been aware of the possibility of being investigated for some time, “He made no effort to target anyone or to contact any possible witnesses—and he hasn’t made any effort since that time,” said Lindsay.
He also asserted that the “powers that the government is saying he had were part of the office of sheriff—he doesn’t have those anymore.”
Out of power, in debt and in poor health, Lindsay argued that Medford would pose no threat and could safely be released under certain conditions.
Cutting off the head?
Edwards had argued that Medford was “the head of the snake” and that, unless incarcerated, he could still find ways to contact his supporters and tamper with witnesses.
Edwards also said that Medford’s release might interfere with the ongoing investigation of other current and former sheriff’s deputies. “The ‘de-Baathification’ of the Sheriff’s Department and local law enforcement, so to speak, is not over yet,” the prosecutor warned.
Asked about Edwards’ statement later, Sheriff Van Duncan painted a somewhat different picture. “My understanding comes from the federal government, verbatim,” Duncan told Xpress. “They’ve said that there isn’t anybody currently in this office that’s a target in the corruption investigations, and I believe that.” He added that “investigations are fluid things, but if they come to us with evidence that someone still employed here was involved in this, we will take immediate action. We have definitely opened our doors and helped to facilitate this investigation, and we will continue to do so.”
Edwards also noted that as sheriff, Medford had given out “special deputy” badges to more than 400 people, including some illegal video-poker operators. These loyalists were known as “Medford’s Army,” said Edwards, and “After losing re-election, all the records on the special deputies—who they were, how many there were—were all shredded,” he noted, adding that Duncan has since changed the design of the “special deputy” badge and the criteria for special deputies.
Current reserve deputies are now required to have law-enforcement training and work a set number of hours per month, the sheriff explained later. “We felt very strongly that some of those badges had been given to people who had no business having them in the past,” said Duncan. “Now they’re only in the hands of sworn law-enforcement officers.”
The Sheriff’s Office currently has 528 reserve deputies; about 140 are “cross-sworn officers” from other agencies, such as the Asheville and Woodfin police departments, according to Maj. Scott Bissinger.
In making his argument to the judge, Edwards highlighted two incidents in particular. In 2002, he asserted, Medford had told Brenda Fraser—who worked in the Sheriff’s Office then and had refused to issue registration stickers to operators of illegal video-poker machines—that if anybody came after him or his family, he would “take them down with him.”
And in 2006, the FBI raided the South Carolina-based Henderson Amusements Inc., whose owners were allegedly bribing Medford. Lt. Ronnie Eugene “Butch” Davis told Capt. Tracy Keith Bridges, a confessed bagman for the operation, that “This better not come up the mountain.”
Edwards said Bridges—who pleaded guilty to lighter charges in December and is now a witness for the prosecution—took the statement as a threat.
Davis is one of three Medford deputies charged alongside the former sheriff; the others are former Lt. John Harrison and former reserve Capt. Guy Penland. All three were released under similar conditions; the prosecution agreeing that they didn’t pose the same threat as Medford.
“A powerful deterrent”
At the end of the day, however, Ellis found Lindsay’s rationale more persuasive, ruling that Medford could be released until his trial under certain conditions.
The former sheriff’s sister, Helen Medford Reese, and her husband, Mitchell Reese, agreed to serve as third-party guardians for Medford. Ellis stipulated that the equity in both their home and the Medford family home (which is jointly owned by Medford and his sister) be pledged as surety that the accused would not violate the terms of his detention.
Tying Medford’s good behavior to his family’s financial well-being, said Ellis, “should prove a powerful deterrent.”
Visit www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles to view documents related to the Medford trial.