Judi Bell wasn’t happy about being rousted out of bed at 7:30 a.m. Like most people, she and her boyfriend, Bobby Medford, had a morning routine, and they stuck to it. Three back surgeries and severe back pain meant Bobby was slow to get up and around inside his one-bedroom, upstairs apartment in Weaverville.
So Judi would get up and get Bobby his medicine—Dilantin to prevent seizures, plus pain medication. She’d make coffee and bring Bobby a cup. Then she’d bring in Meredith. Bobby loved to spend his mornings playing with Miss Meredith, a one-eyed green parrot with red-and-black-tipped wings.
But the morning of Dec. 13, 2007, would be different.
Answering a knock, Bell cracked the door and saw a Weaverville police officer standing outside. “Bobby Medford’s car has been vandalized,” the officer told her. Could Mr. Medford come outside to look at the damage?
She knew that was bad news. Particular about his car, Bobby kept it neat as a pin. It wasn’t worth getting him up and out of his routine, though, so Bell told the officer no.
“Well, could you come out and take a look, ma’am?”
Bell agreed. In pajamas, robe and sandals, she followed the officer into the parking lot of the South Main Street apartment building. The officer took her around to the back of the car, where a man walked up, flashed a badge and told her federal agents were in place to arrest Bobby. “For what?” Bell asked. “The charges have been sealed,” the officer said. Why were there so many officers to arrest Bobby, Bell asked. It was an “officer-safety issue,” the agent said, adding that someone had told them Bobby also might hurt himself.
Bell saw a group of agents—more than five, but she didn’t count—dressed in dark clothing. They wore flak jackets and helmets and had automatic weapons drawn. They entered the apartment in formation, marching in like soldiers.
Bell was furious.
“I thought, this is ridiculous. They could have called him on the phone and said, ‘We have a warrant for you.’ Bobby would have gone up there, no problem,” she said. “That just infuriated me. There was no call for this. … How would you feel if you woke up and your bed was surrounded by these people dressed from head to toe in black?”
Bell watched as Bobby walked out into the morning, handcuffed: Buncombe County’s sheriff from 1994 to 2006, in shackles.
Nothing at all routine about that.
Since that day, Bell, 60, said she’s lived in fear, dreading another knock at her door that would signal her arrest in connection with the federal government’s corruption-and-bribery case against Medford, who’s now 62. Yet she maintains that she knows nothing about any of those alleged dealings.
In a recent interview, Bell talked for three hours about her 20-year relationship with Medford, describing a hard-working, pack-and-a-half smoker who loved animals. She talked about a “street cop” who continued to go out on calls even as sheriff. She told of time off with Medford, including trips to gamble at casinos in Nevada. And she described a man who, after his arrest, felt stripped of the thing that meant the most to him—his reputation, his name.
“If Bobby was guilty, he’d tell you,” Bell said. “He’d own up to what he did.”
Medford’s arrest marked a stunning end to a decades-long law-enforcement career that saw the Erwin High School graduate join the Sheriff’s Department at age 20. Promoted to captain, he oversaw much older men, according to Bell, but they all respected him.
“Bobby earns respect. It’s the way he treats you,” she said. “I’ve never heard Bobby talk down to anybody. He’s not going to put you down. He’s not going to tell you one thing, then stab you in the back.”
Medford moved on to the Asheville Police Department, where he’d been for several years before Bell came to work as a secretary in the Vice and Narcotics Division. A Lee Edwards High School graduate, she attended college for a couple of years but never settled in.
Bell said the man she met was respectful of women and fun to be around.
“He has a great sense of humor. It can be warped, like any law-enforcement officer. We are warped—that’s how you deal with a lot of the things you see and do.”
Bell went on to become secretary to the police chief. Then, in 1992, she completed her basic law-enforcement training and worked as a patrol officer. Bell retired from the APD in 2003 and has subsequently worked as a security officer at the county Department of Social Services and at several other part-time jobs.
Medford left the Police Department and returned to the Sheriff’s Department under Republican Sheriff Buck Lyda. Democrat Charlie Long won the sheriff’s post in 1990 and, following a long-held pattern in the political office, fired a number of Republicans—including Medford, who went to work selling cars, first for Apple Tree Chevrolet and then Black Mountain Chevrolet.
“Bobby, when he sold cars, he didn’t try to take people,” said Bell. “Bobby might make only a $50 commission on selling a new car, and he would not sell a car to someone if he felt like they couldn’t afford it, because he knew in two or three months that vehicle would be back and those people would be out of transportation. Bobby would work around it and talk them into something they could afford. That was the kind of person he was.”
Back in the game
But Medford wanted back into law enforcement, and he started thinking about a run for sheriff. Aided by a group of friends, Medford put together a winning campaign in 1994 and dove into his work.
“Bobby’s the only sheriff I’ve ever known of in Buncombe County that had a published telephone number. Bobby’s phone number was listed,” noted Bell. “And that was something when he first ran for office, he said, ‘I’m going to be available to the people who put me in office.’ Bobby had a home phone, he had a pager, he had a cell phone, and the general public had all those numbers.”
Medford’s relationship with the media wasn’t always so open, however. Unhappy with stories about him in this newspaper, the sheriff eventually refused to talk to any Mountain Xpress reporter.
Often, said Bell, Medford received calls that should have gone directly to a communications worker. Instead, he would listen, take down the information, then hang up and pass it along.
Medford worked all hours, according to Bell. He worked high-profile homicide cases; he worked run-of-the-mill cases. The phone kept ringing. “He had one gentleman that was in a rest home, and he just wanted to talk,” Bell recalled. Medford talked to him. People knew where he lived and knocked on his door. Medford listened.
But his leadership style and some of his decisions drew criticism. Medford helped family members and friends by giving them jobs in his department. He had a massive roster of volunteer deputies, known as reserve officers, who were given badges.
After investigators under Medford arrested two men suspected of murder, the sheriff took the heat as District Attorney Ron Moore kept them jailed for two years without trial, until media attention led to their being freed. Once, Medford loaded a group of inmates being held at the Buncombe County Detention Center for the state and ordered them dropped off at Central Prison in Raleigh, because he said the state wasn’t properly reimbursing the county for their care. Sheriffs across the state cheered. Another time, a group of war protesters threatened to storm the county jail to free members of their group who’d been arrested. Medford faced the protesters, chambered a shell in his shotgun, and declared that nobody would ever storm his jail.
But the all-consuming work took its toll. Medford looked for relief, and he found it in casinos.
“We went for entertainment,” said Bell. “Bobby needed to get away; Bobby needed away from the phone. Yeah, he left people in charge. And yeah, he went up there for just a little bit of peace of mind, ‘cause when you’re sheriff, you’re basically—or the way he figured it—you’re basically on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And do you need down time? Everybody needs down time.”
The couple would often go to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, about a 90-minute drive from Asheville. He would leave someone else in charge at the office, then go and gamble, Bell said. The two also took trips to Laughlin and Reno, Nev., to gamble. Medford especially enjoyed table games such as poker, because it was so involving and took his mind off work, Bell said. One time, she remembered winning $6,200 on a slot machine. Another time, she was awarded an expenses-paid trip to Nevada to gamble.
Today, Bell says she’s tired and afraid. She’s had absolutely no contact with Medford since the judge in the case ordered him released to house arrest on Jan. 18. The judge ordered Medford to have no contact with Bell. He’s been living with his sister in the Alexander community. His phone is monitored. Any visitor has to sign a logbook.
Bell did see Bobby when he was being held in the Caldwell County Detention Center after his arrest. She said she worried about his health, noting that he’d lost weight. The couple were allowed a 30-minute visit every Sunday, and they corresponded by mail.
What about the video-poker machines, the alleged bribes, the charges of corruption? Bell said she’s still shocked at the charges brought against Medford. “I don’t see Bobby extorting people for money,” she said. As for the video poker, Bell said, “Bobby hated those machines.
“The state wanted the machines here, strictly to get the lottery,” she said. “They did the same thing in South Carolina. …
“Bobby said: ‘I don’t have the manpower to oversee something else. I need to be busy working residential crimes, business crimes, that sort of thing. Not video poker,” she reported.
The ordeal, said Bell, has made her rethink her convictions about the whole law-enforcement system.
“What people need to see here is how much power the federal government has. I don’t see that it’s used wisely all the time,” she said. “They’ve taken lives and unraveled them, and you’re absolutely helpless.
“I want them to fight fair.”