Stand by your man

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.

“Bobby earns respect”: Judi Bell, former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford’s longtime girlfriend, says she’s upset with the way Medford has been treated. Photo By Jason Sandford

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.

Another view

Much has already been reported about former Sheriff Bobby Medford‘s arrest by federal agents on charges of extortion, mail fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice The government has laid out its case in unsealed indictments and numerous plea agreements with others charged in the case, including two of Medford’s former top deputies.

But what’s been conspicuously absent from local media coverage is the perspective of some of those closest to Medford. “Stand by Your Man” presents the view of one such insider, as she shared it in an extensive interview with Xpress. (Editor’s note: On March 21, U.S. District Judge Thomas Ellis III agreed to postpone the trial to give Medford’s attorney, Stephen Lindsay, more time to prepare his defense. The new trial date is Tuesday, April 29.)

 

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.

Stripped

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.”

Respect

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.

True friends

Judi Bell isn’t the only person who’s standing by Medford. Bell says she has a whole notebook full of people who’ve called her to express their support for the former sheriff.

Local businesswoman Betty Donoho, who owns Asheville Electric Co., is one such supporter. “He’s innocent. That’s why he’s going to trial,” Donoho said, adding, “No matter what, I will always be his friend.”

Frank Polk, the former owner of Black Mountain Chevrolet, hired Medford as a car salesman in the early 1990s. “I just always liked Bobby; he and my father were buddies,” said Polk. “I’d let Bobby hold my money any day. I still consider him a friend.”

Asheville resident Max Wilson, a retired federal magistrate, said he offered to put up $1 million to free Medford after his arrest. Wilson, who worked with Medford during Sheriff Buck Lyda‘s administration, said he thinks Medford’s political enemies have gotten him in trouble.

“Bobby called me after this last election. I said, ‘Bobby, you didn’t learn what I learned a long time ago, and that’s the reason you’re in trouble. I learned a long time ago that when a man’s a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, you don’t trust them—and especially don’t give them a lieutenant or sergeant’s rank. That’s just dumb.’ And he said: ‘I know; you’re right. But it’s too late now.’ I told Bobby: ‘You brought this on yourself. They cut your damn throat.’”

Still, Medford “is no criminal,” Wilson maintains. “I hate to see a good, clean-cut man go down the drain if somebody’s trying to hurt them.”

Will Gardner, the owner of the Black Mountain-based Shepherd Printing, which has done work for Medford over the years, also said he’ll stand by the former sheriff.

“I don’t think he’s guilty. If he’s guilty, show me the money” that Medford allegedly accepted as bribes and protection money, Gardner said.

“Bobby’s a smart guy. He’s not going to risk his honor for nickels.”

 

“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.”

A letter from the Caldwell County Jail

Below is the verbatim text of a letter Medford wrote to Judi Bell in January (see photo), which she shared with Xpress:

“Hey, Judi,

“I want to thank you for everything you have done for me. Your one of the few people that know how bad the federals screwed me over. I miss just sitting around on my chair playing with Miss Meredith. “I miss that bird.” She was always wanting her way. A lot like you huh.

I never thought i would come to dislike my own kind. I think it about it all the time, and thats not good for anybody. It appears they have put a lot of trust in Bridges and Shila. After 38 yrs. in this shit, you would think my word would carry a little weight. [Sentence or two deleted here.]

Enough of that, my court date will come. Especially since they didn’t even bother to talk to me before taking warrants. I don’t feel like writing any more write now. Back hurts pretty bad right now.

Love Bobby

P.S. When you write back, tell me about the good things happening in life. How’s Bobby?

BM”

 

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.

Helpless

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.”

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7 thoughts on “Stand by your man

  1. $50commissionOnANewCar?

    What on earth is the point of this article? That Bobby’s girlfriend disagrees with all the evidence? Poor thing.

    “But what’s been conspicuously absent from local media coverage is the perspective of some of those closest to Medford.”

    Isn’t that because most of them are pleading guilty and preparing to testify against him?

  2. lokel

    I wonder how Miss Bell has eluded the investigation … certainly some of the money was spent on her/by her …. and I’m sure she was complicit in some of the crimes if only by association.

  3. DaTruth

    Nice fluff piece, gotta hand it to Steve Lindsey, he’s a smart lawyer but sadly a wretched human being. He’s playing the good ole local boy done wrong by Feds angle real well. Wonder what he’s going to do with all those security videos from harrah’s showing the honest, straight-talking Medford gambling his supporters money away.

    Funny, but I remember Medford inviting Fed stormtroopers to practice their home invasions on the courthouse about 6-7 years ago. Guess what goes around comes around.

  4. brebro

    Asheville resident Max Wilson, a retired federal magistrate, said:
    “Bobby called me after this last election. I said, ‘Bobby, you didn’t learn what I learned a long time ago, and that’s the reason you’re in trouble. I learned a long time ago that when a man’s a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, you don’t trust them—and especially don’t give them a lieutenant or sergeant’s rank. That’s just dumb.’ And he said: ‘I know; you’re right. But it’s too late now.’ I told Bobby: ‘You brought this on yourself. They cut your damn throat.’”

    Well, there’s the solution! They need to stop bothering Bobby Medford and get rid of all those untrustworthy, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats! Apparently, they are the real problem. Hope for their sake, that they don’t need any impartial Federal Magistratin’ done.

  5. This article is a waste of paper. While CURRENT CANDIDATES are going completely without research MTX is beating this dead horse. Medford’s political career is clearly over, so then what on earth is still making him newsworthy?
    We voters need desperatly to learn the platforms and voting records of all the many state and local candidates, but MTX keeps wasting paper on this historical drivel! The only piece on candidate positions was a link to another link to a functionally illegible spreadsheet on sunshine positions of state candidates.

  6. southern B

    dyed-in-the-wool meaning an officer (wolf) in sheep’s clothing,

  7. Vinnie Tomatoes

    I feel sorry for Judy Bell. But I dont feel sorry for that crooked sheriff. Glad they caught him.

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