Former sheriff heads to court

With the trial of Bobby Medford slated to begin April 29, all eyes will be focused on the longtime former Buncombe County sheriff. Here’s a brief history of the arrests, plea bargains and legal maneuvers to date in the complex case:

November 1994: Medford is elected Buncombe County sheriff. He will hold the post for the next 12 years.

December 2000: Medford allegedly begins running extortion, mail-fraud and money-laundering operations connected to illegal video-poker machines and gambling. Lt. Johnny Harrison allegedly directly oversees some of the extortion and mail fraud until his retirement in 2005. The indictment also asserts that reserve Capt. Guy Penland is involved.

April 2006: Ronnie “Butch” Davis, who’s been in charge of video-poker machines (and the alleged extortion connected to them) since Harrison’s retirement, coordinates the first of two golf tournaments to raise money for Medford’s re-election campaign. According to a confession Davis later signs, some of the proceeds are illegally diverted to Medford himself.

November 2006: Medford loses the election to Van Duncan.

Dec. 13, 2007: Medford, Harrison, Davis and Penland are arrested and charged under a federal indictment with extortion, mail fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Longtime Medford political ally Jackie Shepherd, a Weaverville businessman, is arrested the same day along with several of his employees on charges of running an illegal video-poker operation through his business, Western Amusements.

Dec. 17, 2007: Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell orders Medford and his deputies detained until trial, asserting that “there are serious concerns for the safety of potential witnesses” if Medford were released before trial.

Dec. 18, 2007: Former Capt. Tracy Keith Bridges agrees to a plea bargain, saying he worked as a bagman for Medford’s operation, helping launder money collected via extortion and bribes.

Jan. 7, 2008: After Medford attorney Bob Long withdraws from the case, citing an undisclosed conflict of interest, Medford requests a court-appointed attorney. Howell appoints Stephen Lindsay to represent Medford.

Jan. 15, 2008: U.S. District Judge Thomas Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia is brought in to hear the case after all the judges in WNC recuse themselves for reasons not indicated in the documents.

Over the objections of federal prosecutors, Ellis reverses Howell’s ruling and allows Medford to be released to house arrest, watched by his sister and her husband with the family’s property put up as security that Medford won’t flee. An extensive list of conditions is placed on Medford, including a ban on all cell-phone communication and a prohibition against leaving the house except for previously approved visits with his attorney or a doctor.

Here comes the judge

by David Forbes

With all Western North Carolina judges recusing themselves from the Medford case, and Piedmont judges also begging off, the federal courts turned to U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Ellis III based in Alexandria, Va.

Ellis has seen his share of controversy during his years on the bench. Appointed by President Reagan in 1987, Ellis has presided over a number of very high-profile cases in recent years.

Most prominent, perhaps, was the plea bargain and sentencing of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Lindh pleaded guilty to being part of the Taliban’s army and carrying weapons, and on Oct. 4, 2002, Ellis handed down a 20-year sentence.

In another controversial case in May 2006, Ellis dismissed a lawsuit filed by Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen who claimed to have been kidnapped by the CIA and three private companies. El-Masri said he was captured, flown to Kabul, Afghanistan, and brutally tortured. Trying the case, ruled Ellis, could threaten national security, though he noted, “El-Masri has suffered injuries as a result of our country’s mistake and deserves a remedy.”

Also in 2006, Ellis ruled on the case of Lawrence Franklin, a former Defense Department employee charged with passing classified information concerning U.S. policy toward Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israeli lobbying group. Ellis sentenced Franklin to a fine and 12 years, seven months in prison. Both AIPAC and the Israeli government denied the charges.

In a related case, Ellis refused to dismiss charges against two AIPAC employees who’d received information from Franklin. The ruling has been criticized by civil liberties groups such as the First Amendment Center, which has asserted that penalizing private citizens for receiving national-defense information could deter whistleblowers.


Medford’s deputies are released under similar conditions, with no objection from federal prosecutors.

At the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards calls Medford “the head of the snake” (i.e. a large criminal operation) and declares that the “de-Baathification” of law enforcement around the region—including the Buncombe County sheriff’s office—isn’t finished.

Jan. 30, 2008: Hot Dog King owner Demetre Theodossis, facing charges of running an illegal gambling operation, accepts a plea deal and agrees to cooperate with federal prosecutors and to pay the Internal Revenue Service more than $300,000 in back taxes. Theodossis, aka “Jimmy the Greek,” confesses to fraud, making false statements and running an illegal gambling operation.

Feb. 8, 2008: Shepherd employees Irving and Kerry Comer accept plea bargains, confessing their involvement in illegal gambling operations and agreeing to pay $165,000 in back taxes.

Feb. 11, 2008: At the request of federal prosecutors, Ellis upholds the March 25 trial date. Court documents note that although this is a later trial date than would typically be set, the evidence for the case fills an entire room.

Feb. 27, 2008: Harrison cuts a plea deal with prosecutors, admitting that he conspired to commit extortion and took bribes from operators of illegal video-poker machines in exchange for false registration stickers.

Feb. 27, 2008: Ellis denies motions from Lindsay to delay the trial and appoint a second defense attorney, asserting that the current date and legal representation are sufficient to conduct Medford’s defense.

March 7, 2008: Davis and Shepherd both agree to plea bargains. Davis pleads guilty to 11 counts including “extortion under color of law,” mail fraud, lying to the court, transferring money illegally, criminal conspiracy, running an illegal gambling business and operating a scheme to distribute video-poker registration stickers illegally for the sheriff’s office.

Shepherd, meanwhile, pleads guilty to running an illegal gambling operation with 41 video-poker machines in 10 locations throughout Buncombe and Madison counties, taking in as much as $2,000 a day, all told, according to court documents.

Shepherd also agrees to forfeit $33,053 seized in an earlier raid on his business, 25 video-poker machines, two personal vehicles, $651,801 in proceeds from his operation, as well as two pieces of property in Weaverville and Billy Jack’s Flea Market in Madison County.

As part of the deal, prosecutors drop charges against Shepherd’s son and stepson.

March 17, 2008: Lindsay again moves to have the trial delayed, this time by 30 days, asserting that he hasn’t had enough time to review all the evidence or build a case for the defense.

“The reason for this motion is to enable undersigned counsel to properly prepare to defend the serious allegations against Mr. Medford,” the motion reads. “Without the additional time to prepare for trial, the trial of Mr. Medford by the federal government will not be a ‘fair trial as required by law.’”

March 21, 2008: Judge Ellis approves Lindsay’s motion for a delay, moving the trial date to April 29. “The government has filed a response to defendant’s motion in which it does not specifically address the various factors relevant to a continuance determination,” Ellis states in his order, “but instead merely takes the position that defendant’s counsel has had ample opportunity to review the materials relevant to the instant prosecution.”

April 4, 2008: Ellis rejects a motion by both Medford and Penland to separate their trials. Lindsay had requested the move because he said the government could use Penland’s statements just after his arrest to help convict Medford, and Medford wouldn’t able to cross-examine Penland.

In their countermotion, prosecutors say they don’t intend to use Penland’s testimony that way. Ellis finds this persuasive, also noting that requests for such a separation must be filed shortly after a defendant’s arrest, and that defendants who are alleged to have committed related crimes are usually tried together.

April 15, 2008: Lindsay again requests a second attorney to help defend Medford; this time, Ellis grants the request, agreeing that the case is too complex for a single attorney to adequately go through all the evidence and conduct Medford’s defense.

April 29, 2008: The trial of Medford and Penland is scheduled to start.


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One thought on “Former sheriff heads to court

  1. Lando C.

    Really good coverage of the case in this week’s Xpress–Keep it up, David!

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