When N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement Agent Matthew Stemple picked up the phone in the Hickory office that day, what seemed like a routine tip soon veered into a mystery that still hasnt been resolved nearly three years later.
The tangled trail begins with an allegation of the low-tech but venerable crime of mountain moonshine and ultimately leads into the complex new technology of cellphone spoofing.
Left unanswered, even after years of legal filings and court testimony, is this question: Who exactly was framing whom?
At the center of it all is one fired state employee, Emergency Management planner Stewart Coates, who is determined to get his job back. But the case also has raised questions that reach into the upper ranks of the ALE about how it obtained phone records.
Stemple took the call on the morning of Oct. 16, 2009. The tipster identified himself as Tennessee State Bureau of Investigation Agent Earl Lunsford and said he had information that a woman would be delivering illegal liquor in Hickory in two days time. He provided her last name, a description of her car and its N.C. Division of Emergency Management license plate number.
Stemple confirmed the woman was an Emergency Management employee and learned that there was an upcoming division conference in Hickory. There had long been rumors that moonshine was available at Emergency Management conferences, according to court records.
ALE district supervisor Allen Page who is now a deputy director along with Stemple and two other agents staked out the womans house that Sunday and, when she drove off, turned on their blue lights to pull her over. She kept driving for about a mile, agents said, shaking her head no when one of the agents pulled alongside her car to motion her to stop.
When she finally did pull over, agents found two bottles of store bought liquor that had been opened but no moonshine. They poured out the liquor and let her go without any charges.
Investigating the call
Stemple regrouped and called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which told him there was no agent named Earl Lunsford. He also checked with that states alcoholic beverage commission and its highway patrol; they didnt have an agent by that name, either.
Stemple subpoenaed the ALEs phone records from AT&T and found the number that coincided with the time of the tip. He called it and Coates, an Emergency Management multi-hazards field planner in Hickory, answered.
Yes, Coates said, it was his personal cellphone. But no, he said, he didnt make a call pretending to be a Tennessee agent. Stemple thought it sounded like the same man who had called, but he wasnt sure.
Coates had law enforcement background he was a former police officer in Mars Hill and the Asheville airport, and a former state probation and parole officer.
Emergency Management officials asked the State Highway Patrols internal affairs investigators to look into the matter. (Both agencies are part of the same state department.) They interviewed Coates three times, during which he was cooperative, offered to take a lie-detector test and called up his U.S. Cellular phone records online to show them it didnt reflect that phone call, court records show.
Coates said he was in downtown Raleigh for a staff meeting at the state Archdale Building at the time of the phone call to ALE. He said he stepped outside on a break during the half-hour time frame the call occurred and made two brief calls.
Coates told the investigators he was friends with the woman who was the subject of the tip, and her husband, both Emergency Management co-workers. In fact, he said, the woman told him he should apply for her job when she retired in a year and a half.
The ALE, meanwhile, did nothing else in the case until about a month later, when Stemple obtained a warrant for Verizon Wireless records. Stemples report of the investigation shows ALE was suddenly interested in Verizon records, even though there are several cellphone carriers in the area.
Deeper probe of phone records
Stemple began pushing Verizon to produce records of all calls placed within a five-hour span that day, telling them to look for a call that might have been captured on one of its towers. Stemple told the phone company that the highest officials at ALE and in the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety were interested, according to his report. He told them he had been instructed to call every day until they complied, he said.
Finally, a month after the warrant was issued, Stemples supervisor, Agent Mark Senter who is also now a deputy director in ALE told Stemple he had received the phone records.
The records produced damning information: They showed a call was made from Coates number to the ALE district office. The data had been captured because the call pinged off a Verizon tower on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.
I look guilty as sin, Coates told investigators when presented with the evidence against him, according to court records. But he still insisted he didnt make the call.
Early in 2010, Coates was fired for unacceptable personal conduct for falsely identifying himself as a law enforcement officer and for lying about a co-worker. But he fought back, and in a lengthy October 2010 administrative court hearing, the case took a strange twist.
A highly qualified national expert in cellular communications, brought in on Coates behalf, testified that the records actually reveal the call was made by someone who was traveling at the time. Since Coates was stationary at the Archdale Building, the expert said, he could not have made that call.
Not only that, but the records show evidence that someone tried to spoof Coates phone by using a smartphone or computer. Spoofing refers to using websites or phone cards to disguise the true callers phone number. Spoofed calls wont appear on the callers cellphone records, the expert said.
Also at the hearing, Coates attorney Asheville lawyer Larry Leake, who is chairman of the state Board of Elections pressed Stemple repeatedly on why ALE focused only on Verizon records. Stemple said his supervisor, Senter, told him to.
You didnt know Stewart Coates from Adams house cat, did you? Leake asked. But for some reason your supervisor tells you to subpoena Verizon one of five or six providers? It turns out that, in fact, one of their towers, they purport, had a hit?
But Leake didnt press it further, and the question of how ALE knew the Verizon records might be fruitful was not answered at the hearing. ALE officials will not comment on the case because it is still in litigation.
On Wednesday, ALE Director John Ledford, not speaking about this case specifically, said the agency doesnt obtain phone records without warrants or subpoenas. Agents submit search warrant affidavits for a judges approval all the time, he said, and dont need to break the law in order to cut corners.
The focus on Verizon records didnt turn out to be an issue in Coates case. In March, Administrative Law Judge Donald Overby unequivocally concluded that Coates had not made the call and should get his job back.
The string of coincidences are lengthy and indeed make petitioner look guilty as sin, as he acknowledged, but the evidence of spoofing is overwhelming and convincing, Overby wrote.
In June 2011, the state personnel commission upheld Overbys ruling. But the state has appealed the case to Wake County Superior Court.
The Attorney Generals Office, in its petition for judicial review, contends that Coates background in law enforcement gave him the knowledge of how to prompt the ALE to act on the moonshine tip. The states attorneys note there was testimony that Coates had told someone that the woman would get into trouble some day if she kept carrying moonshine. There was also testimony that Coates asked the womans husband what time she would be leaving home that day. They contend Coates wanted her job and hadnt received a promotion.
Leake says the questions have been answered and his client should get his job back along with pay since his firing. We think we conclusively proved Mr. Coates did not make the phone call in question, Leake said. Obviously, the administrative law judge agreed with us. We regret the state continues to fight us.
The case is still pending in Superior Court, with a trial date scheduled for later.