Hamlet police seize and sell vehicles for scrap

acurliss@newsobserver.comNovember 23, 2013 

— The last time Lois Womble saw her 1990 Buick, a Hamlet police officer sat behind the wheel and drove it away after a traffic stop.

Womble, 46, had been cited in August 2007 for speeding, failure to have insurance and a proper license tag, and having an out-of-date inspection sticker, all low-level offenses. An officer drove her home. Within days, Womble began trying to retrieve her car. She visited the police station and made phone calls, but says she was told only “it was in impound,” according to a signed statement she gave authorities here last month.

Her citations were all dismissed in district court early the next year, and she eventually gave up on the car. “I never knew what happened to my car or where it was,” Womble wrote.

Her Buick, according to city officials, was sold as scrap and parts last year to a junkyard in one of a series of questionable and off-the-books transactions handled by the police in this small city of roughly 6,000 near the South Carolina border, about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh.

Her car, and at least 24 others, are part of a hard-to-believe story that continues to unfold.

The State Bureau of Investigation has come and gone without bringing charges, further roiling some in the town. A senior deputy attorney general calls the fired police chief here a “dumb ass” but not a thief. The town is looking to reimburse owners for the seized vehicles, and city officials have formally asked federal prosecutors to see whether citizens’ rights were violated.

City officials say thousands of dollars have not been properly accounted for, with estimates that police mishandled at least $23,000 in cash over the past eight years. The money, most of it spent, was kept in a desk drawer or file cabinet at the police department.

Most of the money was collected by a few officers from selling the seized cars to a junkyard or from companies and residents who paid the police directly to retrieve their vehicles, which were stored on an out-of-the-way piece of city property.

One truck ended up at the house of a detective, who was fired. So was the police chief, John Haywood, for what officials said was “gross negligence” in handling money.

There are questions about where the money went. The SBI’s inquiry concluded recently there was no criminal wrongdoing, while state officials add their review was “narrow” in scope. That has left the City Council unsatisfied and looking for more answers.

This month, council members voted 4-1 to seek help from federal prosecutors; in a letter sent Wednesday to U.S. Attorney Ripley Rand in Greensboro, the city manager asked for “cool heads” to sort out a situation that “has unnerved our close-knit community.”

A News & Observer review of what happened only adds to questions: In police files were two court orders, signed by a state district court judge, but otherwise left mostly blank. Those pre-signed court orders, which judicial experts say are extremely unusual and do not seem appropriate, appear to have been copied and then used to dispose of at least seven vehicles.

“This is something you read about in New York City or Detroit or somewhere like that,” Pat Preslar, a Hamlet council member, said at a recent standing-room-only meeting. “These cases were dismissed. ... We crushed their cars. We took the money. The way I look at that, it’s larceny.”

He and others have questioned whether close to half the vehicles should have been seized at all. The new police chief, Amery Griffin, who was promoted from captain, said in some cases the vehicles should not have been taken.

City officials have started trying to find owners of cars that were scrapped. They are preparing to make offers to pay back motorists; the city’s early estimate is it could pay out at least $15,000, probably more. The school system, which officials said stood to receive money from any properly seized vehicles, has given up its claim, expressing concern about future liability.

The full scope of what occurred may never be known, Griffin said in an interview. He has been collecting statements from people who so far have come forward or been found after piecing together various documents.

“This is a kind of thing that could go on and on,” he said.

‘That breaks my heart’

Motorists have described being stopped, charged with traffic offenses and then losing their car. Some had drugs, giving police more authority to seize. Many said they had trouble in follow-up attempts to get their vehicle, or said they were asked to pay police unusually steep storage fees.

Jason E. Gomiller last saw his 1990 Honda Civic when a Hamlet officer drove off with it after charging him with crimes, including possession of 2 ounces of marijuana, in January 2007.

Court records show the charges were dismissed five months later with a finding there was no probable cause to arrest Gomiller. In an interview, Gomiller recalled the reason: The Hamlet officer arrested him in a neighboring city, Rockingham. The officer had tapped on his car window as he was preparing to check into a motel.

“While I was sitting there in handcuffs, he was, like, ‘Yeah, I saw your car earlier today and I was telling my buddies that’s the car we need to pull over and get right there,’” Gomiller said.

Gomiller said he loved that car. It had only 85,000 miles on it, new tires, and he had installed an expensive stereo system.

After the charges were tossed, he asked his court-appointed lawyer about trying to get the car back. The lawyer told him to forget about it, he said.

City and state records show the car was owned by Gomiller’s mother, Edith. A letter to her is in police files. It is dated about two years after the case was closed.

“(T)his letter is to inform you of the seizure of your vehicle by the Hamlet Police Department,” the letter says. “A storage amount of $18,440 has been accrued. It is based on the figures of having your car in storage for 922 days at $20 a day. This price is negotiable. Chief Haywood has prepared a one time offer to you of $3,620.”

Gomiller was told last week that the car had been scrapped. “Oh, my goodness, that breaks my heart,” he said.

Other such “one time” offer letters from the police are in police files, and many reflect the chief’s “negotiable” rates. In some cases, the police sought $2,500 to settle up. In others, the police requested the same amount, $3,620, on storage charges that had accrued for years at either $15 or $20 per day, depending on the letter.

Donnell L. Brooks says he walked home after a Hamlet officer pulled away at the wheel of his 1996 Chrysler Sebring following a traffic stop on Main Street in 2007. He was cited for driving without a license, no insurance and an expired tag.

Generally, a motorist in those types of circumstances can call a friend or family member to come drive the car away; police park it until it can be retrieved legally soon after; or the vehicle is towed to a garage, and the police are kept out of the transaction.

On citations of no license or insurance, the Raleigh police, for example, would park the car “at the nearest safe location,” such as a shopping center, said Jim Sughrue, a spokesman. Seizures only happen after a magistrate’s order, he said.

Police can seize vehicles used in certain alleged crimes, including some impaired driving cases and if the vehicle was used to distribute drugs. Police have latitude also to impound vehicles if allowing them to remain on a public street would “jeopardize the public welfare.”

Brooks says he went to the police department in Hamlet to get his car several times, with no luck. “They told me it was in impound,” Brooks told authorities last month in a written statement.

Court records list the charges as dismissed. He said last month that he never knew what had happened to the car. Police junked it.

In all, records and interviews show that a junkyard, Quality Salvage, paid more than $9,000 to a detective for seized vehicles and parts. Some police department receipt books reflect that at least $14,000 more was collected by police, much of it believed to be from motorists who reclaimed vehicles.

But that money was not handled through official channels. City officials say they were unaware of the practice, and that the city does not have a policy that permits storing vehicles.

In one case, a letter indicates Chief Haywood agreed to receive a minimum of $2,500 on a $10,260 storage bill for a red 1999 Chevrolet pickup. The sergeant who wrote the letter said he could give 30 days for a response.

“At the end of the thirty days, the court will enter a judgment in this case awarding the vehicle to the Hamlet Police Department,” the letter says. A judge’s order did just that, but it’s not dated.

That truck ended up at the home of a Hamlet police detective, Michael Veach, who says he bought it from the salvage yard with cash.

‘Man of integrity’

When he appeared at a council meeting in October, Haywood trumpeted findings from the SBI that he would not be charged with a crime. It prompted a wide-ranging back-and-forth involving Haywood, the city manager and council members, who generally said they were ashamed at what occurred.

“I’m a man of integrity,” Haywood said. He said he would take his job back.

“My main goal here tonight ... is to let everybody know that I wasn’t a criminal,” Haywood said.

A longtime council member and former mayor, Abbie Covington, interjected at one point.

“There’s not supposed to be a piece of property that belongs to this city ever disposed of unless it comes through here and is approved as surplus. … Quality Salvage wrote checks to police officers. If that’s not gross negligence, I don’t know what is.”

Attempts to reach Haywood failed. He is now an officer for the Rockingham Police Department.

Scrambling for receipts

Hamlet City Manager Marchell Adams-David, who has been in her job for 12 years, said the city’s internal review of how the money was spent by Haywood raised more questions.

Haywood, who had worked for the department since 1992 and was chief for seven years, could not initially produce receipts.

Adams-David said about $2,500 in Apple iPads were bought at a Best Buy using the vehicle money. Haywood had said they were purchased to record interviews with suspected felons.

When Griffin, the new chief, collected them, he could not determine that they were being used for a police purpose.

“The chief said when he retrieved them that there were pictures of kids and stuff like that,” Adams-David said.

Haywood produced a receipt for repairs of a damaged police car that had not been reported damaged previously as required by policies, she said. There were receipts for unauthorized meals, she said, that were gathered well after the fact.

As questions first mounted about the spending late last year, she said, the city’s parks and recreation director received a call from Haywood. He sought a $300 or $400 receipt, saying he had previously sponsored a local youth sports team. The director refused, according to the city manager, telling Haywood that there was no such sponsorship.

SBI officials said Haywood produced receipts for spending that covered almost all of the questioned money, but acknowledged in an interview that many were gathered later. Those receipts were verified through interviews, SBI officials said. The SBI has not released receipts or its investigative report to the city, or made them available for public review.

Investigators did not examine the iPads for personal use, said James Coman, the senior deputy attorney general in charge of special prosecutions.

“I wasn’t going to make a trip to Hamlet to see four or six iPads and be shown what the hell was on them,” Coman said.

Coman said in an interview that Haywood’s receipts covered all but about $500 in questioned spending, and that it was enough to satisfy investigators that he didn’t “pocket” the money. Haywood passed a lie-detector test as well, Coman said.

“Was he a dumb ass for the way he handled the money? Absolutely,” Coman said. “But we couldn’t prove he was a thief. ... The overwhelming evidence was he was a bad manager, but he wasn’t a thief. Plus, he passed a polygraph.”

Coman said detective Michael Veach refused a lie detector test and that his purchase of a seized truck “troubled us” and wasn’t the “best practice.”

“All we’re saying is there’s insuffient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he, Haywood, or Veach broke the law and that we can bring criminal charges,” Coman said. “That’s all. We’ve never said that we endorsed their practices.” News researchers Peggy Neal and David Raynor contributed.

Curliss: 919-829-4840; Twitter: @acurliss

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