NC SBI to investigate blank court orders in Hamlet car cases

acurliss@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

— The State Bureau of Investigation will return to Hamlet, a small city about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh, to probe circumstances that allowed police to sell about two dozen vehicles to a scrap yard and keep the money, officials said Monday.

The agency’s review will center on pre-signed, blank court orders that allowed police to dispose of the vehicles, said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the SBI.

“(T)he SBI will be opening an investigation,” Talley wrote in an email message. She said the focus will be on: “Possible forgery and/or misuse of court orders related to seized vehicles.”

A report in Sunday’s News & Observer detailed controversy surrounding seized vehicles in Hamlet and the mishandling of at least $23,000 brought in by police but not deposited in city accounts. Some money went to purchase Apple iPads, meals and repaired a wrecked police car, city officials say.

The issue led to the firing of the police chief and a detective last year and had prompted an SBI inquiry into whether they stole any money. State prosecutors recently said that probe determined criminal charges were not warranted.

The N&O’s review included a focus on pre-signed, but mostly blank court orders that allowed a junk yard to buy the vehicles. At least 10 of the vehicles that were scrapped belonged to people who were not convicted of any wrongdoing, city officials say.

It appears that at least two separate pre-signed, blank court orders were used to dispose of at least seven vehicles, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The N&O. City officials said in interviews there may be a third blank order that was already provided to the SBI as part of its earlier inquiry.

The orders reviewed by The N&O do not list defendants’ names, case numbers or other pertinent information.

Judicial experts say such blank orders are extremely unusual because judges typically issue court orders that contain specific facts and directives. Even if such an order exists, neither law enforcement officers nor anyone else should fill in the blanks, experts say.

The orders also treated the vehicles as evidence to be disposed of, which is more typical in situations where a vehicle was seized in a circumstance in which it was an important element of a crime.

The orders are signed by state District Court Judge Lisa Blue Thacker, who declined to comment.

A manager at the scrap yard, Quality Salvage, said the salvage company purchased the vehicles on authority of the judge’s orders. A Hamlet detective, Michael Veach, handled the transactions and was paid directly for the vehicles with more than $9,000 in checks and cash. Veach, who was fired by the town, declined to comment.

James Coman, a senior deputy attorney general in charge of special prosecutions, had said the SBI was aware of only one blank order and would have probed any pattern of blank orders. He had said it was unclear whether or how the one order he believed agents were aware of had been used.

Talley, the SBI’s spokeswoman, said Monday morning that the SBI’s previous review of the Hamlet matter had been focused narrowly on “allegations of stolen money.”

“The SBI and our special prosecutors would certainly be willing to look at additional information or issues upon request of the DA,” Talley wrote in an email message.

By Monday afternoon, Reece Saunders, the district attorney for the area that includes Hamlet, had requested further review, Talley said.

Saunders, whose district includes Richmond, Anson and Stanly counties, said through an assistant that he could not comment, citing a now-pending investigation.

Saunders also has declined to discuss what he knew about the vehicle issue as it was occurring. Records show that Saunders was copied on a letter sent by one man in 2011 as he attempted to get his vehicle back after his traffic charges were dismissed. The man wrote that he’d been stopped and cited for having no insurance and an improper tag, which he says was not the case. His car was towed over his protest, he said.

Multiple statements to police in the past two months by owners of seized vehicles describe other failed attempts to get their cars back or the solicitation of $2,500 or more for storage fees that were described as “negotiable” with the former police chief, John Haywood. Attempts to reach Haywood, now a patrol officer in Rockingham, have failed.

City officials say they have no storage policy or fee schedule and that vehicles should not have been taken by the city and stored, as they were, at an out-of-the-way spot.

City officials have been unsatisfied with the SBI’s work on the case so far, and last week requested that federal authorities investigate possible violations of residents’ rights. Attempts to reach Ripley Rand, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, which includes Hamlet, were unsuccessful.

Hamlet City Manager Marchell Adams-David said Monday that the City Council in Hamlet has been concerned about what happened involving a few police officers and wants a full accounting. She had expressed concerns to the SBI earlier this year in a memo that detailed numerous unanswered questions as the agency was apparently wrapping up its work.

Adams-David said Monday that a majority of council members did not believe the SBI agent who conducted the previous review had pursued the case with vigor, and that officials would be concerned if the same agent returned.

“At the end of the day, everybody just wants to make sure that even in a bad situation that we do the right thing,” she said. The city is preparing a process that will pay vehicle owners back.

She said the city welcomes any further scrutiny.

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

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