Tommy Keith Wall spent Thanksgiving week painting a house he recently moved into in Four Oaks, part of trying to put his life back together.
Wall was released from the Harnett County jail in October after spending 105 days behind bars, charged with raping a 13-year-old girl and taking part in the making of child pornography.
Wall was exonerated in October. The charges against him were dropped and expunged from all public records, said Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart.
“I got nothing else to do,” Wall said. “I got a house, and I’m living in it. I’m going to start working on the outside when the weather breaks.”
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Wall, 50, was arrested June 24 and released Oct. 6. In between, he lost a $55,000-a-year desk job in Garner, where he had worked for 15 years. The home he owned near Willow Spring was auctioned off on the steps of the Johnston County Courthouse. His reputation was left in tatters.
The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office announced Wall’s arrest in late June. He and four others were thought to be producing child pornography at a home on Nicole Drive outside Sanford starting in September 2013.
The others arrested were Jordan Everett Busse, 30, of Fayetteville; Rashawn Rodriguez Drake Jackson, 21, of Cameron; and the couple who lived at the house, Bailey Joe Mills and Elizabeth Holland Mills.
Court records indicate the case began when a 13-year-old girl told Harnett County sheriff’s deputies that she had been offered money in exchange for sex with Bailey Joe Mills, a twice-convicted child-sex offender. A second 13-year-old girl showed up at the Sheriff’s Office with her father and told detectives that she had sex twice with Mills in a bedroom at his home in early January.
Both Bailey Joe and Elizabeth Mills have pleaded guilty to federal charges of making child pornography but still face several state charges of sexually abusing children.
Photo on television
The arrests began Jan. 5 with Bailey Joe Mills and continued over the next several months. Wall was working as a sales coordinator with the Garner branch of Stock Building Supply when a supervisor called him at home June 3 and told him his photo had been shown on television as a man wanted for committing sex crimes against children.
The supervisor sent a link of the news story to Wall’s cellphone.
“I scrolled down and saw the picture,” he said. “I didn’t read the story. I called a number at the bottom.”
Wall said the man on the other end of the line asked him whether he could stop by the Sheriff’s Office the next morning.
“I called my pastor,” Wall said. “He told me, ‘Don’t be surprised if they bust your door down.’ ”
When Wall arrived at the Sheriff’s Office in Lillington the next day, detective B.M. Byrd showed him pictures of a room behind the house on Nicole Drive. Byrd asked Wall whether he recognized the room. He did not.
Visits an acquaintance
Byrd showed Wall photos of four teen girls and of the other adults who had already been arrested and asked whether he knew any of them.
Wall told Byrd he recognized Elizabeth Mills. He had visited her home in Spring Lake in 2011 after dropping off a load of lumber to one of Stock Building Supply’s customers. Bailey Mills was in jail at the time for a parole violation. He said he had met her while working as a sound engineer at a music event in Spring Lake.
Wall said while at the home he noticed camera equipment and computers. He thinks he appeared on video at the home that was downloaded onto a computer hard drive.
Detectives mistakenly thought the photo linked Wall to the child sex crimes, said his lawyer, Fred Webb of Sanford.
“The picture of him was taken when he visited Elizabeth Mills well before the time period (when the crimes took place),” Webb said.
Byrd also asked Wall whether he went by the name of a person they were actually looking for in connection to the child porn ring.
“I told him, ‘No, my name is Tommy Wall.’ I don’t go by someone I’m not,” he said.
That Wall did not know the suspect’s name “should have been a red flag,” Webb said.
Wall later learned that the man and Bradley Mills had frequented strip clubs together in Raleigh and Fayetteville and that authorities believe he was the leader of an underage sex ring on Nicole Drive. Wall said it’s inconceivable that someone could think he was that man.
“I can’t remember the last time I was at a strip club. I don’t like them,” he said. “Look at my gas charges of me ever being in Fayetteville. If I was such a big ringleader, why aren’t there phone records of me calling Bailey Mills?”
‘Got the wrong dude’
Wall said he told Byrd, “ ‘You got the wrong dude. I would never hurt a young’un.’ ” But Byrd told him he had Wall on video.
“When he read the charges, I didn’t even hear him,” Wall said. “It blew my mind.”
Investigators have not made public any information about the alleged ringleader, including his name, though Wall and his attorney say they know something about him.
“It would be a disservice to the community to release this man’s name and give him the opportunity to flee and continue preying on others,” Webb said.
The next day a judge told Wall he could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
“I kept shaking my head and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this,’ ” he said. “What in the world?”
Wall recalled a jailer taking pictures of his naked body. An inmate told him it was a scare tactic to get him to admit to the crimes he was charged with.
“I would hang on the Cross before admitting those charges,” he said.
Wall’s cellmate in the Harnett County jail was Bradley Campbell, a 23-year-old Lillington man who had been arrested Jan. 17 on charges of threatening someone.
Wall told Campbell he was innocent of what he had been charged with. Campbell told him, “If you didn’t do it, don’t worry about it.”
Campbell had several Bibles. He gave Wall one and went back to sleep. Wall started praying.
“I told God, ‘You my judge. You know your son ain’t done this. My life is in your hands. Protect me and get me out of here,’ ” he said.
The next day Wall began reading the New Testament. Then he read the book of Psalms. He read the entire Bible twice while in jail.
“Bradley and I became friends,” he said. “We started a little Bible study.”
Webb took on Wall’s case in early August. By then, Wall had lost his home because he was in jail on the date he was supposed to be in court to have a lien on the home lifted.
“The first time I met him, the first time I looked at the paperwork at the district attorney’s office, I became convinced that he was innocent,” Webb said.
Webb said the other defendants in the case could not identify Wall, including Elizabeth Mills, who was intimately involved with the man sheriff’s deputies are still searching for.
Webb also noted that Wall did not have Internet service at home.
“You expect pedophiles to have Internet service somewhere,” he said. “I went after everything they used to connect him.”
Webb started working with the Harnett County prosecutor assigned to the case and learned that the only evidence against Wall was the photo of his 2011 visit to Elizabeth Mills’ home in Spring Lake. Webb and the district attorney’s office waited on new evidence from sheriff’s investigators, but none was forthcoming.
The Harnett County district attorney, Sheriff Larry Rollins and lead investigator Byrd all declined to comment about the case.
Wall is preparing to file a lawsuit against Harnett County, seeking compensation for the loss of his job, home and good name.
An attorney interested in representing him told Wall, “Sue them for everything you can come up with.”
Wall agreed, then said, “But it ain’t about the money.”
News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this story.