Updated March 7 with new developments.
A little more than a week after a Wake County grand jury indicted five people on charges related to an alleged ballot-harvesting scheme in Bladen County, all of the accused have been arrested.
The State Bureau of Investigation arrested the alleged ringleader, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a 63-year-old political operative and elected official, last week. He made his initial appearance in court Tuesday, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.
Dowless had been scheduled to appear in court March 25, but he received incorrect information from a magistrate and showed up weeks early, Freeman said. Since Dowless and his attorney, Cynthia Singletary, had driven hours from Bladen County, Freeman decided to go ahead with the hearing, she said.
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Dowless faces three counts of felony obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot. Under North Carolina law, a voter’s mail-in absentee ballot may be handled by others only in very limited circumstances.
The charges relate to the 2016 general election and 2018 primary. Charges stemming from the 2018 general election are expected to follow.
In 2018, Dowless’ most high-profile client was the Republican congressional candidate in the state’s 9th district, Mark Harris. The North Carolina State Board of Elections recently held a hearing about absentee ballot irregularities in that race and ordered a new election after about four days of testimony. The board’s unanimous vote came shortly after Harris conceded that a new election was warranted.
Dowless’ attorney, Singletary, told the board that Dowless would only testify if offered immunity from criminal prosecution. The board declined. Singletary has declined to comment on the criminal charges Dowless now faces.
Dowless is no longer in law enforcement custody. His $30,000 secured bond was paid by a prominent Elizabethtown businessman whose furniture shop is where Harris said he first met Dowless, BladenOnline.com reported.
Ray Britt, the owner of Ray’s Furniture and Jewelry Liquidators, a Bladen County commissioner and a former member of the Bladen County Board of Elections, told the news website that he collected money from several people who had an interest in Dowless working with his attorney and getting to the bottom of the allegations that have sullied the county’s reputation. Britt declined to name the other contributors. He did not return a call from The News & Observer.
Authorities encouraged the other four people who have been indicted to turn themselves in, Freeman said Monday. She said arrest orders had also been issued.
Caitlyn Eugenia Croom, Matthew Monroe Mathis, Tonia Marie Gordon and Rebecca D. Thompson each face one count of felony conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possession of absentee ballot. Mathis faces additional charges of falsely signing the voter certification on an absentee ballot.
The four had prearranged release conditions of $10,000 unsecured bond, Freeman said. That means that if they promise to appear in court, they can remain out of custody without paying the bond in advance.
Gordon, 41, turned herself in at the Bladen County magistrate’s office Tuesday, and Thompson, 41, did the same at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, authorities said. Those arrests came after Croom, 23, turned herself in at the New Hanover County jail Sunday.
The Sampson County Sheriff’s Office arrested Mathis, 25, “without incident” in that county on Tuesday, the SBI said in a news release Tuesday night.
Anjanette Grube, an SBI spokeswoman, had said the agency was working with local law enforcement. A spokesman for the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy Larry Guyton, said Tuesday that his office was not involved.
Court records show that of those indicted, only Dowless had a previous felony conviction. He was convicted of felony perjury in 1990 and felony fraud in 1992.
Mathis has pending drug possession charges in Cumberland County, according to court records.
Gordon has pending charges in Bladen County related to driving without a valid license. She has repeatedly faced such charges. In 2002, Gordon was found guilty of criminal contempt, court records show.
Thompson was found guilty of injury to personal property in 2005, according to court records.