Prior to his arrest Saturday, Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long told federal authorities “he had made bad choices for which he was sorry” and admitted to handling drugs and becoming involved in drug trafficking, according to a new criminal complaint filed against him Monday.
Sheriff Long, who was charged Saturday with extortion, money laundering and giving a firearm to a convicted felon, is also now accused of possessing five or more kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride with intent to distribute just before he was taken into custody.
The charge comes with a sentencing range of 10 years to life and also can include a fine, officials said.
“Things sound bad, but (in) most every case I have, things sound bad,” said defense attorney Jerry Summers, who had not yet officially been retained by Sheriff Long when he agreed to appear on his behalf during a hearing in U.S. District Court on Monday afternoon.
Staff Photo by John Rawlston Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long is led away in handcuffs and leg irons after making his initial appearance on new charges in federal court Monday afternoon at the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Chattanooga. His bond hearing was set for Friday.
The proceeding had been scheduled as a preliminary hearing and detention hearing for the sheriff on the extortion, money laundering and gun-related charges for which he was arrested Saturday. But U.S. Magistrate Judge William B. Mitchell Carter announced the new drug charge, prompting Mr. Summers to ask that the case be postponed until Friday.
Sheriff Long, 55, appeared Monday wearing the same jeans, denim jacket, handcuffs and downturned expression he had worn during his initial appearance Saturday. Family members and department officials, including two chaplains, crowded into the courtroom to see him, but the sheriff did not raise his head to greet them.
After the hearing, he was taken to the Bradley County Jail, according to John Bieber, supervisory deputy for the U.S. Marshal Service in Chattanooga.
Deputy Marshal Bieber said he was “not at liberty” to discuss whether the sheriff has been under any type of special detainment such as a suicide watch, but confirmed he “is being housed separately for his protection, just like anybody in law enforcement (would be).”
The drug charge against Sheriff Long comes on the heels of allegations he had accepted $17,400 in exchange for letting local convenience store owners conduct criminal activity between April and December 2007 and another $6,550 as payoffs for allowing a money laundering operation involving drug trafficking proceeds between December 2007 and January 2008.
The operation was actually an undercover sting conducted by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service, officials said.
The newest charge against Sheriff Long involves a drug deal orchestrated by federal officials on Feb. 2, when according to the complaint the sheriff was filmed loading a box of 10 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride into an FBI informant’s trunk. He followed the informant to a parking lot where he would drop off the car and pick up $48,000.
The sheriff used a government vehicle to give the informant a ride back to his business, where the two split the money, according to the complaint.
While counting the money, the informant allegedly told Sheriff Long that he needed to get rid of the gun the sheriff had given him to avoid discovery by law enforcement. The sheriff told him he would get him another gun, the complaint states.
FBI agents intervened and interviewed Sheriff Long, who initially told them “he was doing his own investigation, although no one else at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department had knowledge of his investigation.”
But he then admitted he knew he was involved in drug trafficking, knew he had given a gun to a convicted felon and admitted to threatening an ethnic Indian convenience store owner “who had failed to fulfill his campaign donation promise,” according to the complaint.
Mr. Summers stressed after Monday’s hearing that the charges against Sheriff Long are only allegations that must be tried in court. However, Mr. Summers said he did not expect the sheriff to receive bond.
He said he wondered about the timing of the sheriff’s arrest and whether it could be a politically motivated attack against the Democrat.
“I do think it’s coincidental that if it’s been going on this long, why they just arrest him now,” Mr. Summers said. “Why not wait until after ‘Super Tuesday?’ ... There’s other forces at play here.”
Sheriff’s department officials still are in shock over the charges but are working diligently to ensure their agency continues to fulfill the needs of the public, said spokesman Sgt. Max Templeton.
“We feel like our badge has been tarnished,” Sgt. Templeton said. “But we’re going to continue to do our job, whatever happens. We’re sworn to the citizens of Hamilton County, and we’ll protect them. We’re not sworn to the administration.”
Chief Deputy Allen Branum now is acting as sheriff.
Sgt. Templeton said officials are dealing with the loss of their leader as gracefully as possible.
“Neither (Chief Deputy Branum) nor the sheriff came up with all of the ideas,” he said. “We had a whole staff of people coming up with ideas. The same staff, with the exception of one person, is still there.”