Billy Long’s friends, colleagues and political adversaries said Monday that they were happy the former Hamilton County sheriff decided to admit his wrongdoing rather than continue to insist on his innocence.
“It is what I’d expect former Sheriff Long to do if he was guilty,” said Chattanooga attorney Stuart James, former Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman and a close political adviser to Mr. Long. “The person I got to know would accept responsibility for his actions.”
Though he initially had entered pleas of not guilty, Mr. Long on Monday told U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice that he was guilty of taking more than $23,000 in illegal payoffs, giving a gun to a convicted felon and possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute it.
“For him personally, I think that’s the right thing to do,” said former Chief Deputy Allen Branum, who now is Hamilton County sheriff.
Sheriff Branum said the man who stood in District Court was reminiscent of the man he thought he was working with before the allegations raised against Mr. Long on Feb. 2.
On that day, after a lengthy government sting operation, Mr. Long, 56, was arrested and accused of convenience-store shakedowns, taking part in a drug trafficking operation and firearms violations.
Republican sheriff candidate and former Chief Deputy Jim Hammond said changing his pleas was “probably the wisest thing (Mr. Long) could have done.”
“Only he knows what he’s guilty of,” Mr. Hammond said. “You plead to what you did and take the best deal they’ll offer you.”
None of Mr. Long’s other relatives or friends at the courthouse Monday, including his wife, Joy, and campaign adviser Perry Perkins, would comment.
County Commission Chairman Bill Hullander said he expected Mr. Long to plead guilty. Mr. Long apologized to him soon after his arrest, Mr. Hullander said.
“He dropped his head and just said he was sorry,” Mr. Hullander said. “That let me know he was probably (guilty).”
Terry Conley, a longtime friend of Mr. Long’s who attended Monday’s hearing, said he was not as quick to decide how he felt about his friend’s fate. His perspective finally changed after the hearing concluded, however.
“I never dreamed this in 1,000 years,” he said.
Democratic sheriff candidate and County Commissioner Greg Beck said he still is shocked by the change he has seen in Mr. Long’s personality.
“I don’t know what happened to former Sheriff Long and I don’t know what kind of crossroads and challenges he had in his life,” Mr. Beck said. “I’m sorry for his family. I’m sorry for him. And I’m sorry that the people of Hamilton County had to be shortchanged in this whole affair.”
At least the government finally will be able to close this chapter, said County Commissioner Larry Henry, who called Mr. Long a disappointment.
“There’s no excuse for any of this that Billy did,” Mr. Henry said.
Sheriff Branum said Mr. Long’s actions seem to have had little, if any, impact on the department or the law enforcement community at large.
“This really has nothing to do with the department anymore,” he said. “When he resigned (on Feb. 6), I guess that’s when he became disassociated with the sheriff’s office.”
Chattanooga Police Sgt. C.W. Joel, president of the Southeast Tennessee chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said he believes the controversy will not permanently erode the public’s trust in law enforcement.
“While Billy certainly did us no favors, the fabric (of our law-enforcement community) is much stronger than the actions of one man,” Sgt. Joel said.