Questions swirled around drug chief

Questions swirled around drug chief

August 16th, 2012 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.

Document: DTF Activity

DTF Activity

When 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb named a new Drug Task Force director shortly after his election in 2006, he said he could "sleep at night" with Mike Hall in place.

Over the next four years, Bebb apparently looked elsewhere while Hall and the task force spent tens of thousands of taxpayer money on trips, meals and motels; while reports came in of Hall allowing improper searches and misusing state property; while task force agents gossiped of an affair between Hall and a female agent; and through whispers asking whether Hall himself was using drugs.

In fact, when Bebb learned that a Cleveland police detective was looking into questions whether Hall was abusing prescription pills, Bebb tried to get the detective indicted and later helped get him fired, court records allege.

Bebb said the detective should have been criminally charged for failing to get a court order to check Hall's prescription records.

Hall did not respond to multiple messages left on his cellphone seeking comment.

Newly in office in 2006, Bebb said he had lost confidence in the previous director, Roxanne Blackwell, after some evidence was misplaced.

Blackwell, a veteran law officer now with the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, told the Times Free Press that the incident was manufactured.

"He wanted Mike Hall in there and he had to find a reason," she said.

Blackwell had replaced Ken Wilson, who was arrested in 2002 on charges of stealing 176 pounds of marijuana and a quantity of cocaine from the task force evidence locker. He pleaded guilty in 2004 and was sentenced to 78 months in federal prison.

Hall, who joined the 10th District Drug Task Force in 2003, told the Cleveland Daily Banner in August 2010 that, before he got into law enforcement, he had been in ministry in Miami and the Cayman Islands. He said he moved from Florida in 1992 and had worked with Mount Olive Ministries in Cleveland.

He was hired by the Bradley County Sheriff's Office on Feb. 2, 2002 and stayed until Jan. 23, 2003, according to Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission records. Maj. Jim Hodgson with the sheriff's office said Hall mostly worked as a school resource officer.

In a resume Hall submitted this year to the Collegedale Police Department, he claimed he worked at the Bradley sheriff's office from 1998 to 2003 as a patrolman, patrol supervisor, school resource officer and detective assigned to the drug task force.

Hodgson said Hall was an unpaid reserve officer before he was hired but was never any kind of supervisor in that office.

It was common knowledge that Hall and Bebb were close. Several Bradley County sources said part of that might have come through the church attended by Hall, Bebb and several other ranking law enforcement officers - including Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder. They are known by the law enforcement foot soldiers as the "Mount Olive Mafia."

A 2008 Times Free Press story credited Hall with putting in place better procedures for handling evidence and money at the drug task force. But it wasn't long before the task force was split and Hall the subject of rumor and speculation.

Some officers were unhappy about how Hall ran the task force and thought he was short on training and experience. The dissension was strong enough that, in a June 16, 2008 memo, Lt. Don Williams, Hall's second in command, strongly reminded task force supervisors to hew the line set by the task force director.

"The bottom line is if the Director makes a decision, we will all follow his directive and not question his motives or rumor our discord against him," Williams' memo stated in part.

Sammie McNelley

Agent Sammie McNelley, in particular, had voiced doubts about Hall, Williams wrote in a Nov. 19, 2009, memo to Hall and Bebb.

"It is common knowledge that Sammie is resentful that Mike Hall was appointed as the Director for the 10th Drug Task Force instead of himself," Williams wrote. He accused McNelley of creating unrest among some of the other agents and trying to "undermine" Hall's decisions.

At that time, McNelley had 18 years' law enforcement experience. Hall promoted him to sergeant and in 2008 named him liaison with the local U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office, working out of its Chattanooga location.

In December 2009, Hall fired McNelley for misusing his drug task force cellphone. His appeal is pending after a Bradley County chancellor in March ruled the process used in his termination violated his rights.

Others who worked with the drug task force also criticized Hall's law enforcement skills.

In one case, former task force agent Brian Sargent told the Times Free Press he was along when a 10th task force crew broke into a McMinn County house in the fall of 2009 and searched it without a warrant. A crew from the National Geographic Channel got the whole thing on film for a segment of its "Drugs Inc." series.

The nearly 10-minute segment shows armed and armored task force agents going into the house, searching through the rooms and a horse trailer out back and collecting evidence of meth cooking.

Sargent said the visit was supposed to be a "knock and talk" in which agents, if they don't have a warrant, knock on the door and talk to anyone inside in hopes of spotting drug evidence in plain sight.

But when no one answered the door, Hall ordered the crew to break in and search anyway, Sargent said. He said Hall later sent another agent to the landlord, not the renter, seeking retroactive permission for the search.

Sargent said the filming took place during his last week with the drug task force. He had resigned because he was unhappy with the direction the agency was taking, he said.

"As far as I was concerned, the ship was sinking," Sargent said. "I didn't want to be named in a lawsuit. I worked as a police officer to put people who needed to be in jail in jail and to help those who wanted help."

Duff Brumley

Another former drug task force agent criticized Hall's police skills in a statement that is part of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former Cleveland Police Detective Duff Brumley, who was fired in 2010 after he looked into allegations that Hall was abusing prescription pills.

"I've been there on a few of his [Hall's] pretty jacked-up, pretty messed-up cases, and I inherited the cases that couldn't be prosecuted," former agent Eric Allman said in the July 26, 2011 statement. "I don't know if he was so ignorant he didn't realize he was doing it. Either way, those searches were a train wreck."

Allman now works at the McMinn County Sheriff's Office. He did not return calls seeking comment for this report.

At one point, a letter praising Hall's leadership was passed around among the men and they were asked to sign it. Former agent Dax McGowan, also in a statement filed as part of Brumley's lawsuit, said he refused to sign the letter. The letter and the signatures were posted in the task force office with McGowan's name marked through with a black line. He was ostracized thereafter, he said in the statement.

McGowan has left law enforcement and declined to comment for this report.

Williams, in memos, described McNelley, McGowan, Sargent and Allman as disaffected, resentful and unwilling to get with the program on the task force.

OVER THE LINE

Some agents also disapproved of Hall's behavior on frequent trips for training or law enforcement conferences.

The Times Free Press counted at least two dozen out-of-town trips for one or more task force members in 2008-10, some related to drug cases, others for conferences and training seminars.

Allman said in his statement that he and a few other agents skipped the high life that Hall and his task force buddies enjoyed on those trips.

"I never would go out drinking with them; I never would go out hanging out with them," he said.

McGowan said in his statement that task force members who didn't like to party fell out of favor.

"It started going downhill because I wasn't playing the game of staying out all night, you know, hanging out with him and Angie or whatever," said McGowan, an agent from May 2007 to August 2010.

DTF agent Angie Gibson had been a secretary but went to the police academy under Hall's aegis and joined the task force as an officer.

McGowan said in the July 26, 2011 statement that there was "favoritism" on the task force.

"Like, if you'd ask for things you wouldn't get them but a secretary would get things totally oblivious [sic] to what anybody really needed."

McGowan and Allman both said in their statements that gossip was rife about an inappropriate relationship between the task force's boss and its only female agent.

"Mostly hearsay from the interdiction guys (about) crap they had seen, crap that Mike was doing for Angie," Allman said. "I heard those guys talk all the time about him renting her rooms in Cleveland" while she was attending the police academy, he said.

Receipts from Hall's drug task force credit card between 2008 and 2010 show nearly two dozen local hotel stays in Cleveland, Etowah, Athens, Madisonville, Vonore and Tellico Plains, among other areas, that were not explained as task force expenses. Many receipts show two guests. In several cases, Gibson signed the register in her name and used Hall's credit card to pay.

The Times Free Press attempted to contact Gibson for comment. A woman who answered the phone at her residence on July 29 said, "I don't know who that is."

LOOKING FOR CLUES

Beyond the travel, the parties and the questions about a relationship with Gibson, some people had also begun to wonder whether Hall was using the very drugs the task force was battling.

While the task force was still making its fair share of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine busts, prescription pill abuse was booming. (See records of drug task force drug investigations and arrests online.)

Highly addictive synthetic narcotics such as hydrocodone could get a grip on anyone, it seemed. Just the year before, the Cleveland police force was rocked by a scandal involving a small group of officers who were abusing pain pills and having sex with underage girls.

Allman and McGowan both said in their statements they saw Hall acting high.

"I know - I know - that he was at work one day under the influence," Allman said in his statement. He remembered another agent taking Hall home that day.

One other time, he said in the statement, "it sure did look like it that the man was high, to me."

McGowan remembered the same incident when Hall appeared to be under the influence at work. He also remembered a day when he was asked to drive Hall's duty car, a white Dodge Magnum, back to Cleveland after a task force operation.

McGowan said he stopped for gas and, while reaching for the DTF credit card to pay, found an unlabeled pill bottle containing a hydrocodone tablet in the console. He put the bottle away and never mentioned it, he said.

Unleashing a storm

In 2010, Brumley was a Cleveland police detective and 14-year veteran who worked on narcotics cases. Brumley said two drug task force agents confided their fears about Hall to him and so did Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy.

According to newspaper archives and court records, Brumley wanted to quietly check whether Hall was buying a lot of pills - he didn't want to start an uproar if the rumor was unfounded, he said - so he called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and asked for advice.

Through Special Agent Kim Harmon, the TBI told him to get a pharmacist to quietly check the state's Patient and Prescription database for the number of prescriptions. If the number was high, he could get a court order to get the details of the prescription purchases.

Agency spokeswoman Kristin Helm confirmed the procedure but said the agency later was advised that drug task force agents should get court orders first.

Brumley asked a longtime friend, consulting pharmacist Dr. Mike Birdwell, to take a peek. Birdwell contacted another pharmacist with access to the database and relayed back to Brumley that there was nothing suspicious, according to a Cleveland Police Department internal affairs report.

But Hall found out about the check and told Bebb, who called for a TBI investigation.

Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said in a July interview that Brumley broke the law when he failed to get a court order to check the database and when he checked the state's Criminal Justice Portal, a database of identifying information such as driver's license and Social Security numbers, for personal information about Hall and others.

He said a Cleveland police internal affairs investigation found that Brumley violated procedure by not opening a case when he obtained the information.

He also said Brumley's story differs from Reedy's. Brumley said he made the check after Reedy and the two agents spoke to him. According to Hatchett, Reedy told the TBI that, when she mentioned concerns about Hall to Brumley, he told her, "'I already checked on that and it's all good.'"

Reedy told the Times Free Press she didn't remember exactly what she told the TBI two years ago, "but I would sure stand by whatever I said."

Meanwhile, Hatchett said, the entire drug task force was given a surprise drug test and everyone passed.

"There has never been a speck of credible proof that Mike Hall abused prescription drugs," Hatchett said.

In fact, Hall was never formally accused of abusing drugs, and the database check did not turn up anything disturbing in his pattern of prescriptions, according to the pharmacist who did the check.

The Times Free Press could not get the results of the drug task force members' drug tests because of medical privacy laws. Several law enforcement sources told the paper that someone with drugs in his or her system could get around negative test results by producing a prescription for the medicine.

Grounds for firing

On June 15, 2010, Brumley said in his lawsuit, he was summoned to his chief's office where Snyder, Cleveland City Manager Janice Casteel, Bebb and Hatchett were present.

Brumley said Bebb was furious. In a complaint to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, the disciplinary agency for lawyers, Brumley wrote that "General Bebb advised he intended to indict me and that he had already chosen which prosecutor would be handling the case, indicating ADA Hatchett."

Bebb also wrote to Snyder, saying Brumley had lost credibility in a separate incident and would not be allowed to testify in future court cases in the district. Snyder used the letters as a basis that August to fire Brumley, according to the lawsuit.

Birdwell gave a sworn deposition on Brumley's behalf, stating that he routinely checked the Patient and Prescription datasebase for law officers, including task force agents and Hall. He said he had told the TBI that, too.

"Mike [Hall] would come by about once a week, no less than once a month, and have a handful of names," Birdwell said in the deposition. "'Look into this person. Is there anything going on with this person? ... If any of these people come here, call me right now.'"

Hall resigned that August.

No indictment

A few months later, special prosecutor Joe Baugh appeared before the Bradley County grand jury to present evidence against Hall for possible indictment. The grand jurors declined to bring charges.

Baugh, a Franklin attorney, served for 16 years as district attorney general in the 21st District before stepping down in 1998.

The results of the TBI investigation are sealed under state law and Baugh told the Times Free Press he could not discuss the evidence that the grand jury heard or what the charges were.

Asked whether he thought the TBI had enough evidence for an indictment, Baugh said, "Yes, I did, but that and $3.22 will get you a cup of coffee.

"Whether you'd get a conviction or not is another matter," he said. "In general, if the grand jury refuses to indict someone, that tells you something. It tells you how a trial jury will act. ... Even though I might think there was something worth taking to trial, the grand jury tells me what the community thinks, or at least the general sense of those 13 people."

Another special prosecutor, Al Schmutzer of Sevierville, was given the Brumley file, but never took it to the grand jury.

Bebb said Schmutzer basically ran out the clock on the allegations, allowing the statute of limitations to expire. Hatchett said Schmutzer "was of the opinion that Brumley had committed a misdemeanor and that the statute had run [out]."

Bebb added, "That's what he said. But that's because he wouldn't bother to come down and talk to us. He will never be special again in my district."

Schmutzer did not return calls seeking comment.

Hatchett gave the Times Free Press a copy of a Cleveland Police Department internal affairs investigation conducted in June and July 2010. The findings stated that Brumley violated state law by accessing the state's Criminal Justice Portal for Hall's identifying information, then accessing the patient prescription database.

"Internal affairs showed Duff Brumley committed a felony, Duff Brumley deserved to be prosecuted and the Cleveland Police Department is better off without him," Hatchett said.

Brumley's attorney, Jerry Tidwell, said it is "bordering on burlesque to say this is some kind of crime. The reason they didn't prosecute him for it is because [TBI agent] Kim Harmon would have been the first witness we called. What's bizarre is, nobody in the DA's office is worried about Mr. Hall doing the same thing, as he was trained to do, just about Duff."

He said that despite Bebb's threat, he didn't take the case to a grand jury, and neither did Schmutzer, the special prosecutor.

"If the special prosecutor got that and thought there was anything to it, he would have taken it to the grand jury."

Regarding Hatchett's statement that Brumley committed a felony, Tidwell said, "Mr. Hatchett has committed a civil act of defamation of Brumley's character and he is outside of his qualified immunity and subject to lawsuit like anyone else."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Subscribe to Judy on Facebook at Facebook.com/JudyCTFP.