BLUE RIDGE, Ga. — A judge, a prosecutor and two investigators were discussing the witness scheduled to testify one morning in March.
"He is known as, am I correct, (N-word) Jim?" Assistant District Attorney Morris Martin asked.
"Ray," said Justin Turner, of the Fannin County Sheriff's Office.
"(N-word) what?" Martin asked, according to the transcript.
"Ray," Turner said.
"Ray. Sorry. All right. He's known as (N-word) Ray."
Minutes later, before the March 16 bond hearing in which Allen Duray Green was scheduled to testify on behalf of a friend, Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley asked about Green's family.
When Bradley moved to Fannin County in 1974, he explained, he met a man who lived near the courthouse.
"He referred to himself, as did everybody else in town, not in a disparaging manner, as (N-word) Bob," Bradley said. "And that's what he addressed himself as. That's what everybody else addressed himself as. But the comment you just made about one of the witnesses is known as (N-word) Ray, but not in a disparaging context, is that a spin-off of that same family?"
It was not.
Bradley's and Martin's use of a racial slur in open court sparked a controversy that has only flamed higher over the last five months.
But the spotlight on the case shifted, away from Green and toward Mark Thomason, the publisher of the Fannin Focus, a fledgling weekly newspaper.
Thomason has accused the court reporter, Rhonda Stubblefield, of concealing who said what on March 16. He wrote in his newspaper that courtroom witnesses dispute the official transcript; that they insist Bradley and Martin weren't the only powerful people using a racial slur that morning.
Thomason believes the sheriff's investigators called Green the n-word that day, too.
Thomason has argued in court that Stubblefield has to give him a copy of her audio recording of the hearing. Stubblefield's lawyer, meanwhile, filed a $1.6 million lawsuit against the Fannin Focus.
But while Thomason stares down the seven-figure threat and continues to cover the controversy, some Fannin County residents say this isn't a case of a plucky writer resisting the powerful establishment. This is a small town. Everybody is playing an angle. People have rivalries and loyalties that date back decades.
Thomason's critics haven't explained who they think is really pulling the strings, but they say a quiet faction of powerful people is influencing the Fannin Focus. Asking for anonymity, some in town suggest Thomason wants to topple the sheriff, Dane Kirby.
They say the Fannin Focus has shifted from journalism to activism.
"Mark Thomason's ability to bring information to the citizens of Fannin County, he has abused that," said Brian Pritchard, who runs a local online publication called Fetch Your News. "He has lost credibility."
Thomason isn't backing down.
"I've printed the absolute truth," he said. "I don't know where I've done anything wrong."
Green, meanwhile, watches Thomason's battle from the sidelines. He was sitting outside the courtroom when Bradley and Martin used the racial slur. But Robert Vivian, the man for whom Green was supposed to testify, later told him what he heard.
Green said he was angry. Five months later, he still is.
"All they had to do was come and apologize," he said. "Man up. They still ain't done it."
He had never heard of the man Bradley mentioned, Bob Welch, a former bootlegger and a local legend. Both would be in the minority in Fannin County, where census figures show the population is 96 percent white.
Some in the community insist that Bradley was right, that Welch did use the slur as a nickname. Welch is not around to address the moniker, or how he felt about it. Some suggest Green goes by the nickname, too.
"Ray Green introduces himself as 'N Ray,'" one anonymous commenter wrote on a Topix.com forum about Blue Ridge. "It's no secret. This is just someone wanting to get rich, instead of getting a job."
Added another commenter: "They refer to themselves that way — it's only when they want to get in the spotlight or make money that they act like it hurts."
Green insists that isn't true, that nobody calls him "(N-word) Ray" — at least not to his face.
He has retained attorneys but has not yet taken legal action. His lawyers want to see if any more information about the March 16 hearing emerges.
Thomason began investigating the case about a week after the bond hearing, when Vivian texted him: If you want to hear a story about a dysfunctional court system, call me.
Thomason said he knew Vivian from around town. They used to compete against each other in softball and bowling leagues.
Growing up in Blue Ridge, Thomason has known most of the city's key players since he was a child. He went to high school with the district attorney. He's been accused of showing favoritism in his work because his grandfather's brother is the father of the probate court judge. It's that kind of town.
Thomason started the Fannin Focus after leaving The News Observer, another local paper. He had been an ad salesman there and said local business owners complained to him that the reporters slanted coverage in favor of certain politicans.
Thomason said he began fact-checking articles and questioned his bosses before leaving. He either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask around town. Brian Finnicum, the editor of The News Observer, declined to comment for this article.
Thomason said business owners and politicans encouraged him to expose how the county operates. As he investigated local controversies, he said, the circulation of the Focus has risen.
"Mark goes after everyone," said Pritchard. "He goes after the mayor. He goes after me. He goes after the Chamber of Commerce. He goes after the parks and rec director. You name it, he goes after."
Thomason said Vivian told him that Bradley and Martin, as well as the sheriff's investigators, Turner and JK Davenport, used the n-word in reference to Green during the hearing. Vivian sent Thomason to talk to McCaysville police officer Michael Earley, who had been in court that day. Earley released a statement confirming that people used the slur at the hearing, but he didn't name names.
About a week after the March 16 hearing, Thomason asked Stubblefield for a copy of the court transcript. He said she had not yet typed it.
A couple weeks after the hearing, Thomason said he called Stubblefield and put her on speakerphone so a friend could hear her. He said she told him Bradley advised her not to release the transcript, and that if she did release it, the parts with the n-word would be considered "off the record."
Stubblefield later denied the conversation ever happened, but Thomason wrote about the supposed interaction in an article. The friend, David O'Conner, verified Thomason's version of the telephone call Saturday.
Stubblefield filed the transcript April 13. It quotes Bradley and Martin using the racial slur, but not Davenport or Turner.
Thomason said Turner has since testified that he didn't say the word. Davenport declined to comment for this story.
By looking at the list of people with hearings on March 16, Thomason said he found a couple who had been in court that day who corroborated Vivian's version of events. Thomason then wrote a story that said "multiple sources" believe Stubblefield's transcript was incorrect.
Stubblefield asked for a retraction. Thomason declined, instead asking her for the audio recording of the court hearing. He said Stubblefield didn't respond, so he filed a motion to compel in Fannin County Superior Court, arguing the audio from a court hearing should be an open record.
Stubblefield's attorney, Mary Beth Priest, argued otherwise. Court rules state that the public has access to either the audio recording or a transcript, which is what Stubblefield provided.
Priest said making recordings an open record would ruin the court reporter profession. If anybody could hear the court case on a CD, they would never pay for someone like Stubblefield to transcribe it. Plus, audio recordings capture some conversations that are supposed to be private in court, like two lawyers negotiating a plea deal.
Stubblefield also filed a $1.6 million libel lawsuit. She said Thomason lied when he wrote that Stubblefield said she wasn't going to transcribe the racial slur at the judge's orders. She said Thomason lied again when he wrote that multiple sources say Stubblefield's transcript is incorrect.
On July 14, Stubblefield and Thomason met in court for a hearing. Thomason's attorney, Russell Stookey, argued his client should have access to the recording because he is questioning the accuracy of the transcript. The attorneys for both sides then privately listened to the audio with Judge Martha Christian.
Thomason said Stookey later told him that he heard Bradley and Martin say the n-word, in addition to two voices he could not identify. But Christian ruled that Thomason's side had not provided evidence the transcript was altered. She gave Thomason two weeks to bring witnesses to court who would testify that the transcript doesn't line up with their memory.
And he did.
"I know for a fact the (prosecutor) was saying it, and the police officers," Carol Leite, who was in court March 16, told the Times Free Press last month. "It was definitely bounced around."
"They're trying to cover it up," added Vivian, the defendant in that bond hearing. "It's all coming from the top. It's being controlled. But they couldn't control the audio."
Others in court that day say Thomason launched an unfair attack on Stubblefield.
"The truth is going to come out," said George Weaver, who was Vivian's attorney until soon after the March 16 hearing. He is the husband of Bradley's colleague, Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver. "The transcript is accurate as far as I can tell."
"Mark Thomason is the only media outlet that has any interest in this," said Kirby, the sheriff. "I would find much better ways to spend my time."
Stubblefield and Priest declined to comment on the case.
"I would simply advise you to proceed with caution," Priest wrote in a letter, "as it is our position that Mr. Thomason's information is false and inaccurate, and that any future libel of Mrs. Stubblefield will result in legal action."
Thomason and Stubblefield, meanwhile, wait for Christian's ruling.
Editor's note: The Chattanooga Times Free Press prints the Fannin Focus every week for a fee.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.
An earlier version of this story said Thomason either quit or resigned. The story has been corrected to read, "He either quit or was fired."