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Spring Lake: The demise of a Police Department

The Fayette Observer (Fayetteville, North Carolina)
BYLINE: Corey G. Johnson, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Spring Lake, NC

Just days after Larry Faison settled into his new job as town manager in October 2007, a two-page letter hit his desk. The letter urged Faison to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Police Chief A.C. Brown and one of his supervisors, Sgt. Darryl Coulter. It was the first of many complaints sent anonymously to Faison's office and other town leaders between October 2007 and February of this year.

The Fayetteville Observer obtained the letters -- as well as e-mails -- which cited dates and times of alleged instances of double-dipping, false arrests, planting of drugs on suspects and other abuses of power by some of the town's police officers.  Police sources said nine current and former officers drafted the letters, which became more intense as time went by.

"Few of the officers do not know what else we can do to let you guys know that things in the department are going downhill," one letter said. "We really feel like we have no one who is listening to our concerns, especially when you have officers breaking the law. We want the town staff to handle the concerns within but we are getting to a point where we no longer feel like the staff is listening. ... Please help!!!"

Alderman James O'Garra acknowledged that town leaders became aware of the letters, but he said they didn't take them seriously because Faison repeatedly assured the board that the allegations were unfounded.

"He just kept saying I checked with A.C. (Brown), and he says there is nothing to it," O'Garra said.

Faison did not return repeated calls for comment last week.

The town's inaction ultimately prompted the officers to complain to the State Bureau of Investigation, according to interviews and a Dec. 1, 2007, letter to the state Attorney General's Office. Later in December, SBI agents began fanning out across the county collecting background information from former Spring Lake officers, according to several who were interviewed.

Now, nearly two years later, the results of the state's investigation have begun to surface. On a September night last year, two men were huddled inside Room 247 of the Sleep Inn when Spring Lake police began pounding on the door, police records show.

When the door opened, five officers -- including Sgt. Darryl E. Coulter Sr. and Sgt. Alfonzo D. Whittington Jr. -- entered and pointed guns at the men. Although neither man had drugs, a Spring Lake police report from that night shows, Coulter said he smelled marijuana in the room. The police handcuffed the men, then seized $2,900 that had been lying in plain sight. In a report of the incident, the officers called the money "found property."

What the officers didn't know that night was that the SBI had booked the room under a fictitious name -- Bradley Johnson. The SBI had provided the men -- who were from Greensboro and Dillon, S.C. -- with the money. Video cameras were installed throughout the room, sources close to the SBI investigation say.

Another incident also was caught on tape -- this time from a camera inside a Spring Lake police car.

On April 27, 2008, Coulter and other officers responded to a call of shots being fired. The tape appears to show Coulter leading two other officers to a house. After pacing outside for minutes, Coulter begins shouting at the door. It appears that Coulter enters suddenly. The video then shows three men being yanked from the house and tossed on the ground. They remain in that position, often pleading, for at least 30 minutes, while the other officers point guns at them.

Monday, a special Cumberland County grand jury indicted Coulter and Whittington. Among other charges, the indictments allege that Coulter lied when he said he smelled marijuana in the motel room.

The indictment also charges Coulter with kidnapping, assault and false arrest, saying he had no legal justification for the raid on the home.

Whittington is accused of taking the $2,900 from the department's evidence room and falsifying records to cover it up. Whittington reported on an evidence property record that he returned the money to a Bradley Johnson -- the name sources say the SBI made up at the motel.

After the indictments were returned, town leaders fired Whittington and suspended Coulter without pay, pending an administrative investigation. Whittington had been with the Spring Lake Police Department since 2005. Coulter has been with the department since 1999.

Moments after the indictments, Chief District Court Judge Beth Keever issued an order stripping the Spring Lake Police Department of all of its police powers. District Attorney Ed Grannis announced that the SBI continues to investigate, and more arrests could be coming. Grannis also said he is dismissing all of the Spring Lake Police Department's pending misdemeanor cases and is reviewing pending felony cases.

Brown resigned Tuesday afternoon in a closed-door meeting with Faison and Mayor Ethel Clark.

The next morning, Grannis filed a motion saying the SBI received information that Brown was at the Police Department until 2:30 a.m. Wednesday shredding material. Wednesday night, Spring Lake officials changed the locks to the Police Department, hours after a judge ordered the town to secure police records.

SBI agents went back to Spring Lake to seize records. Brown has not been charged with any crimes. Sgt. Mack J. Utley III has been named acting police chief.

Personnel records show that Whittington was fired from the Fayetteville Police Department in 2000 and from the Lumberton Police Department in 2003. While working as a Fayetteville police officer in 2000, Whittington was accused of pushing a handcuffed homeless man off a bench and punching him several times. The incident happened in a room at the police station, and a video camera reportedly caught it on tape.

The act was particularly shocking, a police supervisor said at the time, because the man, Dennis Ray Hunt, was deaf and mute and couldn't scream or holler for help. "This is against our policies, our procedures, and it's criminal," Sgt. Roberto Rivera told a reporter.

A judge dismissed charges against Whittington after Fayetteville police said they couldn't locate Hunt.

After being fired from the Fayetteville Police Department, Whittington went to work in 2001 for the Lumberton Police Department. He was fired in April 2003 for undisclosed reasons, according to personnel records.

Two years later, Whittington found himself working for the Spring Lake Police Department -- under Brown's direction.

Hiring police officers who have been fired from other departments is not uncommon for small towns, says Jenny Little, law enforcement coordinator for the state's Training and Standards Division. "Obviously, you would think that someone would think long and hard about hiring someone who has been fired twice," Little said. "But in this day and age, a lot of small towns can't afford to hire the cream of the crop. So what might be an issue to you, might not be an issue to them."

Former Spring Lake officers say Whittington and Coulter were Brown's closest confidants. All three men had been divorced and had experienced financial troubles.

Coulter has filed for bankruptcy three times -- in 1996, 2002 and 2004 -- and has been evicted twice since working for Spring Lake, court records show.

In November 2004, the records show, O'Garra, the alderman, threw him out because of unpaid rent.

O'Garra said that after a closed-door meeting with Brown, Coulter and former town manager Hal Hegwer, the town paid O'Garra $630 to settle Coulter's debt on the condition that Coulter pay the town back.
Coulter repaid the town in February of this year, days after an Observer query about the matter.

The SBI investigation and the resulting actions against the Spring Lake Police Department raise questions about why town leaders didn't aggressively investigate allegations of police wrongdoing.

Mayor Ethel Clark chafes at those suggestions. Before late last week, Clark consistently had defended Brown and the Police Department.

She says she was shocked by the indictments and the allegations that Brown had shredded materials at the police station. Clark insists that she never covered up problems or complaints. "This stuff was well hidden," she said. "If any officers did that stuff, then they need to go. And if the chief did that stuff, then he needs to go, too. "But I don't understand how people can think we should have known about this. If it takes the SBI a full year to dig this mess out, how do you think an elected official is going to do it"

O'Garra said the problems in the Police Department could flood over into Town Hall. "I feel town voters will probably show us how they feel with this embarrassment," he said.

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