SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Jon David just oversaw the third arrest of a police chief during his eight-year tenure as District Attorney.
“Lightning has struck three times here in the 13th District,” David said.
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Before the arrest of Southport Police Chief Gary Smith Thursday, David had already prosecuted two police chiefs in southeastern North Carolina.
Three police chiefs
In 2015, in the Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, Police Chief Marty Lewis was sentenced to over 10 years in prison for drug trafficking while on the job. While under SBI observation, Lewis sold opiates to the town’s clerk, Tamika Packer, according to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina.
Lewis purchased opiates from a drug dealer, James Scott, on several occasions, court documents show. After police seized twenty pills from Lewis, a state expert found the substance in question to be oxycodone.
The year prior, Emmett Ballree, former Police Chief of Boiling Spring Lakes, was sentenced to serve 45-days and 18-months of unsupervised probation.
Ballree was indicted after allowing his son, a convicted felon, to fire a submachine gun at a law enforcement firing range in front of officers. He pled guilty to failing to discharge his duties as chief, after serving the department from 2008 to 2011.
On Thursday, Southport’s first and second-in-command, Chief Gary Smith and Lt. Michael Simmons, were arrested following a lengthy SBI and FBI investigation. Smith and Simmons are accused of operating a secondary trucking business while on the department’s clock.
The two allegedly left the small coastal town unmanned and unsupervised for months.
Two DAs, two sheriffs, three police chiefs
Police chiefs aren’t the only high-ranking officials apparently prone to corruption.
In 2008, Brunswick County Sheriff Ronald Hewett was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison. He pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice following a yearlong state and federal investigation.
A total of 60 people were listed as relevant parties in the investigation, court documents show. Hewett obstructed and impeded a federal grand jury investigation into allegations of corruption of his office as sheriff, according to a May 8, 2018 criminal complain filed in U.S. District Court.
Hewett later died while being detained in New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office for separate charges, after illegal firearms were found in his home in 2014.
His death was possibly induced by the stress of being subdued and tased by officers and chronic alcohol abuse, according to District Attorney Ben David of North Carolina’s 5th District, the 13th District Attorney’s twin brother. Ben David’s office did not file any charges relating to Hewett’s death.
Hewett was Brunswick County’s second sheriff charged with committing federal crimes; in 1984, former sheriff Herman Strong was sentenced to federal prison on drug smuggling charges.
Rex Gore, the District Attorney(DA) who filed to suspend Hewett as sheriff after accusing him of political coercion, embezzlement, harassment and intoxication, was himself arrested in 2012.
After serving the 13th District for nearly 20 years, Gore was indicted following accusations he conspired with his former assistant DA. He pled guilty to one count of willful failure to discharge his duties.
Alongside his assistant DA Elaine Kelley, Gore allegedly submitted over $14,000 worth of travel expenses over a five-year period. At the time, Gore told Port City Daily he felt the issue should have been handled “administratively.”
Unseated during the primary election two years before his arrest, Gore’s office turned over to David in 2010.
A southeastern NC problem?
Gore is the second DA from the 13th District convicted of political crimes.
Before Gore was elected, the 13th District’s office was occupied by Mike Easley, elected in 1982. Easley later went on to serve as North Carolina’s Attorney General from 1992 to 2000. He was elected governor of North Carolina in 2000, re-elected in 2004, and served until 2008.
The first and only North Carolina Governor convicted of a felony, Easley entered into a plea agreement in 2010 to avoid prison. He was convicted of knowingly filing a false campaign report.
When asked to speculate on the cause of this pattern of corruption in southeastern, North Carolina, the 13th District’s sitting District Attorney said it could be a matter of responsibility.
“I think that to much is given, much is expected,” David said.
Crimes committed by high-ranking individuals tasked with upholding the law may garner more examination, David said. “They’re going to get greater scrutiny when we hear about things, we’re going to look into it more,” he said.
History of high-profile arrests and convictions:
- Herman Strong, former Brunswick County Sheriff. Convicted in 1984.
- Ronald Hewett, former Brunswick County Sheriff. Convicted in 2008.
- Mike Easley, former 13th District DA, later Governor of North Carolina. Convicted in 2010.
- Rex Gore, former 13th District DA. Convicted in 2012.
- Emmett Ballree, former Boiling Spring Lakes Police Chief. Convicted in 2014.
- Marty Lewis, former Fair Bluff Police Chief. Convicted in 2015.
- Gary Smith, Southport Police Chief. Arrested Thursday, July 26, 2018.
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