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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Wilmington law firms, New Hanover Sheriff address anonymous letters alleging deputies' misconduct

Excerpt from an anonymous letter sent to NHCS and other organizations.

Over the last month, a series of at least five letters have been sent to local law enforcement and other community groups. They address, in part, allegations about an incident from 1997-1998. Sheriff Ed McMahon says his office has not been able to substantiate the claims; both the Sheriff and local law firms are asking either the letters writer (or writers) or the public to come forward with any additional information.

Copies of the letters acquired by WHQR address New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon; subsequent letters indicate these were also sent to county officials, NHCSO administration, and both the Wilmington and Greensboro NAACP.

The letters contain a series of allegations, largely concerning two NHSCO employees. It's important to note that most of these allegations cannot yet be independently verified or debunked, and WHQR is not naming the employees involved at this time.

The first set of allegations concerns a former school resource officer (who has since been promoted), and accusations of misconduct while chaperoning a class trip during
the 1997-1998 school year. These allegations, directed to Dr. Foust, were relayed by the school district to the Sheriff's Office, which said the complaint was thoroughly investigated, including contacting the former Sheriff from that era.

Sheriff McMahon's office issued the following statement:

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous complaint from the New Hanover County School System against a School Resource Officer from 1998. The complaint was thoroughly investigated and Sheriff McMahon has not been able to substantiate these anonymous allegations. Sheriff McMahon has also spoken to Sheriff McQueen, the Sheriff during 1998, who advised that he had never received any such complaint. Sheriff McMahon has worked with the school system and responded back to this anonymous complainant, requesting that he be contacted personally with any additional information.

NHCSO also provided employment history for the deputy involved, which indicated several promotions but no demotions or suspensions. A spokesperson for NHCSO also confirmed there were no disciplinary records from the Office's Internal Affairs division.

The second set of allegations involve a long-serving NHCSO employee. The Sheriff's Office did not directly address these allegations, but several other NHCSO employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the accusations as "baseless."

Several of the allegations concern racial unrest at New Hanover High School in 1985, after racist graffiti appeared in the background of a photo in the yearbook; the photo was reportedly removed from many (but not all) copies of the yearbook. The letters accuse the NHCSO employee of being responsible for the graffiti. A copy of the photo, which accompanied one of the letters, does not appear to feature the NHCSO employee in question, though the letter claims the employee is pictured.

Below: Coverage of the yearbook photo in the Morning Star (now the Wilmington StarNews)

From the Morning Star (now StarNews) on May 30, 1985.
Morning Star
From the Morning Star (now StarNews) on May 30, 1985.

Among other allegations, the letters also refer to concerns about relationships between NHCSO and the school district, including the detention center visit paid personally by then-Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley and then-Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday to teacher Michael Earl Kelly, who was later convicted on dozens of charges of child sexual abuse while at Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School. Unlike some of the other allegations in the letters, this event is documented and acknowledged by both NHCSO and NHCS.

Based in part on this, the law firms suing the New Hanover County Schools district on behalf of the victims and alleged victims of Kelly have taken an interest in these letters.

On Monday afternoon, attorneys from the Rhine and Lea/Schultz law firms asked the anonymous authors of the letter to contact them directly. The law firms issued the following joint statement:

Recent media reports describe anonymous letters being sent to local officials concerning allegations of misconduct within the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. These letters are believed to contain information related to investigations of allegations of sexual abuse committed by Michael Kelly while he was a teacher at Laney High School.

The attorneys who represent the victims of Michael Kelly request that the author(s) of these letters forward a copy to them and reach out to them to speak about the allegations.

The attorneys also encourage anyone with knowledge of Kelly’s actions at Laney and Isaac Bear Early College High School to come forward and speak with them, including former teachers, parents, and students who may have information important to the lawsuit.

The letters and all contacts should be directed to the following attorneys:

  • Martin A. Ramey, Esq., Rhine Law Firm, P.C. mjr@rhinelawfirm.com
  • Mary Charles Amerson, Esq. - The Lea/Schultz Law Firm, P.C. mc@theleaschultzlawfirm.com

Editor's note: WHQR's Ben Schachtman first discussed the anonymous letters and related issues on Blue Line Radio this past Saturday. That show is available below.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.