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Sheriff McMahon: Deputy didn’t consult DA, ‘should have’ investigated initial Nicholas Oates case thoroughly

FILE: Sheriff Ed McMahon marching in the 2022 Azalea Festival parade.
Eric W. Peterson - New Hanover County
FILE: Sheriff Ed McMahon marching in the 2022 Azalea Festival parade.

For years, advocates have asked why former New Hanover County Schools employee Nicholas Oates wasn’t arrested after he was caught sending sexually explicit text messages to a young student. Now, a recently released document from the Attorney General’s office has shed some light on what happened.

Sheriff Ed McMahon has now acknowledged that employees in his office failed to adequately investigate Nicholas Lavon Oates, a school employee who was sending sexually explicit texts to an 8th-grade student. Oates was allowed to resign — and went on to sexually abuse a separate young child.

Two years later, Oates was arrested, but died in the New Hanover County jail of liver failure while awaiting trial. There’s no posthumous prosecution in North Carolina, so Oates’ death closed the case — but left questions about why the initial investigation in 2016 didn’t lead to an arrest.

This week, McMahon issued a statement about the case and responded to follow-up questions by email, but declined a request for an interview. He was responding to information about the case recently made public by a memo issued by the office of Attorney General Josh Stein — who recently announced that the four-year investigation into the New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) district had concluded without any charges.

The memo, which outlines why prosecutors felt they could not bring charges, details several cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by NHCS employees — including the Oates case. The memo also helps resolve the longstanding confusion about which agency made the decision not to initially arrest Oates, stating that two New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) employees made the call.

The memo’s analysis of the Oates case makes no mention of the office of District Attorney Ben David, which frequently advises local law enforcement on whether charges should be brought. McMahon confirmed David’s office was not consulted and had no role in the decision not to arrest Oates after the initial investigation.

According to the memo, a school resource officer (SRO) was tasked with writing a “brief report” about the allegations against Oates. The SRO consulted with a NHCSO detective and “decided that no crime had been committed.” Neither the SRO or the detective consulted the District Attorney’s office.

While stopping short of a mea culpa, McMahon did acknowledge the 2016 allegations should have been thoroughly investigated but weren’t. He said policy changes had since been put in place to prevent this from happening again.

The Oates criminal case

Oates was hired as an assistant teacher at Myrtle Grove Middle School in early 2016. In late November 2016, a student reported “inappropriate social media messages” between Oates and an eighth-grade student, including a statement from Oates about the size of his genitals.

Oates was investigated by NHCSO, but was not arrested at the time. He was suspended without pay by the school district in early December 2016, but allowed to return after two weeks. In late January 2017, a little over a month later, he was suspended again. The following week he was called into a meeting with administrators after teachers complained about his behavior; Oates resigned that day.

In summer 2018, Oates was arrested, charged with sexual abuse and kidnapping of another Myrtle Grove student, a 13-year-old girl whom Oates had begun molesting when she was 12.

'Isolated incident’

Victims' advocates have long suggested that whoever made the decision not to arrest Oates in 2016 bore some responsibility for his crimes in 2018.

WHQR asked McMahon in an email if NHCSO took responsibility for this. McMahon did not directly answer, responding instead, “according to the victim’s statement, nothing sexual took place until 2018 after Oates resigned from NHCS, the NHCSO wasn’t notified until June 6, 2018, in which [sic] we took immediate action.”

According to McMahon, “school administration reported the inappropriate text messages to a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office SRO supervisor who contacted a detective to follow up. The detective reviewed the text messages and made the determination that a crime had not occurred. Their review of the text messages did not indicate that Oates was attempting to solicit any sexual behavior or request to meet the juvenile outside of school.”

Later — McMahon did not specify when — a supervisor “discovered this initial report of Nicholas Oates and the internal report from the detective. The detective supervisor found that the detective that initially received the complaint and reviewed the text messages that Oates had sent, should have responded to the school and begun a thorough investigation.”

McMahon confirmed the detective made the decision not to contact the District Attorney’s office.

An internal investigation determined this misstep was an “isolated incident involving a single detective.” McMahon said the incident was “addressed with the detective.”

McMahon said both the detective division and SRO unit “immediately added additional procedures and practices to ensure proper notification throughout the chain of command occurs when any allegation is reported, and a thorough investigation will be conducted each and every time.“

Why now?

For a year after Oates’ 2018 arrest, both NHCSO and the DA’s office declined to explain exactly who had decided not to arrest him two years earlier, citing the active criminal case.

Then, in the summer of 2019, McMahon and David jointly called on the State Bureau of Investigation to look into potential criminal charges — including obstruction of justice and failure to report child abuse — against NHCS employees.

The SBI case started with former teacher Michael Earl Kelly, but later expanded to include Oates and other cases. So, even when Oates died a jail a few months later, David was still not free to discuss whether his office had been part of the decision to let Oates slide in 2016.

But, now that the four-year SBI investigation into NHCS is closed, local officials are no longer barred from discussing the Oates case. After acquiring a copy of the Attorney General’s office memo, WHQR verified it was genuine, and shared it with Sheriff McMahon, who had not received his own copy.

Unanswered questions

It remains unclear why Oates was hired despite a history of allegations of violent sexual assaults against women — including criminal charges and two separate restraining orders that were taken out against him.

Related: Former NHCS employee had history of alleged violent sexual assaults against women before he was hired

It’s also unclear why Oates was not fired in late 2016. While he had not been arrested, the sexual text messages he sent the young student should have been a fireable policy violation.

Despite the new information provided by the Attorney General’s office memo, these questions remain behind the wall of North Carolina’s notably opaque personnel records laws.

Lastly, it’s unclear how and why Oates’ medical condition deteriorated during the year and a half he spent in jail. At the time, neither Oates’ attorney or his brother Dr. Jerry Oates, then the superintendent of Brunswick County Schools, commented on his death.

So, while the memo provides some insight into why Oates wasn’t arrested in 2016, it leaves many more questions about his employment at NHCS unanswered — part of a long and troubling history of sexual predators working in the district.