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The Dive: Lightning strikes again (and again) in Jon David's district; Sheriff McMahon gets it wrong

FILE: Lightning strikes.
FILE: Lightning strikes.

WHQR's Ben Schachtman sat down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, we take a look at law enforcement behaving badly in Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus counties — plus the fallout from some bad legal advice from the Sheriff in New Hanover County.

Note: You can sign up for The Wilmington Dive, a free weekly newsletter from The Assembly and WHQR, here. And, you can find this week's edition here.

There’s a less-than-one-in-a-million chance of being struck by lightning in any given year.

Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David used that analogy five years ago, after the arrest of the Southport police chief Gary Smith and his top lieutenant for wage theft.

“Lightning has struck three times here in the 13th district,” he said after a press conference announcing their arrests. David had already prosecuted the police chiefs of Boiling Spring Lakes and Fair Bluff at the time.

Since then, David has prosecuted yet another police chief and a sheriff. That brings the total list of high-ranking law enforcement officials he’s pursued to at least six.

(Meanwhile, the record for real-life strikes in a lifetime is seven.)

Read more from"Against All Odds," this week's edition of The Dive.

And find WHQR's reporting on Sheriff Ed McMahon and some very confusing legal advice here: This Wilmington-area private school says its security director resigned. The truth is much messier

Benjamin Schachtman: Alright, Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thanks, Ben.

BS: So on this week's edition of The Dive, we had a lot of different stories about government corruption and alleged corruption. And specifically, we're talking about incidents that have taken place in Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus County, places where as you put it, lightning has a habit of striking.

JS: Technically, it's the 15th prosecutorial district of Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus counties. So they're looped in there as a single district. And so what we have looked at is something that the district attorney there, Jon David, had mentioned to me five years ago during the arrest of the Southport police chief and his top Lieutenant. And he said something to me there that has always stuck with me. I mean, we wrote a story about it at the time when we worked for Port City Daily. But it was that “lightning has struck here for the third time” (and at that time, it was called the 13th prosecutorial district).

And that was just interesting. And so I remember at the time, I had called around to a bunch of different DAs’ offices. And what I was curious about is, why is this happening so much, right? And in this one district, it seems very curious or interesting. And so I had attempted to try to figure out maybe some other factors contributing to why, you know, Jon David had arrested three police chiefs at the time. And I got absolutely nowhere — no one wanted to talk about that no one was interested in explaining anything further other than I guess, Jon Davis own explanation, which attributes it to chance. And so that's five years ago, fast forward to now you can add another police chief to that roll, and the Sheriff and potentially even the Sheriff's top chief deputy. And so we just decided to look again at this phenomenon, and kind of break down the past history of top-ranking law enforcement officials who have been caught up in criminal behaviors.

BS: And so your piece sort of has the litany of all the law enforcement officers and officials who have run afoul of their own laws. You also note that this, you know, statistically, it is not as uncommon as being struck by lightning for a law enforcement officer to themselves break the law.

JS: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting. I mean, it is an outdated study. It's a really understudied area. So there's not a lot of research on it, police crime, or law enforcement officials committing crimes themselves. But what I was looking for in that study was maybe, you know, some commonality, or at least in Jon David's district. Is it tied to being rural? Is it because these forces are smaller?

You know, right, these are in all of the arrests that have happened in the 15th district, they're smaller, and maybe they lack oversight or something. I was just looking for some sort of factor, some explanation. The study didn't attribute the prominence to, you know, rural or metro factors, they, it just kind of found it to be omnipresent, which was surprising to me. Again, it's a little outdated, but I did find it, you know, sort of interesting, at least if we're talking about odds, that the odds are way higher than I guess, being struck by lightning.

BS: Fair enough.

JS: And continuing on the law enforcement theme, you had a story about how a sheriff's bad advice cost one of his former deputies his job?

BS: Yeah, this was a very confusing story — so I'm giving you the very broad strokes here. But essentially, there is a federal law that allows certain retired law enforcement officers, as long as they do an annual certification program, which is basically the same thing that active law enforcement has to do, as long as they do that, they're allowed to carry a weapon on educational campuses — so, school campuses. And how that actually works involves a number of state laws and this federal law working together. But one of the end results of this is that retired cops and deputies can work as high-level security directors or chiefs of security at private schools. That's not written into the law, but that is one of the things that it allows.

And this is separate from state law that would allow you to be a security guard. That's a whole other thing. This is someone who has an administrative job, sits at a desk, comes up with policy, but also carries a gun for emergencies. So that's the federal law.

We were looking at a situation at Cape Fear Academy, where for three years a former sheriff's deputy named Randy Johnson was working there. He was qualified, he was doing this qualification every year. And then Cape Fear Academy went and asked Sheriff Ed McMahon to provide a school resource officer, in addition to Randy Johnson, who was serving as the Director of Security, and that's when things get complicated.

JS: Right, the Sheriff predicated the allowance of a deputy on disarming their Director of Security. And so that request resulted in the school asking the director of security to basically, 'you can't bring your gun anymore, we'll still keep you employed but you're not allowed to have your gun.' But then by doing that, that effectively in his mind — and you spoke to him — was the end of the relationship.

BS: The director of security, Randy Johnson told us, one, carrying a weapon was part of the job description. So it was intrinsic to the job. And two, he said he would never want to be in a situation where he was the director of security and didn't have a firearm in case he needed to protect themselves, or, more importantly, the students. So that's how he felt, everyone knew that's how he felt from his point of view.

So yeah, he did feel like when the Sheriff said, 'we'll only give you an SRO if you're disarmed,' he felt like that was forcing him out. He felt like this was retaliation based on the long history he has with both the Sheriff's office and the school district. We don't have time to get into that, but I will say the Sheriff denies that there was anything retaliatory about this.

But the most important thing about this whole story was that the Sheriff's legal advice was actually wrong. Once we looked into the law, both federal and state law, and they work together, we spoke to the [UNC] School of Government, we spoke to the District Attorney, and we spoke to the North Carolina Sheriffs
Association, which is where Sheriff McMahon got his advice. And they all agreed, Randy Johnson was doing nothing wrong. He was totally legally carrying his weapon.

And so the question now is that the Sheriff gave bad advice, Johnson feels like he was forced out, what happens now? And from what we've heard, you know, the Sheriff told Cape Fear Academy, 'upon closer inspection of the facts I was wrong.' But it's not clear if Johnson has been offered his job back yet. And I’ll just note that the Sheriff did admit he was incorrect, but he said he in no way felt responsible for Johnson losing his job.

JS: Right. And the advice originated, from what you've seen, from the Sheriffs Association, that lobbying group that represents Sheriffs across the state. And he gave you a really interesting explanation or I guess, answer, that perhaps 'Humpty Dumpty could get put back together again,' but it seems that it's probably a little bit more complicated than that.

BS: It's probably gonna be a lot more complicated than that. But I don't think we've heard the last of the story, so stay tuned for that on a future edition of The Dive.

JS: Sounds good.

BS: All right, Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you.

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.