Drugs

Bad Lawmen: Meet 6 of America's Most Drug-Corrupted County Sheriffs

Most county sheriffs are dedicated law enforcement professionals. Some aren’t, and sometimes outrageously so.

"Lawman"
Photo Credit: Max Pixel

Last week, the good citizens of Mississippi's Tallahatchie County got a rude shock. The county's top lawman, Sheriff William Brewer, was at the courthouse, which was not unusual. This time, though, he was dressed not in his sheriff's uniform but in an orange prisoner jumpsuit to face federal criminal drug trafficking charges.

According to a federal indictment, over a period of 15 years, Sheriff Brewer had conspired with a local ne'er-do-well to have that person repeatedly rob drug dealers, give stolen cash to Brewer, sell the drugs, then give Brewer part of the proceeds. In return, that man got a free ride for his own methamphetamine trafficking activities. Well, until he started coming up with his own meth supply. When Brewer found out about that, he started demanding a $500 or $600 payment every week for the dealer to carry out his work unimpeded. The dealer eventually became an FBI informant and took his former partner down.

Brewer has now resigned as sheriff, and he has not yet been convicted of anything, but his arrest on drug and extortion charges is yet another disturbing example of the corrosive impact on law enforcement of enforcing drug prohibition.

County sheriffs are unique figures in the American law enforcement landscape. Unlike police chiefs or the heads of federal law enforcement agencies, they are typically elected, not appointed. They are subject to little effective oversight except from voters at the polling booth. They control policing not only of all county territory not handled by municipal police forces, but also the county jail and the policing of the courthouse. They control their own law enforcement fiefdoms.

And they sometimes turn to the dark side. For the past dozen years, the Drug War Chronicle has covered drug prohibition-related law enforcement misbehavior in a recurring feature, "This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories." During that period, hundreds of police officers, DEA agents, FBI agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, jail and prison guards, and sheriff's deputies have gone down for one or more of the myriad forms of dirty drug policing.

Law enforcement misbehavior has run the gamut from planting drugs on innocent people to ripping off drug dealers and selling their stashes to sexual coercion to lying on search warrants to lying in court to pocketing cash from drug busts to embezzling asset forfeiture funds, and even stealing drugs from those drug drop-off boxes.

It's bad enough when the people charged with enforcing the law flout it, but it's arguably more disheartening and corrosive when the corrupt cops are the very people charged with heading law enforcement offices, such as county sheriffs. There are more than 3,000 of them, holding office in every state except Alaska (no county governments), Connecticut (replaced by State Marshals), and Hawaii (deputies serve in a division of the Department of Public Safety). The vast majority of them are honest law enforcement professionals.

But some are notoriously not. Each year, one or two or three county sheriffs find themselves on the wrong side of the law because of drugs, whether it's stealing them, selling them, or gobbling them down themselves. And sometimes, when they break bad, they do so in a spectacular fashion. Here are a half-dozen of the most outrageous from the past decade alone:

  1. Oklahoma's Custer County Sheriff Mike Burgess. Burgess was hit in 2008 with a 35-count indictment charging him with coercing and bribing female inmates to participate in sex acts. He was hit with 14 counts of second-degree rape, seven counts of forcible oral sodomy, and five counts of bribery by a public official, among other charges. A federal lawsuit filed by 12 former inmates alleges that Burgess and his employees had them participate in wet T-shirt contests and gave cigarettes to inmates who would flash their breasts. Another prisoner alleged she was given trusty status after agreeing to perform a sex act on Burgess, but lost that status when she later refused. After a jury trial, now former Sheriff Burgess was convicted of 13 felonies, including five counts of second-degree rape and three counts of bribery by a public official. Testimony included that of several former female inmates who testified they feared they would be sent to prison if they did not provide sexual favors to the sheriff, as well as two female drug court participants. Burgess sexually assaulted one of them in his patrol car after arresting her for a drug court violation. In March 2009, he was sentenced to 79 years in prison.
  2. Texas's Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating. Another badge-wearing pervert, Keating, 62, went down for a November 2008 drug raid at a home where the victim and her boyfriend lived. The boyfriend was arrested on outstanding warrants and removed by sheriff's deputies, who then searched the house and found meth paraphernalia. Sheriff Keating shooed the remaining deputy out of the bedroom, closed the door, and told the victim, "You are about to be my new best friend." He then threatened to arrest her on drug charges unless she "assisted" him by performing oral sex on him on multiple occasions and becoming a snitch for him. Keating pleaded guilty in that case in January 2009 but was then indicted along with nine jail guards—seven women and two men—for official oppression over allegations that the county jail was like Animal House. That indictment features multiple allegations of guards and inmates doing drugs and having sex with each other under Keatings' watch. Keating was looking at up to 10 years in prison on the original charge when he died of a heart attack in July 2009. The federal charges against him were subsequently dismissed.
  3. Illinois's Gallatin County Sheriff Raymond Martin. Sheriff Martin found himself in hot water in 2009, when he was indicted on federal marijuana trafficking charges after being videotaped repeatedly providing pounds of marijuana to a local man, who would sell the weed and then give Martin the proceeds. That man became an informant for the DEA after Martin threatened him with death when he said he wanted out. It only got worse from there. While in jail awaiting trial, Martin, his wife, and their 20-year-old son were all arrested again, this time on solicitation of murder charges for plotting to knock off the guy who ratted them out. In September 2010, Martin was convicted of 15 counts in the drug trafficking and murder-for-hire scheme. He was sentenced to two life terms in federal prison in January 2011.
  4. South Carolina's Florence County Sheriff E.J. Melvin. The only black sheriff on this list, Melvin was indicted on dozens of federal charges along with 11 others in 2011 for a massive and complex cocaine trafficking conspiracy. He was accused of dealing cocaine from his official vehicle, extorting money from drug dealers for protection or to get reduced charges. State police agents testified that they give Melvin a list of possible drug dealers, only to have him tip them off and arrange to get payments from them to keep the agents away. In addition to the massive cocaine conspiracy, involving multiple kilograms of the drug over a multi-year period, he was also accused of ripping off $5,000 in victim assistance funds for personal use. He ended up convicted on 37 of 43 counts and is now serving a 17-year federal prison sentence.
  5. Kentucky's Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge. Hodge was indicted on both state and federal charges in 2011 for stealing around $350,000 over a seven-year period, including $100,000 he claimed was used in drug investigations. That wasn't all: Hodge was also charged with ripping off drug dealers and then funneling them to a local attorney. He would get a $50,000 kickback, the department would get a $50,000 "donation," and the dealers would get more lenient treatment. Oh, and he admitted to being strung out on pain pills. Hodge is now doing 15 years of federal time and 17 years of state time, and when he gets out, he has to pay back some $335,000.
  6. Oklahoma's Love County Sheriff Marion "Joe" Russell. Russell was arrested in 2016 on charges of corruption, neglect of duty, and housing a fugitive, but it gets hinkier than that. He was accused of turning a blind eye to meth dealing out of his own home by his adult son, covering up a missing person case where another family member is the main suspect. His son, Willie Russell, had already pleaded guilty to meth dealing. The fugitive, a young woman, was dating Willie and staying at the sheriff's house even though she had four arrest warrants outstanding. Russell would remind her that she was in a "safe haven," and when she left anyway, he arrested her and the man she moved in with—for harboring a fugitive. He was also accused of arresting drunken women in bikinis and taking them to his house instead of to jail. There, they were allegedly sexually assaulted and given meth. The missing persons case involves a young couple who were last seen in a car owned by Russell's nephew. That couple, Molly Miller and Colt Haynes, are still missing, but Russell is now in the clear, having copped a plea deal that resulted in one year of probation and $370 in court costs.


This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

 

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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute