Town Attorney: Man charged with impersonating police officer was a volunteer, not on payroll
Mayor, Town Administrator evasive when pressed for details following latest indictment
NAVASSA, N.C. (WECT) - A troubling story that first came to light over the summer turned considerably more concerning this week, after a grand jury indicted a Town of Navassa volunteer on six more felony counts of impersonating a police officer.
Eric Cinotti was first arrested for posing as a cop in July, after allegedly showing up in a Navassa Police vehicle to an emergency medical call in Leland, wearing a bullet proof vest, badge, and gun. He is not a sworn law enforcement officer in North Carolina.
Evidence uncovered after his July arrest led to a new batch of felony charges on Monday. Authorities say in addition to showing up uninvited at an emergency call in a neighboring jurisdiction, Cinotti had been conducting traffic stops, pulling over cars on the highway using the blue light in a Navassa Police SUV. He’d also been recorded travelling 107 miles per hour under the guise of police business.
The latest criminal charges renewed the urgency for clear answers to questions Navassa town officials had yet to provide: was Cinotti a paid employee for the town, and who gave him permission to use a police vehicle and gear? On Thursday, WECT got some answers.
Town hall closed
After failing to get a response to an email again asking those questions on Wednesday, a WECT news crew went to Navassa Town Hall in person. The building was locked, but a staff member came to the front door, explaining the building was closed “due to COVID-19.” Still, they permitted the reporter and photographer to sit in the lobby while they went to find Town Administrator Claudia Bray.
Bray declined to speak to WECT, relaying through a receptionist that she was in the midst of an “all day audit” that would be going on all day Friday as well. Explaining the need for answers that were a matter of public record, a reporter explained the WECT crew would remain at town hall until someone could help them.
WECT was able to get Mayor Eulis Willis on the phone briefly while waiting in the lobby. He said, to his knowledge, Cinotti never worked as a paid employee for the town, nor was he a volunteer. He declined to answer how Cinotti managed to get a polo with the town of Navassa logo on it he was seen wearing at the emergency call in Leland, or how he got access to a police vehicle. Despite numerous criminal charges, Cinotti has not been charged with stealing a police vehicle, so, presumably, someone gave him permission to use it.
But the mayor added WECT would need to speak to Bray to get more definitive answers. When told Bray was not available for the rest of the week, and asked if he could facilitate a brief meeting, Willis responded that “she doesn’t work for me.”
When pressed for details on who she did work for, he replied, “town council.”
“Aren’t you the mayor?” WECT asked. To which Willis responded that his role with the town was limited, but he conceded that he was a voting member of town council, before ending the call.
“I don’t want to be rude. I’m trying to end this call. I’m kind of busy to be frank with you,” Willis said.
Town attorney answers questions
A short time later, Town Attorney Norwood Blanchard returned WECT’s call. He said that to his understanding, Cinotti was never on the town payroll, but was volunteering his time in some capacity. Blanchard said it was not clear the exact nature of the volunteer duties he’d arranged with former Interim Navassa Police Chief Stephen Conrad. But Blanchard felt confident Cinotti was never authorized by anyone with the town to conduct traffic stops.
Conrad resigned from his position as interim chief with the town of Navassa on July 26, just days after Cinotti’s first arrest for impersonating a police officer. After months of trying to reach him without success, WECT obtained a phone number for Conrad on Thursday. He answered the phone, but hung up as soon as a reporter identified themselves. Conrad only spent six weeks at the Navassa Police Department. He went to work there after being terminated from the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office in June 2020 at “the will of the sheriff.”
With Conrad’s resignation, the town of Navassa was left with no police in its police department. District Attorney Jon David and Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram met with town leaders over the summer, advising them it was a matter of public safety to either hire new officers or contract with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office to provide dedicated patrols for the town. Months later, Navassa has yet to take any action on that suggestion, despite the fact they were warned the matter was urgent.
“The appearance of a police department is worse than not having one at all. Because, to some extent, it creates expectations in the community’s mind that we have something there that simply [isn’t],” District Attorney Jon David told Mayor Willis and two other town council members who attended the July meeting.
A history of troubled officers
Issues with people connected to the Navassa Police Department are not new. In 2010, Navassa Police Officer Jaymin Lenwood Murphy pled guilty to raping two underage girls, one of them a 14-year-old crime victim who’d come to Murphy for help. He coerced the 14-year-old into having sex with him, under the guise that it was part of the criminal investigation to determine if she was a virgin. Murphy used a town-issued cell phone to record himself having sex with the victim.
In 2017, a Navassa police corporal was arrested for filing a false police report, accused of staging a crime scene to make it appear he’d been shot at while in the line of duty. 24-year-old Thomas Cutler spent a day in jail for the staged shooting.
Navassa Police Chief Ricky Thorpe resigned in 2008, after being arrested for driving while impaired. Troopers reported that Thorpe had a .27 blood alcohol level after being involved in a collision.
After being fired from the Leland Police Department in 2012, Officer John Blasingame was able to get a job on the force of the Navassa Police Department. He would later go on to be arrested for drug and embezzlement charges after leaving their department.
And Mayor Eulis Willis, who is currently serving as interim administrative chief of police for the town of Navassa, has also been arrested before. He was charged with driving while impaired in 2011. Navassa police officers said they saw the mayor’s truck speeding and crossing the center line, and called the State Highway Patrol for help with the arrest because Willis was the town’s leader.
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