WECT INVESTIGATES: Allegations of corruption, misconduct against Columbus County sheriff-elect

Published: Dec. 5, 2022 at 4:31 PM EST
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COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Two weeks before winning his bid for re-election, Jody Greene, then-Sheriff of Columbus County, was sitting in a courtroom for a hearing. Across the aisle from him was District Attorney Jon David, who had spent the previous few weeks gathering evidence of corruption and other misconduct allegedly committed by Greene during his time as sheriff. Enough evidence, in David’s opinion, to warrant removing Greene from office.

However, before David could share his evidence, Greene abruptly resigned after a judge denied his attempt to postpone the hearing.

A clear line in the sand was drawn in the hours that followed. David promised to re-file paperwork seeking Greene’s removal should he be re-elected. Greene, who emphatically denied the allegations and called the district attorney’s actions “politically motivated,” said he had no plans to resign his candidacy.

The Oct. 24 hearing was the culmination of events set into motion after a WECT investigative report on racist comments Greene made about Black employees in the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office during a recorded phone call in 2019. The profanity-laced recording also spurred a request from David to the State Bureau of Investigation that they probe any potential criminal conduct committed by Greene and deputies under his command.

Now, after Columbus County voters favored Greene over his opponent, Jason Soles, on election day last month, the stage is set for what could be a messy legal battle in the coming weeks as Greene looks to begin his second term.

The serious allegations made against Greene led WECT to take a comprehensive look at the reported pattern of intimidation and abuse of power that took place during his first term in office, as well as the cultural and financial impacts his actions have already had on the county and its people.

Greene did not respond to numerous requests for an interview or comment regarding this story. District Attorney Jon David declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation and the expected re-filing of his petition to remove Greene from office. WECT reached out to every other major player involved, most of whom declined to talk due to the ongoing criminal investigation. WECT has also been made aware of federal subpoenas being served on many individuals close to the situation.

“He has abused his power… chilled the first amendment right to free speech”

Greene’s first term as sheriff began as it ended: shrouded in controversy.

Greene defeated Lewis Hatcher, the county’s first Black sheriff, in the 2018 election by just a few dozen votes, at a time when election fraud in this rural part of North Carolina was making national headlines. The results were protested, primarily over concerns Greene did not actually live in Columbus County as required by state law, but there were also questions about Greene’s involvement with the key figure in the fraud investigation.

Commissioners swore Greene into office anyway, disregarding guidance from state election officials that Hatcher should serve as sheriff until the protests were settled. In turn, Hatcher sued the county, seeking reinstatement as sheriff. Greene and Hatcher ultimately settled, but the specifics of the agreement were kept confidential.

The only publicly-announced arrangement was that then-Captain Jason Soles would assume the day-to-day responsibilities of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office while elections officials sorted through the protests.

It was during this time the fateful, late-night conversation between Greene and Soles occurred.

“I’m sick of it. I’m sick of these Black bastards,” Greene said to Soles in the 6 ½-minute recording provided to WECT. “I’m going to clean house and be done with it. And we’ll start from there.”

Greene said he believed there was a “snitch” in the sheriff’s office who had been leaking information to Hatcher in an effort to undermine Greene’s authority as sheriff-elect. Greene could be heard saying he had contacted Verizon to get phone records of sheriff’s office employees to see if they had contacted either Hatcher or Melvin Campbell, a Black deputy who was fired just weeks after Greene was elected.

“Tomorrow’s gonna be a new f**king day. I’m still the motherf**king sheriff, and I’ll go up and fire every godd**n [inaudible]. F**k them Black bastards. They think I’m scared? They’re stupid,” Greene said. “I don’t know what else to do it. So it’s just time to clean them out. There’s a snitch in there somewhere tellin’ what we are doing. And I’m not gonna have it. I’m not going to have it.”

In court documents, David noted at least one Black employee was fired “subsequent to the above referenced audio recording,” meaning the recorded phone call between Greene and Soles.

Months later, it became clear that Greene’s opinion of Soles, who had since left the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office for a job with the Whiteville Police Department, had soured.

“That son of a bitch better not come on my property. That motherf**ker can’t come on this property,” Greene reportedly said of Soles in a November 2019 phone call with Whiteville City Manager Darren Currie. He further threatened to arrest Soles if he stepped foot on county jail property.

Currie’s account of what he characterized as a “very heated” conversation with Greene was included in David’s amended petition to remove Greene from office.

“This interaction with Greene caused great concern for me,” Currie wrote in an affidavit.

Soles resigned from his full-time position (but remained as an auxiliary officer) with the police department just a few weeks after the call between Currie and Greene. He did so to “keep the peace and not create conflict,” despite being encouraged to stay on with the city, according to Currie.

While Greene never followed through on his threat to arrest Soles, he did charge a member of his family with a crime just a few months later.

In March 2020, Jesse Croom, Soles’ stepfather, attended a packed Columbus County Board of Commissioners meeting. He wanted to take the opportunity to voice his concerns over Greene’s Sheriff’s Office taking over the county animal shelter.

After watching a relative be removed from the contentious meeting, Croom set out to find Greene, with whom his relative had previously gotten into an argument. When he found him, Croom asked Greene if he had reciprocated his relative’s apology over the argument.

“Greene indicated that he didn’t apologize to people,” Croom recounted in an affidavit included in the petition to remove Greene from office. “I said you need to grow up. I talk with my hands and a deputy told me I needed to put my hands down, so I did. I then repeated to Greene that he needed to grow up. I was then placed in handcuffs and arrested.”

Croom was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct in a public building after a lengthy discussion between a deputy and magistrate on what, if any, general statute had been violated.

That charge was later dismissed due to the warrant being “deficient to state a crime.”

“I believe that Greene targeted me because he didn’t like for people to stand up to him and that I am Jason Soles’ stepfather,” Croom wrote.

Croom’s arrest wasn’t the only high-profile case from Greene’s first term tossed out due to a lack of evidence.

In late summer 2020, Greene had Giles “Buddy” Byrd, a sitting county commissioner, arrested on a felony offense related to a stolen storage building.

This was after Greene had alluded to bringing charges against a county commissioner in the case in a call with Edwin Russ, another commissioner at the time who ultimately provided a recording of the call to David, the district attorney.

On that call, court documents state, Greene could be heard cursing at Russ about county commissioners voting against significant pay increases and riot gear he had requested for the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. He also reportedly threatened to have state investigators inspect sheriff’s office facilities, implying the county would face fines or other sanctions as a result.

Then he pivoted to the alleged criminal activity.

“That James Prevatte (former county commissioner) is a lying bastard… He’s a f**king thief and liar… Just like that stolen building that’s lying behind where his lawyer daughter-in-law lives. Yea he stole that building there too… I can tell you all about it. The company is down here now. I’m trying to get them to press charges. Let them keep playing,” Greene is quoted in court documents.

Despite mentioning Prevatte in his call with Russ, Greene filed charges against Byrd, a move Russ felt was an attempt to “intimidate and sway the Columbus County Commissioners to vote in favor of requests that Greene had made,” according to an affidavit written by Russ.

To bolster his opinion that Greene was trying to intimidate commissioners, Russ pointed to the county commission meeting immediately after the upcoming fiscal year’s budget had been approved wherein Greene had at least 20 deputies lined up along the path commissioners walk down to get to their chambers.

Deputies with the Columbus County Sheriff's Office line the walkway leading to the...
Deputies with the Columbus County Sheriff's Office line the walkway leading to the commissioners' chambers.(Source: District Attorney Jon David)

Ultimately, the charges against Byrd were dismissed due to insufficient evidence after being evaluated by the chief financial crimes resource prosecutor with the Conference of District Attorneys.

Detectives with the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office reportedly pushed back on that decision. According to an affidavit from the financial crimes prosecutor, the detectives went as far as questioning his authority in general.

“... Defendant’s true motivation in bringing criminal charges was to gain unfair leverage against all county commissioners, rather than solve a crime,” David wrote in his amended petition to remove Greene from office.

Accounts have also come from individuals from within Greene’s own sheriff’s office.

Joshua Harris, a Black deputy first sworn in under the previous sheriff, Lewis Hatcher, wrote in an affidavit he immediately resigned after a contentious call with Greene in March 2019.

“Greene told me ‘I heard you don’t support me.’ I told Greene that I did not support him in the election, but I supported my boss. I further stated that he is now my boss, so I support him. Greene stated, ‘I heard you were talking junk about me.’ After I told Greene I had not, Greene told me, ‘I know that is a lie because there is someone standing here with me right now who told me you are. When I get to the bottom of it someone is going to be a fired ass,’” Harris’ affidavit reads.

Harris said he felt the interaction with Greene was prompted by his decision to not attend a dinner celebrating Greene’s victory in the 2018 election. He explained a prior interaction with the owner of the home where the celebration was being held made him uncomfortable with attending.

“Upon arrival (to the home previously), a coon dog came out and began to bark at me,” Harris wrote. “The owner of the residence came out and stated that the dog ‘knew a coon when he saw one.’”

When Harris told his supervisor of this prior interaction, he was simply told that “Greene would be watching to see who was there,” according to his affidavit.

Another deputy, Matthew Parker — an investigator originally sworn in under Hatcher — resigned from the sheriff’s office in August 2019 to take a job with the Whiteville Police Department. His decision to leave, he explained in his affidavit, was due in part to an unprofessional interaction between Greene and a female investigator.

After two years with the Whiteville Police Department, Parker was offered a position with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office as sergeant over the detectives. He accepted but was later told he would not be put in the supervisor role.

“[A Bladen County Sheriff’s Office employee] informed me that Greene called [Bladen County] Sheriff McVicker and as a result of that call I would now only be a detective and no longer a supervisor for Bladen County Sheriff’s Office,” Parker wrote in his affidavit. “He further stated that my ‘politics’ had followed me over. Based on this, I declined to accept the position.”

Two individuals affiliated with the Columbus County Democratic Party also signed affidavits attesting to tense interactions with Greene.

“Defendant has demonstrated on numerous occasions that he is willing to misuse the power and authority inherent to the office of sheriff for improper personal and political gain. Defendant is an independent constitutionally elected officer and has considerable autonomy. He has used his office to hire and fire deputies based on race and to curry political favor. He has abused his power to decide which laws are enforced and against whom they are enforced. He has chilled the first amendment right of free speech, attempted to improperly influence his negotiations with county commissioners, and unfairly targeted and unjustly arrested citizens,” David wrote in his petition.

“He is wholly unfit to hold the high office of Sheriff”

Incidentally, the SBI was at the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office just a couple of months before the district attorney asked the state agency to investigate Greene and other deputies.

In August of this year, an inmate at the Columbus County Detention Center was brutally beaten by four other inmates. The inmate was hospitalized for numerous days with a serious brain injury, according to court records.

During their investigation, SBI agents discovered the inmate had requested he be moved out of the pod he was housed in just prior to the assault because he was concerned for his safety.

More concerning, data acquired by agents showed deputies failed to perform mandatory checks on inmates as required by statewide policies and procedures. Video depicting the area where the assault occurred confirmed “no officer observed or responded to the assault or the injured inmate for approximately 20 minutes,” according to court documents.

When the SBI and District Attorney Jon David met with Greene, he was “visibly upset” and indicated the lack of response from jail staff was “troubling and problematic.” David requested Greene provide him with any remedial measures he planned to take as a result of the incident by December.

It’s not clear if that happened before Greene resigned.

“[Greene] has failed to properly supervise officers in his employ and permitted dangerous, and potentially deadly conditions to exist in the Columbus County Detention Center,” David wrote in the petition.

It’s worth noting the SBI vacated its office within the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office at Greene’s request soon after he first took office in 2019. Soles felt this was in direct response to the personal feelings of Greene’s right-hand man, Chief Deputy Aaron Herring, who had previously been charged after an SBI investigation with assaulting a detainee while he was an officer with the Whiteville Police Department years prior.

Herring was ultimately found not guilty of any charge against him.

In his final example of Greene’s alleged misconduct during his first term, David revealed the sheriff-elect, who is married, had a months-long sexual relationship with one of his detectives, Samantha Hickman. He included salacious details about Greene and Hickman “engaging in sex acts” while both were on duty.

David attributed his knowledge of the relationship to, among other evidence, two recorded phone conversations between the detective and Victor Jacobs, a deputy within the Criminal Investigations Division who worked alongside Hickman.

“Samantha Hickman told me that she had been having sex regularly with Sheriff Jody Greene. She said they often had sex in his office, in his county-issued Dodge Durango, at a shooting range in Columbus County, and at Sheriff Jody Greene’s house in Cherry Grove Beach, South Carolina,” Jacobs wrote in an affidavit attached to David’s petition.

He went on to describe apparent damage to county property that occurred as a result of the entanglement.

“Samantha told me that during one of the times she was having sex with Sheriff Jody Greene in his county-issued Dodge Durango, she kicked out one of the vehicle’s windows,” he continued.

According to Jacobs’ affidavit, at some point during their relationship, Hickman became pregnant with Greene’s child, and Greene was “angry about it.”

She later had an abortion, Jacobs wrote.

In the conclusion of his petition to have him removed from office, David summarized the numerous accounts from Greene’s first term, saying:

“A diverse cross-section of citizens from Columbus County have presented clear and convincing evidence that [Greene] has engaged in long term and widespread conduct that evinces a patter of racial discrimination, vindictiveness towards perceived political opponents, and maladministration in office,” David. “Our Constitution establishes a government of checks and balances. It is incumbent upon the judiciary to permanently remove [Greene] as he is wholly unfit to hold the high office of Sheriff.”

“The world is watching Columbus County”

Greene’s words captured on the recorded call with Soles rippled out beyond Columbus County and Southeastern North Carolina — with swift, condemning reactions from most.

News of his comments even made it to Governor Roy Cooper’s office in Raleigh.

“These allegations are deeply disturbing and if true, should disqualify anyone from serving in law enforcement,” a spokesperson for Cooper said in a late September statement to WECT. “We believe a full investigation is appropriate.”

Following Cooper’s statement, the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program immediately suspended all grant funding to the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. In a letter to interim Columbus County Sheriff Bill Rogers, the state agency said Greene’s statements suggest the sheriff’s office “may not be in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964″ and other conditions required to be eligible for the funding.

Another state agency, the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission, suspended consideration of a sheriff’s office request for computer funding.

“The Sheriff’s statements reflected in the petition and public reports are deeply troubling and do not reflect the values and mission of the GCC or the [N.C.] Department of Public Safety,” wrote GCC Executive Director Caroline Farmer in an Oct. 12 letter to county leaders.

The N.C. Sheriff’s Association, which represents all 100 sheriffs in the state, took the unprecedented step to initiate proceedings that could have expelled Greene from the organization. Instead, Greene resigned his membership to “avoid causing any controversy,” according to a statement provided by the Association.

Several national news outlets picked up the story after the election. ‘N.C. sheriff reelected two weeks after resigning over racist comments,’ the Washington Post’s headline read.

“The world is watching Columbus County,” said Gloria Smith, a voter who filed a protest challenging Greene’s residency in the 2018 election. “We just never had nothing like this. I mean, if you can’t trust law enforcement, who can you trust?”

Numerous other community leaders expressed their concern about the impact Greene’s comments could have on the county, 30 percent of which is Black, according to U.S. Census data.

Carol Caldwell, a Black woman who led the DREAM center in Columbus County for 12 years, shared Smith’s concerns that Greene did not live in the county when he first ran in election in 2018.

In an affidavit included in David’s petition to remove Greene, Caldwell said she was “deeply hurt” after hearing the recorded conversation between Greene and Soles, and was afraid his comments could negatively impact the economic growth in the county.

“Greene demonstrated disdain for people of color under his supervision,” Caldwell wrote in her affidavit. “It is clear from his statements that Greene does not represent all members of this county.”

Anthony Anderson, a local pastor and investigator with Disability Rights North Carolina, shared a similar sentiment in his affidavit.

“The clear racist feelings towards his own employees, leads to concerns about the average citizen of color and how policing will be used against them,” Anderson wrote. “There is very little evidence that Greene has the ability to be fair and impartial to all citizens of this county. This is a sentiment that has been expressed to me by many members of the community of Columbus County, of all races.”

As one might expect, the local and state NAACP issued a statement soon after WECT’s report on the recorded call.

“[Greene’s] language is divisive, nasty, and offensive - his words are disparaging and hurtful to people of color,” President Deborah Dicks Maxwell of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and Curtis Hill, President of the Columbus County Branch of the NAACP, wrote in the Sept. 28 statement.

Attorneys representing the state NAACP requested a federal investigation into Greene and the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office in the days that followed.

“[His words] have created tensions within our community,” Hill said in an interview with WECT. “We want to ensure folks that they are going to be safe. And we realize that the majority of the law enforcement in our county does not have those types of views. We realize that most of them are very professional in what they do, and they really put their lives on the line to protect our citizens.”

Moving forward

After the election, it was expected Greene would be sworn in alongside the newly-elected county commissioners on Dec. 5.

But like his first term, Greene officially taking office for a second term is dependent on the outcome of two election protests filed last month by voters asking he be disqualified from holding office. The protests are expected to be considered by the State Board of Elections sometime in the coming weeks, after the Columbus County board’s decision to deny the protests was appealed.

Following Greene’s resignation, former State Highway Patrol Trooper William “Bill” Rogers was tapped to lead the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office after Greene’s resignation.

While Rogers has operated mostly behind the scenes, WECT learned he suspended Greene’s second-in-command, Aaron Herring, just before Thanksgiving. The suspension was set to last until Monday.

But on Friday, Rogers made another change to Herring’s role with the Sheriff’s Office.

According to personnel records obtained by WECT, Herring was demoted from chief deputy to court deputy, effective immediately.

Simultaneously, Rogers hired now-former County Commissioner Jerome McMillian as chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. A county spokesperson confirmed McMillian resigned from his elected office on Friday, just days before his term was set to end.

It is not immediately clear if Rogers, whose appointment to the acting sheriff was expected to end with the previous term, or McMillian will lead the sheriff’s office until the election protests are resolved.

What is clear is the SBI’s criminal investigation into allegations of obstruction of justice against Greene and the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office will remain ongoing whether or not Greene is sworn in for a second term.