Three hours of deliberation weren’t enough Friday, and now the 10 women and two men who make up the jury in Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely’s trial will continue the discussion of his guilt or innocence next week.
It will push the trial as a whole into its fourth week, after a week of jury selection ending in opening statements and two weeks of witness testimonies ending with closing statements Friday morning.
Among the final witnesses to testify was the sheriff himself on Thursday.
Blakely walked through his version of events over the last seven years, first with defense attorney Robert Tuten then during cross-examination with prosecutor Clark Morris. He started by sharing his background, including his time in the Marines and how working at a restaurant allowed him to chat with state troopers, eventually sparking an interest in joining law enforcement.
Blakely first became Limestone County’s sheriff in 1983, saying he’s held the job for 38 years and six months now. With Thomas Watkins as his campaign treasurer, Blakely said he had the option but never messed with campaign finance reports or the campaign account.
The sheriff is accused of four thefts, each related to mishandled campaign funds, but Blakely said each of those were either under Watkins’ direction or with his knowledge. A $1,500 donation from the local Realtors organization was deposited into Blakely’s personal account in lieu of a formal, documented reimbursement for personal funds Blakely spent on campaign expenses.
He said he didn’t have receipts for the expenses because he hadn’t expected to get reimbursed, and while cell phone records don’t show a call before Blakely deposited the check, the sheriff testified it was possible he talked to Watkins after the deposit or the call involved a home or office phone. Regardless, he said, the call happened and Watkins told him to deposit the funds in lieu of reimbursement.
Watkins previously testified he had no memory of the check and was never told about it, which is why it was never mentioned on a campaign finance report.
A similar experience
Blakely shared similar stories for the thefts related to Red Brick Strategies and Austin Hinds. In the case of the former, he said he thought Watkins was reporting third-party payments to RBS as in-kind contributions, and when he realized there would be leftover funds in the campaign account, he agreed for his campaign to take over the payments.
Blakely told the court he had a check made out for $7,500 for RBS, which was supposed to cover two months of payments at $3,500 each, plus $500 for election night videography. He explained the $4,000 check to himself as a “rebate” that he told Watkins he would be depositing into his personal account. Watkins testified he remembered the $7,500 check but not a rebate.
As for Hinds, Blakely said he knew Watkins was out of town and didn’t want the $2,500 check to be held for months, so he put it in his personal account. He admitted he could have kept it in a safe for Watkins to pick up at the sheriff’s office or deposited it in the campaign account himself instead.
It “probably would’ve been a good idea if I had,” he told the court.
Evidence shows Blakely wrote a check from his account to the campaign account about three months after getting the Hinds check, 11 days after a Limestone County Sheriff’s Office employee received a letter from the Alabama Ethics Commission about an investigation into Blakely.
Blakely said he didn’t remember any letter. Watkins testified he had no idea they’d gotten a donation from Hinds until Blakely told him of a $2,500 cash donation just before writing the check from his account to the campaign’s.
The fourth theft stemmed from a trip to Washington, D.C. Blakely echoed statements previously made by others — he got $3,000 through Watkins from the campaign account for a training event on social media and election campaigns; his wife had health issues that prevented him from going when originally planned; he planned to go later; and he forgot before he could get around to it.
Again, the timing was questioned, as he didn’t pay the $3,000 back until after he received a letter about an investigation into his actions, three and a half years later.
On the road
Blakely is also accused of multiple ethics violations and a theft charge, stemming from trips he took with other county officials or his employees. When asked about the Las Vegas trip, he said he was worried he might run short on funds, and that while he did gamble while on the trip, the funds he received were never for that.
Additionally, he told the court, he ended up not needing the funds and paid them back upon his return.
When attending a conference in Orange Beach, he only planned to participate in a golf tournament despite being invited to the conference because of a sheriffs’ event that week. Two jail employees went to the event instead, while Blakely went to Biloxi, Mississippi, to gamble and play golf with three members of the Limestone County Commission.
He said his employee, Debbie Davis, was the first friend to answer the phone when he called, so she was the one he asked for money while at the casino. Her husband, Jerry Davis, testified he was the one who got it out of their family safe and gave it to her to wire to the sheriff.
Blakely said he not only paid back the money, he won $11,000 while playing cards at the casino and gave each of the commission members a $500 chip, too. He testified that former Limestone County Commission Chairman Mark Yarbrough, former Limestone County Commissioner Steve Turner and current Limestone County Commissioner Jason Black got the $500 in exchange for taking a portion of his winnings and cashing them in on his behalf, allowing him to avoid paying taxes or triggering a casino transaction report for a win of more than $10,000.
When Morris suggested this exchange qualified as money laundering or bribery, Blakely denied it. His attorneys later described her suggestions as “personally attacking” him with accusations he had not been charged with.
Morris later told the court it wasn’t until Blakely’s testimony that they were even made aware of the details of his $500 chip to each commission members. Previously, the members had each testified to receiving the chip but not that they had helped him avoid paying taxes on or reporting his win.
When Blakely got back from Mississippi, he requested receiving per-diem funds for the trip. He testified that he was entitled to four days of funding at $75 per day because he spent one day traveling to the conference, one day at a golf tournament at the conference, one day networking with vendors and other sheriffs at the conference and one day traveling home. According to the prosecution, he should only be paid for one day of travel — the other day was spent traveling home from a casino, not the conference — and one day at the conference, meaning he was breaking the law when he received per-diem for the other two days.
When it came to loans and labor involving inmates, Blakely’s side of the story held some key differences compared to some of the testimonies heard before his. For example, he said he had nothing to do with the decision to use inmate labor at Higo LLC’s office, nor which inmates were chosen for the job or how long they spent there.
He said he didn’t even know about the job until he found out inmates hadn’t been paid in two weeks.
“That was brought to my attention, and I rectified that right soon,” he told the court, repeating previous testimony from his employees that he did so by calling Rodney Jackson, who had been supervising and transporting the inmates, and demanding that if the inmates weren’t paid that afternoon, Jackson or Higo owner Brad Pullum would be arrested.
He said the Higo office project had nothing to do with a real estate sale in the weeks prior, in which Pullum had offered to buy his parents’ house with a $50,000 cashier’s check from Higo co-owner Tong Shen Chiou and a $22,189.86 check from Pullum to pay off Blakely’s loan at Bank Independent. Blakely said Pullum arranged the loan from Chiou — which Chiou also said happened — and that he never looked at the check to realize it was from Chiou.
“I didn’t care who it was from as long as the bank cashed it,” Blakely said.
He said the house was then sold to a couple, allowing the Higo owners to recoup their investment. Meanwhile, Blakely told the court he used a portion of the $50,000 he’d received to pay off another loan, this one to Paul “Tall Paul” Anderson, a “horse-riding buddy” who had loaned him $30,000 after Blakely was told he owed Limestone County $27,000.
That amount stemmed from 18 months of overpayment on his paychecks, which Blakely said he tried to tell the county about as soon as he received the first incorrect check, only to be ignored. The Limestone County Commission’s human resources coordinator and its county administrator at the time each testified they had no memory of Blakely ever attempting to report an incorrect paycheck.
As for the other charge involving inmates — an allegation that Blakely received $29,050 in interest-free loans from a safe containing funds for inmates to use on vending machine and commissary items — he said the “IOU” system of borrowing funds and paying it back later existed before he became sheriff. He also said he never asked checks to be held for more than a couple days, though evidence shows some were held for weeks or months.
He also noted that no inmate was ever told there wasn’t enough money in the safe to give them their weekly allotment or what they were owed upon release.
A good man
After Blakely stepped down from the stand, defense attorneys called members of the community up to testify to his reputation in the community.
Each said he held a “good” reputation, with Athens City Councilman Wayne Harper going so far as to call it “very good” and former Limestone County District Attorney Kristi Valls saying it was “great.”
They also each said he was known as an honest and trustworthy man, and that they’d believe anything he said under oath.
The defense rested its case Thursday afternoon, but closing arguments weren’t heard until Friday morning. From each side, several questions were raised.
Prosecutors noted that it would have been simple enough for Blakely to drop the campaign donation checks at the bank that held his campaign account, so why not do that to begin with? Why did the defense’s story regarding the Realtor check change — first that it was mistakenly assumed to be a check for Blakely personally, even though a Realtor testified Blakely told her to only put his name on the check, then for it to be a reimbursement for campaign expenses?
As for the Washington trip, prosecutors asked the following questions: How was Blakely expected to cover the trip if, shortly after depositing the $3,000 check into his account, more than $2,100 was withdrawn from the account? Did he expect to pay for the trip with less than $900? Where is the evidence that Blakely reserved a hotel, registered for the training or even got an agenda proving the training exists?
If he forgot about the $3,000 and the social media training, and didn’t know about the letter from the ethics commission, what sparked his memory to pay it back? Is it plausible to think an employee would receive a letter requesting documents related to an investigation of their boss and friend, but not tell said boss and friend?
Even if Blakely did pay it back immediately, why did he need $1,000 from a subordinate while at the casino in Mississippi in August 2016 if evidence and testimony show he won $975,000 playing the lottery in July 2016?
If the inmate fund loans were for legitimate reasons, why did Blakely have to pay it back? Why weren’t they reimbursed from the law enforcement fund like other loans were? How could an audit be expected to catch the loans or mishandled money when an auditor testified that they didn’t do a cash count of the inmate fund to match it to the records?
If the Higo project was all above aboard and unrelated to the real estate sale or Pullum and Chiou loans, why are there no forms documenting the request for inmate labor? Why was Higo not expected to have workman’s compensation insurance or use eligible inmates, instead of trustees that are never supposed to work outside the jail?
“You won’t find anything that says this is allowed by law, because it’s not,” Assistant Attorney General Kyle Beckman told the jury.
The defense’s main question for the jury, however, focused on intent: Where was the proof of it existing, much less being criminal?
Where is the missing money? If the AG’s office thought a regular audit had missed it, defense attorneys wondered, why didn’t they do a forensic audit?
If prosecutors had so much evidence, why did one of them resort to “personally attacking” Blakely and dragging “his good name and reputation through the mud”? Why are jurors expected to listen to and witnesses who are indicted or under investigation for their own thefts?
If Blakely intended to steal Hinds’ donation, why were there two receipts? If he planned to steal at all, why not put his decades of law enforcement experience to use by committing a crime without leaving a paper trail?
The sheriff received $1,000 from a friend and paid it back the next day, but if it being interest-free is the problem, how much more should he have paid back? What’s the interest on a one-day loan of $1,000?
Why spend so much time discussing his gambling habits, when gambling isn’t illegal? Why accuse him on the stand of crimes like bribery and money laundering when he hasn’t been charged with either?
“This may be Limestone County, but we’re not dumb,” Tuten said as he neared the end of his closing argument.
Fortunately, the jury is only faced with a fraction of those questions — namely, 10 times in which they must answer, unanimously, is Blakely guilty or not guilty.
Three of the 13 counts with which he was initially indicted have been dismissed. Of the remaining ones, five are thefts totaling between $11,000.01 and $12,718.36, four are use of official position or office for personal gain and one is soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate.
All but one of the charges is a misdemeanor. Many of the felonies are Class B, meaning Blakely could face between two and 20 years in prison per conviction.
Under Alabama law, should Blakely be convicted and imprisoned, Limestone County’s coroner, Mike West, would take over as sheriff and as overseer of the Limestone County Jail. State law further states that Limestone County Probate Judge Charles Woodroof would likely then have to appoint a special coroner, as a county is not permitted to have the same person as county coroner and county sheriff.
Jurors are expected to present their verdict sometime next week. They requested to be allowed to go home around 5 p.m. Friday and were instructed by Judge Pamela Baschab to return by 9 a.m. Monday.
The News Courier will have additional coverage as the trial continues.