A security gate at the Cherokee County detention center, in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Wmforo
A security gate at the Cherokee County Detention Center, in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Wmforo

Editor’s note: This independent and investigative news story was only made possible through months of research and reporting — interviewing more than a dozen people and gathering and reviewing more than 500 pages of public records. Detailed, fact-based investigative reporting is a massive undertaking; it’s the reason Wmforo exists. We know it matters, and this story would have stayed unreported and in the dark without our team of investigative journalists. Please support us today; it will go twice as far. Thank you.

MURPHY — Inmates at the Cherokee County Detention Center were repeatedly ordered to beat up other inmates, according to two former Sheriff’s Office employees who allege a pattern of mismanagement at the jail that has lasted over several years.

This comes on top of two separate and ongoing State Bureau of Investigation inquiries into the July death of one inmate a few hours after his arrest and into a May altercation among another inmate and two guards.

Joseph Preston Allen, a former sergeant with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office who retired in March after 11 years working at the jail, described the coerced fights among inmates. In some cases, he said, officers would target an inmate for a beating and then leave the inmate’s cell unlocked intentionally, prompting attacks by multiple other inmates.

Another former detention officer, Tom Taylor, quit the Sheriff’s Office in August after seven years, including working for Allen on the night shift for several years. Interviewed separately, Taylor confirmed Allen’s claims and provided additional details. Both deny involvement in the alleged misconduct.

In general, both described a culture of inexperience among detention staff and mismanagement by Sheriff Derrick Palmer, Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen and jail administrator Mark Patterson, putting inmates and officers at risk.

Wmforo contacted Palmer, Thigpen and Patterson last week for comment on the allegations. Palmer and Thigpen each issued denials. Patterson did not respond prior to the publication of this article.

“During my time as sheriff, the detention center has continuously and consistently passed all state, federal and local inspections with flying colors,” Palmer said. “Any credible reports of complaints with employees have been handled quickly and swiftly. And furthermore, any credible allegations of criminal misconduct have been reported to the SBI and the district attorney’s office by my personal request.”

Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer
Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer

However, Allen and Taylor are not the only individuals who have contacted CPP about these cases and others. Since CPP published an article in June about allegations of excessive force by two guards, multiple Cherokee County residents contacted CPP about conditions at the jail, including former Sheriff’s Office employees and former inmates.

In addition to interviewing Allen and Taylor, CPP reviewed more than 500 pages of public records from multiple public agencies, including personnel files and records about these and other incidents at the jail. CPP also interviewed more than a dozen other individuals who were not willing to go on the record but who provided independent accounts supporting aspects of what Allen and Taylor have described.

Some requested records were censored without explanation. Some requests have gone unanswered entirely.

Wmforo did not discuss with Palmer who made the allegations. But the sheriff, overall, questioned the credibility of former employees.

“Unfortunately, past or current disgruntled employees can report allegations and experiences that are either untrue or exaggerated as it pertains to their employment and there is very little that can be said to refute it due to personnel laws,” Palmer said.

“This agency has been more than forthcoming, referring all requests to the county attorney, and those records were produced as the public record law allowed,” he continued.

Palmer was elected in 2014 over incumbent Keith Lovin, for whom Palmer had previously worked. During the campaign, the two exchanged allegations about inappropriate handling of evidence. After taking office, Palmer brought in Patterson as the new jail administrator.

Mark Patterson
Cherokee County Detention Center Administrator Mark Patterson

But according to former guards Allen and Taylor, conditions declined after Patterson took charge of the jail. The jail opened in 2008 and, with a capacity of about 150 inmates, is the primary detention facility for Cherokee County, which has a population of about 28,000. It replaced a facility from the 1920s that held less than a third of that number.

Because Allen believed that the jail was not being run properly and he did not want to be responsible for any of his officers getting injured, he requested a demotion from sergeant to officer, he said. He retired in March, he said, because he no longer felt safe working there, especially after undergoing hip surgery.

“I’ll be doggone if I’m going to get in a fight and my leg goes out, and then I’ll be at their mercy while they’re beating the piss out of me while I wait for somebody else to get back there,” Allen said.

“So I talked to the doctor. He told me, ‘You don’t need to do this anymore.’”

Allen also expressed concern about the safety of anyone working at the jail under current conditions.

“If I had family people over there, I’d be afraid for their lives,” he said.

The death of Joshua Shane Long

Among the cases raising concern at the Cherokee County Detention Center, Joshua Shane Long’s stands out because it involved his death.

Long came to the attention of Cherokee County authorities on the afternoon of July 11, when someone dialed 911. The caller said a man was “screaming and yelling and banging on his own truck” and possibly under influence of drugs, according to 911 records. A short time later, records show another 911 call from a second nearby location, describing the same behavior, though the man was then said to be shirtless.

Sheriff’s deputies reported finding Long at the location with his truck, both matching the callers’ descriptions. At 6:20 p.m., they arrested Long, charging him with marijuana possession and resisting an officer, according to 911 records, which indicated that a “male subject” who was “combative” was being transported in a squad car.

Officers held Long at the detention center for about four hours. Officers placed Long in a holding cell at the front of the jail, sheriff’s records show. According to descriptions from Allen and Taylor, the cell has a large window and is plainly visible from the desk of the booking officer.

Long eventually collapsed and became unresponsive. Officers evacuated him, and he was taken by helicopter to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, which is located about 100 miles away by car. He was pronounced dead in the early hours of July 12.

The Sheriff’s Office asked the SBI look into Long’s death the same day.

A Wmforo investigation into housing issues faced by those with mental illness in NC

Allen said if he had been working at the jail, the outcome could have been different.

Because Long was reportedly intoxicated on unknown substances, Allen said he would not have booked Long into the jail.

“I would have sent him to the (Erlanger) Murphy Medical Center,” Allen said. The center is about 7 miles away.

Allen said that when he was a sergeant, if an officer brought someone in who had ingested an unknown drug, he would require that person be cleared by Murphy Medical Center before being booked.

“That way, I’ve protected everybody on my shift,” Allen said. “I’ve protected the inmate, I’ve protected myself, the lieutenant, the captain and the sheriff. You can probably ask anyone over there. I’ve probably sent more to the hospital than anybody over there — I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Records provided by the Sheriff’s Office do not indicate that Long was placed on 24-hour watch or that he was seen by medical staff.

Sheriff Palmer said in a statement made to the Cherokee Scout in July that deputies saw Long take a pill, which the sheriff described as a breath mint. That should have been a red flag, Taylor said.

“If (Long) ingested something, he shouldn’t have even been in that jail,” Taylor told CPP in an Aug. 31 interview. “If he ingested something, he should have been on 24-hour watch. But really, they shouldn’t have even accepted him.”

Palmer told CPP last week that he cannot comment on the details of the case while it is the subject of an ongoing SBI investigation.

The collapse

In response to CPP public records requests, the officials with the Sheriff’s Office provided records that included two incident reports related to Long’s death. But what officials provided were copies of reports that had been altered to obscure the “incident narrative,” which could include a detailed description of what happened to Long once he entered the jail.

Despite the requirements of the North Carolina public records law to do so, no explanation was provided to explain why the information was redacted.

Also, officials with the Sheriff’s Office did not respond at all to a public records request for records showing the rounds detention officers had taken to check on inmates.

However, they did provide 911 records and a copy of a Sheriff’s Office report to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, per CPP’s request.

What those records appear to show is that officers did not see Long collapse, even though Allen says officers would have been able to because of the location of Long’s cell and its large window.

The Report of Inmate Death submitted to state health officials says that Officer Glenn Holloway saw Long alive in his cell at 11:12 p.m. Two minutes later, records show, Officer Larry Bolen found Long unresponsive.

Another round of 911 records show that Officer Tiffany Enloe called for an ambulance at 11:16 p.m., shortly after Bolen found Long unresponsive about four hours after he was booked into the jail. Long was not breathing, 911 records show.

Officers began CPR. According to a transcription of 911 records, an unnamed officer in the background advised that Long “might be coming down off of something.”

At 11:57 p.m., Officer Frank Daly filed paperwork releasing Long from detention on an unsecured bond, jail records indicate.

Emergency medical responders arrived at 11:59, 911 records show. They found Long unresponsive, receiving CPR and with a strong pulse. Emergency responders intubated him to help him breathe, according to 911 records.

At 12:43 a.m., the helicopter was on its way to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. The jail’s Report of Inmate Death shows Long’s time of death as 1:21 a.m.

An autopsy and a toxicology test were performed, though results have not yet been released. The Sheriff’s Office released a statement on its Facebook page on July 18 indicating that the Office of the Medical Examiner provided a preliminary report verbally, saying the medical examiner found no obvious cause of death or obvious trauma to Long. However, the statement acknowledged that a toxicology analysis was still being conducted.

Wmforo requested autopsy and toxicology reports from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Aug. 14 but had not received them prior to publication of this article.

Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Facebook page screenshot
This screenshot shows the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page post, in which the sheriff described preliminary information from the State Medical Examiner’s Office regarding the death of Joshua Shane Long.

‘Jailhouse justice’

Other incidents that Allen and Taylor described did not result in anyone’s death but point to potentially serious issues with what the former guards call a culture of “jailhouse justice” in which vulnerable inmates are not protected and detention staff uses some inmates as “enforcers” to beat up other inmates.

They also describe a practice called “pop the locks,” where a certain inmate’s door is unlocked, allowing other inmates to go into his room and attack him.

In one situation, Corey Hall, a former inmate, was known by officers to be at risk of assault, Allen said. When Hall had previously come through the jail, he was kept in the medical or maximum-security wings or sent to Clay County for protection.

On March 14, Hall was in the A-Pod dayroom with other inmates, who attacked him, according to Allen. As with the death of Long, the Sheriff’s Office released a partial copy of the jail incident report to CPP but blocked out the description of the incident without explanation, providing only date, time, location and officers involved.

Allen said, Hall “got the piss beat out of” him by other inmates. He was moved to the medical wing the same day, inmate housing records show.

Over the next six weeks, Hall was moved out of the medical wing three more times and was always back in the medical wing within two days. CPP has attempted to reach Hall but has not heard back.

Allen said that when he was a detention sergeant, he was responsible for assigning new detainees to their housing. He would ask the person coming in if he had problems with anyone on the units. If so, Allen would put the inmate somewhere else to keep the peace. That practice is no longer allowed, he said.

When he protested to Chief Deputy Thigpen and Capt. Patterson, they brushed him off, Allen said.

“Captain told me, ‘This is jail, they might as well get used to it,’” Allen said of the meeting with Thigpen and Patterson.

Asked Friday about the alleged remarks, Thigpen issued a denial.

Mark Thigpen
Cherokee County Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen

“As to the quote, I do not have any recollection of making any such comments,” he told CPP in an email.

Thigpen also said that such a position was outside his role at the Sheriff’s Office.

“As chief deputy, I do not make decisions on housing of inmates — those decisions are made by Capt. Patterson and/or the appropriate detention supervisor,” Thigpen said. “On occasion, I may be asked for input on those decisions, but do not make the final decision.”

Wmforo’ investigation revealed that allegations about Hall’s situation may not be isolated. CPP has received and investigated multiple allegations of jail personnel mistreating other inmates.

In one case, Robert Theodore Lee was arrested in Murphy on March 29 by Sheriff’s Officer Timothy Howe on misdemeanor charges of communicating threats, simple assault and resisting an officer, according to Sheriff’s Office records. According to Lee, his wrist was injured during the arrest. He was not moved to the medical wing and claims his injury was not treated.

Lee provided CPP with medical records from April 14, the same day he was released according to jail records, showing a diagnosis of a fractured left wrist.

Palmer told CPP last week that he cannot respond to any medical allegations from inmates. “Many of the inmate claims of medical issues can be easily refuted, but we are bound by HIPPA Laws from divulging information,” he said.

Questions remain, SBI investigates

Wmforo previously reported on an altercation between inmate George Victor Stokes and Detention Sgt. Joshua Gunter and Officer Wesley “Gage” Killian on May 2. The offices of the district attorney and the sheriff asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into possible excessive use of force on May 14.

Stokes’ case raises federal issues. Cherokee County law enforcement housed Stokes for the U.S. Marshal Service while he awaited a transfer.

Palmer fired both Gunter and Killian. The timeline suggests the decision to terminate the officers came after news media inquiries apparently triggered an internal investigation.

Again, the sheriff did not release details on the incident, though CPP has requested them.

According to Allen and Taylor, Gunter and Killian went “hands on” with Stokes, a practice that they said jail leadership encourages. Taylor said the inexperience of many detention staff makes matters worse.

Gunter told CPP in May that he thinks he handled the situation appropriately, though he said Killian’s conduct was less professional. At the time of the incident, Gunter had been working in the detention center for less than three years. Killian has worked there for less than three months.

Killian did not comment directly on the situation, but his lawyer, Zeyland McKinney, told CPP in May that a jail security video would show his client did nothing wrong. State law prevents the Sheriff’s Office from releasing that video without a court order.

Palmer told CPP last week that, as with the Long case, the ongoing SBI investigation prevents him from commenting on the Stokes case. He noted, however, that he would be eager to discuss the SBI’s findings when they are released.

“I look forward to the SBI reports on the Long and Stokes incidents and I will review the matter when the facts are in, as opposed to responding to innuendo,” Palmer said.

Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Wmforo
After inmates are housed at the Cherokee County Detention Center while they await trial, they might appear before a judge or have their case heard by a jury at the Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Wmforo

Legal expert: Conditions ‘violate North Carolina law and the Constitution’

Palmer acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations, but questioned why anyone who was telling the truth about such things had not come to him with their claims.

“In your list, you cite things that are very serious in nature,” he told CPP last week. “If there is truth to these things, then why have they not been reported to me, the SBI or the District Attorney? Why am I finding out about these allegations in a newspaper article? Just because someone, or several people, say it and print it does not mean that it is true.”

If true, however, allegations of a pattern of misconduct at the jail from Taylor and Allen would constitute serious criminal violations and infringements on the rights of inmates, one expert said.

“Essentially, any of the facts you described would violate North Carolina law and the Constitution,” said James Markham, the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy at the University of North Carolina School of Government who has expertise in North Carolina laws related to jails.

“Those are not even really close calls — all of that sounds terrible,” Markham said after reviewing a summary of the allegations.

Inmates at a state prison generally serve sentences after being convicted. But most inmates at a county jail are often only accused of violating the law and are being held until they can make bail or a judge orders their release.

“Jails are mostly — two-thirds to three-quarters — pretrial inmates,” Markham said. “And so the constitutional analysis of various issues is a little different (from prisons) — it’s ‘due process’ instead of ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ because the inmates are technically not being punished yet.

“But the ultimate framework (of inmate rights) winds up being pretty much the same.”

Editor’s note: Wmforo is continuing to investigate these and other incidents at the Cherokee County Detention Center. Contact CPP’s offices at 828-774-5290 if you have any information. CPP posted an update on this situation Nov. 2, 2018, Cherokee jail administrator resigns, sheriff promises change. CPP’s investigation remains ongoing.

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Jordan Wilkie is a contributing writer to Wmforo. Frank Taylor is managing editor of Wmforo. Email [email protected] to contact them.

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