SBI never asked to investigate pawned gun case

By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News

published June 2, 2011

In the wake of Yancey County News reports that documented how the chief deputy of the Yancey County Sheriff’s Department was pawning county-owned firearms for personal gain, many residents and local leaders believed there would be a complete investigation to determine the depth and breadth of malfeasance.

But the investigation apparently never occurred, according to a N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman.

In an email to the newspaper received Wednesday, Jennifer Canada, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general, said that the State Bureau of Investigation has never been asked to investigate former chief deputy Tom Farmer and his misuse of county guns.

“The SBI never received a request to conduct an investigation into this matter,” Canada wrote in response to questions about the case from the Yancey County News.   “It’s my understanding it was handled at the local level.”

County Manager Nathan Bennett, who wrote a letter to District Attorney Gerald Wilson in March asking that the SBI be asked to investigate the pawning of the guns, said Wednesday afternoon that he was “somewhat surprised” by the revelation. “I had assumed that the district attorney would have asked the SBI to investigate” after the formal request from the county.

In that formal request, Bennett had been explicit of the county’s interest. "The assertion that an officer sworn to uphold the law would so egregiously violate that oath, placing the community at risk, is unacceptable," Bennett wrote in his certified letter to the district attorney. "Yancey County will support prosecution of this matter if these claims are substantiated."

Farmer was the number-two ranking officer in the sheriff’s department when the newspaper investigation documented how he had taken department guns and pawned them in Asheville for personal gain. He resigned his job soon after the reports.

Sheriff Gary Banks said he conducted an internal investigation and recovered all missing guns. At the time he said he would rely on the SBI to complete the criminal investigation into his chief deputy.

Whenever he or county officials were asked for details about the case, the general response was that they couldn’t comment because of the ongoing state investigation. In fact, when the newspaper cited state law that authorized release of personnel records in the case, the county declined, saying the SBI investigation was ongoing.

That apparently was not the case, according to the communication from the Department of Justice.

But District Attorney Wilson continued to say there is an investigation into the case, though he declined to comment further when contacted at home Wednesday evening.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to talk about it.” Asked to explain how that could be the case after the SBI said they were not involved, he reiterated his statement and again said he couldn’t comment further.

County Commission Chairman Johnny Riddle shed new light onto the case in a conversation Thursday morning, and suggested that the district attorney may have been influenced to not involve the state.

“I just think that’s a decision that the DA has made. I don’t know who has influenced him, if anyone.”

Riddle said commissioners were told that the internal sheriff’s department investigation determined that Farmer had pawned a total of 12 guns owned by the county, but that attitudes among commissioners may have softened in the weeks since Farmer’s resignation.

“He lost his job, he lost his livelihood, he lost his reputation,” Riddle said. With the passage of time, even Riddle admitted that his feelings about Farmer’s actions may have changed. “I feel differently now than I did two months ago,” though that didn’t mean it was OK that an official criminal investigation was possibly stifled, he said.

“Maybe that was part of the plan,” he said. “The commission said to investigate this, but maybe they thought if they waited we would let it slide.”

So is the commission chairman OK with that? “You’re asking, if it were to just be done right now, would I be satisfied? Probably not. I would like to know a little bit more what went on. It is still vague. Nobody has investigated how he was able to obtain the guns without anybody else knowing. Nobody has investigated why he did it. What was his situation that caused him to take the guns and pawn them?”

In fact, Riddle says commissioners were told that Farmer was being investigated by the state. “I was told that Tom was talking to the SBI” and that possibly the state was using the possibility of felony charges regarding the guns as leverage to get Farmer to share details for the ongoing criminal investigation into the 2010 general election.

County Attorney Donny Laws said the county did everything it should have to urge an investigation into the pawning of the guns. “We did not notify the SBI; we sent the notice to the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office. Where it went after that, I can’t answer that question.”

Referring to the district attorney, Laws said: “What he’s done with it; whether he’s completed an investigation; whether he still has it open ... I think it’s in his hands. What he’s decided to do with it, I don’t know.”

He continued: “Where our commissioners left it is, alright, we sent it to the district attorney’s office, and we expect (him) to do (his) job and deal with it as (he) sees appropriate.

“I don’t know what Gerry’s going to do, whether he has conducted an investigation.

“Gary did not give me a report as to what occurred. He just gave me a summary of how tom resigned and he accepted it.”

Sheriff Gary Banks was not available for comment about the case.

Click here to read earlier stories in this case.