For the last 18 years, Thomas Stroud collected trash for the Town of Chapel Hill, much like his uncle and his cousin, who earned a living working for the town's public works department. "My whole family has worked there," Stroud says. But Stroud's tenure ended abruptly early one spring morning.
On Thursday, May 3, Chapel Hill Police arrested Stroud for peeping into a room at 103 Louis Armstrong Court, a public housing complex on Stroud's way to work. Stroud, who was dressed in his work uniform and headed to work at the time, maintains he was trying to determine which apartment building a co-worker lived in, but someone inside the building believed he had other motives, and Stroud got into a fight in the parking lot. He was taken to county lockup and misdemeanor charges were filed. Stroud, whose personnel record shows he has met or exceeded department standards for the past several years, was not on the clock when the incident happened.
Stroud won't say much more about the facts of the charge, following the advice of his lawyer to wait until his day in court. Stephanie Brown, the complainant, could not be reached for comment.
But Stroud is talking about how he lost his job. "When I got bailed out, my supervisor told me I needed to go resign because it was in my best interest," says Stroud, who cannot read or write and sometimes has trouble comprehending what people are saying. He says his supervisors told him if he wanted to keep his retirement benefits, he should resign. "I was scared. I didn't know what to do, so I signed the paper."
Not long after he resigned, Stroud says coworkers told him that he had not been treated fairly and suggested that he contact Fred Battle, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP. Stroud says they told him that other trash collectors had been involved in similar incidents and hadn't lost their jobs. "They just fired me on hearsay," Stroud says.
Battle, a retired public works superintendent, became an advocate for Stroud. "It has always been our thing that you are innocent until proven guilty," Battle says. "We have allowed people to work until their trial date. [Stroud's case] is somewhat unusual....
"We have had a couple of people get into altercations in the parking lot," Battle says. "We didn't suspend them. We have other people that were accused of being intoxicated. We sent them home and allowed them to come back. It appears that it might be somewhat personal."
Lance Norris, interim director of the Chapel Hill Public Works Department, declined to comment, citing personnel policies.
Battle and Al McSurely, the NAACP lawyer, advised Stroud to rescind his resignation, which he did on May 10. The town responded by placing Stroud on unpaid suspension and scheduling a disciplinary hearing for May 14. Harvey Howard, Stroud's superintendent, wrote Stroud: "At this conference please be prepared to present any information you may have that you would like for us to consider prior to us making this recommendation [that you be terminated]."
Battle and McSurely asked to attend the meeting but were denied. "There is no excuse for continuing to subject Mr. Stroud to meetings and confrontations where he does not have the verbal skills necessary to protect his rights," McSurely says.
McSurely presented Stroud with a letter stating his case and told him to keep quiet so he would not incriminate himself. After the hearing, Stroud did not hear anything until June 18, when he received a certified letter stating that he was terminated.
"We investigated the incident and verified the information provided in the Chapel Hill Police Department report," the letter from Norris reads. "We don't know what information you could have offered because you declined to participate in the pre-disciplinary conference. Therefore, we proceeded without that information....
"The public trust cannot be allowed to be brought into question regarding services provided to town citizens upon their property."
"I lost my job. I'm losing my house," he says. "I want my job back. I worked too hard to get what I got." Stroud has been on the brink of poverty through much of his trash-collecting career. His personnel file shows that his wages have been garnished to pay bankruptcy fees, hospital costs and unpaid taxes.
"This is just the first little skirmish in a long war," McSurely says. "We expected him to be fired." On June 19, McSurely drafted a grievance that he plans to file on Stroud's behalf. "I think eventually we'll win," he says.
Stroud will soon begin his search for a new job, which will be a challenge given his inability to read. His bench trial on the misdemeanor peeping charge begins June 25. "Categorically, the allegations against him are false based upon what he has told me," says Geeta Kapur, Stroud's lawyer in the criminal case. It's unlikely that Stroud will get his job back if he is acquitted of the charge.