Six candidates, so far, have announced plans to run for Chatham County sheriff this year. Most are either current or former cops, and they are all vowing to restore the reputation of local law enforcement, which was sullied when 5,000 pounds of confiscated marijuana went missing.
The stash's last known custodian was the sheriff's department, making it the center of a swirling saga that has voters talking from Siler City to Fearrington Village.
The latest scene unfolded on Monday, Feb. 4, when Chatham Sheriff Ike Gray appeared in a Pittsboro courtroom to try to fend off a motion to compel him to talk about the missing drugs. He is being sued by a former deputy who says Gray fired him in retaliation for telling federal authorities about the missing pot, among other reasons.
Gray, so far, has refused to discuss the case, either in public or in a deposition he gave last June.
What Gray knows about the marijuana will come out within in a month, it now appears. At Monday's hearing, Chatham County Superior Court Judge Wade Barber granted a motion to compel Gray to answer the plaintiff's 80 or so questions about the drugs, which his attorneys told him not to address in the last deposition. A new deposition will be taken within 30 days, and as it stands, the public will be allowed to see what Gray has to say; Barber also denied a motion by Gray's attorneys to shield the new deposition from the public.
Assuming there are no more sharp twists and turns in the discovery process, the case against Gray should go to trial in July. Meanwhile, the political pressures of the brewing sheriff's campaign may prompt additional disclosures.
The facts have been a long time coming. The story begins back in February 2000, when the U.S. Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Agency raided a warehouse in Siler City, nabbing two suspected drug-runners and a whopping 2.5 tons of marijuana.
After the bust, 3,000 pounds of the pot disappeared from a truck parked at the sheriff's department. The remaining 2,000 pounds were taken to a landfill and buried. Soon afterward, that stash disappeared as well.
Enter Sergeant Dan Phillips, who heard from an informant with details about the case. When the sheriff's department ignored the information, Phillips says, he took the informant to meet with FBI agents in Asheboro. Shortly thereafter, the bureau announced it was launching an investigation.
Then-Sheriff Don Whitt, who was not in good health, resigned. The Chatham County Board of Commissioners appointed Ike Gray, a veteran deputy, to take his place. Gray appointed Lieutenant Randy Keck, the department's narcotics officer who had overseen the marijuana "disposal," as his chief deputy.
In January 2001, Gray fired the whistle-blowing Phillips, stating bluntly in a report that his "services [were] no longer needed." At the time of his dismissal, Phillips believed that he had been ousted because he was aggressively pursuing an investigation into institutional racism at Chatham Central High School, where he was the school resource officer.
So Phillips fired back, hiring Chapel Hill attorney Al McSurely to sue Gray, alleging that the sheriff had retaliated against Phillips for doing his job right at Central High. Then last December, Phillips amended the legal complaint, alleging that another reason he was fired was because he had put the drug informant in touch with the FBI.
The case is winding its way to trial, but has been stuck in the discovery process, in part because Gray has refused to answer questions about the marijuana matter.
Now, McSurely predicts, it won't be long before Chatham residents at last learn what happened to the drugs. "The facts about the stolen marijuana are certainly going to come out this spring, one way or the other," he says. "Some are coming out through our lawsuit," he says, but others might surface in the sheriff's election, which, he says, "could really serve to clean up some of the good old boy politics" that he says are at the root of the case.
The primary is scheduled for May, but will probably be delayed by a month or two, according to Chatham's Board of Elections. Then the top two candidates will square off in November.
Every one of the six candidates is uniquely qualified to comment on drugs and law enforcement. Gray's five challengers are: Detective Jimmy Bowden of the Siler City Police Department, who was involved in the initial drug raid that netted the now-missing marijuana; Chatham County Commissioner Rick Givens, a former airline pilot and veteran of Air Force special operations; former Chatham sheriff's deputy Darden Jarman; Randy Knight, an N.C. Highway Patrol Officer from Bennett, and Sergeant Richard Webster of the Pittsboro Police Department
Will the case of the pilfered pot break open during the heated months of the campaign? Sheriff Gray did not return calls asking for comment. But some of his opponents are starting to speak out on the issue.
"It's a long story of nothing but negligence by the sheriff's department," Givens says. "I hear from friends of mind who work for the DEA and various undercover operations that we're the laughing stock of the state. Among the public, not a day goes by when someone doesn't say, 'When are they going to tell us about the missing dope?'"