Wandering officers, problem police who get fired or forced out from one department, then go work at another, are a problem across the country.
To help prevent these officers from bouncing between agencies, the Wisconsin Department of Justice maintains a database where law enforcement agencies can flag officers they fired or forced out. Police and sheriff’s departments can check the database when considering hiring a new officer.
Also, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a law in 2021 that requires law enforcement agencies to maintain a work history file for each employee and creates a procedure for law enforcement agencies, jails, and juvenile detention facilities to receive and review an officer candidate’s file from previous employers.
Previously, some law enforcement agencies had agreed to seal a fired officer’s personnel file in exchange for leaving quietly, so potential law enforcement employers couldn’t see why the officer had left their last job.
Nearly 300 officers currently employed in the state were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, according to data from the state DOJ that The Badger Project obtained through a records request.
The state of Wisconsin currently has about 15,000 certified active law enforcement officers, including jail officers, according to the state DOJ, so fired or forced-out officers make up nearly 2 percent of the total.
Some of those flagged officers were simply novices who didn’t perform at an acceptable level during their initial probationary period, when the bar to fire them is very low, experts say. Sometimes the bosses simply don’t like a new hire and want them gone. Or the officer couldn’t handle the high pressure of working in a busy urban area, and do better in slower-paced positions and agencies, says Steve Wagner, a longtime police officer in Racine who is now an administrator for the state DOJ.
But others lost their jobs for more negative reasons.
The Badger Project looked at the state DOJ’s database and found four officers working in northwestern Wisconsin who had been fired or forced out from another law enforcement agency. A fifth officer was forced out from a police department in the area and moved one county over to continue work in law enforcement.
All the officers were given the chance to comment for this story. Those who provided them were included.
Shawano Police Department – May 2006 to November 2018
Resigned prior to completion of internal investigation
Now employed by Hurley Police Department
Bunt was accused of having a sexual relationship with another officer’s wife, and of communicating with her in a “sexual nature” while on duty with the Shawano Police Department, according to text messages collected from their phones.
Bunt was placed on administrative leave and resigned before the investigation concluded.
The Hurley Police Department hired Bunt on Nov. 30, 2018, 11 days after his last official day at the Shawano Police Department.
Hurley Police Chief Chris Colassaco and Bunt did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Superior Police Department – January 2021 until April 2022
Resigned in lieu of termination
Now employed by Bayfield County Sheriff’s Department
Letica “was released from probation” from the Superior Police Department because she was not meeting the standards of our department, said Assistant Police Chief John Kiel.
In an email to The Badger Project, Letica said she was “set up to fail from the beginning without any help from the department.”
“I was not treated fairly at this department and I realized, is this what I really want anyway?” she continued.
The Bayfield County Sheriff’s Office hired Letica in October 2022 as a full-time sheriff’s deputy.
Bayfield County Sheriff Tony Williams noted that Letica was hired before he became sheriff, but said she has “been doing great for us.”
The administration was aware of her exit from the Superior Police Department, and an “extensive background check” is conducted by the department’s investigator lieutenant before anyone is hired, Williams said.
“Deputy Letica is performing outstanding,” Williams said. “Deputy Letica is very professional and is fair with people, levelheaded and quick to respond to calls.”
Superior Police Department – April 2018 to January 2019
Resigned in lieu of termination
Now employed by UW-Superior Police Department
Rankin briefly worked for the Superior Police Department but “was released from probation because he was not meeting the standards of our department,” said Assistant Police Chief John Kiel.
The UW-Superior Police Department hired him to their five-officer staff in November 2020.
Jordan Milan, a spokesperson for UW-Superior, said she was not able to discuss “information gathered through the interview process,” but noted all applicants go through the same process of application review, interviews and reference checks.
“We conduct extensive background checks on all police officers, including physical and psychological assessments,” Milan said.
“Officer Rankin has met job performance expectations during his employment at UW-Superior,” she added.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – May 2016 to February 2022
Terminated for Cause
Currently employed by the Price County Sheriff’s Office
Thums started working for both the Wisconsin DNR and the Price County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. In February 2022, he was terminated from his limited-term position as a conservation officer with the DNR due to “failure to follow supervisory directive related to the use and parking of the department squad (vehicle) that you are assigned to use during your shift,” according to a letter he received from his supervisor that The Badger Project obtained through a records request.
Thums told The Badger Project in an email that the DNR supervisor had allowed several full-time officers to take their squad vehicles home, an exception to the department’s rules. He also said supervisors told him they terminated him because he continued to take his squad home after a warning, but Thums said he never received a warning.
Thums remains employed as a deputy with the Price County Sheriff’s Office.
About Thums, Sheriff Brian Schmidt said “his performance is good. He’s doing what we ask and doing his job. What’s expected of him.”
Park Falls Police Department in Price County – December 2017 to March 2020
Resigned in lieu of termination
Currently employed full-time by the Three Lakes Police Department in Oneida County and part-time by the WisDOTourism State Fair Park Police
Schuenemann, who is now working outside Price County, did not complete his probationary period with the Park Falls Police Department. In records obtained from the department in a records request, Schuenemann was reprimanded for not completing some reports, not completing reports in a timely manner, submitting reports with misspellings and other errors, missing a scheduled training session, and misusing department property.
Regarding the property issues, he lost control of a patrol vehicle and it slid off the road, taking him out of service until it could be towed back onto the road, according to the records, which note he may have been violating the law by driving too fast for conditions.. He also closed an automatic garage door on a vehicle, damaging the door.
The Three Lakes Police Department hired him in November of 2022.
“The Three Lakes Police Department is pleased that Officer Schuenemann has chosen to join the Three Lakes Police Department and look forward to his opportunity to join the Three Lakes community,” Police Chief Scott Lea said in an email to The Badger Project.
“Applicants that choose to apply to our agency are evaluated and vetted through the hiring process and determining the reasons for an officer leaving an agency are evaluated as part of the process,” the chief added.
In response to a question about Schuenemann’s job performance, Lea said his department “does not comment on employees.”
This story was funded in part by the Wirtanen Fund at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.
West Virginia lawmakers pour around $100 million into improving the jails system. It’s not nearly enough.
Two weeks ago, lawmakers gathered in Charleston to finalize Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to funnel $21 million to increase salaries for corrections officers and address the growing crisis with West Virginia’s dangerous jails and prisons.
Earlier this year, lawmakers also put $75 million towards long overdue repairs within the system, an amount the governor said he’s going to slightly increase.
On the same day, just an hour’s drive away in Beckley, a federal lawsuit was filed that made it clear the new money is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to fill large staff vacancies and complete important repairs at the state’s jails and prisons.
In the lawsuit filed on behalf of current and former inmates, officials who run or previously ran West Virginia’s jails and prisons system said that at least another $39 million is needed to get enough people working the cell blocks and at least $150 million is required to make those cell blocks habitable.
The problem isn’t new — back in 1946, the West Virginia Supreme Court recommended a regional jail system because county lockups had become “totally unfit for human habitation,” according to the suit. It took until 1985 before the Legislature did anything about it and another 20 years for the state to completely switch over to regional jails, the suit states.
Even Moundsville, the very first state prison, was taken to task in the early 1980s when a county judge found the conditions unconstitutional, per the suit.
The current staffing and facility issues have been going on for at least a decade, and state officials running the system said they have repeatedly told lawmakers and the governor about the dire needs.
“Prior to every legislative session, we have a meeting with the budget office,” said then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeff Sandy in a deposition earlier this year. “We provide them with our needs.”
“We told them,” he added.
Officer vacancies are a long-standing issue
With a little more than 700 vacancies in correctional officer positions, prison commissioner Billy Marshall told lawmakers this month that one jail in the Eastern Panhandle was “operating on smoke and mirrors” with a dozen officers working the floor, assisted by National Guard and civilian employees.
The raise, which would jump starting pay from $35,000 for new officers to $40,000 (about a $4 an hour raise), should help fill the ranks, according to Marshall. By an officer’s third year, they would top out at $48,000.
This isn’t the first-time correctional officers have had their pay increased; in 2017, base salary was hovering around the poverty line, at $24,000 a year. The following year, lawmakers raised the starting pay to $32,000 – officers later received a few small raises alongside other state employees.
Sen. Jason Barrett, a Republican from Berkeley County who sits on the jails and prison oversight and finance committees, said the latest bump doesn’t put the system “right where we need to be or want to be.”
He said this session was more or less an attempt to fill vacancies among low-rung officers, often in their first couple of years, who are day-in and day-out working the floor. Prison officials told lawmakers this month these workers account for 95% of vacancies.
“The way the system is currently set up, it’s capped out for those groups, so the only option they have is either to move into an administrative role or go find another job,” Barrett said.
In order to help fill the hole, Justice called out roughly 350 National Guard personnel to work the floor in August 2022. Marshall said the stop gap is costing the state more than filling the vacancies and raises across the board.
Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, who chairs the House Jails and Prisons Committee, said the funding package also allows facilities with high vacancies to pay an additional $5,000 a year. Kelly said this will target border counties, such as in the Eastern Panhandle, where nearby Maryland prisons offer starting pay at $10,000 more than West Virginia’s new pay.
One group left largely out of the mix are support staff, such as counselors, cooks and maintenance employees. While they will get two bonuses, Elaine Harris, representative for the Communication Workers of America District 213 which represents corrections workers, said that’s not nearly enough.
“The bonuses for support staff will help, but we all know that bonus will get spent immediately on things they need,” she said.
Due to the chronic staffing shortage, support staff are asked from time-to-time to work the floor as an officer for a shift. For Kenny Matthews, who served time for the better part of a decade in West Virginia, that means inmates stay locked up longer.
“I got paroled in February 2020, but my institution parole officer had to work the floor and couldn’t get my home plan finished to be released until April,” he said. “That happens all the time.”
The staffing shortages can also increase the potential for violence — while serving at Mt. Olive, the state’s maximum security prison, Matthews said 60 to 70 men were kept in the same housing unit.
“Rec time was a crapshoot,” he said. “If there’s not enough staff to let guys out to take a shower, go work out or go to their educational program, that frustration builds, that anger builds and that leads to violence.”
Prisons and jails still need work
The physical state of prisons also creates unsafe conditions — Matthews recalled seeing an officer at a regional jail lock himself inside a room, requiring inmates and guards to pull open the door to cut him loose.
Stuck doors are one thing, but Matthews said cell doors that don’t lock at all can lead to assaults.
Annual funding requests from corrections officials to the governor and lawmakers over the last few years paint a dire picture of the system.
In Randolph County, the Huttonsville Correctional Center needs a sprinkler system to comply with state code — in the most recent funding request, the division said the prison was facing fines from the fire marshal’s office.
Down the road in Pocahontas County, the Denmar Correctional Center has needed elevators dating back to at least 2019 — the prison is four stories tall and one request stated handicapped prisoners must walk up stairs. Like Huttonsville, it too needs a sprinkler system because the heads are painted over.
Right off the Ohio River in Mason County, the state’s women’s prison needs a heating and cooling unit as well as a “lightning suppression system” so the facility’s electronics can still work after being struck in thunderstorms. According to its request, this issue dates back to 2006.
The federal lawsuit filed earlier this month seeks for a judge to compel the state to significantly increase funding to fix the facilities.
While both Justice and Marshall have stated the lawsuit is “just lawyers taking advantage of a situation,” attorney Stephen New, who filed the lawsuit, said no one is looking for a pay out.
“They’re not asking for money,” he said. “They’re just asking for better conditions.”
“Look, they put up about $100 million — that’s only a third of the bill,” he said. “You want to know what happens if I pay a third of my bills? I end up homeless. But the DCR can just keep going on.”
Last week, Justice sat in a chair underneath a canopy tent, flanked by Babydog, the current Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia and Commissioner Marshall.
After a long winded spiel about getting his daddy’s shotgun fixed, Justice was ready to sign off the pay raise and other corrections bills — but the sun canopy was wreaking havoc on the photo op. So Marshall started moving the desk out into the sunlight when a uniformed officer said, “Why don’t we just move the tent?”
“That wasn’t our greatest moment there,” Justice said.
Another official joked, “Give that man a raise.”
After inking the bill, Justice, known for pumping up every piece of legislation he signs, said this wouldn’t be the silver bullet for corrections.
“Will this fix everything?” he asked. “Maybe not. Maybe not.”
Lynching victim John Henry James receives ‘one little drop of justice’ 125 years after his death
Wednesday afternoon, Melvin Grady got what he called a “very personal” birthday present.
July 12 is Grady’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of John Henry James’ death.
In 1898, James was lynched by an angry mob of white men because he was accused of assaulting Julia Hotopp, a young white woman from a prominent local family. After he was dead, a grand jury indicted him for the assault.
One hundred and twenty five years later, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl V. Higgins on Wednesday dismissed that indictment.
Higgins ruled that the grand jury not only improperly issued the indictment, it did so intentionally, making “a mockery of the judicial system.” The indictment was used “not as an instrument of justice, but as cause to lynch a man simply because he was Black,” Higgins said. “It was used corruptly, to sanction the lynching of John Henry James.”
“This is one little drop of justice,” said Grady, standing outside the Albemarle County Circuit Court minutes after the dismissal, a warm and steady breeze wicking tears from his cheeks.
Grady wore a purple t-shirt with an image of a memorial to James across his chest. Five years ago, Grady participated in a pilgrimage to collect soil from the site of James’ lynching and bring it to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where a glass jar of that soil is part of a memorial to victims of racial terror lynchings.
A lynching is the unlawful killing of a person, usually by hanging, by a mob. According to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, attacks of lynching have overwhelmingly targeted Black people. Lynching was not considered a federal hate crime until last year.
The pilgrimage was emotional, Grady said. But the gravity of what that mob did to James, and what the United States justice system failed to do, hit Grady — who, like James, is Black — while he sat in the courtroom listening to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley present the motion to dismiss the indictment.
“Knowing and traveling, I was fine. But here, it really hit me. I’m going back to imagine a guy who didn’t do shit — pardon my language — getting lynched, no evidence whatsoever,” Grady said. “I’m telling you, it’s powerful. I cried in there, hearing the testimony, the ruling. It was powerful. I feel honored to be a part of this.”
John Henry James’ story is an important part of local history, but it wasn’t really told until a few years ago, said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religion at the University of Virginia and director of the Memory Project at UVA’s Karsh Institute for Democracy.
Even now, the story isn’t widely known, though historians, lawyers, and community members think it should be. It’s a difficult story to tell, in part because it is horrific and violent, and in part because the historical record offers inconsistent, and in some cases unreliable, reports and accounts.
James was accused of assaulting 20-year-old Julia Hotopp, a young white woman from a wealthy local family. Her father, William Hotopp, was the founder and owner of Monticello Wine Company — at the time the largest winemaking company in the country.
According to the account, the assault took place between 9 and 10 in the morning, at the gate of Pen Park, not far from the Hotopp residence. Julia Hotopp had ridden her horse into Charlottesville earlier that morning to get the horse new horseshoes. When she returned home, the gate to the park was wired shut instead of fastened by its usual latch, and since there were no farmhands around, she dismounted to open the gate herself. Before she could remount, someone struck her from behind, grabbed her by the neck and forced her to the ground, where Hotopp said she became unconscious.
The Progress reported that Hotopp’s horse arrived back at the house without its rider, which alarmed Hotopp’s brother, who ran toward the gate and met his sister along the way. When the siblings met, Hotopp “swooned again.” Once back at the house, Hotopp “described her assailant as a very black man, heavy-set, slight mustache, wore dark clothes, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes.”
Hotopp then became unconscious for a third time “and was still in that condition, attended by several physicians, at last accounts,” the Progress wrote.
News traveled around the city quickly. People starting searching for the assailant and by noon, “a negro named John Henry James was arrested in Dudley’s barroom,” the Progress reported.
James “somewhat” met Hotopp’s description of her assailant, the Progress said. He was brought to jail “to await further developments.” Though, after James was arrested, people continued searching for possible suspects. “The country is being scoured by white and black men, and if the fellow is caught, and can be identified, we fear the worst,” the report ended.
That same report said that Hotopp “resisted the fellow to the extent of scratching his neck so violently as to leave particles of flesh under her fingernails and so effective was the resistance that he failed of accomplishing his foul purpose.”
Hotopp’s resistance, and her description of her assailant, was never referenced again.
By the next issue of the Progress, 24 hours later, James was dead, lynched by a mob before he could appear in court.
According to the Progress, a large crowd followed James to the jail upon his arrest, already threatening to kill him. As a result, authorities thought it would be best to “remove the prisoner to Staunton for safety,” and did so with some secrecy, the night of July 11. When people found out about this, they were “outraged,” the Progress reported.
That night, Albemarle County Court Judge John M. White issued a summons for a grand jury to meet at 10 a.m. the next day, on the morning of July 12. White did this “realizing that prompt and efficient means would have to be resorted to to calm the excited populace,” the Progress wrote.
Two hours before the jury met, at 8 a.m., James, Charlottesville Chief of Police Frank P. Farish, and Albemarle County Sheriff Lucien Watts boarded a train in Staunton bound for Charlottesville. “He [James] didn’t seem to give the officers any trouble, and when they boarded the train this morning, for Charlottesville, it was not considered necessary to handcuff him,” according to the Progress.
Reports show it was clear to everyone — including James — what was about to happen.
“Several Staunton gentlemen who felt sure there would be a lynching got on the train and went to see it,” The Staunton Record said.
James did not make it to Charlottesville. A mob of about 150 unmasked white men waited for James’ train at Wood’s Crossing in Albemarle County, just four miles outside of the city — a usual stop for the train.
A group of about 40 Black men who’d heard about the plan ran to help James, but they were “outnumbered and forced to retreat,” according to the historical marker now standing near the Albemarle County Courthouse.
As reported in the Progress, when the train stopped, members of the mob boarded, resisting Farish and Watt’s attempts to keep them out of the car. They then restrained the lawmen (who later claimed they could not see and therefore could not identify the men who bound them from behind). The mob dragged James off the train, threw a rope around his neck, and led him to a locust tree about 40 yards away, near the blacksmith shop.
“He was asked if he wished time to pray,” the Progress reported. “Before God, I am innocent,” James reportedly said.
Then they hung him. The account is detailed by the Progress and re-published in other papers:
“The rope was thrown over a limb about three inches in circumference and that miserable wretch was drawn up. The limb jutted out from the tree at a sharp incline, so that the rope slid downwards toward the body of the tree, and when at rest the man’s body was almost touching the body of the tree. Under the tree was a bench, and his feet were only a few inches above it. As soon as he was elevated the crowd emptied their pistols into his body, probably forty shots entering it.”
The whole thing took just a few minutes.
James’ train had already left. Another passenger train passed the crossing as the mob lynched James, “forced witnesses of a lynching,” the Progress wrote.
The only person mentioned by name in any of the reports, other than the law enforcement officials and James, is Carl Hotopp, Julia Hotopp’s brother. The Progress reported that he “arrived about ten minutes after the hanging and emptied his pistol into the body.”
James’ body hung dead from the tree for a couple of hours, and in that time, hundreds of people visited the scene, “many of them gathered relics of the occasion, taking some portion of his clothing, etc,” the Progress wrote.
“When the mob dispersed they came away in any direction that suited them, some coming on to the city, others returning to their homes, all with a perfect indifference to any future investigation,” ended the Progress’ report.
The coroner’s jury issued its report the following day, saying James died either from the hanging or being shot, and that he “came to his death by the hands of persons unknown to the jury.”
J.H. Barcus, a Black man who worked for the coroner, removed James’ body from the tree and prepared him for burial. “I found thirty bullet holes in the body,” Barcus later said in the coroner’s inquisition.
James’ body was likely still hanging from the locust tree when the grand jury indicted him for Hotopp’s assault.
The jury heard of James’ death while in session. But they stated that they had reviewed the evidence and felt they had probable cause to issue an indictment on the charge of criminal assault upon Julia Hotopp.
It’s possible James wouldn’t have appeared before the jury, even if he had made it to the courthouse. The jury was sworn in when James was still on the train from Staunton, one hour before he was due to arrive. Micajah Woods, the commonwealth’s attorney at the time, “thought it unnecessary to introduce any other witnesses than the young lady and her sister, and the jury retired to their room to make their investigation,” according to the July 12 report in the Progress. (Woods served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.)
Some reports make it seem like the officers wanted the law to take its course, that they didn’t tell the crowd who James was, that they pleaded with the mob to stop, to let the court decide whether James was guilty of assaulting Hotopp. Other reports, like one from the Waynesboro Herald, said that the rope was around James’ neck “in less than two seconds,” suggesting that the chief of police and the sheriff didn’t fight as hard as they said they did.
The conflicting reports don’t stop there. Though the Progress said that Hotopp could, and did, identify her assailant (as James), the Staunton Record’s report, as re-printed in the Progress, said otherwise:
“The information gleaned from the officers while they were in Staunton was to the effect that the lady had not recognized the prisoner as her assailant when he was brought before her, and that there was considerable doubt that he was the man,” the Record wrote.
Yet another paper, the Staunton News, said James admitted to the assault before the mob hung him, something other papers directly contradict. The Record also said that as the mob took over the train, “Woods [the commonwealth’s attorney] had said there would be no difficulty whatsoever to convict, as the evidence was conclusive.” Woods was not there, so it’s unclear how that message would have been relayed.
“This being so, the crowd thought there was no reason for the delay and they decided to lynch the prisoner,” the Record wrote. “The fact that there is no doubt of his guilt makes the people of Charlottesville heartily approve the lynching, as in this way the innocent is spared the terrible ordeal of being a prosecuting witness.”
In the days following James’ execution, the Progress published various letters to the editor that supported that very sentiment. One, taken from the Alexandria Gazette, said, “A negro was lynched near Charlottesville yesterday for the brutal crime of which such punishment is the prescriptive penalty in the South, and will continue to be, law or no law. The white men of Virginia will not, and never will, allow the negro outragers of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters the chance of escaping the law’s delays and quibbles, or subject their unfortunate victims to the mortification of a public trial.”
Letters published stating that James deserved a trial and scolding citizens for taking the law into their own hands were met with letters stating that it would be worse for Hotopp and other white women like her to have to re-tell their account to a jury, than for an accused Black man to be lynched.
Some papers asked questions. In its July 21, 1898 edition, the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator questioned why James’ law enforcement escorts “took the local train instead of the fast train to Charlottesville,” and why it “was not considered a material question before the coroner.”
The Richmond Planet, a weekly African American paper, covered James’ killing extensively in its July 16 edition. On its front page, it re-printed the Progress’ July 12 account almost word-for-word, with some small but significant changes.
The Progress used the headline, “He Paid the Awful Penalty: John Henry James Hanged by a Mob Today.” The Planet’s was, “They Lynched Him. A Colored Man Dealt With — Taken From Train. Died Protesting Innocence. A Brutal Murder — Mob Makes No Effort at Disguise.”
The Planetused the word “man” or “colored man” to refer to James, whereas the Progress had used “negro” or “the wretch.” It also had completely different titles for the different parts of the story. For instance, the Progress titled the section about the grand jury at Albemarle County Courthouse “A True Bill.” The Planet called it, “The Farce at Charlottesville.”
The Planet also omitted the Progress’ description of James, that he sold ice cream, was not a resident of Charlottesville but instead a “tramp” and that he had no family in the area.
The Planetcondemned the lynching and blamed the authorities for James’ death. “The story of the brutal murder is revolting. We believe that the authorities were blamable. They knew that it was risky to bring this man unprotected to Charlottesville. James died protesting his innocence to the last. We do not believe that any effort will be made to punish the murderers. They boldly perpetrated the crime and virtually defied the commonwealth. There was no effort made to conceal their identity. The guilt or the innocence of James do not enter in the question,” The Planet wrote in an article titled “Another Virginia Lynching.”
The Planet didn’t stop its critique there. It also published “A Slight Comparison,” pointing out differences in how white and Black individuals are treated by the law.
A white mob lynched James, a Black man, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. Whereas “a white man who brutally assaulted a 12-year-old colored girl near Amelia C.H., Va., was given a brief time in the Virginia penitentiary, and during last month, upon the representations of his friends was pardoned.” Another white man who was found guilty of assaulting a child was “adjudged a lunatic” and sent to an asylum.
“If we are going into the hanging business, let us do it squarely and fairly,” the paper wrote.
James’ death by lynch mob was not unique, nor was it uncommon during this time. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the United States during the time between Reconstruction (roughly 1863) and World War II (which ended in 1945).
And it wasn’t a secret. In its July 16, 1898 issue, the Planet published an article called, “The Reign of Lawlessness: Judge Lynch’s Bloody Work.” It listed the names of some of the people who were lynched, their race (mostly “colored,” but a few white), their charge (some have “none”), across the South from Jan. 5, 1897 to July 13, 1898, about a year and a half. “Total 202,” it reads.
This period was a turning point in Virginia history, Schmidt, the UVA professor and historian, said during Wednesday’s court proceedings, in which she presented evidence from the historical record, including many of the newspaper articles mentioned in this story.
The mob that killed John Henry James, the officers that allowed (or possibly incited) the mob to kill James, and the grand jury that issued a posthumous indictment of James, all violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, said Schmidt.
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868 as one of the “Reconstruction Amendments” after the Civil War, grants equal legal and civil rights to African Americans, including those who had been enslaved. “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Virginia was readmitted to the Union in 1870, after it had ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and adopted a new state constitution that received support from both Black and white citizens.
But by the time James was killed in 1898, white Virginians were tired of that constitution and the rights it afforded Black citizens, and pushed for another. They succeeded when, in 1902, Virginia adopted a new state constitution and began the rule of Jim Crow law — which legalized and enforced racial segregation — until 1970.
Writing in the Richmond Planet the week that James was killed, Planet Editor John Mitchell Jr. wrote that “the lynching of John Henry James will be far more damaging to the community than it will be to the alleged criminal. His troubles are o’er; those of the community have just begun.”
“We in this courtroom are that damaged community,” Schmidt said in her testimony Wednesday. More than 100 members of that community had filled both the courtroom and the upstairs jury room, together asking for “a modicum of justice” in the dismissal of the indictment brought against James.
The indictment is “a symbol of racial injustice,” said Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Hingeley, who brought forth the motion to dismiss it.
Hingeley was inspired to do so after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — colloquially known as the lynching museum — at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, in April.
It’s the same memorial depicted on math teacher Melvin Grady’s t-shirt.
One of the monuments in the memorial represents Albemarle County, and John Henry James is the only name on it.
Hingeley returned home wondering what he could do. He thought of the indictment against James that remained on the record.
The indictment is “a symbol of racial injustice,” Hingeley said. In court, he argued that it was invalid because it was issued after James’ death, and knowingly so — the grand jury was aware that James was dead before it issued the document. (A dead person cannot be charged with a crime.)
Hingeley also argued that Commonwealth’s Attorney Woods did not have enough evidence to seek an indictment against James, anyway. If James had indeed matched the description Julia Hotopp gave of her assailant, if his neck had been covered in deep fingernail scratches from Hotopp’s resistance, that would have been documented in the historical record along with all of the other details present, such as the circumference of the branch (“about three inches”) from which the mob hung James’ body.
And, with conflicting reports of whether James confessed or maintained his innocence, there was “a great conflict as to what crime may or may not have been committed,” Hingeley said. One report said Hotopp fended him off. Another quoted Woods as calling it “the horrible crime of rape.”
“The evidence is what this prosecutor did not have,” Hingeley said.
At the end of his arguments, Hingeley made a few observations. One is that the court made no effort to bring the mob to justice. An official inquiry determined the crime was committed “by persons unknown.”
“And yet none of them masked,” Hingeley said.
Another is that the justice system was complicit in the lynching, “and the work the community was then engaged in, which was the work of white supremacy.”
When Judge Higgins dismissed the indictment — in a courtroom not far from the very spot where the grand jury chose to issue it — people broke out into quiet applause. Some wept, some hugged.
“Just one of many,” said a woman in the courtroom.
Outside, Don Gathers, a faith leader and activist, said he was having “mixed emotions.”
He was glad that James had received “some level of retribution and justice,” but was “sad that we even have to be here for this. This is just a very small pebble in a large pond. We can’t lose sight of the fact that, while we won this particular battle, the fight continues. This was a physical lynching, but the torment that is placed on Blacks, Black males, throughout history can’t be ignored.”
DeTeasa Brown Gathers held her husband’s hand as she said “rest in peace, John Henry James. And rest in peace to all that have been systemically lynched for the past 125 years, being wrongfully accused, being treated like this.”
They stood not far from a marker, placed outside the courthouse in 2019, commemorating James’ death, installed in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Memory Project.
Schmidt touched on a similar point. She said that the ruling is a reminder of the “evergreen” importance of the Fourteenth Amendment. “It’s never too late to right a wrong,” she said, and “this is a particularly egregious case from 125 years ago that’s still relevant today.”
There are still disparities in legal treatment of white people versus people of color, particularly Black people. For instance, Black people represent about 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 27% of arrests, according to a 2021 report by The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “Police are also more likely to use force and excessive force against people of color during police contact,” the report stated. Additionally, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, the report said. At the end of 2019, Black Americans were incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.
“It’s a symbol of racial injustice,” Hingeley said of the indictment, and removing it from the record “is a small step.”
“We’re never going to be able to bring to justice the people who committed the lynching, or to restore John Henry James’ life that was so terribly taken from him,” he continued. “I don’t want to exaggerate and say that we’ve made a big step. But it’s a good step, and an important step. I hope that out of that will grow a sense of commitment and dedication to continuing the work of achieving racial justice here, because we have work to do.”
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Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft
ATHENS, Ohio — Former Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority Director Jodi Rickard pleaded guilty to seven felony charges on Tuesday as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.
Rickard was indicted in February on charges related to her multi-million dollar theft from AMHA. Visiting Judge Daniel Hogan sentenced Rickard to eight to 12 years in prison and ordered her to pay more than $2.3 million in restitution. She will be eligible for judicial release after five years and will spend five years on parole once she is released.
AMHA’s attorney David Mott said at the hearing, “This was not just a simple theft of taxpayer funds — these were funds intended to provide housing to low income residents of the county. So, this was essentially a theft of decent housing from our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Matthew R. Eiselstein, director of communications for the Ohio Auditor of State’s office, said, “We’re proud of the efforts of our [Special Investigations Unit] team and appreciate the efforts of Prosecutor [Keller] Blackburn’s office in bringing this crime to a conclusion.”
Rickard initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but changed her plea as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Hogan sentenced Rickard according to the terms described in the agreement.
At the hearing, Rickard’s attorney, K. Robert Toy, agreed with Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders that evidence obtained in the case demonstrates Rickard’s guilt.
“She is remorseful, and that is something that is sincere,” Toy said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people — usually with much smaller amounts it happens: They take a little bit, they intend to pay it back, and then they take a little more, and they intend to pay that back, and they don’t. And then it snowballed into the tremendous amount that we’re dealing with here today.”
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn agreed. “What she did was reprehensible and wrong, but her actions after she got caught were among the best that we’ve experienced,” he said, adding that this is reflected in the plea agreement.
In addition to prison time, the plea agreement specified that Rickard will pay $2,325,395.12 in restitution to AMHA. Saunders said that amount is based upon the Ohio Auditor of State’s investigation into Rickard’s theft, though AMHA acting director Stan Popp told the Independent the state investigation remains ongoing.
AMHA’s last released audit indicates the housing authority had $6.51 million in revenue in 2020 to provide housing for low-income residents of Athens County.
Popp reiterated the agency’s claim that “AMHA has not experienced any reduction in the services it provides as a result of [Rickard’s] theft. However, the loss of funds has slowed AMHA’s ability to expand its services.”
When Rickard was indicted in February, investigators had identified at least $1.5 million in theft from the organization since 2015. Blackburn told the Independent at the time he believed the total amount Rickard stole was substantially greater.
In order to pay the full amount of her restitution, Rickard forfeited 50% of assets in bank accounts held jointly with her husband; all bank accounts held by her alone; all money in her Ohio Public Employee Retirement System account and in her deferred compensation account; and all material goods obtained with stolen money.
Blackburn said it is unclear exactly how much money Rickard has in these accounts, but estimated the total amount at around $200,000. Rickard will have to pay the full restitution amount ordered based on her ability, he said.
Toy said, “She is giving up everything that she has.”
“Any restitution of funds AMHA receives will be reinvested into its mission,” Popp said. “Until an exact amount is known, AMHA is not able to be more specific.”
Popp said Rickard was not bonded, and while AMHA’s insurance may or may not cover any of the loss, the housing authority’s insurance policy limit is $250,000.
“AMHA will never be made whole on the full loss,” Popp said.
Rickard also agreed to forfeit her Albany home and property as part of the agreement. Blackburn said that the home will be forfeited to law enforcement, with proceeds designated to pay for law enforcement investigation. Blackburn said the funding could be used to pay for the state auditor’s investigation. He added that he does not want his office to take in funding from the home’s sale and said he will seek an alternative arrangement with the court.
Rickard’s husband agreed that the property he shared with Rickard and the funding in joint bank accounts was subject to forfeiture. He was not required to accept these terms by law, and he was not indicted in the case.
“He’s going to be suffering because of her actions, and he is an unknowing beneficiary of her actions,” Toy said.
Toy described Rickard’s family as among the victims of Rickard’s theft from AMHA.
“It’s brought huge consequences for her family and herself — for herself justified, and for her family, they’ve victims of this too, and they understand that, and they forgive her,” Toy said.
Rickard used AMHA funds to pay personal credit card debts as well as her mortgage, according to a February press release from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Rickard’s credit card payments showed charges for large sums spent on vacations and the installation of an in-ground pool, the release said.
Rickard allegedly stole large sums of money from AMHA’s General Fund, which has since been closed, and falsified financial reports. Search warrant documents obtained by the Independent paint a picture of highly unusual circumstances that led to the eventual discovery of Rickard’s theft, including an audit related to a 2022 office fire, a death in Rickard’s family which prompted her to take leave and an anonymous tip.
Eiselstein, with the state auditor’s office, said, “Criminals can certainly be clever and when they have the keys to the store, they can be hard to catch. A lack of fiscal controls enabled Jodi Rickard to obfuscate her criminal actions for years. As the sole bookkeeper operating under little oversight, Rickard was able to conceal her actions by falsifying documents and altering transaction records. Previous audits had identified weaknesses in financial reporting and oversight by management, but these recommendations were never implemented which allowed her to continue her grift against the taxpayers of Athens County for years.”
According to an affidavit included in the December 2022 search warrants served on AMHA, Rickard’s activity was successfully concealed for many years in part through “a lack of Board monitoring” and “went undetected by the Board due to lack of reviews and monitoring.” The affidavit alleges the board saw only summary income statements and performed no review of bank accounts or reconciliations.
Former board chair Mary Nally recently stepped down from the position after moving to Meigs County, she said. Gregg Andrews, a local realtor and Hocking Athens Perry Community Action’s longtime Housing and Community Development Director, now serves as board chair, Popp said.
The housing authority has taken steps to address the issues which led to Rickard’s theft, including changes to its financial processes.
Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy presided over Rickard’s criminal case until May 18, after which Hogan took over as judge, according to Bre Woods, who works in McCarthy’s office. The court initially requested a visiting judge on Feb. 14, the day following Rickard’s indictment, Woods said.
Woods said the court sought a visiting judge because both McCarthy and Judge Patrick Lang appoint members to AMHA’s board, which was considered a conflict.
NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect comments from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office.