His most notorious murder case became a staple for CNN’s Nancy Grace, the maven of real-life crime drama.
But it’s District Attorney Jay Gaither’s election campaigns that could be fodder for tabloid TV.
He won the seat in 2002 by beating an incumbent who pleaded guilty to drunken driving and would later be arrested for breaking into the home of his children’s nanny.
His last opponent was sued for alienation of affection and later indicted for extortion. He was eventually disbarred for, among other things, threatening to kill an assistant.
Now, while seeking to tie his latest opponent to an illegal pyramid scheme, Gaither has found himself the subject of text-fueled sexual harassment allegations by a former assistant prosecutor.
“This election has been brutal,” says Gaither, 51. “But I’ve gone through brutal elections before.”
Gaither is running for a fourth term as top prosecutor in the district that includes Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties. He faces Morganton lawyer David Learner, a former assistant district attorney, in Tuesday’s Republican runoff.
With no Democrat running, the winner is all but assured a four-year term.
The race is the latest battle in a region known for its frontier politics.
“It gets pretty dirty up here,” says Jeff Lominac, a Catawba County GOP activist. “We’re so heavily Republican in this county that we don’t have any Democrats to fight against. So we just fight amongst ourselves.”
In a three-way May primary, Learner won 39.39 percent of the vote – 147 votes shy of an outright win. Gaither finished second with 31.09 percent. Conover attorney Scott Reilly was third with 29.52 percent.
“Sixty-nine percent of people who voted in the primary voted against Jay Gaither,” says Learner, a 57-year-old Charlotte native.
Gaither has deep roots in Catawba County, where his family has lived for at least 10 generations. They’re not all Republicans. His aunt, Ann Gaither, is a prominent Democrat, once appointed to the state transportation board by Gov. Jim Hunt.
Jay Gaither drew national attention during the case of Zahra Baker, a 10-year-old Hickory girl found murdered and dismembered in 2010. In a controversial agreement with prosecutors the next year, her stepmother, Elisa Baker, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Critics said Baker, the object of international scorn, deserved a stiffer sentence.
In the first primary, Gaither accused Reilly – Elisa Baker’s attorney – of hurting the prosecution’s case by “mishandling” evidence. Reilly called it “a desperate attempt to try to smear me,” though he acknowledged finding a hacksaw in a rural storm drain and not turning it over to law enforcement for two days.
Learner cites the Baker case as an example of what he calls “soft plea bargains.” Gaither defends the pleas as the best prosecutors could do with the evidence they had.
Gaither, meanwhile, calls Learner “a confidence man” who used his credibility as a lawyer to recruit people to Hi-Tech Marketing, a multilevel sales company. It was shut down last year by the Federal Trade Commission, which called it a pyramid scheme.
Learner says the company “appeared to be legitimate” when he got involved five years ago. His involvement, he says, lasted no more than eight months.
But it’s the sexual harassment suit that has captured headlines.
The federal complaint was filed two weeks ago by Whitney Nicole Shaffer, who worked as one of Gaither’s assistant prosecutors for three months in early 2013.
During that time, she alleges, Gaither rubbed her thigh while the pair rode in a car together. She claims Gaither texted her: “I’ve laid hands on you and love the feel of your body.”
The suit says she resigned after the workplace became intolerable because of Gaither’s “constant sexual harassment” and her “fear of violence.”
Gaither says the allegations aren’t true, but declines to publicly elaborate.
“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the timing of the allegations was politically motivated,” he says. “It’s calculated to limit my ability to defend against the accusations. I have to focus on the campaign. I’m not going to say any more about it.”
But speaking to reporters at other times, Gaither has suggested Shaffer was retaliating against him. Gaither said he fired her after learning she had an affair with a married defense attorney in the area.
“This is all an effort on her part to smear me,” Gaither has said.
“Mr. Gaither’s comments are laughable,” Shaffer’s attorney, John Buric, says. “His campaign to tarnish the reputation of his victim is shameful and shows the level to which he will stoop to save his power.”
Learner says Gaither should give “straight answers to the voters.”
On Friday Gaither’s wife, Beth, emailed supporters urging them to vote for her husband, whom she called “a wonderful father and husband and a dedicated public servant.” On Monday, she gave his campaign $20,000.
Running on record
Jay Gaither says voters should focus on his record leading one of North Carolina’s largest prosecutorial districts. He touts what he calls record-low crime rates.
Statistics show that Catawba County’s violent crime rate was lower in 2012 than in all but two of the previous 10 years. Rates in Burke and Caldwell counties were also generally lower, just as they were around the state.
Gaither argues that Lerner, once a bar-certified criminal law specialist, has been “semi-retired” for years with “virtually no clients.”
Since leaving Gaither’s office a decade ago, Lerner says he has taken on some criminal cases but acknowledges a limited practice. “I’ve practiced law to the extent I wanted to,” he says.
Early voting in Catawba County, the district’s most populous, has outpaced that of Burke and Caldwell. In the first primary, Gaither finished second to Reilly in Catawba, his home county.
Lominac, the GOP activist, says the race has been divisive.
“You’ve got people who were longtime friends who aren’t friends anymore,” he says. “It’s dirty politics here in this county.”