Less than two years after being voted out as Stanly County sheriff, Tony Frick has cast himself in an unlikely role.
During his tenure as sheriff, he believes, county prosecutors and local law enforcement officers engaged in a “vicious conspiracy” to falsely convict a man of multiple felonies.
In an affidavit and interviews, Frick alleged that prosecutors and some of his own deputies retaliated against Theodore Williams, who has a history of drug, larceny and assault convictions, because Williams sued them numerous times following his 2003 arrest on theft charges.
Frick said evidence Williams needed to support his own defense suspiciously vanished. A former Stanly deputy who helped Williams was arrested in retaliation, he alleged.
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Frick said he was disgusted when he learned of a homemade poster that hung in a Stanly prosecutor's office. The poster, which showed a photo of a bruised and battered Williams, suggested that Williams was beaten in retaliation for the suits.
Williams, meanwhile, said the poster was accurate – that he was, in fact, beaten by deputies while in custody.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” Frick said of the poster during a recent interview.
Williams said he sent Frick's affidavit from February to the N.C. State Bar, which can discipline or even disbar attorneys if it finds evidence of wrongdoing. When contacted by the Observer, bar officials declined to comment.
Frick's statements, and those made by Williams, are the latest is a string of allegations concerning the 20th Judicial District, which lies just east of Charlotte. The Observer and other media have written extensively about allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the district, which includes Stanly, Richmond and Anson counties.
In 2005, the State Bar said it found evidence that former District Attorney Ken Honeycutt and former assistant Scott Brewer obstructed justice and suborned perjury in a capital murder case. A special prosecutor declined to press charges.
More recently, a judge last year ordered the release of a mentally disabled man held 14 years on murder charges without trial. In his ruling, Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. said: “There's some things that go on in Anson County, but I can't do anything about it.”
Michael Parker, the current DA, concedes that his office has an image problem. But in the Williams case, he said, allegations of a conspiracy are “absolutely false.”
When shown Frick's affidavit, Parker said he was puzzled.
“Tony Frick never approached me about any of this,” he said.
An illegal arrest?
The case of Theodore Williams is long and complex.
It began late one November night in 2003.
Williams, now 43, was arrested around 3 a.m. near a Food Lion supermarket in Albemarle, a city of 15,000 people 40 miles east of Charlotte.
Williams said he was passing through with two other people when an Albemarle officer stopped their truck. He said he questioned the officer about why they were stopped, insisting they had done nothing wrong. The officer searched the truck – which didn't belong to Williams – and found a bag of coins and a bolt cutter.
The officer later testified that, moments earlier, he had found a group of soft drink machines outside the store that he thought were vandalized, and that he had seen the truck pull away from the grocery.
Williams was charged with breaking into the machines. Williams admits to being argumentative; the arresting officer said Williams threatened him.
Unable to make bail, he was detained in the Stanly County jail for more than a year. From his cell, Williams filed at least five lawsuits challenging his arrest and treatment, including one against Frick.
Stanly prosecutors charged him with additional felonies, such as attempting to smuggle marijuana into the jail and intimidating a witness in an unrelated case.
“My arrest was illegal,” said Williams. “And they were trying to put me in prison for the rest of my life.”
Williams, who grew up in High Point, said he last attended school in the seventh grade and has spent much of his adult life in prison.
He read law books while incarcerated and sometimes represents himself in court. Critics say he understands the law as well as some attorneys, but often manipulates the system by filing frivolous suits. A judge once called him a “meddlesome busybody.”
Five months after his arrest outside the grocery store, Williams sued Stanly prosecutor Nicholas Vlahos, alleging that Vlahos stole his writ of habeas corpus, a legal document challenging his detention.
Roughly a month later, Williams' jailers drove him to a jail in neighboring Union County, then part of the 20th Judicial District.
Hours after arriving, Williams alleges, Union deputies beat him, deliberately breaking his right arm.
He was taken back to the Stanly jail the next day, battered and bruised. Williams said the Stanly jailers took his photo.
A few weeks later, Becky Greene, a Stanly sheriff's deputy who worked in the jail, told Williams she had seen a crude poster of him displayed in prosecutor Vlahos' office.
The poster showed two photos of Williams: his original booking photo with a caption that read, “Before He Sued the DA's office,” and a second photo showing Williams with injuries to his face that was captioned: “After He Sued the DA's office.”
Frick, the former sheriff, said his jail administrator, Jeffrey Brafford, never got a required court order to move Williams to the Union jail. Frick said that when he questioned Brafford, the administrator said he moved Williams for safekeeping because he was making racial threats towards two inmates with whom he had fought in December. But Frick said the two inmates were no longer in the Stanly jail when Williams was moved.
Brafford, who is in Iraq as a contract worker, couldn't be reached for comment.
Union County's account
Union County officials give a different account.
At least four Union jail employees swore in 2006 affidavits that Williams refused instructions and cursed guards. He lunged at one deputy, striking him below the eye, they said. Union deputies said they used “only the physical force necessary to restrain him.”
Union prosecutors charged him with felony assault on a government official.
Medical records two days after the incident showed Williams had a fractured right arm, multiple abrasions on his arm, shoulder and back, some bruises, and small cuts around his ears.
Bill McGuirt, an attorney for the Union sheriff's office, said Williams' arm may have been fractured when officers tried to handcuff him. Other injuries in the medical report, McGuirt said, indicate a violent struggle – not an assault.
In his federal lawsuit claiming an assault, Williams said he was punched and stomped “over 100” times.
McGuirt said Williams' criminal record and litigious past give him “no credibility.”
Before his vending machine arrest, Williams had filed at least one other lawsuit alleging injury by a prison guard. That case was dismissed.
Williams' federal lawsuit against the Union jailers was dismissed as well. A judge ruled that, because he had filed frivolous suits in the past, he had forfeited his right to file litigation without paying court filing feels.
Puzzled by support
When Williams went on trial for charges that he attempted to smuggle marijuana into the Stanly jail, videotapes that might have helped his defense were missing, Frick said. The former sheriff called the missing evidence “suspicious.”
Frick said he also believes prosecutors retaliated against Greene, 61, the former deputy who tipped off Williams about the poster.
As Williams' trial approached, Greene went to see a deputy involved in the case. She said it was a friendly visit to see how the deputy, who had been ill, was doing. During the visit, she said, she told the deputy that he should “tell the truth” if called to testify in the marijuana case against Williams.
She was charged less than a week later for intimidating a state's witness, a felony. That was dismissed last month.
Frick's support for Williams and his accusations against law enforcement have puzzled some Stanly officials.
Said Sheriff Rick Burris, who defeated Frick in 2006: “I don't make a habit of being buddies with inmates.”
Albemarle police detective Jamie Pope, who arrested Williams in 2003, said he was stunned when he read Frick's affidavit.
“I don't know what he (Williams) has on the sheriff,” said Pope. “Everyone around here is dumbfounded. I can't believe he would say that about law enforcement.”
Frick said he had severe health problems during his last two years as sheriff, and that he feels guilty about what happened to Williams when he wasn't fully engaged in his job. Frick said Williams asked him to write the affidavit, and that he has hired Williams to do some part-time construction work on his property.
“But Ted doesn't owe me anything, and I don't owe Ted anything,” Frick said.
In January 2007, Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin dismissed charges against Williams for assaulting the Union County deputy. The judge said Williams couldn't defend himself because someone destroyed the poster and the photographs used to make it.
The destruction of that evidence, Hardin wrote, “flagrantly violated” Williams' right to a fair trial.
“Frankly, if I had two assistants that put together a photographic array like this and made a poster and posted it on the wall making fun of a defendant, even if they can't stand him, they would have a real problem with me,” Hardin said from the bench.
Attorney Mike Klinkosum, who represented Floyd Brown, the mentally disabled man held for 14 years, said the missing poster reminds him of how detectives lost evidence, such as the murder weapon, in the Brown case.
“This district has a history of not playing by the rules,” Klinkosum said.
The N.C. Court of Appeals in early May upheld Hardin's ruling. The N.C. attorney general is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Parker and McGuirt said the rulings were wrong.
Parker said the poster was destroyed before Williams requested it for his defense and that the photo of Williams on the poster, beaten and bruised, was taken four months before he claims to have been assaulted by jail guards.
Nearly five years after his initial arrest, Williams went to trial in May for the alleged vending machine break-ins.
He acted as his own attorney. He questioned why the prosecutor, Deborah Jackson, presented no witness from the grocery store who could testify that money was actually stolen from the machines.
It took a jury about an hour to acquit him of all charges.
“There was no crime, and I didn't rob anything,” said Williams, who now sells chicken and steaks door-to-door in Albemarle.
Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand, who oversaw the trial, said Williams' closing argument was one of the best he has heard. He said he ordered a transcript to show law students the value of being prepared.
Since his arrest, Williams has avoided conviction in four felony cases stemming from the incident. Rand called that “unprecedented” for someone acting as his own attorney.
Parker defended the charges he filed. He said he continued to prosecute Williams, in part, because dropping charges would have rewarded him for filing lawsuits.
Parker said the poster has been a setback for his office, and the prosecutor who made it was disciplined, because “you don't revel in another man's misery.”
“I know what people say about my district, and I have a lot of work to overcome that,” said Parker, who has worked in the district since 1989 and became its top prosecutor in November 2004.
He said he has no plans to investigate Frick's allegations of misconduct because “none of it is true.”
“If I know it's a lie, why would I investigate?” Parker said.
Frick, meanwhile, said he hopes his affidavit will “enlighten people.”
“People need to step back and say, “this isn't 50 years ago.”
Researcher Maria Wygand contributed.