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Pickens County Sheriff to plead guilty to wire fraud and tax charges

Brandon Moseley

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Friday a federal indictment was unsealed against Pickens County Sheriff David Eugene Abston (R). Also that same day a plea agreement was filed and Abston resigned as Sheriff after forty years in law enforcement.

The federal indictments for wire fraud and filing false tax returns were announced U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr. and IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman.

According to the plea agreement, the defendant has agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return. The nine-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court charges Pickens Sheriff Abston with seven counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return.

“A sitting county sheriff is alleged to have defrauded a food bank and a church for his personal gain at the expense of the underprivileged that the food bank serves,” Town said. “Our office will continue to aggressively pursue and prosecute public officials who violate the public trust for their own personal gain.”

“No matter what your career or position is within our communities, all U.S. citizens are obligated to comply with the tax laws,” said Holloman. “Honest and law abiding citizens are fed up with the likes of those who use deceit and fraud to line their pockets as well as skirt their tax obligations.”

The indictment states that Sheriff Abston was responsible for the care and custody of prisoners housed in the Pickens County Jail. Abston was responsible for making sure that the inmates were fed. In exchange, Abston was entitled to receive a specified food allowance per prisoner per day from the state of Alabama and other governmental entities. Between 2014 and 2018, Abston received more than $400,000 in food allowance money from the state of Alabama and other governmental entities. Under Alabama law, Abston (like other sheriffs) was allowed to keep excess food funds for himself.

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Abston was a member of Highland Baptist Church in Gordo. In 2014 Abston convinced the Church to permit him to open a bank account to be used for a church food pantry with the West Alabama Food Bank (WAFB). Abston opened that bank account, in the name of the Highland Baptist Church Food Pantry. Abston was the sole signatory on the account. The stated purpose of the Tuscaloosa based WAFB is to alleviate hunger in a nine county region of Alabama.

The Church agreed to distribute the food from their church pantry as stated in the terms of the contract.

The application to WAFB that Abston filled out claimed that the food would be used to feed the poor and “children from disadvantage[d] and poor neighborhoods.” The application claimed that the food pantry would use unemployment, sickness, and poverty as eligibility guidelines for distributing the food. Nowhere on the application did it say anything about the food being used to feed the inmates in the Pickens County Jail.

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According to federal investigators, between 2014 and 2018, Abston wrote more than $80,000 in checks from his own bank account to the church food pantry bank account, and wrote more than $80,000 in checks from the food pantry bank account to WAFB in exchange for food.

The indictment claims that Abston used a significant portion of that food to feed the inmates in the Pickens County Jail. The indictment alleges that Abston filed false tax returns for the 2015 and 2016 tax years, because he failed to report all of his income for those years.

Each count of wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000. The maximum penalty for filing a false tax return is three years in prison and a $100,000 fine for each count.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service investigated the case, which Assistant U.S. Attorney John B. Ward is prosecuting.

Abston was first elected sheriff in 1987 as a Democrat. He switched to the Republican Party prior to the 2018 election. Abston was the police chief in Gordo prior to his election as Sheriff. He previously served as a Tuscaloosa Police officer and in the military police.

An indictment contains only charges and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury of his peers. Abston has not had a chance to defend himself yet.

Pickens County Coroner Chad Harless has been sworn in as acting Sheriff.
Harless will serve in that role until Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) can appoint a new sheriff to serve the remainder of Abston’s term.

Original reporting by the Tuscaloosa News contributed to this report.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Crime

Tenth state inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19

As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.

Eddie Burkhalter

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As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. (Stock photo)

A tenth Alabama inmate has died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the state.

Raymond Earl Allen, 59, who was serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility died Monday at a local hospital, where he had been taken after exhibiting symptoms for coronavirus, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Tuesday. 

Allen was considered high-risk because he had end-stage renal disease, according to ADOC. 

ADOC also said another inmate at St. Clair has tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of confirmed cases among inmates at the prison to 28. Six workers at the prison have also tested positive for the virus. 

The department also announced that four workers at the Kilby Correctional Facility, two at the Fountain Correctional Facility and one at the Alex City Community Based Facility and Community Work Center also tested positive for COVID-19. 

As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, while 28 have since recovered. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 490 have been tested. Of the 184 confirmed cases among prison staff, 100 have recovered. 

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Two prison workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Woman have died after testing positive for coronavirus. There have been confirmed cases of the virus in 27 of the state’s 32 facilities.

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Crime

Seventh Alabama inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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A seventh Alabama inmate has died after testing positive for COVID-19, and the man is the second person from the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility to have tested positive for the virus and subsequently died. 

Daniel Everett, 74, died Tuesday after testing positive for coronavirus at a local hospital, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced in a press release Wednesday. Everett, who had been housed in Staton’s infirmary due to previous illnesses, was tested after another inmate in the infirmary, 80-year-old Robert Stewart, tested positive for the virus and died on June 14

Coronavirus seems to be spreading among inmates and staff at Staton prison, where, as of Tuesday, there have been 17 confirmed cases among inmates and 23 among workers. That’s more confirmed cases than in any other state prison. Tutwiler prison follows closely behind at 39 confirmed cases — 10 among inmates and 29 among employees, one of whom died.  

ADOC also announced that an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and another at Staton prison all tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed coronavirus cases among state inmates to 68, 43 of which remain active, according to the department. 

Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 329 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to ADOC

In addition to the new cases among inmates, ADOC said a worker at the Easterling Correctional Facility and an employee at the Alabama Corrections Academy tested positive for COVID-19. There have been 165 confirmed cases among ADOC staff, who are asked to self-report if they receive positive test results independently. ADOC has not offered free testing to staff. 

ADOC announced last week the first death of a prison worker, an employee at Tutwiler prison, who tested positive for COVID-19. 

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Despite calls by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and numerous criminal justice reform groups and advocates for incarcerated people for ADOC to increase COVID-19 testing and release as many of the very sick and older inmates as possible, who are more at risk from the virus, the department has not publicly indicated plans to do so. 

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn in an op-ed published in the Alabama Daily News on Monday wrote that he believes the depiction by some of prisons as petri dishes for the virus is not entirely off base, and said that “an enclosed environment housing a disproportionately unhealthy population where social distancing is virtually impossible, coupled with COVID-19’s highly contagious nature and long incubation period, creates a recipe for a potential health disaster if not managed correctly.”

But Dunn wrote that handling the pandemic in prisons “cannot be reduced to simple conversations about testing data or be solved through the sudden release of unrehabilitated inmates back into society.” 

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As the confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continue to increase in Alabama prisons, the virus is also surging outside prison fences and across the state. 

Alabama on Monday saw a new record number of patients in hospitals with COVID-19, and the number of new cases in the state has continued to reach record highs in recent days.

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How qualified immunity affected an Alabama man shot five times during a police sting

Eddie Burkhalter

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Trinell King was driving his girlfriend’s car to give an acquaintance, Donavan Brown, a ride when a Warrior Police Department officer pulled him over because the car didn’t have a license plate.

King, who is Black, didn’t have proof of insurance or a driver’s license that September day in 2015, but gave the officer a photo ID.

Brown — on the other hand — gave a false name, and while the officer was back at his police vehicle, King told Brown to be honest with the officer, according to court records in a case over the incident. Brown told King that he had outstanding warrants and a gun. He was going to run.

Brown got out of the car and ran, and the officer ordered King out at gunpoint, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the police car. King fully cooperated and told the officer that Brown had a gun. Even the responding officers, in court depositions, agreed that King fully cooperated.

Soon, King was surrounded by numerous white officers, one of whom testified in a deposition that King was “extremely cooperative from the beginning” and “willing to give [them] any information without having to really ask.”

King’s only crime was driving without insurance or a license, not something Warrior police usually arrest someone for, officers said in depositions, but he remained handcuffed while officers tried to coerce him into helping capture the armed man who’d ran from the scene.

“F— him [i.e. meaning King], you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw — we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f—ing us over, we’ll f— over you,” King said an officer told him, while testifying in a deposition.

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Officers repeatedly threatened King that they would “f—” him “over” if he didn’t help.

King said he was “nervous” and “scared” — that he “felt threatened.” He believed his “life was in danger,” according to court records, and after nearly two hours of coercion, he agreed to take part in a dangerous sting operation to capture Brown. Police officers in depositions disputed that they coerced King into helping them with the sting operation, and said it was his idea to do so, according to those records.

“With the negotiation, the threats, everything they was telling me, if I don’t cooperate they’re going to throw some charges on me, and they going to f— me over. So in the streets that means it could mean anything. It can mean being shot. It can mean being anything. My life —,” King said in a deposition.

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Going along with the plan, an officer called Brown and put a cell phone to King’s ear while he was handcuffed. King told Brown what he was told to say: that police had let him go. He could come and pick Brown up. Police told King to drive his girlfriend’s car, pick up Brown and that they’d pull him over again.

Once again, an officer told King “if you f— over us, we’re going to f— over you,” according to the court documents.

Once King picked up Brown, the officers decided to pull him over before they had discussed, Brown pulled his gun and told King he “had” to shoot the officers, according to court records.

“King could not stop the car before Brown started shooting, and the officers returned fire,” King’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.

King, who wasn’t given a bullet-proof vest, was struck by bullets five times, and there were 20 bullet holes in the car. Brown was shot 13 times, but remarkably both survived. One officer was shot but was protected by a vest. King underwent multiple surgeries, but lost the use of one arm.

King’s case is an Alabama example of how the legal doctrine of qualified immunity prevents some who’ve been harmed by the actions of law enforcement from seeking relief from courts. Qualified immunity, a controversial doctrine established by Supreme Court precedent, protects government officials who have been sued in their individual capacity, unless their actions violate established legal precedent.

King sued, but a U.S. District Court judge in 2017 dismissed the case before it even went to trial on grounds of qualified immunity, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a June 5 ruling also found that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

[What is qualified immunity?]

Despite the courts’ rulings, witnesses testified that the officers’ actions were improper.

Daniel Busken, a retired police chief and law enforcement consultant, testified in a deposition as a witness for King that the officers should have known they were putting King’s life at risk.

Busken said that the police “knew, or should have known, that their plan to force Mr. King to assist in their capture of Brown represented a significant danger to Mr. King’s safety … and an unpredictable situation for Mr. King,” because Brown “was a desperate man in a desperate situation that had showed how desperate he was.”

Another officer testified in a deposition that he was unaware of any plan to protect King’s life, or if the department had ever conducted such a sting before.

“Nevertheless, Defendants planned to have five vehicles and seven armed officers — all of whom planned to draw their guns on Brown — involved in the sting,” King’s attorneys wrote in an appeal.

The judges ruled that King could not bring his case before a jury to decide whether the officers should be held accountable for nearly costing him his life — not because his case lacked merit but because of the controversial legal doctrine of qualified immunity

Attorneys for King have appealed the 11th circuit panel’s ruling to the full 11th circuit court, and are asking all the circuit judges to reconsider, and to allow the case to go before a jury.

The attorneys argue that the officers violated his Constitutional protections. The June 5 ruling came at the peak of tensions between peaceful protestors and police, some of whom responded with tear gas and so-called rubber bullets.

The judges,  in their opinion, wrote that “even taking King’s testimony as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, there is no evidence that the officers threatened him with false charges” — because the officer’s didn’t say what he might be charged with if he didn’t go along with their plan.

“As for the alleged threats of physical violence, the evidence is similarly thin,” the judge’s wrote. “If the officers had told King ‘help us, or we’re going to f–k you up’ (or something like that) then King would have a more compelling argument. But that isn’t what he said they said.”

“Instead, King testified that the officers told him “[if] you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw—we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f–king us over, we’ll f–k over you. I don’t know where you get your car back,” the judges wrote.

King’s attorneys in the appeal to the full 11th circuit argue that the case should be heard by a jury of King’s peers, and that the all-white judges on the panel are “good people with good intentions” but that they are out-of-touch with “the common experiences of the people, especially Black Americans, and the reasonable inferences that they would draw from the totality of the evidence presented.”

“Suffice it to state that Black and other Americans of color, and a significant amount of White and other Americans, would come to a different conclusion than the panel, based on their different life experiences, which is the reason why the Founders insisted that the Seventh Amendment require trial by jury, and not by a panel of judges who do not have the same life experiences,” King’s attorneys wrote.

King told APR that he was left without a choice, forced to risk his life in a bid to help the officers, with whom he cooperated from the start.

“I can’t believe that the courts have given the officers who made me help them catch their suspect immunity after they forced me to go along with their plan to trap him. They knew he was armed and dangerous. They put on their bullet proof vests while I waited, and they made me go pick him up with no protection at all,” King said in a statement. “I had done everything I could to cooperate and even told them his name, that he had a gun and had warrants on him, but then they forced me to help them catch him.”

“I didn’t have any choice because they made it clear that if I didn’t go along with their plan they were going to hurt me,” King continued. “There was no doubt about that. I was one Black man surrounded by all these white cops who were threatening me. How can judges sit there and say what a jury would think about that?”

Spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protestors and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for an end to qualified immunity, which they say allows police to escape responsibility for harming the public.

On June 19, in a tribute to Juneteenth, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a series of law enforcement reform bills, included among them an avenue for Coloradans to sue police in state court if their rights have been violated. The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act states that “qualified immunity is not a defense to liability.”

Colorado is the first state to pass such legislation barring qualified immunity as protection for officials, but the state law can’t stop such officials from claiming qualified immunity if a case is brought before a federal court instead of a state court.

That could change, if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such protections, but earlier this month, the Supreme Court passed up a chance to rule on the matter.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967  Pierson v. Ray case that established qualified immunity as a doctrine as a protection against frivolous lawsuits, and over the years, courts have expanded the protection, and the doctrine still has its supporters.

Democrats have pushed for broad police reforms in the wake of Floyd’s homicide, including an end to qualified immunity, but many Republicans argue that doing so would result in frivolous lawsuits and discourage people from becoming law enforcement officers.

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 25 passed a series of policing reforms in a largely party-line vote, but the Trump administration is threatening a veto, and the measure has little support among Republican lawmakers, just three of whom broke ranks and voted for the House bill.

Democrats opposed a GOP proposal in the U.S. Senate, and said the bill didn’t go far enough, effectively stalling that bill and leaving the matter in limbo as protests against police brutality continue across much of the country.

Birmingham attorney Rip Andrews, one of King’s attorneys, told APR in a statement that he hopes the full 11th circuit considers the case in the current context.

“Qualified immunity has so far kept Trinell from having his day in court in front a jury. Win or lose — a day supposedly guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment,” Andrews said. “His only chance now is the hope that the full Eleventh Circuit reads his story in the context of our time and agrees to hear his appeal.”

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Crime

Sixth Alabama inmate dies after positive COVID-19 test

Eddie Burkhalter

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A sixth incarcerated person in Alabama died Monday after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Monday. 

Wanda Gaye Dison, 68, who was serving at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka died at a local hospital Monday, according to the department. Dison was hospitalized for advanced, chronic health problems, was tested and found to be positive for coronavirus.

Dison’s exact cause of death is pending an autopsy. 

Two more inmates at Tutwiler tested positive for COVID-19, ADOC also announced Monday. One woman was asymptomatic but was tested for precaution during a transfer from another facility and was found to be positive, according to the release. The other woman was tested after showing symptoms. Both are now in medical isolation. 

There have been 29 COVID-19 cases among workers at Tutwiler and nine cases among inmates, according to the department. The prison was at 175 percent capacity in April, according to the department’s monthly statistical report. 

ADOC on Thursday announced that a worker at Tutwiler prison died after testing positive for the virus, becoming the first Alabama prison worker to have died after receiving positive test results. 

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ADOC also announced eight new coronavirus cases among staff from five separate prisons, including the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, St. Clair Correctional Facility, Holman Correctional Facility, North Alabama Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and the Kilby Correctional Facility. 

Forty-one of the 65 total COVID-19 cases among inmates remained active on Monday, while 82 of the 163 cases among staff were still active. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in 27 of the state’s 32 facilities.

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