TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Whitley County Sheriff Investigation

December 29, 2009

Sheriff’s office broken into after open records request

Times-Tribune yet to receive request response

CORBIN — Dec. 29, 2009.pdf

By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor

A break-in was reported at Sheriff Lawrence Hodge’s office one business day after he was to answer an open records request seeking proof that specific seized guns were still in the possession of the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department.

The Times-Tribune has not yet received a formal response to the open records request sent to the sheriff’s department Dec. 15, which asked for all documents related to the transfer of 18 weapons seized by the department in two different cases. 

The request asked for paperwork, including court orders, relating to the guns’ possible transfer. Guns forfeited to local law enforcement can either be turned over to the Kentucky State Police or donated to approved organizations such as Kentucky’s Youth Hunter Education program.

“If records documenting the transfer of ownership of the aforementioned property are not available,” the request stated, “we request the right to visually confirm that all said property remains in the possession of the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department.”

Seventeen of the guns asked about in the request were seized in 2004 from Rick Benson, a convicted felon. In an interview on Nov. 30, Hodge suggested he no longer had those guns in his department’s possession. 

“(Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents) would’ve took those. I’d say you probably need to have an ATF agent here with me if you want to talk about that,” Hodge said of the guns.

But ATF officials later confirmed that while they were aware of the case, they never opened an official investigation on it and had not taken the guns.

The Times-Tribune thus filed the open records request specifically asking for paperwork related to the transfer of the seized weapons.

By state statute, a government agency has three business days to respond to an open records request, though they may take longer to actually produce the records if needed. Hodge, however, failed to formally respond during the three-day period, and on the fourth business day after the request was filed, the evidence locker inside the sheriff’s office was burglarized. Josh Price, office worker at the sheriff’s department, said Monday the open records request could not be completed because of the ongoing break-in case.

“What’s going on with that is of course, you know, our office was broken into, all of our records as of this point are involved with that case with the state police, so I don’t know, as far as a time to give you, on when that will be completed, when they’ll have that all finished,” he said.

Price said paperwork in the sheriff’s personal office “was all over the office floor” and it would take time to find the requested information.

Kentucky State Police Det. Bill Correll, who is leading the investigation into the break-in, is still waiting on a list of guns that were taken from the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department Dec. 21.

“I have talked to the chief deputy at the Whitley County Sheriff’s Office, Tim Shelley, and requested a list of what has been taken, if anything, and I still haven’t gotten that,” Correll said Monday. “I don’t know if we’re looking at a vandalism or if we’re looking at anything missing because I haven’t had an official report from them.”

In most burglary investigations, the victimized home or business owner will report to police a list of items believed stolen. From conversations with sheriff’s department employees, Correll said he believes at least some guns will be missing.

Correll said about 40 various styles of guns, including handguns, shotguns and rifles, remained in the sheriff’s personal office after the break-in.

“As far as the evidence goes, they have an evidence log,” he said. “Now, I don’t keep up with their paperwork, I’m certainly not an auditor, so I’m not going to look at that and determine how complete and thorough that list is, but they do have an evidence list, so I’m sure that’s one of their primary concerns, to look at that and tell me if there’s any evidence missing. There may be other things inside that office that’s missing, I just don’t know.”

Correll said Shelley told him he hoped to have a list of missing items prepared by the beginning of this week.

While waiting on the list, Correll said he is reviewing surveillance video from surrounding businesses and conducting interviews.

“I sat today and reviewed some other business video, and there’s things of interest on it, but I’m not going to say it’s of value to this investigation yet,” Correll said.

Correll said Hodge has been cooperating with the investigation.

Hunters Ed: We did not receive 21 guns

Times-Tribune Staff Report

The Times-Tribune continues to ask questions regarding the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department’s storage and bookkeeping of seized items — questions that were initially raised in audits released this summer by the State Auditor of Public Accounts.

In an interview last month regarding his department’s handling of seized weapons, Hodge told the Times-Tribune he had given roughly 21 guns to Bill Johnson for use by the local Kentucky Youth Hunter Education program in Whitley County.

“...We had one case that they agreed in court, the judge agreed in court, to give the guns to the Kentucky Youth Hunter Education program,” Hodge had said. “We gave them, like, 21 guns or something; it was all court ordered.”

Yet Johnson disagrees.

“He is mistaken,” Johnson said. “We received four firearms from him.”

Johnson says his program has received only four guns from the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department — two single-shot hinge action shotguns, one lever-action 30/30 caliber rifle, and one semi-automatic 22 rifle. He said he received the guns, which all came from the same case, about three years ago.

“They (the sheriff’s department) have been a friend to the (fish and wildlife) department in doing this, to our hunters education program, but if they’ve done something wrong, I hate that for them,” Johnson said.

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