Update: Law enforcement officials arrested, indicted in Talbot County as part of federal investigation

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.com and ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comJune 22, 2011 

— Federal and state investigators today arrested four law enforcement officials in Talbot County, including three employees of the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office, amid a federal corruption probe involving a drug trafficking organization.

The only full-time deputy arrested was Maj. Jeff Sivell, an investigator, said interim Sheriff Tom S. Wimberly. But the arrests shook a tiny department still recovering from the unexpected death this spring of Sheriff Herman Howard.

Also jailed Wednesday were Charlie Stephens, a 76-year-old part-time deputy, and Alvin Malone, a former Talbotton police officer. A federal indictment states Malone worked for the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office, but Wimberly said Malone was a police officer recently fired by the city.

All three were indicted last week by a federal grand jury on charges of extortion by a public official. They were taken into custody Wednesday along with Mike Gamble, a county jailer who was arrested on a state bribery charge. Gamble has not yet been indicted, prosecutors said.

Authorities divulged few details about the charges. Clyde Shelley Jr. of the Drug Enforcement Administration said at an afternoon news conference that the probe stemmed from a drug investigation into a trafficking organization.

“This organization would yield a large amount of narcotics, which in turn would lead to a large amount of money,” Shelley said. “It would breed public corruption.”

The indictments unsealed Wednesday allege that the officers extorted money from undercover federal agents and other persons cooperating with the FBI. Stephens, Malone and Sivell face up to 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted, prosecutors said.

The arrests caught the community by surprise as teams of federal and state authorities raided the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office and City Hall in downtown Talbotton, shutting the building down in the middle of the day. Wimberly said he had no inkling of the investigation until Wednesday morning when he was greeted by a team of armed agents who questioned him for more than an hour.

“They were telling me what they were doing and asking me if I knew anything about anybody being corrupt — I didn’t,” Wimberly said. “I’m glad they come in and cleaned it up where I won’t have to deal with it in the future. I appreciate them coming.”

Wimberly said the arrested deputies have been suspended, but he said it remained to be determined whether that suspension would include pay. He said he likely will have to shuffle an employee from the second shift to the first shift to account for a vacancy that left him with only four full-time deputies.

While Wimberly insisted he has the situation under control, Vernon M. Keenan, the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said state authorities also will ensure Talbot County the necessary law enforcement resources. The agency already provides many investigative services to the county, particularly drug investigations, Wimberly said in an interview last month.

The arrests came less than a day after Wimberly and retired deputy sheriff Bobby R. Gates Sr. qualified for a runoff election next month. The special election was called after Howard’s death, and the winner will serve the remaining year and a half of his unexpired term.

U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore said none of the officers arrested Wednesday had any role in conducting the election.

Calvin J. Willis, a longtime lawman and former Woodland police chief who finished fourth in Tuesday’s sheriff’s election, said he was not surprised by the arrests.

“It was just a matter of time,” said Willis, who campaigned on a platform of change. “Talbot County is known for its corruption. It’s no secret that it was going on.”

John S. Comer of the DEA’s Atlanta office said in a statement: “The vast majority of law enforcement officers serve the public with honor and distinction. This type of activity tarnishes the badge of the committed men and women of law enforcement.”

Gates declined to comment on the arrests because he had not heard about them Wednesday afternoon. Retired sheriff Bill Johnson also would not comment.

On Wednesday, federal and state investigators executed a search warrant at the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office, spending almost two hours at the office, according to an employee who would not give her name.

“I still don’t know what they looked for,” said the employee, who was alone at the office and still visibly shaken by the visit moments after the agents left.

She said the agents told her not to get up when they walked in, and later questioned her about why her desk was locked.

According to a warrant they left, the agents were looking for department policy and procedure manuals; all reports filed by Malone and Sivell since Jan. 10, 2010, regarding the seizure of any money; evidence logs and entry forms regarding currency seized by Malone and Sivell; currency entered into evidence “to be reviewed and compared to known serial numbers of currency" paid to or taken by Malone and Sivell; and any currency located within the Sheriff’s Office that has not been secured into evidence.

All four men charged were being held at the Muscogee County Jail. The three men facing federal charges are scheduled for a preliminary hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday in U.S. District Court. Gamble, who was arrested on a state charge because he had no arrest powers, has no scheduled hearing.

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