By AMANDA LOVIZA VICKERY
Glasgow Daily Times
BOWLING GREEN —
Two former employees of the Barren County Sheriff’s Office were called to testify Friday afternoon in the trial against Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson County Drug Task Force Detective Eric Guffey. They may not have chosen to be, but Steve Runyon and Trevor Phillips are each responsible for some of the charges filed against Eaton, but the two witnesses have very different perspectives on whether those respective charges are warranted.
Eaton is charged with witness tampering for allegedly telling Runyon to write a report that stated Runyon saw a knife on the ground in the area where Billy Randall Stinnett was arrested and allegedly assaulted on Feb. 24, 2010.
Runyon, who was a deputy the day of the incident, testified that he arrived at the scene of Stinnett’s crash and arrest after Stinnett was apprehended. He checked on Eaton, whom he had heard scream over the radio, and Eaton showed Runyon an abrasion on his leg from his altercation with Stinnett. Eaton said that Stinnett had something in his hand when the sheriff confronted him. A few minutes later, Runyon saw Eaton pull a knife out of his pocket, saying he found it at the scene of the altercation. Runyon did not go to see the scene, and that was the last he heard of the knife until a week or so later.
Eaton approached Runyon at the gym, Runyon alleged, told him the FBI was investigating Stinnett’s arrest and said he wanted Runyon to write a report that said Runyon saw Stinnett’s knife on the ground on Feb. 24.
Runyon did not want to write the report, he testified, but he allegedly didn’t feel like Eaton gave him a choice. Eaton allegedly drove Runyon back to the scene of Stinnett’s arrest and told him where the knife was found.
In his BCSO report that was proofread by Eaton and given to the FBI, the two misleading phrases Runyon wrote were that he and Eaton walked up to Stinnett’s arrest scene, and the knife was on the ground. Walking up to the arrest scene didn’t happen until a week later, and he only had Eaton’s word that the knife was found on the ground, Runyon testified Friday.
Runyon refused to be interviewed by the FBI, but was subpoenaed to a federal grand jury. During testimony under oath, Runyon explained that the knife statement was misleading, but maintained that Eaton did not tell him to write that. Later, Runyon told U.S. prosecutors he lied to the grand jury, and Eaton did instruct him.
Comments made by Eaton made Runyon fear for his job, he said, and it got worse after Eaton was indicted and Runyon’s initials were in the indictment. None of his coworkers would talk to him, he said.
“I just felt so alone,” Runyon said. “I’d come in and they’d just get up and shut the door.”
Although Runyon said he felt like his job was threatened, Eaton’s defense attorney, J. Guthrie True, told him during cross examination that True had talked to federal prosecutors about making sure Runyon did not feel threatened, even offering to put Runyon on paid leave. Runyon said he was never told of the offer. He retired in February 2013.
Eaton said at the scene that Stinnett’s knife was on the ground, True said, and Runyon agreed. At that point, True said no one was thinking about a possible FBI investigation, or a need for any cover up.
“So if Sheriff Eaton is cooking up a story about where the knife was found, he’s not only thinking fast, he’s thinking with a lot of foresight,” True said.
Eaton is also charged with an additional count of deprivation of rights for allegedly striking Stinnett in the groin, and destruction of evidence for allegedly deleting or instructing Trevor Phillips to delete a photograph depicting the strike to the groin.
Phillips worked as public information officer for the sheriff’s office on Feb. 24, 2010, which meant that when he arrived on the scene of Stinnett’s arrest, he started taking photographs, as he did anytime he went to a scene. He took 19 photos of the scene, from Stinnett’s being escorted away to the dozens of police vehicles on the street. When he returned to the BCSO office after the arrest, Phillips testified that he pulled the photos up on his computer. While viewing the photos, Phillips noticed one of them looked as though Eaton was about to strike Stinnett in his groin or stomach. Eaton’s arm was stretched straight out from his side, with his fist near Stinnett’s waistline, Phillips said. There was no contact in the photo.
Former deputy and government cooperating witness Adam Minor, and Glasgow Police Department Sgt. Jessie Barton, who were on either side of Stinnett at the time of the photo, have testified that Eaton struck Stinnett. Stinnett himself, both in court Thursday and in a civil deposition, has said that he does not remember Eaton hitting him in the groin or stomach. As they continued walking past him, Phillips said he did not see any reaction from Stinnett to indicate he had been hit.
Minor also testified earlier in the week that the photo was nicknamed “the nut shot” in the office, and officers laughed about it. Eaton then asked Phillips to delete it, and Minor asked Phillips to delete a photo of Minor holding a flashlight.
Phillips testified that he does not remember officers laughing at the photo, and he does not remember it being called the nut shot.
Phillips told Eaton the photo “didn’t look good,” he said, and Eaton agreed. Minor also made a statement that the photo of him with a flashlight didn’t look good. Phillips deleted both photos, he testified, but it was not at the direction of either Eaton or Minor, and it was not with the intent to destroy evidence. Phillips deleted the photo within a couple days of Stinnett’s arrest, before there was an FBI investigation, he said.
U.S. Department of Justice civil rights prosecutor Roy Conn III asked Phillips whether he was trying to protect Eaton, and Phillips denied the suggestion.
“No sir, I’m here to tell the truth,” Phillips said. “If I knew something, I would tell it.”
Phillips did not want to be interviewed by the FBI because he knew he had destroyed evidence, Conn alleged, but Phillips told him the first time the FBI attempted to speak to him was July 26, 2012, when they served a search warrant on his home and vehicle for his camera and memory cards. When asked to describe the scene during cross examination by True, Phillips told the jury about the FBI’s search of his home.
It was about 8:30 a.m., and he and his seven-months-pregnant wife were still home because they had a doctor’s appointment that morning, Phillips said. There was a loud banging on the front door, and when he answered it, a Kentucky State Police trooper and FBI agent flashed badges and a search warrant. Phillips let them in, and asked whtether he could get dressed.
“Six of them busted in the house behind me, in full ballistics with their service weapons drawn,” Phillips said.
A female agent got his wife out of bed, and the agents confiscated his camera and memory cards, Phillips said.
“Now when I hear knocks at the door, the first thing I think is, ‘are they back?’” Phillips said. “And that’s a shame.”
Conn reminded Phillips that when an FBI agent asked to interview him during that search, Phillips’ refusal was respected, and no one threatened to shoot Phillips. Conn also asked Phillips about his relationship to Aaron Bennett, and Phillips said that Bennett is his brother-in-law.