By AMANDA LOVIZA VICKERY
Glasgow Daily Times
BOWLING GREEN —
As two FBI agents took the stand Monday in a federal trial against Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force Detective Eric Guffey, defense attorneys called into question practices the agents have used in their collection of evidence over the three-year investigation.
Case agent James Michael “ Mike” Brown, lead investigator, and agent David McClelland testified Monday about the investigation they have conducted into the Feb. 24, 2010, arrest and alleged beating of Billy Randall Stinnett outside Calvary Baptist Church in Glasgow, and the allegedly false statements defendants have made to the FBI.
Before McClelland could begin testifying, U.S. Department of Justice civil rights prosecutors Sanjay Patel and Roy Conn III and defense attorneys J. Guthrie True, Brian Butler and Buddy Alexander, had to come to an agreement with Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr., about how the FBI agents would testify about what each defendant said in FBI interviews. It was agreed that the agents could retell what the defendants said, but must use phrases like “another agent” when quoting one defendant talking about another defendant. Reports viewed on the courtroom projector had defendants’ names redacted.
Brown said he was assigned to the case after Calvary Baptist deacon Kelly Billingsley reported to the FBI allegations of law enforcement officers beating a handcuffed suspect, shortly after the incident. McClelland said he assisted Brown on April 20, 2010, with interviews, and during the execution of a July 26, 2012, search warrant. Brown has been in charge of the investigation throughout the three years.
The FBI’s investigation began when Brown visited Barren County on March 4, 2010. He interviewed Stinnett at the Barren County jail and took photos of his injuries, Brown testified Monday, and then went to the Barren County Sheriff’s Office to inform Eaton of the investigation and ask for reports on the Feb. 24 incident. Eaton told Brown the reports had not been completed, so Brown requested they be given to him when they were finished. He also told Eaton he was mostly interested in the use of force during the arrest, not all the information about the hour-long pursuit before the arrest.
Brown did not write a report about his March 4, 2010, visit to Eaton until July 31, 2012, True said in cross examination. Brown told him it was because the visit was not an interview.
Evidence collected by citizen
The evening of March 4, 2010, Brown said he received a call from Billingsley. Billingsley’s family had found a glove that appeared to be bloody at the scene of the alleged crime. Brown told Billingsley he could not return to Glasgow until March 11, so he said he gave Billingsley telephonic instructions on how to collect the glove for evidence.
“Instead of going to the scene and collecting the glove, you give instructions to a private citizen?” True asked. Brown confirmed that fact, without offering further explanation.
Billingsley kept custody of the glove in his home for a week. The blood on the glove was later proven to belong to Stinnett, who has Hepatitis C. Brown said he told Billingsley to “take precautions with it.”
March 11, 2010, Brown said he returned to Glasgow to visit the scene of Stinnett’s arrest and collect the glove. When he visited the scene, he did not observe any blood, Brown said.
“I did not see the blood and I was not looking for it,” Brown said.
Blood discovered, not tested
When he visited the Billingsleys later, Brown said he learned they had taken photos of blood spatter at the scene on March 6, 2010. At that point it had not rained since Feb. 24, True said. Brown could have returned to the scene to look at the blood, photograph it himself and even call in a forensic team to collect samples, the defense attorney said.
Brown confirmed that he did not do any of those things. A forensic scientist visited the scene for the first time in August 2011, a year and a half after the alleged crime.
As True asked Brown during cross examination about some of the things Brown did or failed to do over the course of his investigation, he also asked True about the indictment of Bobby McCown. BCSO Deputy Bobby McCown was indicted on Feb. 15, 2012, with the three defendants and cooperating witness Adam Minor, but the charges against McCown were dropped a month later when the government determined that McCown was not present when Stinnett was arrested.
McCown was positively identified by two of the teenage eye witnesses at the church on Feb. 24, 2010, Brown said. Familiar with McCown because he had been a school resource officer, two witnesses were sure they saw McCown beating Stinnett. McCown himself gave conflicting statements to the FBI about exactly where he was when Stinnett was arrested, and officers McCown thought could vouch for him did not remember seeing McCown.
“But despite inconsistencies, evidence shows he had no role in Billy Randall Stinnett’s arrest?” True asked Brown, and the FBI agent agreed.
To summarize, True said that the FBI asked a grand jury to indict a man who was not present at an alleged crime; had a private citizen collect evidence and store it in his home; and was aware of blood at a crime scene, but did not photograph it or have it tested in a timely fashion. Brown did not dispute True’s statements.
April 20, 2010, interviews
Brown and McClelland’s April 20, 2010, interviews of the defendants are what led to their charges of making false statements to the FBI. None of the interviews were recorded in any way, but McClelland took notes while Brown asked most of the questions. In the days following the interviews, Brown used McClelland’s notes to write reports of the interviews.
Each interview began with a reminder that if the officers lied, they could be charged with a crime, McClelland testified Monday. Each officer was then asked to review the report he wrote following Stinnett's arrest, reports that had been turned in to the FBI at the beginning of April. Each defendant stood by his report.
Eaton’s statements made during his April 20, 2010, interview were generally consistent with what he wrote in his report, McClelland said. Eaton was the first member of law enforcement to catch Stinnett on foot, and thought he saw a pistol in Stinnett’s hands, which were clenched in front of his chest, McClelland testified. As Stinnett looked ready to run, Eaton told the agents he pulled out his baton, a decision McClelland said he would not have made when allegedly facing a possible pistol.
"I would expect an officer to pull out a gun if a suspect he had a weapon like that," McClelland testified.
Despite questioning the decision to pull out an asp instead of a gun, both McClelland and Brown confirmed to True that a law enforcement officer does not have to “engage in 60 questions” before taking action if he is facing a suspect he thinks is holding a weapon.
Similar to his BCSO report, Eaton told the agents he hit Stinnett three, or no more than four, times with his baton, and Stinnett remained standing. His second strike was aimed at the collar bone, and while he did not notice that he hit Stinnett's head, McClelland said Eaton told the agents he may have inadvertently hit Stinnett on his head with the baton. Stinnett then kicked Eaton, and Eaton backed away from the confrontation in pain as another officer, followed shortly by two more, arrived on scene.
Eaton said the other officers were able to wrestle Stinnett to the ground, and Eaton supplied his handcuffs for Stinnett's apprehension. Stinnett became compliant after he was cuffed, and Brown testified that Eaton said no force “was used or was necessary” after Stinnett was cuffed. No one hit Stinnett after he was handcuffed, Eaton said both in the FBI interview and his report.
Eaton said he did notice blood on the ground after Stinnett's arrest, and he told the FBI that Stinnett’s head was near an air conditioner unit during the struggle.
Bennett told the FBI that when he arrived on the scene, Stinnett was already on the ground and one officer holding a baton was with him, McClelland said, which conflicted with Eaton’s account. Bennett reported that he saw the suspect, while flailing on the ground, kick the officer holding the baton. Bennett and two other officers then joined the confrontation. Bennett straddled Stinnett while he and the other officers tried to pull Stinnett’s hands out from under his stomach. In Bennett’s BCSO report, he wrote that he broke his hand during the struggle with Stinnett.
During the FBI interview, McClelland said, Bennett was less sure. He thought he broke it in the struggle, but it may have been when he jumped a fence. He told the agents he did not notice the pain until after Stinnett was apprehended, McClelland testified.
“He just wasn’t sure how he broke it when we asked him clarifying questions,” McClelland said.
Bennett denied hitting Stinnett or seeing another officer hit Stinnett, but said he had “tunnel vision” during the altercation. No one hit Stinnett after he was handcuffed, Bennett told the FBI. He did notice blood on the air conditioning unit after the struggle. The struggle lasted about a minute, Bennett told the FBI according to McClelland’s testimony.
If the struggle itself was a minute, Patel asked McClelland if it sounded like only a minute and 13 seconds could have passed from the beginning of the foot pursuit until officers walked Stinnett away from the scene, and McClelland said no.
During his April 20, 2010, interview, Guffey told the FBI he saw Stinnett crash his van and run away from the area. Guffey got out of his truck, which he had parked as a road block, and ran after Stinnett and the other officer pursuing Stinnett. When Guffey arrived at the confrontation, he said both in his report and his interview, that Stinnett was already on the ground and there was only one other officer with him. Guffey’s description more closely matched Bennett’s than Eaton’s. Guffey and two officers who arrived immediately after him struggled with Stinnett, according to McCelland’s testimony about Guffey’s interview, until Guffey could get another officer’s handcuffs on the suspect.
When asked if he saw anyone hit Stinnett, McClelland testified Guffey told him he had “tunnel vision” during the struggle, the same phrase Bennett used.
In Guffey’s BCSO report, he wrote that Stinnett still struggled with officers once he was in handcuffs.
In his April 20, 2010, interview, McClelland testified that Guffey said Stinnett became compliant once he was handcuffed and Guffey felt like he could leave the scene. He went to process Stinnett’s van. After processing the van, McClelland said Guffey told the FBI he went back to the scene of the struggle, found a vial of methamphetamine on the ground and noticed some blood on the air conditioning unit.
Guffey was indicted on an extra charge of making a false statement because of an interview he agreed to on March 7, 2011. In that interview, Brown said some of the details of Guffey’s account changed, including what he did when he left Stinnett, whether he was the one to straddle Stinnett during the struggle and whether he saw blood at the scene of the arrest. The charge on the indictment only describes the change in what Guffey said about observing blood.
None of the defendants offered explanations to the FBI when the agents told them some witnesses offered different accounts of the encounter with Stinnett, McClelland said.
Eaton offered his baton to Brown for testing on April 20, 2010, True said. Brown confirmed Eaton made that offer, but said at that time Brown thought, and told Eaton, that any evidence would have been wiped off, so the FBI agent did not accept the offer.
“Another piece of evidence was offered, to you to analyze, and you didn’t take it,” True said Monday.
Telling the truth
It comes down to the FBI agents’ determinations of who is telling the truth, defense attorneys said during cross examinations. True questioned how Brown could believe Adam Minor after Minor admitted to lying to him with a straight face, and Brown said he was confident Minor lied to protect his interests, but then realized lying was no longer in his best interest. Alexander asked McClelland how they could decide Bennett was lying, when his accounts of the incident have remained consistent.
“So who gets to decide who’s telling the truth?” Alexander asked McClelland.
“I guess the jury does,” McClelland said.
True had not finished cross examining Brown by the time court recessed Monday afternoon. Cross examination will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday.