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Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely found guilty on two counts in ethics trial

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely(Source: WAFF)
Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 4:48 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2021 at 12:38 PM CDT
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LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. (WAFF) - After more than two weeks, the trial of Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely has concluded. Blakely was found guilty on two counts and not guilty on eight counts by a jury on Monday.

Sheriff Blakely was accused of stealing campaign donations, taking personal loans from Sheriff’s Office funds without paying interest, and soliciting money from Sheriff’s Office employees.

At last word, Blakely’s position is currently being filled by Limestone County Coroner Mike West, until Governor Kay Ivey appoints a replacement. Her spokesperson said Ivey will begin accepting resumes and head into the interview process in the coming weeks.

WAFF’s Tiffany Thompson spokes with Acting Sheriff Mike West on Tuesday morning.

Blakely’s attorneys speak after the jury returned two guilty verdicts:

Blakely faces possible sentences of two to 20 years for the felony theft conviction, as well as two to 20 years for the felony ethics conviction, according to Attorney General Steve Marshall.

“Public officials must set the highest example of accountability, and no matter how long someone holds office they are not above the law,” said Attorney General Marshall. “Sheriff Blakely repeatedly swore an oath to enforce and obey the law during his 40 years in office, and he now knows the consequences of violating that oath.

WAFF is told sentencing will occur on August 20 at 10 a.m.

Blakely’s team entered a motion to bond out the former Sheriff. The State has filed an objection to this motion.

HOW IT STARTED

Blakely has a long history with Limestone County. He was sworn in as sheriff of Limestone County in 1983 and was elected to his tenth term in 2018. Blakely worked as an Alabama State Trooper from 1972 to 1983.

The beginnings of this behemoth of a trial started back in 2018 after the Alabama Ethics Commission said they found probable cause to believe Blakely violated the Alabama Ethics Act. Back then, Blakely believed that the attorney general’s office investigation will exonerate him.

On August 23, 2019, Blakely was arrested and indicted on 13 theft and ethics charges. Two of these charges would be dropped before the trial began.

CHARGES

After the first two charges were dropped pre-trial, the following 11 remained:

CAMPAIGN FINANCE Related:

#1 - THEFT OF PROPERTY 2ND DEGREE - OVER A $1,500 CHECK FROM THE AL REALTORS POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE - NOT GUILTY

#2 - THEFT OF PROPERTY 1ST DEGREE - OVER A $4,000 CHECK FROM RED BRICK STRATEGIES - GUILTY

#3 - THEFT OF PROPERTY 2ND DEGREE - OVER A $2,500 CHECK FROM AUSTIN HINDS MOTOR INC - NOT GUILTY

#4 - THEFT OF PROPERTY 1ST DEGREE - OVER A $3,000 CHECK FROM FRIENDS OF MIKE BLAKELY- NOT GUILTY

SHERIFF’S OFFICE & EMPLOYEE FUNDS:

#5 - THEFT OFO PROPERTY 3RD DEGREE OVER A $2,500 CHECK DATED 12/1/14 THAT WAS FROM THE LIMESTONE CO SHERIFF’S OFFICE FUND (Dropped)

#6 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - OVER A $1,000 CHECK SENT FROM A LIMESTONE CO SHERIFF’S OFFICE EMPLOYEE - (Dropped)

#7 - THEFT OF PROPERTY 4TH DEGREE (MISDEMEANOR) - OVER A PORTION OF A $1,500 CHECK FROM 8/15/16 AND A $218.36 CHECK FROM 8/22/17 THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FOR LIMESTONE CO SHERIFF LAW ENFORCEMENT FUND - (Dropped)

#8 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - THIS OVER THE SAME CHECKS FROM COUNT #7 - NOT GUILTY

#9 - SOLICITING A THING OF VALUE FROM A SUBORDINATE - SOLICITING A THING OF VALUE FROM A SHERIFF’S OFFICE EMPLOYEE THAT WAS OVER $1,000 - NOT GUILTY

INTEREST-FREE LOANS:

#10 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - OVER A $50,000 CASHIER’S CHECK AND/OR A $22,189.68 CREDIT USED FOR AN INTEREST-FREE LOAN FROM SHERIFF’S OFFICE FUNDS - NOT GUILTY

#11 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - OVER OBTAINING INTEREST-FREE LOANS FROM A SAFE THAT HELD MONEY BELONGING TO LIMESTONE CO. INMATES - NOT GUILTY

#12 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - OVER A $50,000 CASHIER’S CHECK AND/OR A $22,189.68 CREDIT USED FOR AN INTEREST-FREE LOAN FROM SHERIFF’S OFFICE FUNDS - NOT GUILTY

#13 - USE OF OFFICIAL POSITION OR OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN - OVER OBTAINING INTEREST-FREE LOANS FROM A SAFE THAT HELD MONEY BELONGING TO LIMESTONE CO. INMATES - GUILTY

JURY SELECTION PROCESS

The jury selection of the trial began almost two years later. Media was initially blocked from jury selection but after a motion was filed by several news outlets, including WAFF 48 News, the media was allowed to cover the second day of jury selection.

Jury selection continued into day three, with 500 potential jurors summoned. Several of the potential jurors knew Blakely or had prior knowledge of the trial. Jury selection pushed on into its fourth day. This was the first full day that the media was allowed to cover the jury selection process. Several potential jurors said they felt that Sheriff Blakely was a good sheriff and one even thought that this trial was happening due to politics. Jury selection ended later that day. On July 16, shortly before 10:00 a.m., the jury was finalized. 12 jurors and three alternatives were selected from 500 potential jurors.

OPENING STATEMENTS

After four days, the jury was seated and opening statements began. Prosecutors said Blakely did all of that for his own gain. Blakely’s defense team insists the Sheriff never committed a crime and they will prove it. The court adjourned at noon and was scheduled to resume that following Monday.

WITNESS TESTIMONY

Witness testimony began on Monday, July 19. The defense asked for a mistrial during testimony. Not long into testimony, the judge sent the jury out and both the state and defense approached the judge and began to argue. Late Monday night, a motion was filed by the defense team requesting the Judge to dismiss count 2, theft of property.

The second day of witness testimony pertained to Blakely’s former jail accountant clerk. She said Blakely would regularly take money that belonged to inmates from a safe, and she would mark an IOU to which he would never immediately pay back.

Only four witnesses took the stand on the third day of testimony. Most answered questions about Sheriff Blakely’s work trips, gambling habits and conferences. Prosecutors say at some of those conferences, Blakely spent a lot of time gambling, and they had records to show it.

The fourth day of testimony started on an unusual note, the defense team said there had been possible witness intimidation the previous day. An investigator who testified the day before said two FBI agents pulled him aside before he took the stand, and reminded him not to lie, or he could perjure himself. Prosecutors then started focusing on Blakely’s gambling and a golfing trip to Biloxi. Director of casino operations at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Mississippi testified that records show Blakely spent roughly $20,000 gambling during his stay, and only redeemed $1,000 of that.

The first week of testimony ended with laughs in the courtroom from spectators. Two men involved in a business with ties to Blakely took the stand and had very different opinions on the inner workings of the business. The business is called HIGO LLC. Brad Pullum and Tong Shen Chiou testified about it, and this was one of Pullum’s business ventures. Both testified that they loaned around $72,000 to Blakely.

The second week of witness testimony began on July 26. Sheriff’s Office Chief Clerk Debbie Davis was once again called up to testify regarding a receipt from one of the Vegas trips that prosecutors believe was withheld from them. The reimbursement check was for $900. From previous testimony, we learned during a 2014 Vegas work trip, Blakely had another employee wire him $500 from the inmate fund.

After more than two weeks, the prosecution rested its case. The state told the judge that they rested their case right before the lunch break, the defense then began their witness testimony. A juror was removed from the trial due to a relationship she had with an inmate that she discussed the case with him. The judge also dismissed one of Blakely’s charges

The next day, July 28, the defense team had been quickly going through their witnesses, but Sheriff Blakely had still not taken the stand. The judge asked attorneys to start proposing verdict forms as they head into the next day.

THE SHERIFF TAKES THE STAND

On Thursday, July 29, Sheriff Mike Blakely took the stand.

Sheriff Blakely had a very normal and calm demeanor while on the stand and even had the courtroom laughing at times. Blakely was on the stand for hours and went into detail to explain his side of the story for each of the charges he is facing.

When it comes to campaign funds, Blakely deposited into his personal account, he testified this was to reimburse election costs he had spent, he did this per the advice of his treasurer and said he never put money himself in his campaign account. The state said there were no receipts for this, and claimed each of the deposits were to avoid an overdraft.

Blakely denied that allegation.

Blakely then addressed claims of gambling while on work conference trips. In regards to Las Vegas, Blakely said no money spent gambling came from county funds. As for the Orange Beach ACCA conference that Blakely left to golf and gamble in Biloxi, he said he never intended on staying the whole conference.

We’ve heard a lot about Blakely borrowing money from the inmate fund the department has, and he said the IOU system has been in place before he was Sheriff, and that this fund was like petty cash for employees.

Four character witnesses took the stand after Blakely and all said he has a great reputation and is known to be very honest in the community. Closing arguments will begin Friday. Madison Scarpino will be back in the courtroom live-tweeting updates as this historic trial wraps up.

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