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Gary Huckaby leaves the federal courthouse with his wife during a lunch break. Huckaby, a former Alabama Bar Association president, is charged with abusive sexual contact and indecent exposure.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Gary Huckaby leaves the federal courthouse with his wife during a lunch break. Huckaby, a former Alabama Bar Association president, is charged with abusive sexual contact and indecent exposure.

Officer's video could undermine testimony
U.S. witness recorded meeting
with Huckaby's attorneys

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

A state wildlife officer testified Tuesday that he witnessed former Alabama Bar Association President Gary C. Huckaby grabbing the crotch of a plain-clothes officer July 20 at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

But the testimony of Jerome Lowery III, an officer with the state Department of Conservation and Wildlife Resources, could come under fire Wednesday, if the defense plays a secretly recorded video from the scene of the alleged crime.

Huckaby is one of 28 indicted for sexual activity at Wheeler during a four-day operation.

Lowery is a newcomer to the Wheeler trials because, he said, Huckaby's conduct was the only crime he witnessed during the operation.

He was stationed in the woods off Wheeler's Beaverdam Boardwalk Trail in eastern Limestone County, part of the North Alabama Birding Trail. He was about 30 yards from the bench where the government claims Huckaby grabbed refuge officer Greg Blanks.

Lowery is about 35. He approached the witness stand timidly. He was a state officer with a minor role in a federal operation. He proceeded, however, to give a detailed account of what he said he witnessed. He remembered even that Huckaby had a large, multi-colored pen in his shirt pocket.

He said that from his position, watching through binoculars, he saw Huckaby grab Blanks twice. He said Huckaby's back was facing him, so he could not verify Blanks' testimony that Huckaby also exposed and fondled his own genitals.

Huckaby, he said, was wearing a pressed, white dress shirt "that almost glowed," dark slacks and dress shoes. The top button of Huckaby's shirt was unbuttoned.

Then defense attorney Mark White went to work.

At issue was Lowery's participation in a December meeting with several of Huckaby's lawyers at the scene of the alleged offense. One purpose of that meeting was to determine where Lowery had been standing when he saw the incident.

"You were secretly recording it (the meeting), weren't you?" asked White.

Objections and conferences with the judge followed, but the end result was that Lowery had hidden a small digital camera — with the video turned on — in his handcuff holder and recorded the entire meeting with the lawyers. He did so, he said, without the knowledge of the government's attorney or of anyone else present.

White indicated the defense would play the video to the jury Wednesday morning. He said he first received it Monday morning, pursuant to a subpoena.

The main significance of the recording may be its contrast to the July 20 operation. The government must rely entirely on eyewitness testimony because, testified refuge officer Darrin Speegle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had no video or audio equipment available.

Lowery said he had the same camera he used to record the meeting with them lawyers available when he witnessed the Huckaby encounter, but he did not use it.

White spent much of Tuesday hammering at deficiencies in the operation, which netted more than two dozen alleged sex criminals. Almost all were accused of homosexual conduct directed at Blanks, who was out of uniform.

White questioned several prosecution witnesses on whether the operation was "undercover," a label the prosecution has rejected in all of the cases. According to regulations White introduced, refuge officers have limited authority to conduct an "undercover" operation, but they may conduct "plain clothes" or "covert" operations.

U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler generally hampered White's line of inquiry, especially after the Atlanta-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director testified he authorized the operation. White could attack the competence of the investigation, the judge said, but there was no evidence that it was beyond the authority of the refuge officers.

Assistant U.S. District Attorney David Estes had Blanks re-enact the contact with Huckaby, with Speegle playing Huckaby's part. The skit bypassed the pornographic details, but had the jury riveted.

Blanks, in a pre-trial proceeding, testified he was seated on a bench with his feet 4 or 5 inches apart when Huckaby grabbed him. White pulled out a yardstick to measure the distance between his feet in the courtroom.

As White stooped to take the measurement, Blanks offered to measure it himself.

"No, no," said White, "Let me."

Several jurors broke out laughing.

"(Huckaby) was a lot closer to me than you are," Blanks said. "See how uncomfortable this is? He was closer."

White repeatedly asked Blanks whether there was "anything unusual" about the appearance of Huckaby's exposed genitals. Aside from the erection, Blanks said there was not. Huckaby has yet to testify.

White showed inconsistencies between written notes prepared by Blanks a few hours after his contact with Huckaby and his testimony Tuesday. The notes suggested he and Huckaby approached each other on the boardwalk, after which Blanks sat on the bench. In his testimony, Blanks said he was already seated when Huckaby approached him.

The inconsistency highlights two themes White seems to be pursuing. One, Blanks cited so many people during the four-day operation that he may have confused the details. Two, that Blanks was "bait," actively soliciting contact from those he later charged with sexual misconduct.

In his second day of testimony, Speegle, who heads Wheeler law enforcement, said he has tried numerous tactics to reduce sexual activity at the refuge over the past 10 years.

In addition to a dozen operations similar to the one beginning July 20, he said, he has tried patrolling the trails in uniform and displaying signs indicating the area was videotaped. He said none of his efforts significantly reduced the activity.

"We're trying to get legitimate users and the public to use (Beaverdam Boardwalk)," Speegle said, "not people that are using drugs, committing sex acts and throwing trash down."

Each side objected repeatedly to the other's questions. White appeared frustrated at the interruptions, saying they were designed to prepare the witness for the coming questions.

"(The witness) is sitting on the stand," he said to the judge at one point, "and you're fixing to tell him where my cross is going."

White also expressed anger at prosecution witnesses who gave lengthy answers to yes-or-no questions. The judge sided with him at times, but not always.

In response to one of White's requests that a witness's lengthy answer be stricken from the record, the judge said, "That's one of those questions like, 'Have you stopped beating your wife.' I'm going to allow him to answer other than 'yes' or 'no.' "

If convicted, Huckaby could lose his law license and be forced to register as a sex offender. Huckaby has denied all charges.

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