News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
SUNDAY, JUNE 17, 2007

County vehicles sold for $2,000
Lawrence deal seen as money-loser for Sheriff’s Department, but who’s to blame?

By Kristen Bishop · 340-2443

MOULTON — The Lawrence County Commission’s sale of vehicles in the county lot in January jeopardized multiple investigations, allowed marked sheriff’s vehicles to possibly end up in the wrong hands and may have lost more than $15,000 for the Sheriff’s Department.

Information from Commissioner Bradley Cross and County Administrator Linda Harville may have led to the commission’s action.

Cross moved to sell the vehicles in January, said Chairman Mose Jones.

“He came in there and said something about a couple of old vehicles, salvage vehicles,” said Jones. “I don’t think he said the actual numbers, but he made a motion to that effect.”

According to photos taken by Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell, who took office just weeks after the vehicles were sold, there were actually 26 unused sheriff’s vehicles, a motor home belonging to the county Emergency Management Agency, a Department of Conservation boat and at least four privately-owned vehicles.

Two of those vehicles were part of ongoing investigations with the Sheriff’s Department and state troopers.

The entire lot went to Willard Cole of Moulton for $2,000.

According to Harville, it all started with Cross asking her to sell salvaged vehicles at the county lot in order to take advantage of high scrap metal prices and to clear the lot for more vehicles.

She said she told him then that she would have to run an ad and would need a majority vote from the commission to do so.

Harville placed an advertisement seeking “sealed proposals for salvage vehicles” in the Moulton Advertiser on Dec. 20. It ran one week.

The ad did not say how many vehicles were for sale or in what condition they were at that time. Harville said she didn’t include that information because she didn’t know; she never visited the lot.

Harville also insisted that the commission gave her permission to run the advertisement in December, but neither the minutes from the December commission meeting nor her notes documented the motion to do that.

As for the subsequent sale, she said she only did what commissioners told her to do.

The January minutes show that the commission approved the sale 4-1 with Commissioner Alma Whitlow opposed. However, Commissioner John Terry said he did not vote because Jones never called for a nay vote.

The commission’s tape of the meeting made by Harville did not record the vote.

The commission received only two bids for the vehicles, one for $1,850 from Tony Scott Wrecker Service and the one awarded to Cole.

Tony Scott told The Daily he was not willing to discuss the bid and hung up the phone after a reporter asked him how he knew what he was bidding on.

Harville told The Daily on Wednesday that outgoing Sheriff Bryan Hill was responsible for telling the mechanic on the lot, Buddy Oliver, which vehicles were for sale.

Oliver declined comment, but Sheriff Gene Mitchell said Oliver told him that no one had advised him until Cole arrived to pick up the vehicles.

“Buddy told me that when Cole came to pick them up, (Cole) told him he’d bought it all, and he was taking it all,” said Mitchell. “Buddy went inside and called (Harville), who told him, ‘Yes, he gets everything on the lot.’ ”

Hill was not aware that the vehicles were being sold until someone called to let him know Cole was hauling them off the lot, said Mitchell.

Hill could not be reached for comment.

Neither Harville, the Sheriff’s Department, nor the county transportation office was able to provide an inventory and paper trail on the sold vehicles.

The problem could have been prevented if Harville or a commissioner had provided Cole with titles to the vehicles he purchased. The majority of the titles remain at the Sheriff’s Department, said Mitchell.

“The owner should have been provided with titles, and all that should have been sorted out beforehand,” said Linda Barrontine, assistant division director of the county audit division of the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts. “Normally, when (counties) sell items, they have their paperwork in order.”

That responsibility would have fallen with Harville, who collected payment.

The $2,000 went into the sheriff’s vehicle fund. Mitchell said they could have made about 10 times that much on the 26 sheriff’s cars if the advertisement had run correctly. A scrap yard would have paid about $300 for each.

Most of the cars had more than 300,000 miles on them but could probably run with repairs. The Sheriff’s Department markings were not removed before the sale and, if sold to the wrong people, the cars could be used to smuggle drugs or for other criminal activity.

Cole, who was unavailable for comment Friday, told the sheriff he had a record of all the vehicle identification numbers, said Mitchell, but had not provided the Sheriff’s Department with those numbers.

As of Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department had located only 15 of the cars. Cole had sold those cars to Larry’s Mustang Supply in Moulton.

“The others, according to witnesses, went somewhere toward Muscle Shoals on a truck,” said Mitchell. “There could be running marked sheriff’s cars in somebody’s garage right now. If they were repaired and cleaned up, they’d look as good as our cars.”

The motor home that was sold had only 18,000 miles on it and included an expensive generator. Mitchell said Cole changed its battery and drove it off the lot.

It wasn’t clear who were the rightful owners of two of the privately owned vehicles that were sold, but the other two were confiscated by law enforcement agencies during investigations.

One belonged to the late Phillip Shelton, who disappeared in 2003. His remains were later found on Alabama 33. The mystery surrounding his death is still unsolved.

The Sheriff’s Department was able to recover the vehicle but not until after it had been “handled and molested,” said Mitchell.

“How much value it will be to the investigation at this point, we don’t know,” he said. “We got it just in case, but it ruins the integrity of the investigation.”

The sheriff and state troopers also recovered the boat in Jasper and returned it to the Department of Conservation.

As for returning the other vehicles to their rightful owners or keeping the marked sheriff’s cars from the public, the commission’s hands may be tied at this point, said Terry.

“There’s nothing we can do now. (The cars) are gone or have been destroyed,” he said. “... The commission just made a bad decision. We were taking the word of one commissioner on the whole deal.

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