By Patsy R. Brumfield
Ex-trooper Christopher Hughes may be in federal prison, serving his 33-month sentence for violating the civil rights of a woman he beat and stomped in the Lee County Jail six years ago, but the tale of his allegedly abusive Highway Patrol career festers in a civil lawsuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed last February, recently public amended complaints raise more questions about who knew what and when about attacks on motorists.
In response to Daily Journal calls, the Mississippi Highway Patrol responds to all questions about the situation: “Call the FBI.”
The civil lawsuit was filed by John A. Hawn, who claims he was “savagely” beaten by Hughes, who had established a roadblock with MHP officer Jody Berryhill.
In a third version of his complaints, which hasn’t yet been approved to be filed, Hawn and four new plaintiffs insist that Michael Berthay of Saltillo, who was MHP’s director from March 2006 until June 2010, deliberately looked the other way on Hughes’ alleged repeated physical abuse of the public.
To be fair to Berthay, only one of the alleged abuse incidents by Hughes cited in the lawsuit is dated within Berthay’s time as director.
The case is set to go on trial Sept. 15, 2014.
As the legal complaint continues to be revised, more questions arise.
• Were alleged beatings in the Lee County Jail covered up or were they made up?
• If they happened, why didn’t the alleged victims report the abuse to authorities?
• If they happened, why didn’t the District Attorney’s Office know about them?
This story always begins on Oct. 14, 2007, when Hughes attacked arrestee Carol Wampler-George at the Lee County Jail. She then complained about it to the sheriff’s department.
Former District Attorney John R. Young, in office at the time, says his office never heard a thing about this incident. He went out of office at the end of 2011.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson says he never told Young, although the incident report and a video of the attack were given to MHP’s New Albany office leadership.
The video reportedly was viewed soon after the 2007 incident by MHP’s Capt. Jeff McNeese and Maj. Bill Ellis, who took the copy. Ellis then contacted Berthay, who traveled to New Albany to view the video. Hughes was neither prosecuted on state charges nor was he disciplined.
At Hughes’ federal sentencing, for violating Wampler-George’s rights against excessive force, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. said he’d seen the video, terming what he saw “uncalled for.”
In exchange for Hughes’ guilty plea, the government agreed not to charge him in two other felony cases of depriving motorists their rights while he was a law enforcement officer. These cases – cited by their initials and dates – match up with plaintiffs John A. Hawn and Heather Seawright.
Both cases allegedly occurred in 2012.
The Hawn etc. lawsuit claims McNeese said in his under-oath deposition that he did not report Hughes’ actions to Berthay for fear McNeese would be fired. The Troop F captain also admitted he took no action against Hughes.
At his questioning taken under oath, Berthay reportedly said he didn’t act against Hughes after the Lee County Jail incident because Sheriff Jim Johnson told him that he, Johnson, would report the excessive force to the FBI.
But Johnson, in his deposition and to the Daily Journal, says he never told Berthay he’d go to the FBI. He maintains that the disciplinary action was MHP’s responsibility.
Two months after the Wampler-George beating, Dec. 30, 2007, MHP officers stopped William T. Brann, who was intoxicated and possibly under the influence of drugs.
Hughes went to the arrest scene and beat Brann’s head repeatedly with his metal flashlight, causing Brann permanent brain damage.
This incident is well-documented in a lawsuit Brann brought in federal court and later settled with money from the Mississippi Legislature.
In February 2008, Berthay transferred Hughes out of enforcement, the lawsuit states, and did not reveal to Deputy Director Berry, to MHP Internal Affairs or to his successor, Albert Santa Cruz, the existence of the videotape, which was kept at Troop F headquarters in New Albany.
Berthay resigned from the MHP in June 2010. Hawn’s lawsuit claims he still had not told his successor or Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson or Internal Affairs about the Wampler-George videotape or anything else about Hughes’ behavior.
After Berthay’s resignation, Hughes asked for and got transferred back into Troop F, “where his violence upon people on the public highways continued,” the lawsuit says.
With Hughes’ return to the road, more incidents reportedly occur:
• Oct. 17, 2010 – Hughes and several other MHP patrolmen stop Pontotoc Countian Bryan Lindsey in Lee County. In response to Lindsey’s protest about being taken to jail, Hughes allegedly rams Lindsey’s head into a police vehicle or strikes his face with a flashlight, causing “deep cuts” to Lindsey’s head. Troop F Lt. James Brown investigates and terms Hughes’ use of force “extreme and unnecessary.”
Internal Affairs concludes Hughes’ force is justified, but suggests remedial training for Hughes. Hawn’s lawsuit claims this training never occurred.
• Aug. 4, 2011 – Ronnie Horton, 55, of Lee County and chairman of several church boards of deacons, loses consciousness from low blood pressure as he drives home. Hughes reportedly assumes Horton is intoxicated and beats him in the mouth. The lawsuit insists there was no probable cause for Hughes’ arrest of Horton.
• April 28, 2012 – MHP officers arrest Heather Seawright of Lee County for DUI and other charges. At the Lee County Jail, Hughes allegedly strikes her in the face with his flashlight and smashes her head against a glass wall. He is not disciplined or charged with any crimes.
Seawright’s injuries are “clearly excessive” and a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights to protection from excessive force, the lawsuit insists.
• May 19, 2012 – Hughes arrests 63-year-old Tupelo school teacher Matilda Moore, who had just left a high school graduation ceremony. She was a passenger in a car Hughes stopped and, in answer to his question, said she’d had a glass of wine. At the Lee County Jail, Moore claims Hughes threw her up against a wall, bruised her body and threatened to break her arm.
Moore asserts that Hughes had no probable cause to arrest her and violated her rights to protection against excessive force.
Then comes the alleged incident with John Hawn, which prompted the initial lawsuit and likely contributed momentum for Hughes’ federal indictment.
• On July 16, 2012 – Hawn says he left his construction job and had been drinking beer before he was stopped by Hughes and MHP officer Berryhill at a roadblock. When Hawn drove around the roadblock onto Highway 178 and then bumped Hughes’ patrol car, Hughes “savagely” beat Hawn with a flashlight, knocking him unconscious and breaking bones in his face.
Hughes reportedly told Berryhill to destroy the video of the incident, then smashed Hawn’s vehicle front light and Berryhill did the same. The video was destroyed.
Hawn was taken to North Mississippi Medical Center, treated for a broken jaw and other injuries, then spent the next five days in the Lee County Jail until Sheriff Johnson ordered him released on his own recognizance.
At this point, something different happens.
MHP Officer Jerome Collins sees Hawn’s face and notifies MHP Lt. Brown, who earlier sought to take action after Lindsey’s beating. Brown searched Troop F’s files and found the 2007 Wampler-George videotape. Brown notified MHP Director Berry.
The situation escalates by a complaint to MHP by Hughes’ girlfriend, who reportedly told MHP about Hughes’ violence and steroid abuse.
Brown’s follow-through, coupled by the girlfriend’s complaint and a letter from Moore to Troop F, got the attention of Director Berry and Commissioner Santa Cruz. They directed Internal Affairs to investigate, which resulted in federal charges against Hughes.
Hawn’s lawyers – Waide & Associates, McLaughlin Law Firm and Victor Fleitas of Tupelo – have subpoenaed a long list of MHP-related people for pretrial questions, under oath.
Hawn etc.’s lawsuit raises the obvious questions: Why didn’t anybody do anything about Hughes before 2013? Or about the other alleged abuse incidents?
MHP says to call the FBI.
The FBI’s Office of Information Policy in Washington, D.C., continues to retain a Daily Journal request to examine its investigation file of the Hughes case.
About Berthay’s claim under oath that Sheriff Johnson told him he was going to contact the FBI, Johnson says no.
“I do not recall talking to Berthay nor do I recall any further action on our part after the initial meeting between my chief deputy and the Highway Patrol,” Johnson said, referring to the 2007 stomping incident.
“This was the meeting we presented them with the video about the incident in question. Since that meeting, we did not have any further contact with anyone until the FBI contacted us some years later and requested information. At that time we cooperated with the FBI.”
As to claims like Moore’s and Seawright’s, Johnson said he isn’t aware of “any other offenses” involving a Hughes attack on anyone else in the jail.
“The only one that was brought to my attention occurred outside the jail at a traffic stop,” the sheriff said, referring to Moore, “and I met with the complainant and gave her the information to contact the MHP.
“I know that advice was followed because I received a cc letter that she sent to MHP.”
The current district attorney’s administration, which took office in 2012, has not received any information about these allegations by Hawn, Seawright or the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
A spokesman said to call MHP about whether it’s conducting its own investigation.
In the meanwhile, 41-year-old Hughes bides his time in a Big Spring, Texas, low-security prison.
His estimated release date is Jan. 9, 2016.