By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Ex-trooper Chris Hughes’ supervisors are under scrutiny by the FBI over abuse allegations brought by the public, the state’s top law enforcement official says.
Usually, public complaints about troopers go through a series of up-the-chain reviews, but not in this case, said Albert Santa Cruz, Mississippi’s commissioner of public safety, who oversees the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
“This was not the norm – we called in the FBI,” he explained last week.
Santa Cruz, a former Biloxi area trooper, took over at the Department of Public Safety in February 2011.
Hughes, 41, will be sentenced in a few months after he pleaded guilty recently to depriving a woman of her civil rights while he worked as a trooper, legally termed “under the color of law.”
The woman was slammed to the concrete floor and stomped by Hughes when he took her to the Lee County Jail after he arrested her Oct. 14, 2007.
He was indicted just a few days short of a five-year deadline for prosecution. State deadlines to file criminal charges had expired.
Hughes faces up to 41 months in federal custody, although Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. will make the final decision.
A recently filed federal civil lawsuit against Hughes and Officers X, Y and Z claims to document seven incidents in which Hughes beat or otherwise mistreated motorists he stopped on north Mississippi roadways.
These alleged incidents range from 2007 through July 16, 2012.
Today, questions remain:
• Who were Hughes’ supervisors?
• Did they know about the beating allegations?
• If they did, what did they do about them?
Friday, an official MHP response terms questions like this “a personnel matter” not likely to be answered anytime soon because of an “ongoing federal investigation.”
Sheriff Jim Johnson is the top man over operations at the Lee County Jail in Tupelo, where the 2007 beating occurred, two other incidents are alleged to have occurred and a fourth recognized as serious enough to take the arrested person to North Mississippi Medical Center for treatment of a broken jaw.
“At the end of the day, the FBI got the case,” Johnson said about at least one of the incidents.
The Lee County Adult Jail receives those arrested from throughout the immediate region and the arresting agents range from MHP to small, local police forces.
A video camera system Johnson said he had installed in 2004 records much of what goes on in the facility, including bookings as arrested persons are brought in.
“Any time there’s a incident inside the jail, it’s documented,” the sheriff said.
Johnson said that whenever someone complains about their treatment, his staff members listen to the complaint and then refer the person to the agency whose officer is the focus of the complaint.
That’s what happened after the Hughes incident in 2007, he said. No complaints ever came from the woman at the center of the jail beating or anyone else associated with her.
But once his staff realized “there was a situation” with an MHP trooper, Lee County’s chief deputy contacted Hughes’ immediate supervisors, reportedly Master Sgt. Steve Hood or Capt. Jeff McNeese.
MHP investigators came to Johnson’s office, picked up a copy of the jail video of the incident and that was the end of it, as far as any more interaction with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson said.
Years went by.
Sources close to MHP, who asked not to be identified, say perhaps sometime in 2008, Hughes was transferred to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation as a sergeant, but he was back as a trooper at least by 2010 when one of the alleged beatings reportedly occurred.
“The next thing I heard about it,” Johnson said, “the FBI contacted us.
“The FBI asked for the video and we turned everything we had over to them,” Johnson said. “You trust other agencies to look into the behavior of their own employees.”
That wasn’t the last Johnson heard about Hughes, though, he said.
In May 2012, Tupelo High School teacher Matilda Moore came to Johnson’s office with a complaint about her treatment by Hughes.
Moore claimed that on the night after THS graduation she and a friend were stopped at an MHP roadblock and they admitted to consumption of a small amount of alcohol.
They were taken to the jail, where the nearly 64-year-old Moore insists Hughes “began to threaten and assault me.”
She was advised to take her complaint to MHP and an attorney called for a copy of the video. She also wrote a two-page letter to the MHP district office in New Albany.
Johnson said Moore came back for a second visit and had an MHP complaint packet with her.
“That’s the last I heard of it,” the sheriff said.
Looking over the recent civil lawsuit accusing Hughes of multiple incidents of abuse, Johnson said the four are a lot.
“It looks like a pattern,” he said, although he had no answers about why nothing official came from any incident except the one in 2007.
Moore did not respond to a Daily Journal email asking for an interview.
Santa Cruz echoed Johnson’s view of what happens with complaints, saying the first person to be notified by MHP would be the trooper’s supervisor, a master sergeant. Then the complainant is sent a form to be filled out, notarized and returned to MHP.
For many, the process stops before the form is filled out. But for those who persist, MHP continues its efforts, Santa Cruz said.
“If they go to the trouble of getting it notarized, they really feel they have been wronged,” he said.
Most complaints are handled at the district level, the DPS chief said, which means not many of them rise to the top echelon’s attention.
The FBI declined to comment on questions about the Hughes investigation.
But Santa Cruz said when the FBI began its examination of the Hughes complaints and spoke with alleged victims, “things just snowballed” and more information came their way.
While the DPS chief admits he isn’t privy yet to what the FBI has or will learn, he says they surely are looking at who knew about the Hughes incidents and what actions they took about them.
In Hughes’ Feb. 25 plea agreement supplement, which is mostly standard language in federal cases, he signed the document agreeing to cooperate with the U.S. attorney and any other agents who want to interview him about what he knows. He also agreed to take a polygraph test, if requested.
CLAIMS IN RECORD
Other public documents tell part of the story, although they mostly state the perspective of the alleged victim and standard legal denials by the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
In one federal case that worked its way to a settlement, the Mississippi Legislature approved payment to William T. Brann of Belden, who claimed Hughes and others used “unreasonable force” to arrest him Dec. 31, 2007, in Lee County.
Brann claimed Hughes beat him in the head repeatedly and fractured his skull, causing permanent brain damage.
In the end, the federal judge dismissed Brann’s claims against MHP and Hughes in his “official capacity,” but retained Hughes as an individual defendant.
On Feb. 21, John A. Hawn of Saltillo filed a federal civil lawsuit against Hughes and listed the 2007 and Brann incidents among six others he claims Hughes abused as a trooper. None of the listed “victims” could be found or, if so, returned requests for comment.
Sheriff Johnson is quick to say he doesn’t condone improper behavior by law enforcement with the public.
But he also knows how a rowdy, drunk or stoned, verbally abusive driver could trigger a bad reaction from the law enforcement officers who stop him or her.
Whether anything more will result from the FBI’s continued investigation is anybody’s guess, said Johnson, Santa Cruz and others who know about the case.
Retired Col. Michael Berthay of Saltillo, who was MHP chief during much of Hughes’ career, is on private work in Afghanistan and did not respond to a Daily Journal email last week.
One immediate supervisor, Master Sgt. Steve Hood, died in a 2009 roadway mishap.
Lt. James Brown, who was a captain when he received Moore’s 2012 complaint letter, was out of state and could not be reached for comment.
Capt. Jeffrey McNeese of Itawamba County, now retired from New Albany Troop F office, out of which Hughes worked, did not respond to a Daily Journal call for comment.
Answers appear unlikely at least until the FBI investigation is complete.