Eight years ago, the United States Attorney's office in Memphis was pushing something called Operation Trigger Lock to combat violent criminals. You might say the feds have been in a different kind of trigger lock lately, unable to pull the trigger on four high-profile cases that have been around for anywhere from six months to almost two years.
The cases include the Albert Means football recruiting scandal, the terroristic attack on Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith, the misuse of county credit cards by former county mayoral aide Tom Jones, and the political corruption in former Shelby County Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun's office centered around Wilbun aide Darrell Catron.
U.S. Attorney Terry Harris and his staff, along with the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, haven't said anything about progress in the Smith case since the reclusive medical examiner was bound with barbed wire and had a bomb tied to him 11 months ago. And the slowpoke prosecutors appear to be either befuddled or biding their time on Jones, Catron, and former Trezevant coach Lynn Lang.
As a result of the feds hanging fire, the citizens of Shelby County don't know if the administration of former Mayor Jim Rout was rife with corruption and greed or just sloppy bookkeeping. The current administration of Mayor A C Wharton is hamstrung by a climate of suspicion and mistrust. A mad bomber with a grudge against the medical examiner apparently is still on the loose. And Logan Young, the University of Alabama football booster who supposedly paid Lang $200,000, remains unindicted but subjected to what amounts to water torture instead.
Taking the four cases in chronological order, here's the latest:
· In August 2001, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and his former colleague Harris jumped into the Albert Means case. In a joint news conference, they announced the federal indictments of ex-high school football coaches Lynn Lang and Milton Kirk. An indictment of Young, widely reported (although not in the indictment) to be the source of a payment of as much as $200,000 to Lang, seemed imminent.
But in 20 months since then, the prosecutors still haven't moved the ball past midfield. Kirk, who thrilled readers of The Commercial Appeal with his tales of "slave trading" by Lang and the University of Alabama, pled guilty to a minor charge. In November, Lang, who previously insisted he didn't get any money from Young, reversed his field, made a guilty plea, and said he got $150,000. Once again, Young's number seemed to be up. But the wealthy booster, who has said several times that he did not pay Lang, still has not been indicted.
So last week it was Alabama's turn to get the football. Attorney Tommy Gallion represents former Alabama assistant football coach Ronnie Cottrell, whose career was derailed by being connected to the recruiting of Means. Cottrell has sued the NCAA, the university, and several individuals for $60 million. Gallion came to Memphis to take depositions from three Memphians he believes are behind the Means story -- attorneys Karl Schledwitz and Arthur Kahn and UT football booster Roy Adams, aka "Tennstud." Adams didn't show up, so Gallion grilled Schledwitz and Kahn.
Gallion ran a couple of plays into the line for short gains but hinted that he will start throwing bombs soon. The bad blood between Young and Adams is well known since the publication in 2000 of Bragging Rights, Richard Ernsberger's book about Southeastern Conference football, and Adams' frequent Internet postings under his well-known alias, Tennstud. Without the star accuser, Gallion was forced to work around the edges of what he believes is a grand conspiracy against Alabama involving NCAA investigators, former Southeastern Conference Commissioner Roy Kramer, UT football coach Phil Fulmer, The Commercial Appeal, and the Memphis Three.
Schledwitz is a Tennessee graduate and fan who briefly represented Kirk then helped him find another lawyer. Kahn is a former assistant U.S. attorney who owns Arthur's Wine and Liquor and set up a fund to benefit the mother of Albert Means before it was revealed that she had, according to Lang, received $10,000 of the payout for Albert's services. Gallion noted that Kahn is married to Lisa Mallory, who was Logan Young's former girlfriend at the time they began dating. Gallion asked Kahn if Mallory was "wired up" by federal prosecutors. After some jousting about whether this was a privileged communication by virtue of marriage, Kahn declined to answer, leading Gallion to conclude that she was.
Gallion said Cottrell is a "scapegoat."
"I believe Logan Young is innocent," he said, adding that he had not met Young until three weeks ago. "Apparently they're having a hard time getting anything on him through the grand jury."
Last week Lang's sentencing was postponed for four more months.
· It was 11 months ago that the bizarre assault on medical examiner O.C. Smith shocked Memphis and brought a swarm of federal investigators to town to look for clues in a real-life version of television's CSI. With its overtones of terrorism, the case was called the "top priority" of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. But real crimes are a lot tougher to solve than fictional ones, even when the victim is a medical examiner with exceptional powers of observation who remained conscious and alert throughout the ordeal.
A spokesman for the Shelby County Health Department said Smith remains shaken by the experience and is not doing interviews. The office declined to provide a picture of him, although Smith participated in a televised news conference the day after he was released. There has been no trace of the religious nut investigators believe sent threatening letters to Smith, planted a bomb in the office that didn't go off, and then attacked him with razor wire and another homemade bomb, possibly over Smith's testimony in a murder case.
· The feds have been investigating Tom Jones since last fall after disclosures about his county credit card use. There have been no indictments in the case and Jones, a top aide to former Mayor Jim Rout, has not commented publicly about it.
Prosecutors and the FBI have interviewed Jones and his daughter and son-in-law about a honeymoon trip paid for through the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce's Memphis 2005 account. Sources told the Flyer that investigators are looking at other Memphis 2005 expenditures as well.
Memphis 2005 is a chamber-led effort to improve the Memphis business climate. Under the Rout administration, county government and the chamber were partners in a grab bag of loosely defined "economic development" projects with five- and six-figure appropriations. Chamber CEO Marc Jordan has said Jones was often his county contact and that his okay was usually good enough for funds to be released. The only person in county government with more power than Jones was Jim Rout.
· The focus of the second front in the county corruption investigation is Darrell Catron. Catron is cooperating with the feds; that much everyone agrees on. He pleaded guilty to information in lieu of indictment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Discenza told a federal judge that Catron was singing about unnamed contractors with the clerk's office. Catron was an aide to former Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun, a former member of the city council and the county commission.
Last week the government announced that Catron's sentencing, scheduled for May 2nd, had been postponed until October 24th.
|Tri-State Defender owner Tom Picou|
Former Defender managing editor Virginia Porter told the Flyer last week that Picou, nephew by marriage to John Sengstacke, founder of the Tri-State Defender and the Chicago Defender, was behind the weekly newspaper's long-running plagiarism scheme.
Porter said Picou "wrote" at least 184 stories and commentaries under the aliases Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy. Many of the stories were stolen from other weekly newspapers.
Picou denied the charge but declined to talk about it. He earlier said that Reeves was an elderly white freelance writer who worked for free and was never seen in the office.
"Writers are a dime a dozen," Picou told us before he stopped talking. So are thieves.
Environmental Court judge Larry Potter has given Central Gardens residents a two-week reprieve in their effort to keep Immaculate Conception Cathedral from tearing down a house it owns so it can build a parking lot.
The case is worth noting for a couple of reasons. It raises the issue of "willful neglect" as a way to tear down buildings in historic districts. And it brings together several powerful players in the continuing Memphis saga of historic preservation, church expansion, and enforcement of environmental anti-neglect measures.
The house is on York behind Immaculate Conception, which is a bastion of both the Central Gardens neighborhood and Midtown in general. York is on the fringe of the Central Gardens Historic Preservation District. York residents think the house could be saved. Immaculate Conception, which doesn't have the vacant land for expansion that suburban churches do, says it's too far gone and needs to come down. On Monday, Potter put the proposed demolition on hold for at least two weeks.
On April 23rd, the Memphis Landmarks Commission voted 5-0 to deny the request for demolition. But there were two absences and two recusals, and commission spokesman Nancy Jane Baker said members did not have all the information about the condition of the building that was available to Judge Potter.
Candy Justice, a spokesman for the York neighbors, said Immaculate Conception allowed the house to fall into such disrepair that it became a candidate for demolition. She said that could set a precedent for other property owners to acquire houses or buildings in historic areas, neglect them, then tear them down on orders from the environmental court.