jacksonA State Bureau of Investigations probe is looking into possible wrongdoing on the part of a pair of former Southwestern Community College employees.

By Holly Kays & Becky Johnson • Staff writers

An embezzlement investigation at the Macon County Board of Elections locked down the office for nearly a week between Jan. 17 and Jan. 23, but business is far from returning to usual. 

The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating whether Reid Brown, a former assistant district attorney in Waynesville, handled any cases improperly during his three years as a prosecutor.

The SBI would not elaborate on the scope or nature of the investigation.

“The SBI is investigating Reid Brown for actions taken while he was an assistant district attorney,” said Noelle Talley, an SBI spokesperson. The findings will be reviewed by the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Section, Talley said.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said he requested the state’s assistance to review a few cases there were questions over.

“I asked the Attorney General to take over the review of those cases for an independent review,” Bonfoey said. “At my request, the Attorney General, with the assistance of the SBI, is conducting an investigation into the matter.”

Bonfoey declined to comment further.

There is some indication the SBI has expanded the scope of the investigation beyond the three cases Bonfoey initially suggested for review.

Brown said last week the investigation came as a surprise and he was puzzled by what it could be about.

“I have not a clue,” Brown said. “I don’t know anything about it. I am confused and somewhat upset I have been left out of the loop.”

Brown said he will cooperate fully and is willing to take a polygraph and open all his files to investigators. Brown said he could not imagine what cases would have caused such a red flag.

“I know we had some disagreements but nothing that would rise to the level of that,” Brown said, citing his friendship with Bonfoey.

Brown said he had handled some cases where his son, David Brown, was the defense attorney, including dismissing tickets. Brown said Bonfoey had a policy against handling cases if a relative was involved, including being the lawyer for the accused. Technically though, there is nothing illegal or even improper about that, Brown said. Brown said he never fixed a ticket or charges against someone just because his son was representing them.

“It is not unethical for me to handle anybody’s case as long as I am fair. I think all the lawyers know I treat everybody the same,” Brown said. “But Mike (Bonfoey) had a policy because of the appearance that people might say something.”

Brown said Bonfoey had been upset about him handling those cases but Brown thought it had been resolved.

After learning about the investigation, Brown said he discovered that it initially centered over three traffic tickets and that it started after Bonfoey received a complaint.

Brown surmised someone in the legal community with a vendetta against his work as a tough prosecutor might be trying to stir up trouble for him. If a defense lawyer didn’t follow procedure or file the right paperwork, Brown said he would “get on them like a duck on a June bug.” He said that possibly created enemies. Brown said the investigation could have a chilling effect for him in legal circles.

For most of his decades-long legal career, Brown was a defense lawyer with a reputation for winning cases — or at least reducing the punishment — for those charged with crimes. In 2007, he gave up his lucrative private practice to work as an assistant prosecutor in the seven-county far western judicial district.

Bonfoey at the time lauded Brown’s experience.

“One of the difficulties finding someone with as much experience as Reid has is they have a good practice built up over the years that’s very lucrative for them,” Bonfoey said at the time. “It’s hard for them to give that up.”

In February, Brown retired from the district attorney’s office and went back into private practice as a criminal defense attorney with his son, David Brown. Reid Brown said he had always dreamed about having a law practice with his son.

The father-son duo started the firm Brown and Brown. David Brown, who grew up in Waynesville, came back three years ago after finishing law school and went into private practice with the firm about the same time his dad joined the prosecutor’s office.

Reid Brown tried several big cases, including being the lead prosecutor in the murder trial of Edwardo Wong who shot and killed a state trooper in Haywood County.

Brown’s stint under Bonfoey was actually his second stint in the district attorney’s office. He cut his teeth as a prosecutor in Haywood County his first three years out of law school in the mid-1970s.

David Brown’s fiancé was also an assistant district attorney for Bonfoey, but the engagement was called off. Reid Brown overlapped only briefly in the office with his son’s fiancé.

The director of Swain County Department of Social Services has been put on leave with pay following a nearly clean sweep of the DSS board.

A newly constituted DSS board placed Director Tammy Cagle on “nondisciplinary investigative status to investigate allegations of performance or conduct deficiencies” following a unanimous vote of the DSS board Monday (March 28).

DSS plans to hire an interim director by the week’s end, according to Robert White, a Swain County commissioner and new member of the DSS board. The DSS board will meet Wednesday to consider a person for the post.

White, a former school superintendent, said the entire situation has been very difficult, in fact the most difficult he has ever faced. White said he hopes it can be resolved sooner rather than later.

Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby, Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.

So far, no charges have been filed against Aubrey’s caregiver in connection with her death, nor have charges been filed in the obstruction of justice investigation into DSS.

Despite public demands that those employees named in the investigation — including the director — be put on leave with pay pending the outcome, the former DSS board reached an impasse on whether to do so.

Swain County commissioners condemned the former board for failing to take action and called for them to resign.

Four of the five DSS board members are now brand-new through a combination of local and state appointments: Georgeanna Carson, Tom Decker, Sarah Wachacha and White. Only Frela Beck remains from the previous board.

The DSS board only has hiring and firing authority over the director. However, an interim director once appointed could put the remaining employees named in the investigation on leave.

Family members of Aubrey thanked the new DSS board for taking the allegations seriously.

“I know it is just the first step to getting where we need to be, but it takes a lot off our shoulders to know somebody is taking this seriously,” said Leighann McCoy, one of Aubrey’s family members who attended the meeting of the new DSS board this week.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s great-aunt, feared the SBI probe would be hampered if those in positions of authority named in investigation remained in their job.

“Now maybe people will step forward and start speaking,” McCoy said.

Relatives say they warned social workers repeatedly over the course of several months that Aubrey Littlejohn was being neglected and abused.

Called by her middle name by family, 15-month-old Kina-Marie died on a mattress on the floor of a singlewide trailer sometime in the middle of the night on Jan. 10. She was dressed in only a T-shirt despite statements made to law enforcement that the trailer had no heat. It is unclear whether an adult was home.

Social workers in Swain County had been warned by relatives that Kina Marie was in danger but failed to remove her from the home, according to law enforcement records.

“Witnesses interviewed have stated that they called the Department of Social Services and made reports detailing abuse and neglect of the child and received no response from any departmental employee,” according to a search warrant executed against DSS offices.

Relatives told investigators “they had witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment.”

The baby had been in the care of a great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell, 38, since last spring. Powell did not have legal custody, however. Other relatives asked Powell for the child, and even the child’s mother tried to get her back, but Powell refused to give her up.

So relatives turned to DSS for help. At least three relatives asked DSS to take the baby away from Powell, and had been to Swain DSS in person.

Kina Marie’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, 20, had to part with her daughter last April after being sentenced to a mandatory 90-day drug rehab. Meanwhile, Powell’s 18-year-old son, Hawk Rattler, had died of a drug overdose in March, according to a death certificate. Powell offered to keep Kina Marie while Littlejohn was away in rehab, claiming it would help her cope with her own son’s death, according to relatives.

Kina Marie was six months old when her mother turned her over to Powell. When Littlejohn got out of rehab, Powell refused to give Kina Marie back, relatives said.

Littlejohn was soon back behind bars, however, on federal drug charges for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and is being held as a federal prisoner in the Cherokee County jail.

Whether Powell was getting aid for Kina Marie, such as food stamps or monetary support, is not certain. SBI agents have requested all records of financial support or benefits Powell was getting for Kina Marie from DSS. Relatives say Powell was getting Kina Marie’s food stamps, but that information is not public.

 

No place for a child

In perhaps one of the most perplexing elements of the case, Powell’s own children were taken away by DSS but Kina Marie was left behind. According to relatives, two of Powell’s own children were removed from her home in August while Kina Marie, who was just a baby, stayed in her care. In November, a nephew living with Powell was also removed from the home, but once again Kina Marie was left there, according to relatives.

DSS records regarding the children and their removal from the home aren’t public.

Dispatch records show that Swain County deputies were asked to escort a social worker to Powell’s home on Nov. 8, but no one came to the door. They went back the following day and were at the home for over an hour, according to dispatch logs.

Relatives said they were concerned that Kina Marie wasn’t growing well and was too small for her age, relatives said. She couldn’t do the things she should have been able to. Relatives suspect she wasn’t being fed properly. She also spent long hours many days strapped into a car seat — whether in the car or inside the house — so she couldn’t move or crawl around, according to relatives and law enforcement documents.

DSS records of one complaint reads as follows: “Reporter states she is very concerned for the baby. Reporter states that the baby is one year old and seems significantly delayed. Reporter states she is always in a car seat and is left in the car alone, even in the heat, while they run errands and drive around all day.”

But there were even more troubling signs. Kina Marie was seen with bruises on her face one day in September. When relatives called DSS to once again report their suspicions of abuse, it finally triggered a home visit by a social worker named Craig Smith.

Powell told Smith that Kina-Marie fell down a set of five stairs. Powell gave Smith two different stories, however, according to his report on the incident.

Powell first said the Kina Marie was sitting in a car seat at the top of the steps. She wasn’t buckled in and fell out when Powell jerked up the car seat. But Powell also said Kina Marie was kicking around in the car seat and made it fall over.

“Ladybird did not take the baby to the doctor because she stated she did not want DSS to be involved,” Smith’s report on the incident says. Smith then told Powell to take her to the doctor. But Powell never did, and Smith never followed up to see whether she had.

Cherokee Indian Hospital has no records of Kina Marie ever being seen by a doctor there, according to law enforcement documents. Cherokee Indian Hospital is where most members of the tribe go for medical care. Whether she was taken to a doctor elsewhere for regular check-ups and vaccinations is not known.

At some point, Kina Marie’s arm was broken. Medical examiners performing an autopsy after her death discovered it, according to a search warrant. The autopsy report is not yet complete.

Following Kina Marie’s death, investigators searched Powell’s trailer and found evidence of drug use. Drug paraphernalia, including pipes, pill grinders, straws and empty bottles were confiscated in the search, along with several items covered in a white powdery residue.

During attempts to revive Kina Marie at the emergency room the night she died, doctors gave her medication to counter possible narcotic exposure based on “previous DSS reports concerning the child’s living conditions,” according to law enforcement records.

According to Veronica Callahan, Powell’s next-door neighbor, there were often lots of vehicles coming and going from the trailer at all hours of the night.

Callahan also said unsupervised children were often running around in the yard and street in front of the trailer. In the fall, she noticed children were sleeping in a tent in the backyard of the trailer. She said Powell would sometimes lock the children out of the trailer.

Sheriff deputies had been to Powell’s trailer on three calls in a six-month period, according to dispatch records. One was for a report of domestic violence in June. In October, deputies responded to reports of a drunk person causing a disturbance. In November, the Swain County sheriff’s office were called to the residence after a report that three boys were missing. The boys were later found under a nearby bridge.

Powell’s criminal record includes misdemeanor child abuse for allowing 5-year-old and 9-year-old child to ride in a car with a 14-year-old behind the wheel. The 14-year-old wrecked, and Powell was charged for endangering their safety. She also has assault charges.

 

The final hours

The day Kina Marie died, she had been left strapped in a car seat for 12 hours, according to a law enforcement investigation.

“During that time period Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or a drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda that Ladybird Powell was eating around 5 p.m. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this period,” investigators were told by a witness who was with Kina Marie and Ladybird that day.

Around 10 p.m. she was taken from the car seat and put to bed on a mattress wearing only a T-shirt and diaper.

Powell discovered Kina Marie’s body around 3 a.m., according to dispatch records. The Cherokee Police Department was put on alert that a white truck with its flashers on was speeding toward the Cherokee hospital with a baby who was blue and not breathing. Meanwhile, the dispatcher gave Powell instructions on how to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while driving in the truck.

Powell was distraught by Kina Marie’s death, according to a recording of the 911 call Powell made after discovering Kina Marie’s body. Powell was hysterical, screaming and weeping as she held Kina Marie in her arms.

“My baby’s not breathing, oh my God, she’s not breathing,” Powell cried over and over into the phone. Powell stayed on the line with the 911 dispatcher while her husband, James Murphy, drove them to the emergency room at Cherokee Indian Hospital.

They arrived at the emergency room by 3:30 a.m., where medical staff had to forcibly pry Kina Marie out of Powell’s arms.

Kina Marie’s body was a dusky blue color, and her core body temperature was only 84 degrees.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch,” according to law enforcement records.

Doctors attempted to revive Kina Marie but were unsuccessful. She was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Cherokee police officers felt the mysterious death should be investigated, but since Powell lived off the reservation the case would fall to the Swain County Sheriff’s office. Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran and Detective Carolyn Posey were roused from bed and arrived at the hospital in Cherokee around 5 a.m.

An investigation by the Swain County sheriff’s office into Kina Marie’s death is still pending, which will determine what if any charges are pressed against the baby’s caregivers.

Waynesville Attorney David Wijewickrama has been retained by Kina Marie’s mother to pursue a civil case against DSS for failure to intervene.

“I am absolutely disgusted and appalled with any social worker that would have left her alone in that trailer with the people who abused her and eventually killed her,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said DSS should have heeded complaints of relatives and removed Kina Marie from Powell’s care.

“If a social worker wants to take a child they can take it just like that,” Wijewickrama said. “The statute is so broadly written it gives enormous power to law enforcement and DSS workers to do whatever they want, if they even think they need do. They have authority right then and there. Get the kid in the car, and go.”

Wijewickrama expressed “rage and fury” over the alleged DSS cover-up aimed at erasing evidence they knew of the abuse and failed to act.

“I’m mad. I’m very mad,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said criminal charges in Kina Marie’s death should have been pressed by now.

“I am absolutely stunned that based on the contents of those warrants that no one has been arrested,” Wijewickrama said.

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

Relatives of a Cherokee child who died in January are publicly calling for the suspension of the Swain County Department of Social Services’ director and program manager, as well as other employees named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.

Nearly two-dozen family members of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn came to the Swain County Commissioners meeting Monday (Feb. 28) to make their case. Speakers told commissioners that public confidence in DSS has been severely shaken. They said suspending those in charge, including Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones, will help repair the agency’s credibility in the community.

“People do feel a little tense not knowing what is going to happen with these same people still sitting in the positions that they are in,” said Ruth McCoy, a great aunt to Aubrey.

Though commissioners have no authority to suspend DSS employees directly, they could implore the DSS board to take action.

Three of the five Swain County commissioners openly agreed to do so, and a fourth seemed to indicate possible support as well.

Only Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle, said he disagreed with suspending the employees. Moon argued with McCoy, who was speaking on behalf of the family, who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Several DSS employees attended the commissioners’ meeting, including Cagle and Jones. The cramped quarters — only two tightly packed rows of folding chairs — created standing room only.

DSS officials seemed to know that questions regarding their employment would be broached. DSS Attorney Justin Greene addressed commissioners at the outset of the meeting, preemptively putting them on notice that the authority to make personnel decisions rests “exclusively” with the DSS board of directors and not the county commissioners.

Commissioner David Monteith was the first to weigh in after McCoy sat down.

“I myself would like to suggest to the commissioner board that these other people who have been allocated in this be dismissed with pay until charges are either brought against or cleared. I think it would be better for the whole county if this would happen,” Monteith said.

Monteith suggested the commissioners write a letter to the DSS board with a recommendation to that effect.

A DSS worker who came to the meeting offered a rebuttal from the audience.

“Excuse me, can I ask something?” she said. “How will the agency run?”

Monteith replied that replacement staff could be sent in from the state level. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the umbrella agency over county DSS units, has offered to provide support and resources should Swain County need help, Monteith said.

DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble countered that their board didn’t have the authority to meddle in personnel when it comes to rank-and-file employees.

“The only position the board can appoint is the director. We could appoint a temporary director,” Gribble said.

“I think that would be a start,” McCoy answered.

“Close down the DSS? Is that a start?” Moon asked.

McCoy said the state would send personnel to help run the agency if needed.

“It won’t bring Aubrey back,” McCoy said. “But you are going to see there are going to be more people come forward.”

“No, it won’t bring her back,” Moon said.

It soon became clear Moon was in the minority, however.

Commissioner Chairman Phillip Carson said he supported sending a letter to the DSS board calling for the suspension of employees involved in the SBI investigation.

“In my opinion that would be the fair thing to do until the investigation is over with,” Carson said.

Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed.

Gribble pointed out that the DSS board won’t meet until the end of March.

“Would they consider a special session?” asked Commissioner Robert White.

Carson turned to Gribble and reiterated the question.

“Would you have a special session?” Carson asked.

Gribble pointed out the DSS board has already made a unanimous decision on how to proceed, and for now that means waiting on the outcome of the investigation before making any personnel changes.

“We felt like the ongoing investigation would yield more evidence on personnel matters than we could obtain by having our own personnel investigation, so we chose not to do a personnel investigation,” Gribble said.

He suggested the commissioners and DSS board meet to talk about the issue behind closed doors.

McCoy said if that happens, Moon should abstain from the discussion and a vote on the matter since DSS Director Tammy Cagle is his niece.

That’s when yet another DSS employee spoke from the audience.

“It is my understanding that our director is not directly involved in the investigation,” the DSS worker said in defense of Cagle. “You would suspend that person, who gives the whole agency direction?”

Carson said he was not passing judgment on guilt or innocence, but was trying to protect the integrity of the investigation.

“It needs to be investigated with no complications,” Carson said. “There is a procedure to investigations and sometimes it is just better to set everyone involved aside.”

Monteith asked whether any DSS employee has been suspended so far. Several DSS workers who came to the meeting began nodding and saying “yes,” but DSS Attorney Justin Greene jumped up and said they could not comment on an employee’s personnel status.  However, the employment status, including a suspension, of a state or county employee is in fact public record under the N.C. Public Records Law, according to N.C. Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin.

Several sources who did not want to be identified have told The Smoky Mountain News that Craig Smith, the case worker assigned to Aubrey’s case, has been suspended. However, Smith claimed to investigators he was acting on orders when he fabricated DSS records (see related article.)

 

Citizens ask for action against DSS

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones have not spoken to reporters since the investigation became public. Cagle did read a brief written statement at the commission meeting Monday.

“I want to ensure the citizens of Swain County that the staff of Swain County Social Services has been faithful and diligent in our duties to protect children and we will continue to do so,” Cagle said.

Last week, Greene made a similar statement to media.

“We hope this doesn’t dissuade the public from seeking services or making reports to protect the adults and children of this county,” said Greene.

But Angie Rasulo of Swain County said the allegations don’t exactly inspire confidence in the public.

“How are the people going to feel safe?” Rasulo asked.

Rasulo had an appointment at DSS the day it was raided by the SBI. She was told to come back another day. Rasulo shared what she said was a common sentiment in Swain County, that DSS is not responsive to the community. She hopes the agency sees a clean sweep.

“It’s terrible that a girl had to die to make a change,” Rasulo said. “I hope they are held accountable. They need to clean house.”

Gribble said Swain DSS has asked the state to review all pending child protective services cases to make sure they are being handled properly.

Aubrey Littlejohn’s family members weren’t convinced, however.

“How many other families are going to want to go to DSS? People will think ‘Why should we bother because they aren’t going to do anything,’” Leighann McCoy said. “How can you let them get away with this?”

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