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Swain jail may finally see return of federal prisoners to help offset costs

In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.

“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.

For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.

Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.

The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.

This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.

“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”

Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.

“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”

Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.

Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.

Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.

Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.

“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”

At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.

“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”

Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.

As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.

Swain braces for loss of jail revenue

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently got a big push forward in building its own jail after receiving an $18 million grant from the Department of Justice.

The grant may be excellent news for the tribe, but for Swain County, it’s a source of anxiety. Swain’s new oversized jail relies heavily on prisoners from Cherokee to fill its 109 beds and to subsidize the $10 million facility.

Recently, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that out of 61 prisoners in the jail, 32 were from Cherokee and just 29 were from Swain.

Swain is already struggling to prop up the jail, which carries a $450,000 annual loan payment, because surrounding counties that once housed overflow inmates in Swain’s jail have recently built new jails of their own.

Consequently, Swain has seen the number of out-of-county inmates decline by half from 2005 to 2008, and along with it, a significant decline in jail fees, which average $50 per prisoner per night.

Cherokee has been a lifeline for Swain’s jail, with more than 90 percent of the overflow inmates Swain houses coming from the tribe.

Cherokee Police Chief Ben Reed said the tribe does send some inmates to jails in Haywood, Cherokee, Clay and Rutherford counties, but Swain gets the greatest share by far. Since Swain opened its new jail a year ago, the tribe has sent almost 90 percent of its prisoners there, Reed said.

Though the arrangement has worked out well for Swain, EBCI has been studying the possibility of building its own jail for several years. In fact, Swain leaders knew before embarking on its oversized jail that the tribe hoped to build its own eventually.

“With Cherokee’s growth and development, I think it’s time that we have our own jail,” said Reed. “We spend a lot of money and resources to transport our inmates into different county jails.”

EBCI hopes to eventually build a justice center that would bring its courthouse, police department and attorney general’s office under one roof, along with a jail and parking garage.

Cherokee’s grant, part of $236 million in stimulus and public safety funds allocated to tribes across the United States, can only be used toward building the jail.

But it may be a while before that prison is built, as the tribe is just now forming a committee to guide the construction process. Mickey Duvall, economic development director for the tribe, said they hope to elect a chairman in the coming weeks.

Learning from mistakes

After seeing counties like Swain struggle to fill an oversized prison, Reed acknowledged that the tribe must do its best to avoid overbuilding its own jail.

“We’re going to take a good hard look at where we are now and what our needs are going to be,” said Reed.

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the county’s jail was built big to accommodate population growth over the next 15 years, which he said would likely be accompanied by an increased crime rate. King planned to rely on prisoners from other counties in the short-term but thought the county would eventually fill up the jail with its own prisoners.

But Cochran said he doesn’t see that explosion in Swain’s population occurring fast enough to line the jail’s beds with Swain prisoners any time soon. Besides, much of the population growth in the mountains seems to involve retiring baby boomers or second-home owners, who are less likely to be committing crimes.

Meanwhile, Cochran is working with the U.S. Marshal Service to win back federal prisoners to the Swain jail. The marshals originally pulled out their prisoners due to the crumbling status of Swain’s old jail and its lack of fire sprinklers.

Cochran said all his paperwork is in with the marshals but admits it could take a while before they make a decision.

“It’s a slow process when you deal with the federal government,” said Cochran.

While County Commissioner David Monteith has brought up the idea of putting unused jail space to another use, Cochran just doesn’t find that feasible.

“A jail is a jail, that’s what it is,” said Cochran.

King pointed out the silver lining amongst dark clouds, stating that food costs would drop after Cherokee prisoners pull out. Swain County saw the cost of food at the jail climb 49 percent last year. But that doesn’t settle how the county will make up for the loss of revenue from the tribe when it builds a jail of its own.

King said Swain will have a few years to figure that out.

“As far as short-term, nothing’s going to change,” said King. “Long-term, hopefully the economy will gain what it lost.”

When it comes to Swain’s jail troubles, it’s easy to play the blame game, Cochran said, but no one could deny that Swain County needed a new jail.

“The one we had was completely dilapidated,” said Cochran, who was not in office at the time the decision was made. “Did we need a $10 million jail? I don’t know.”

Angling for Sam’s Club discount, Swain jailer uses credit card to buy TV

Misuse of county credit cards by a Swain jailer has prompted tighter controls on charge card use across all departments.

Earlier this year, a jailer purchased a $500 or $600 big-screen TV with the county’s credit card at Sam’s Club, said County Manager Kevin King.

The officer came back from a shopping trip for prison supplies with the TV, saying that she would reimburse the county for the purchase. Even though the detention officer followed through on that promise, she was fired.

Finance Director Vida Cody said a supervisor should have informed all employees about the county’s policy on making purchases, but Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said it shouldn’t take training to realize that buying a TV with county money is wrong.

“Common sense would tell you that’s not allowed,” said Cochran.

The out-of-line purchase was flagged in the county’s annual audit but was not serious enough to launch a full-on fraud audit. Auditor Eric Bowman simply called for better internal controls so the misuse would not escalate into a bigger problem.

That misuse of the credit card was “one of many,” according to finance director Vida Cody. Employees in the Sheriff’s Department have also exceeded their meal allowance of $34 a day for three meals and made work-related purchases of more than $100 without getting prior approval by the finance department.

The finance officer is supposed to approve every purchase over $100 to ensure there’s enough money in the budget for it. An exception, however, could be made for emergency purchases, like repairs on a squad car that has broken down.

Now, all county employees can only buy supplies online on the Sam’s Club Web site, rather than at the physical store. Before hitting submit on that online order, though, Cody must check a printout of the purchase to ensure there’s enough money budgeted for the buy. After Cody approves the order and the employee makes the purchase, Cody must compare the printout of the receipt against the original printout.

To help decrease spending in the face of a budget crisis, Cochran said his department is also cutting down on travel expenses, only making trips when they are “absolutely” necessary.

Cody said no matter what, it is difficult to have complete control over the county’s credit cards, as employees may not always pay attention to how much they’re spending.

“It’s easy to want to use those cards when you have it on hand and go over your limits,” said Cody. “You could operate on trust, but people are human too ... The economy is bad. People might do things they might normally not do.”

New Swain jail fails to rake in overflow inmates

When Swain County opened a new $10 million jail last fall with 109 beds — four times bigger than necessary for its own inmates — it was banking on housing federal prisoners and those from other counties to subsidize the cost.

Instead, the number of inmates housed from outside the county has shrunk dramatically, not grown. As a result, the oversized jail has been a drain on county coffers and proved a source of contention in an on-going feud between the sheriff’s office and county commissioners.

County Manager Kevin King says the onus falls on the sheriff to court inmates from other counties to fill the jail.

“He said it wasn’t his place to get contracts, but it is,” King said. “It is going to take the sheriff talking to the other sheriffs.”

But Sheriff Curtis Cochran says the commissioners should have secured commitments from other counties before embarking on the bigger jail, which was already in the works when Cochran took office in late 2006.

“I believe one thing I would have done was to have contracts in hand,” Cochran said. “I would want to think if I didn’t have contracts in hand I would have thought about a smaller jail.”

The county was supposed to line up commitments as a condition of its federal loan to build the jail. Terms of Swain County’s loan with the U.S. Rural Development program stipulated “the applicant obtain written commitments from the other parties who have verbally committed to wanting access to jail beds.”

That never happened, however. Instead, the sheriff at the time, Bob Ogle, got verbal commitments, King said.

 

No demand for jail beds

Since Cochran took office, Swain has seen the number of inmates it houses from Graham, Cherokee and Haywood counties, as well as federal prisoners under the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service, all but dry up. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only outside entity contracting with Swain for jail space on a significant level.

The reason appears to have little to do with Cochran, however.

Like Swain, both Haywood and Cherokee counties have built new jails and can now handle their own inmate volume in-house. When Swain embarked on a new jail in 2005, it was common knowledge that other counties were doing so as well, but Swain overbuilt anyway.

Graham County is one of the only counties that still faces chronic over-crowding at its jail. But instead of sending inmates to Swain, it now sends almost all of its overflow to the new Cherokee County jail, according to Graham County’s chief jailer.

Cherokee County is closer for Graham, saving time and money on transport. In addition, Cherokee County charges only $40 a night per inmate while Swain charges $50 a night.

Cherokee County’s new jail — sporting 150 beds — is even bigger than Swain’s. It is often only half full, however — even with Graham County’s overflow and federal prisoners that once went Swain’s way — adding to the glut in jail beds the region seems to have these days.

As for the decline in federal prisoners, that trend was under way prior to Cochran taking office in late 2006. The U.S. Marshall Service had come to view Swain’s old jail as inadequate and unsafe. It was riddled with cracks and leaks and plagued by temperamental locks. But the biggest concern was no sprinkler system, the dangers of which came to light when eight people were killed in a fire at the Mitchell County jail.

“After the fire in Mitchell County there were concerns about older facilities without adequate fire suppression,” said Kelly Nesbit, chief deputy with the western district of the U.S. Marshall Service.

Nesbit began pulling federal prisoners out of the Swain jail and housing them elsewhere. Although Swain opened its new jail last fall, federal prisoners have yet to return. Nesbit said they simply got used to using other jails, and it has taken a while to get Swain back on the radar as a viable facility.

“The federal government moves slow. It just take a while for things to turn around,” Nesbit said.

The U.S. Marshall Service has 15 jails west of Interstate 77 that it uses to house prisoners, Nesbit said. But Bryson City is the location of a federal court, so it would be convenient to start housing them there again, he said.

 

Whose fault?

Cochran blames county leaders for the decline in federal prisoners. He said the county threw away a chance to put in a smoke evacuation system in the old jail that would have satisfied safety concerns and allowed them to keep housing the federal inmates.

The Marshall Service even came through with a $30,000 grant to help pay for the smoke suppression system, but Swain never acted on the grant and it was rescinded.

Cochran said the Marshall Service pulled strings to get the grant for Swain and was perturbed Swain decided they didn’t want it after all.

“The $30,000 allocated for Swain County was only provided after numerous phone calls and letters between myself and headquarters,” U.S. Marshall Gregory Forest wrote in a letter to Sheriff Bob Ogle in December 2003. Forest wrote that he wanted to continue their “long working relationship” with the county, but that the county “must complete this process without delay.”

The Marshall Service perceived it as a snub, Cochran said.

“They seemed to think that Swain County just wasn’t interested in housing their inmates because they wouldn’t accept the money after they went to great lengths to get it to help upgrade the jail,” Cochran said.

King said the county walked away from the grant because it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the system.

“The system would have cost a lot more than $30,000. It would have been around $100,000. That was just not doable,” King said.

Ultimately, the decision cost the county more in lost revenue than it would have spent to install the system. The county would have made its money back on the system in less than two years if federal prisoners had continued to flow Swain’s way at the same volume as years’ past. Instead, the county is now entering its third year without housing federal prisoners.

Cochran wasn’t sheriff during the episode over the sprinkler system and said he didn’t understand why they weren’t getting federal prisoners anymore. Cochran recently called a meeting with the U.S. Marshall Service to figure out what the problem was.

“After I got to investigating it a little bit and talked to the right people as to why we weren’t getting inmates, we started working on it,” Cochran said.

 

County blames Cochran

County commissioners suggested Cochran is to blame for a declining number of inmates being housed at the Swain jail from outside the county. The theory was vocalized during a county budget workshop in June. Cochran heard about the accusation and challenged King to name the counties that allegedly had a problem with him.

“I said ‘If there is somebody out there let me know so I can make amends,’” Cochran said. Cochran asked for the clarification three times, including twice via email.

King responded that he knew of no entity in particular other than a miscommunication with the Eastern Band last year. The Eastern Band, however, is the only entity that actually houses more prisoners with Swain now than it did three years ago.

Cochran said he is doing what he can to court other counties.

“When we moved into the jail I sent out an email to every sheriff’s office in the state and let them know we were in our new facility and had bed space,” Cochran said.

Cochran also met with the Graham County commissioners in the spring, and recently met with the U.S. Marshall Service.

One cloud hanging over the Swain jail is the escape of a murder suspect earlier this year. The suspect had been slipped a key by a jailer who ran away with the suspect. Cochran said the inside job was not a reflection on the security of the jail itself.

The escape has no bearing on whether to house overflow inmates there, according to Nesbit with the U.S. Marshall Service and the chief jailers from Graham or Cherokee counties.

“That’s happened in federal institutions before,” Nesbit said of escapes. “It is just part of the kind of business we are in.”

 

Declining inmate nights

Out-of-county inmates housed in the Swain jail have declined drastically under Sheriff Curtis Cochran compared to the last year of former sheriff Bob Ogle’s tenure.

2005-06    8,029 inmate nights from out-of-county

2008-09    3,940 inmate nights from out-of-county

Empty jail beds fuel feud between Swain sheriff, county

The new Swain jail costs the county $610,000 a year more than the old jail: $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff.

The county hoped to make $500,000 a year housing prisoners from out of the county to offset the cost.

The county’s old jail was unsafe and dilapidated, so a new one was in order anyway. County leaders figured they may as well make it extra big and try to subsidize the cost by housing inmates from out of the county, and end up with a new jail for relatively little of their own money.

But revenue projections fell far short. Over the past 12 months, the county only made $140,000 housing out-of-county prisoners, a far cry from the half million it hoped for, according to County Manager Kevin King.

King said that the jail is not an undue burden for the county, however.

“We are making it just fine,” King said. “We are covering the debt. We are covering the operation. We are covering personnel.”

That said, if the new jail brought in more money, it could bolster the sheriff’s budget — which is a bitter source of contention between the county commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

“When he first started as sheriff, I told him all this is done as a business plan,” County Manager Kevin King said. “The more revenue generated the more deputies and law enforcement we are going to be able to fund.”

When the new jail opened last fall, the county added five additional jailers, two new deputies and an extra secretary.

But King said the additional staff was contingent on an influx of inmates, which never materialized.

“It is like McDonald’s or anywhere else. If you aren’t selling hamburgers they are going to lay people off and send them home,” King said.

As the county grappled with a budget shortfall for the new fiscal year, commissioners looked to the jail to make cuts. The county cut four positions that had been added in the past year.

Two of the laid-off staff had been hired as jailers but had since been made deputies after Cochran realized he didn’t need that many jailers. A third layoff targeted one of the two new deputies added over the past year. The fourth layoff targeted the additional secretary position added over the past year.

 

An ongoing feud

Cochran still has one more deputy and three more jailers than he did a year ago, but has publicly criticized the commissioners’ decision to cut his staff. He accused the county commissioners of jeopardizing the safety of Swain County’s citizens by underfunding his department.

Cochran had increased deputies on the night shift from two to three. Now, he’s back down to two. If both are tied up on calls, residents are left with no backup, he said.

King points out that Cochran’s budget is still bigger than his predecessor’s, former sheriff Bob Ogle.

In reality, the Cochran’s budget comprises the exact same percentage of the total county budget now as it did under Ogle.

For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office accounts for 8 percent of the total county budget and the jail accounts for 7 percent of the county’s budget. It’s the exact same percentage as 2005-2006, the last budget allocated by commissioners under the tenure of former sheriff Bob Ogle.

Cochran’s supporters have accused the commissioners of playing politics with his budget. The commissioners are all Democrats, while Cochran is a Republican.

“There is nothing political about this issue,” King countered.

King pointed to the number of new vehicles the county provided Cochran’s office this year. Typically, the county replaces two or three vehicles a year, and sometimes skips a year altogether. This year, the county bought five new vehicles for the sheriff’s office.

Cochran and the commissioners have been warring over the sheriff’s budget since Cochran took office in late 2006. Cochran suffered a major blow to his own salary when the commissioners ended a lucrative arrangement to feed inmates enjoyed by Cochran’s predecessors. When the commissioners decided to end the long-standing practice on the eve of Cochran taking office, it was seen as political retribution.

Cochran has a lawsuit pending against the commissioners, claiming they effectively reduced his salary in violation of state statutes. Commissioner David Monteith has consistently sided with Cochran and against his fellow commissioners on budget issues.

 

Budget expenses

Swain county budget expenditures by year:

Jail, 2009-2010:    $875,000

Jail, 2006-2007:    $715,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    7%

Sheriff Dept., 2009-2010:    $964,000

Sheriff Dept., 2006-2007:    $796,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    8%

Swain jail escapees returned to NC

A murder suspect and the guard who allegedly helped him escape from the Swain County jail have been returned to North Carolina.

Former jailer Anita Vestal arrived at the Macon County Detention Center Monday (May 18), said Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland. Inmate Jeffrey Miles is being held at a prison in Raleigh, according to Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

Vestal and Miles have been held in a Vallejo, Calif., jail since they were captured at a motel in the area April 19 after nearly a month on the run.

Investigators believe Miles used a key that Vestal provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail on March 21. Miles then hid in a van that Vestal drove to her apartment. The pair left in Vestal’s father’s Ford Ranger pickup.

Miles and Vestal waived extradition, which expedited their return to North Carolina. They were driven back to the state by officials with the North Carolina Department of Corrections.

Holland said the Swain County Sheriff’s Department asked him to hold Vestal at the Macon Detention Center prior to her return to the state.

“I think the fact of the matter is because she’s a former employee for the Swain Sheriff’s office, it’s very appropriate for her to be held at a different facility,” Holland said.

Vestal is being held in the women’s section of the prison, and has not had additional security extended to her.

Holland said he had no idea if the arrangement was permanent. The Swain County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office will decide when and if Vestal is moved.

Swain jail keys found in get-away truck

The Swain County Sheriff’s Department got a welcome piece of news recently when it learned the escape of an inmate won’t cost as much as previously thought.

Jailer Anita Vestal and accused murder suspect Jeffrey Miles were picked up in Vallejo, Calif., April 20, nearly a month after Vestal allegedly helped Miles escape. The county won’t have to pay the cost of driving across the country to retrieve the inmates, which wasn’t clear previously. Instead, the N.C. Department of Corrections is in charge of handling the pickup, said Swain County Chief Deputy Jason Gardner.

Gardner said that Vestal and Miles “are in the process of getting picked up,” but he has been provided with little information about when the pair will arrive.

“They won’t tell us anything,” Gardner said. “They’ll call us when they’re an hour out.”

Gardner said Vestal and Miles will return to the Swain County jail “very temporarily” for processing but will be held elsewhere.

 

Replacing locks unnecessary

Two jail keys allegedly used in the escape were recovered by Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe, when he retrieved his pickup truck that Vestal and Miles had used to flee to California, said Gardner. Blythe turned the keys over to the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. If the keys had not been located, the locks at the jail would have had to be replaced at a cost of nearly $40,000.

Vallejo police didn’t find the keys when they conducted a search of the vehicle. Gardner suggested that they may have simply skipped over it.

“These keys that fit the jail here look more like a regular key,” Gardner said. “They may have saw it, and just didn’t realize what it was.”

Swain County commissioners have already struggled to pay for unforeseen costs at the county’s new $10 million jail facility. Most recently, commissioners granted a request from Cochran in April for an additional $139,000 to cover the cost of unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

Charges against Vestal, 32, include: conveying messages with convicts or prisoners, providing drugs to an inmate, felony conspiracy, and felony harboring escapee. Felony conspiracy and misdemeanor escape from jail will be added to Miles’ murder charges.

Swain jailer, murder suspect captured in California

A jailer and the murder suspect she allegedly freed from the Swain County Detention Center a month ago were apprehended in Vallejo, Calif., on Sunday (April 19).

The jailer, Anita Vestal, 32, was unharmed, much to the relief of her parents and law enforcement who thought her life was in danger from the murder suspect, Jeffery Miles, 27.

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran had no comment on the capture.

Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe of Whittier, told The Smoky Mountain News a few weeks ago that he was unconvinced that his daughter willingly let Miles out of jail. Blythe said she might have been enticed or coerced to let him out.

Vestal’s parents released a statement following the capture of their daughter and Miles: “We are thankful that Anita has been found and is safe. We would like to thank those in the community who have offered us support through their prayers and kind words. We do not have any further information about the events which have transpired throughout this ordeal and therefore we cannot comment further on this situation.”

Miles is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their Bryson City home in August.

Vallejo Police Lt. Abel Tenorio said his department received information from Sheriff Cochran a couple of weeks ago that Vestal and Miles may be in the area.

Vallejo officers determined that the pair might have been at a hotel in the area on Sunday and set up surveillance. When Miles exited the hotel room SWAT team members approached him in unmarked vehicles and apprehended him after a short foot pursuit, Tenorio said.

Vestal was then apprehended in the hotel room, Tenorio said, adding that the pair was unarmed.

On Monday they were being held in the Solano County Jail, said Tenorio. It could take several days before they are extradited to Swain County to face the escape charges, Tenorio said.

Video surveillance of the jail shows that Miles unlocked his cell door and then unlocked an outside fence. He then hid in Vestal’s vehicle in the parking lot.

Vestal and Miles drove to her Bryson City apartment where they switched vehicles and then went on the lam for a month.

Sheriff Cochran and jail administrators have been criticized by former jailer, Steven Osborne, who was fired after the escape. Osborne told The Smoky Mountain News it was wrong Cochran fired him over the incident and said he and other jail employees had warned the sheriff and jail administrators several times that Vestal and Miles were getting too close personally. Osborne said they ignored the warnings.

New Swain jail continues to rack up costs

Weeks following an escape at the brand-new Swain County jail, county commissioners agreed to an emergency appropriation of $139,000 at the request of Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Cochran asked commissioners for the money at their meeting Monday (April 6) to cover the costs of things like unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

The county is already shelling out $454,000 per year to cover the cost of the loan on the $10 million facility. And in September of last year, commissioners agreed to provide $205,000 for five new staff positions to get the jail up and running.

The $139,000 doesn’t include another $40,000 that will likely have to be spent to replace the locks at the jail if a key used in the March 21 escape of inmate Jeffrey Miles isn’t located, Cochran said.

Swain’s fund balance is currently at 9 percent, barely above the 8 percent minimum mandated by the Local Government Commission.

“Do you feel like we could really justify adding $139,000 to our budget?” asked Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay on Monday.

County Manager Kevin King said Tuesday that the approval of Cochran’s request will bring the fund balance dangerously close to the minimum amount that is mandated.

Cochran said he simply didn’t anticipate the exact costs of moving into the new facility.

“We moved into a brand new facility, and we’ve had to buy things that we honestly just didn’t budget for when we moved in,” he said.

Cochran said he’s already shifted some staff positions in an effort to cut costs. The move will eliminate two positions at the jail and add a school resource officer position.

“We’re just trying to move people around to get the most effectiveness, without hitting me in the back pocket or you in the back pocket,” Cochran told commissioners.

Commissioner Philip Carson questioned whether Cochran could benefit from more jail staff to provide extra security, in lieu of Miles’ escape.

“Have you considered an extra set of eyes in that control room per shift?” Carson asked. Jailer Anita Vestal is accused of helping Miles plan his escape. She was the only one in the control room watching over the cells when the escape happened.

Cochran said he would welcome extra help, but has no money to pay for it.

“I would not turn down extra eyes, but that monkey’s on your back if you want to fund it,” Cochran said to the board.

When commissioners built the jail, they made it bigger than necessary to house Swain’s inmates. They hoped to house inmates from other counties and subsidize the cost of the jail. The 106-bed facility is double the size of the old jail and has plenty of extra room.

“As (Cochran) gets more and more inmates, more and more money’s going to come in,” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Cochran said the number of inmates in the facility has already increased.

“When we moved into the new facility, we had 28 inmates,” he said. “Today, we have 56.”

According to Cochran’s office, most of those are from Swain County. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only out-of-county entity housing its inmates in the jail.

Commissioner Steve Moon asked Cochran about the maximum number of inmates that could be held at the jail.

“What’s keeping us away from that?” Moon asked.

Moon’s question was met with a peal of laughter from the audience. Though not said outright, it seemed implicitly understood that the escape of an inmate has likely been a deterrent to other counties’ desire to house inmates at Swain’s facility.

Fired jail employee says he warned of relationship between murder suspect and jailer

The Swain County sheriff and jail administrators were warned that a jailer who freed a double murder suspect March 21 was getting too close to the prisoner but didn’t do anything to intervene, a former jail employee who was fired over the escape last week said.

The fired employee, Steven Osborne, told The Smoky Mountain News that he and other jail employees informed Sheriff Curtis Cochran and jail administrators Martha Marr and Jenny Hyatt numerous times that the jailer, Anita Vestal, and suspect, Jeffery Miles, were getting too close personally.

“They should have fired her when they had the chance,” said Osborne. “We saw it coming. We told them (sheriff and administrators) they were getting too friendly several times. It was a big topic.”

Miles and Vestal still had not been located at press time March 31.

The sheriff and the jail administrators failed to take action to end the relationship, said Osborne.

“They knew she was getting friendly with him,” Osborne said. “They had a meeting with her about two weeks ago. They didn’t do anything but slap her on the hand and let her go back to what she was doing.”

Cochran said there was no reason to suspect Vestal would do anything like this.

“She was a good detention officer,” Cochran said. “I never had any problem with her.”

The consequences of doing nothing could prove fatal, literally, said Osborne.

“Now there’s a killer loose on the street,” Osborne said. “Who knows when he’ll kill again or if he already has. This could have been prevented if they would have gotten rid of her.”

Osborne’s job at the jail was to watch over the security cameras to make sure inmates were not fighting or, in the worst case, escaping.

Osborne, who was a control officer for seven months, was on break when Miles used a key that Vestal apparently provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail. Osborne wasn’t watching the cameras when Miles unlocked a gate on the outside of the jail and hid in a van until Vestal drove him to freedom.

Osborne said he spent his 15-minute break talking to deputies outside the jail. Vestal took over for him while he was on break, he said. This is when the escape happened, Osborne said.

Vestal didn’t cover for him the entire break. She said she had to go to the pharmacy to pick up medication for inmates, Osborne said.

When she left, another jail employee, Jamie Sneed, took over, Osborne said.

Osborne had been back watching the cameras for about 10 minutes before he noticed Miles was gone. Osborne said he then called the sheriff, and the search, which included a helicopter and numerous roadblocks, began.

The reason Osborne was given for his firing was that he was no longer needed and that he was being let go because he left his post.

Osborne contends he did nothing wrong and had a piece of paper taped to the side of his computer stating he was allowed to take breaks as long as someone covers for him while he’s gone.

Miles is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their Bryson City home in August.

Sheriff Cochran had no comment on Osborne’s statements, saying he doesn’t discuss personnel issues publicly.

“The sheriff is just trying to take heat off himself,” Osborne said. “The sheriff doesn’t talk about any of this. It’s a dirty deal.”

The relationship between Vestal and Miles included her doing extra things for him like getting him magazines and spending time talking to him, Osborne said.

Vestal would stand in Miles’ cell and talk with him for two to three hours, said Osborne.

The relationship had been going on at least since the Daytona 500, Osborne said, remembering that they watched the February NASCAR race together.

Vestal would also write notes to Miles, said Osborne.

 

Family, friends worry about Vestal

Prior to working at the jail, Vestal was employed at the Cherokee Lodge in Cherokee as a front desk clerk. She was fired in October because her training for the job at the jail was taking up too much time.

She often brought her four children to work with her, and they would hang around in the lobby. Her husband, Brad Vestal, would also hang around the hotel while she was at work.

Many people who knew Anita Vestal said she loved her children dearly, and that is what is so shocking about her leaving them behind to run off with an accused murderer.

Her sister, Lea Ledford, said she doesn’t know what would motivate her sister to do what she did.

“It’s blown the whole family back,” Ledford said.

Vestal’s nephew, Ace Ledford, theorizes that maybe she was promised some money if she helped him escape.

“I’ve never known her to run off without her kids or her husband,” said Ace.

Ace, 20, said he is angry at his aunt for letting a suspected murderer out of jail.

 

What motivated Vestal to set Miles free?

Western Carolina University professor of criminology Dr. Fred Hawley said criminals are often charismatic and able to persuade people to do things they normally wouldn’t.

Inmates have lots of time to think and plot and find out where people’s vulnerabilities are, said Hawley.

The escape shows the consequences of jail employees fraternizing with inmates, said Hawley. This is a “worst-case” scenario of a jailer and an inmate bonding, Hawley said.

“This is pretty unusual,” he said.

Often it is less severe, with jail employees bringing inmates drugs or snacks, he said.

Vestal may have let him out of jail because she was blackmailed, Hawley said. Threats by outsiders could have been made against her family if she didn’t let him out, Hawley said. Another possibility is that Miles swept her off her feet, said Hawley.

Vestal may have let Miles out of jail because he made her feel attractive or special, said Psychologist Lynne Barrett of Waynesville. She must have thought that he wouldn’t harm her, said Barrett.

As for why Vestal would trust someone charged with murder, Dr. Barrett compared it to how people believe in cult leaders.

And it could have been that she was smitten with him because he flattered her and made her feel like he could give her things she didn’t have in life.

“When we’re in love we do things out of character,” Barrett said.

It could have been she was bored in her home life and starved for some excitement.

No one, from Sheriff Cochran to Vestal’s parents to the man on the street, has a clue as to why she set Miles free.

Steve Fuller of Bryson City doesn’t know if Vestal is a bad person or if she was blackmailed.

Kerrie Taylor of Cherokee has grim thoughts about what could happen.

“I don’t know if he’s already killed her and moved on to try and hijack someone’s vehicle,” she said.

Sheriff Cochran is also perplexed as to why Vestal freed Miles.

“Why a mother would leave four small children and run off with a guy like this is beyond me,” Sheriff Cochran said. “He’s had to promise her something. What that is is beyond me.”

The incident should serve as a lesson for law enforcement, said Shirley Hagler of Cherokee.

“I think if you go into law enforcement they should do a background check on you,” she said.

Cochran said all proper procedures were followed when Vestal was hired. She has no criminal background, he said. He added that the jail facility is very secure and not the reason for the escape.

“The jail worked the way it should. You can’t account for the human element,” Cochran said.

As for having any worries about Vestal hanging out with Miles in the common areas, Cochran said: “Those common areas are where the jailers go in and have contact with the inmates. There is no way to avoid that.”

Cochran said Vestal is facing charges for helping Miles escape.

“Her life has changed forever,” Cochran said. “She is going to be facing serious charges when she is caught. She has put everyone’s life in Swain County at risk plus everyone he’s come into contact with since he escaped.”

Cochran said he has been working around the clock on the case with help from the State Bureau of Investigation, Highway Patrol, Bryson City Police Department and the Park Service.

Three of the other inmates charged in the murders have been relocated to Raleigh Central Prison as a result of the escape while the other two remain in the Swain County Jail.

Detective Jason Gardner said the other two were allowed to stay in the county jail because they are not considered a high risk of escaping.

The sheriff thinks the escape was well planned.

Vestal was reportedly text messaging in her apartment complex parking lot the night before the escape. Cochran said the text messages are being sought.

The search for Vestal and Miles was featured on the national TV show America’s Most Wanted over the weekend, but hadn’t resulted in any new leads.

Detective Gardner said there is a possibility they could be in Atlanta where Miles’ wife lives, in California, where he is originally from, or in Alabama or Illinois.

 

Parents had good relationship with Vestal

Vestal’s parents, Ronnie and Judy Blythe, said they had a good relationship with Vestal.

“It was very good, very close,” Ronnie Blythe said.

Vestal had been married about 10 years to Brad Vestal, who twice declined comment to The Smoky Mountain News when contacted at his apartment in Bryson City.

The Blythes, who live in Whittier, said they have many unanswered questions about the incident. For instance, they don’t know why Vestal and Miles would leave the jail to go to her apartment and exchange the van for a truck. Why wouldn’t she just go ahead and get out of town, rather than waste time switching vehicles?

Her dad said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News that she had never been in trouble in her life. She enjoyed her job at the jail and was proud of herself for scoring so high on the physical and written tests to get the job, Judy Blythe said.

Ronnie Blythe said he is unconvinced that his daughter willingly let Miles out of jail.

“Whether he enticed or coerced her, I may be willing to accept that,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has done a great job handling the case, said Ronnie Blythe. But he is still amazed at how Miles and his daughter disappeared so quickly after the escape.

“If I could tell her anything right now, I would tell her to turn herself in and call home and let us know you’re all right,” Ronnie Blythe said.

The Blythes would also like their daughter to know that she is not in any trouble that can’t be taken care off and that she should return home and get on with her life.

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