About two years ago, a sting was set to take place at a party in the Hickory Knoll area outside of Franklin. Inside the house, the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was told, there was a 47-year-old woman — the former wife of a doctor, with three children of her own — who was boozing it up, and maybe even getting high, with a group of underage kids.
The plan that night was twofold: enforce a judge’s order to remove the woman’s youngest daughter and hand her over to her father, Dr. Scott Petty; discover if there was evidence supporting allegations the woman, Elizabeth “Liz” Marie Mills, was having sex with one of the boys partying in the house.
His name, cops had been told, was Joseph (not his real name, which has been changed to protect his identity). Joseph was a Mexican-American either 14 or 15 years old, and a student at the local high school. Mills reportedly met the boy while working for Meridian Behavorial Health Services in Franklin, an agency tasked, among other things, with helping troubled youths and adults.
Although exactly what happened next is the subject of heated dispute, the outcome isn’t: the sting never came off. Instead, it fell apart after angry words were exchanged between a private investigator hired by Mill’s ex-husband and Macon County’s chief detective.
The girl was taken out as ordered. But any case against Mills involving sex with a minor, at least as far as the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was concerned, pretty much ended on that June night in 2009. Though, technically, the case remains open, because there is no statute of limitations in North Carolina on felonies. And having sex with an underage boy is a felony crime. Even though in this case, the young man was apparently a more-than-willing participant in whatever, exactly, was or was not taking place between the two.
Mills, contacted via cell phone in Florida this week, declined to comment.
The Sunny State intervenes
On March 23, Florida cops busted Mills, now 49, for unlawful sexual activity with a minor — having sex with Joseph. The boy’s aunt, after a fight with Mills, reportedly called the cops and told of an inappropriate relationship between her nephew and the North Carolina woman.
Mills, some time after the big party in Franklin that either did or did not take place, depending on whom you believe, hitched a horse trailer crammed with personal belongings behind her black 350-Chevy dually truck. She moved the 500 miles south to Florida. This move came after the boy went to the Hernando area to live with family members.
Joseph’s move to Florida seemed to coincide with one of his frequent brushes with juvenile law authorities.
Mills told her daughters (then ages 14, 17 and 20) she was leaving Franklin to attend massage therapy school in Florida. And she did, at least for a year or so. By September of last year, however — with Joseph’s mother’s permission — Mills had ensconced herself in a bedroom of the family’s house with the boy, police told Florida reporters.
Joseph’s mother, not identified here by name to further protect the boy’s identity, was arrested the same day as Mills for child neglect. It isn’t clear whether the mother was charged in connection with allowing Mills to move in with Joseph, or whether her arrest involved the other children living in the house. Joseph has a younger brother and two younger sisters.
Florida authorities told reporters that Mills admitted to having begun a “romantic relationship” with Joseph in March 2010, and of having had sex with the boy “several times,” according to published reports. Mills did not admit to having had sex with Joseph in North Carolina, though she told police they’d met “during a group therapy session in North Carolina in 2008 when he was 15.”
Chalk it up to the angry aunt, or to providence in general, but a case against the woman North Carolina authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, prosecute is now making its way through the Florida court system.
Prosecutors from Florida have contacted private investigator Danny Cheatham, the man hired by Mills’ ex-husband to look into her activities. Cheatham indicated Florida authorities might well ask him to come testify against Mills, something he said he’s willing — even eager — to do.
That is, if the case against Mills in Florida does actually make it to court. Investigator Russell Suess, who works for the prosecutor there, Brian Trehy, said he was limited in what he could say, but noted the case against Mills has not been formally filed. The prosecution, Suess said, is reviewing the facts.
What’s not clear is whether the delay in a formal filing is an unusual or routine procedure in that state. In North Carolina, such hesitation might indicate the prosecution had some concerns about whether the cops involved had fully dotted all the necessary i’s and carefully crossed each of the t’s.
In the meantime, Mills is out of jail on $5,000 bond. She’s forbidden by court order to see Joseph.
A promising future derails
Being a doctor’s wife comes with certain financial perks. After Mills and Petty moved to Macon County, Mills spent most of her time on their 92-acre spread tending to horses. Petty, her ex-husband, is a radiologist at Angel Medical Center in Franklin.
Petty and Mills met at a private high school in Charlotte, and began dating during college. They were both bright people, with what, at the time, must have seemed an array of possibilities before them. He was at Duke; Mills was at UNC Chapel Hill. When they turned 22, they got married.
Once the children were born, Petty and his wife battled about how to best raise them.
Petty played the part of disciplinarian; Mills, he said, was the children’s “friend.” In perhaps one of the few hints of the trouble that was to come, Petty described a woman who perhaps had difficulty with her role as an adult functioning in an adult world.
“She was unable to parent the children as they entered their teens, instead she treated them as friends and equals without normal boundaries and rules,” Petty said.
Mills’ possible confusion over, or dislike of being, an adult wasn’t helped, perhaps, by a petite stature — the Florida mug shot she glares out of, the muscles in her face tensed and hard, recorded her height as just 5 feet tall, and her weight as 100 pounds.
After Petty and she finally called a spade a spade and formally ended the marriage after 23 years, Mills dropped about 35 pounds, going from a comfortable weight for her height and build to very, very thin. She got tattoos.
And, Petty said, she found a new interest: Joseph.
Mills hadn’t needed to hold a job since living in Chapel Hill, where her husband, after finishing up at Duke, went to medical school and completed his medical residency. Mills, for a short time back then, had picked up some extra cash working at a local animal shelter.
When the couple split, Mills needed money. With barely any work history to boast of, she turned to her one and only employment asset: a psychology degree from those years at UNC. Mills applied for, and got, an entry-level position at Meridian Behavorial Health Services, a multi-county nonprofit mental-health provider.
Meridian’s Franklin office is housed in an inconspicuous, single-level building on Macon Avenue, within spitting distance of the county courthouse and a few blocks from Angel Medical Center, where Petty worked.
Mills’ job largely seemed to consist of ferrying kids about to various appointments.
Petty, passing Meridian on his way to work, would sometimes see Mills out front smoking cigarettes among a group of boys. In that group, though he couldn’t know it then, was Joseph. There was gossip at the hospital, too — Petty wasn’t the only one who was noticing that the doctor’s former wife seemed a bit too chummy with the group she was tasked with monitoring.
Joseph and some of the other kids from Meridian were soon “working” at Mills’ home, Petty said, cutting grass and painting walls. His daughters told him of parties, and he and his new wife, Meg, started witnessing the same behaviors firsthand.
The newly married couple was fixing up the “big” house he’d bought his former wife out of, while she moved down the mountain into a smaller farmhouse they’d also owned. Mills was busy making plans to build yet another house on the 20 acres of property she’d gotten in the divorce.
The situation had grown increasingly strange.
But who could say what exactly took place behind closed doors, when Joseph — the charge of Meridian Behavorial Health Services — and Mills, the agency’s employee, disappeared inside.
Meridian Executive Director Joe Ferrara did not return a voice-mail message seeking comment.
Building a case, or a fabrication?
Joseph, at least from a distance, looked like a big, tough adult guy, even when he and Mills first met and he was just 14 or 15 years old. Joseph had tattoos. He boxed at a local sports club. His language, even by the lowest of teen standards, was remarkably foul. Later, when deputies tried to interview the boy about whether he was a victim of sexual abuse — twice — his response was succinct each time: “Fuck you,” they reported him as replying.
The neighbors thought, for a while, that he was “just” a Mexican laborer helping Mills keep up the horse farm. At least they did until the touching between he and Mills grew excessive, Petty said. A neighbor, scandalized, told the doctor that Mills and Joseph would ride around together on an ATV, cuddling, even groping.
The neighbor complained he’d seen Mills in the yard “dry humping” the boy. Petty, who was becoming increasingly anxious about his youngest daughter, who was still in the farmhouse living with Mills, was spurred to action. He wanted full custody, and he’d do almost anything to get his daughter back.
On the advice of his attorney, Monty Beck, a former assistant district attorney, the doctor called private investigator Cheatham. Petty was very clear in his instructions. He wrote, according to the case file made available to The Smoky Mountain News:
“I am interested in knowing who has access to my children, particularly my 14-year-old. I want to know how long and what kind of relationship my ex has with this boy Joseph who she used to (or still does) work with through Meridian Health Services. Is it legal? Sexual? Immoral or inappropriate? Does it break laws or Meridian’s rules of conduct? Who are the other people we see at my ex’s house? Is my ex doing drugs? Drinking and driving? Exposing my children to dangerous persons? Allowing or assisting my children or the children she ‘cares’ for professionally to break the law (drugs/alcohol/etc.)? My ex is destroying my children because of her lack of boundaries, rules and parental ethics. Who lives there?”
The answer to most of those questions, Cheatham said, was yes — Mills was having, at the very least, inappropriate relations with Joseph. She was providing underage kids beer and cigarettes, and he could prove it. Or, he could if local law enforcement would only get on board, and go inside that house with a search warrant and seize underwear, sheets, and other items. Then, Cheatham was sure, they’d find DNA evidence.
Cheatham is no fly-by-night, wished-he-had-a-badge-but-doesn’t private dick. He’s a former U.S. Marine and experienced cop. Born in Andrews, he grew up and later worked for two decades in Florida law enforcement agencies, including as a real live badged-up official detective. He came back to Western North Carolina to help care for his mother after his father died, and ended up getting licensed by the state as a private investigator.
It’s not easy being a freelancer. Cops and other duly sanctioned law-enforcement authorities are suspicious of people hired by clients to build cases, and mountain people, as a rule, don’t enjoy Floridians, even those with roots to this region, because they are suspicious — rightfully so, sometimes — that move-ins might just think they know how to do things better. And, the truth is, on occasion they do.
Cheatham, at least in this one meeting, was unassuming. But, if you are screwing around on your mate, or generally getting up to no good, he should scare the hell out of you.
This is the guy people in the western part of the state are calling when they want to build cases: custody cases, divorce cases, you name it. And it’s not just the disgruntled private Joes and Janes of WNC who are tapping Cheatham: The Cherokee tribe recently relied on the investigator to help investigate Swain County’s Department of Social Services after an Indian child they’d been notified to keep safe instead died.
Cheatham uses every trick in the book, and he does so legally under the auspices of the great state of North Carolina. GPS units on cars (“you’ll never spot us these days in your rear-view mirror”), videos shot using night-vision capabilities, undercover infiltrators armed with a camera that looks like a shirt button. For $45 to $150 an hour on average, you get what you pay for. And, sometimes, you pay a lot: before it was all said and done and Petty begged off because, he wrote, “we are absolutely broke,” the doctor shelled out more than $20,000 to investigate his former wife.
The case unfolds
The investigator and his staff went after the case hard — from May 18 through June 24 of 2009 they tracked, trailed and spied on Mills. One of their best vantage points proved to be Petty’s home on the hill above the farmhouse. But they also tracked Mills going into nearby Rabun County, Georgia, to pick up Joseph from his home, and followed the woman and boy around Clayton, Ga., and Franklin.
A few highlights from the case file Cheatham’s agency, DC Investigations, built for Petty:
“June 3, 8:41 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Ms. Petty’s (Mills) SUV parked in front of the Peking Gourmet restaurant in Clayton, Ga. Joseph and Ms. Petty were already in the restaurant eating when we got there.
“8:57 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Joseph and Ms. Petty exit the Peking Gourmet Restaurant. Joseph was eating an ice-cream cone. After he took a bite from it, he put the ice cream up to Ms. Petty’s mouth. Ms. Petty ate part of his ice cream while he held it.
“June 5, 10:20 p.m.: Subject and two small children arrived at subject’s vehicle. Subject started loading the children into vehicle. Approximately two minutes later, Joseph also arrived at vehicle and walked around to the passenger side where he met subject. The two of them engaged in a kiss on the mouth and then got into vehicle.”
A young female investigator working for Cheatham insinuated herself into the household. Identified as Investigator Medford in the case file, the woman showed up at Mills’ door May 23 pretending she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and that he’d put her out of his car.
She was convincing — after that, Joseph began texting the investigator, and eventually she’d be invited to his going-away party to Florida: the night the sting that was to be didn’t happen.
Cheatham met with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department on June 23.
“During the meeting, investigators … provided evidence they had acquired on subject, Elizabeth Petty. The plan for the sheriff’s department to raid the ‘going away’ party that subject was going to have for Joseph the next evening was also discussed, as well as, the plan during that same party, for subject’s daughter … to be taken from subject’s custody,” the file states.
The investigators and sheriff’s department investigators agreed to meet at 7 p.m. the next evening at the sheriff’s department.
The next night, when the private investigators showed up, Cheatham said the deputy on duty informed them Macon County Chief Investigator Brian Leopard wasn’t scheduled to work that evening. The private investigators, afraid according to Cheatham that young juvenile offenders going in and out of the sheriff’s department would spot them and blow their cover, left. They went to the parking lot of Smoky Mountain Hosts, a visitor’s center south of Franklin on U.S. 441, where they got a call from Leopard. The Macon County chief detective told the private investigators to meet him at the sheriff’s department, and, Cheatham said, Leopard told him angrily: “‘We’re going to meet when I say, how I say, or we’re not going to meet at all.’”
Cheatham called the meeting off.
So what happened?
Dr. Petty was stunned when he took the call from Cheatham and learned the sting wasn’t going to happen. Petty remembers Cheatham’s voice was shaking, and that the private investigator sounded upset and angry.
Still, there was that order from the judge for Petty’s youngest daughter to be removed from the house, and the doctor wanted her back. That, he said, was more important than anything else going on that night.
Petty met Brian Welch, the sheriff’s department’s attorney, at the sheriff’s offices to get his daughter. That part, at least, of the plan was executed without a hitch. Petty asked if anything was going to happen concerning his former wife, and Welch told him, he said, “we’re not going to do anything.”
“I was so mad, and so shocked. But then I needed to pay attention to my daughter — nothing else was done,” said Petty, who ended up getting full custody of his youngest child when Mills signed her over without protest.
Later, he said, he tried again to get deputies to do something, anything.
“We never got a straight answer from anybody,” Petty said.
Petty and his wife’s efforts haven’t been limited to deputies: Petty contacted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, the Macon County Department of Social Services and the State Bureau of Investigation, sending detailed letters to each outlining his beliefs that his former wife was having sex with an underage boy.
“It wasn’t even investigated,” the doctor said, who eventually sent an open letter to various media outlets in the region, also to no avail.
So where has all this left him? In a word, angry. Actually, two words: very angry. And disillusioned with the system, and unbelieving that nothing, absolutely nothing, had been done.
Without answers, Petty and his new wife have been left to speculate, to formulate conclusions of their own:
• Perhaps the sheriff’s department was protecting one of its jailers, a young man then engaged to another of Petty’s daughters. Petty says the deputy was in the house on multiple occasions when, the doctor said, his ex-wife was partying with kids, and when Joseph was there.
• Maybe the investigators saw someone else on Cheatham’s surveillance videos, someone they wanted to protect — an undercover agent, or a kid from a prominent family.
• Perhaps in Macon County, nobody cares if boys might be sleeping with older women, particularly a foul-mouthed, punk kid who isn’t particularly appealing, frankly, in his role as a possible victim.
Jane Kimsey, the director of the county Department of Social Services, is so constrained legally about what she can and cannot talk about, her interview with The Smoky Mountain News largely consisted of handing over copies of the law governing DSS, complete with yellow highlighting of the fact her agency can only investigate caretakers. Mills, we are left to extrapolate, wasn’t an actual caretaker of Joseph — any investigation on that front was up to law enforcement.
District Attorney Bonfoey made the point that what Mills has been charged with in Florida would not even be a crime in North Carolina, because the age of consent there is 18. In this state, it is 16.
But what about possible crimes committed in Macon County when Joseph was 14 or 15?
Bonfoey emphasized he and Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch, who is married to sheriff’s department Attorney Brian Welch, weren’t going to talk about this particular case, because it remains an open investigation.
“There may be information that comes out that allows us to investigate the matter here,” Bonfoey said.
Bonfoey, speaking generally, said law enforcement needs victims to cooperate, though of course his office has prosecuted sex cases without victims’ cooperation. Or, short of that, prosecutors require an eyewitness to the crimes willing to testify.
Welch has been the assistant district attorney in Macon County for six years. She has had 50 jury trials, losing only two, which Bonfoey said indicates defense attorneys underestimate her ability to put together cases and win them.
Welch wanted to know if there are insinuations that she didn’t take the situation seriously because it involved a possible male victim instead of a girl victim.
“A crime is a crime is a crime, when you are age 13, 14 or 15, you’re not mature enough to consent,” Welch said, adding that she was personally offended anyone would believe she might think otherwise.
Answers, or evasions?
At 44 and in his third term as the sheriff’s department’s leader, Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland has grown comfortable in responding to questions from reporters. Affable, quick to build and maintain personal relationships with those tasked with covering him, he’s almost unflappable in an interview. Holland is difficult to put off stride and worm beneath the polish.
But if Holland has a weak spot, it’s for kids. Protecting children is a source of pride with him, forming the base of his successful political career.
The Republican sheriff is a former juvenile officer with experience in investigating sex crimes and other serious criminal charges. Like private investigator Cheatham, he grew up in Florida before coming to WNC. His family is from Macon County.
Holland was the lead investigator on a particularly horrific case in which a young Franklin woman killed her newborn in February 2000 and dumped the baby in a Dumpster (the baby’s body was subsequently compressed into a 8-inch by 6-inch bail of trash at the county landfill). Holland and wife, Marci, who worked then for the Macon County Department of Social Services, helped get state legislation passed so young mothers could safely surrender infants without fear of criminal charges.
The ensuing publicity helped launch Holland’s political career. While there have been a few missteps along the way, Holland has largely spent the past nine years without serious taints on or questions about his administration.
In the interview with The Smoky Mountain News about this case, Holland includes Chief Deputy Andy Shields, Attorney Welch and Chief Investigator Leopard. The Macon County Sheriff’s Department has just sent out a news release announcing an arrest in a year-old homicide, and his cell phone occasionally buzzes as reporters call in, eager to get more information.
“I don’t want it to look in the paper like we didn’t care, and that we didn’t do our job — I am confident that my officers did what they should,” Holland said. “I, along with my chief investigator, chief deputy, staff attorney and members of the District Attorney’s Office, have reviewed this case, and I stand behind the decision not to file charges at this time due to the fact we continue to not have enough information to pursue a successful prosecution of this matter. This case remains open and any new information that is received will be investigated and, if appropriate, criminal charges will be pursued.”
Why didn’t you bust Mills?
“Because,” Holland replied, “nothing was ever substantiated.”
Why was nothing substantiated? Isn’t that law enforcement’s job?
Because this isn’t CSI: Crime Scene Investigation television, though the reply is more politely expressed than that. But, the sentiment of the exchange is accurate. Chief Investigator Leopard said five detectives were assigned to the case when he was initially notified of the allegations, but that subsequently, the facts as presented by Cheatham had proven not true.
Sheriff’s Attorney Welch added that prosecutors instructed the department to independently corroborate allegations in the case, and not to rely on the private investigator’s findings.
That’s because, Holland said, “Mr. Cheatham is a hired hand of Mr. Petty.” Cheatham was retained to build a case that would help win Petty custody of his daughter.
Chief Investigator Leopard added, the private investigator “wanted to run it. … He was concerned about getting her (Mills) charged with a felony, so that (Petty) wouldn’t have to pay so much alimony.”
The big party, the sheriff’s department leaders were asked?
“There was absolutely no big party going on,” Leopard said.
“Another outright lie,” Petty said later. “There was a party — they even setup a roadblock just down from the house and busted multiple people leaving the party, including Joseph for possession of drug paraphernalia and under-age drinking, and my daughter … who they let go with a warning.”
Leopard confirmed they stopped one of Petty’s daughters, but denied they picked up Joseph.
What about the young jailer engaged to Petty’s daughter? Why not interview him, and besides, why is he still an employee if he witnessed and failed to report possible crimes?
That’s not the situation as they understand it, Holland said. The jailer, newly hired if even at that point actually on the force, indeed came to his superior and reported a run in at his then future mother-in-law’s with a drunken juvenile. The jailer did nothing wrong.
Holland doesn’t mention the head of the jail is his brother, Capt. Tim Holland. Perhaps there’s no relevance.
Petty again disputed the sheriff department. There’s proof, he said, of the young jailer being involved more deeply in the situation than Holland acknowledged:
“I have pictures of (the jailer), Joseph, and my daughters lying on top of each other on Liz’s (his former wife’s) couch,” the doctor said. “He was there for most or all of the parties and he was there on a daily basis watching the relationship between Liz and Joseph unfold.”
Petty also said Leopard told him that he wouldn’t interrogate the young jailer involved because he “wouldn’t want to mess up his relationship with his future mother-in-law.”
Why did the sheriff’s department fail to meet Cheatham when agreed? Cheatham left the sheriff’s department for fear, he had said, of being spotted by young thugs reporting in to probation officers. The private investigators were supposed to meet their public counterparts, Macon County’s detectives, at the sheriff’s department.
Macon County’s top law enforcement officers, however, dispute even that point, noting that the probation officers are located in the administration building, a couple miles away in downtown Franklin. No juveniles were likely to be at the sheriff’s department that night.
It is possible that Cheatham, who lives in Waynesville, could simply not know where the probation officers in Franklin work. That doesn’t surface as a possibility during the interview with the sheriff and his employees, however.
Then, the situation that night between the sheriff’s department and the private investigator hired by Petty grew increasingly complex, Holland said.
After leaving the sheriff’s department, Cheatham moved over to the Smoky Mountain Visitor’s Center and called deputies to meet him there.
Holland said an undercover drug buy by the sheriff’s department, coincidentally, had just taken place at the visitor’s center in an unrelated case. That’s why the cops were late, and why they couldn’t meet there.
The sheriff said his chief detective did not share this explanation with the private investigator because it wasn’t Cheatham’s business, and doing so wouldn’t have been appropriate. And the sheriff’s department certainly wasn’t going to risk blowing that drug-buy operation, or risk the safety of undercover officers involved, on the orders of a private investigator telling them where to gather. Or follow his directions about how to conduct a raid, either.
“You have to have probable cause,” Holland said.
And Attorney Welch added, “We would have been sued for violating her (Mills’) constitutional rights if we’d gone in the way Mr. Cheatham wanted us to.”
In this situation, without Joseph’s cooperation, there was no case to be made, the sheriff said.
“Do we believe there was some inappropriate activity going on? Yes, we do. But we have to have more than our feelings,” Holland said.
“There was no case here, ever, based on the information we had,” Welch added.
One additional note: After Joseph took off for Florida, Attorney Welch said the sheriff’s department called police there and asked them, apparently with no success, to try to get the boy to cooperate.
“We asked, would you interview him, because he refused to talk to us twice,” the attorney said.
The sheriff’s department’s leaders said they’ve called Florida authorities again following news of Mills’ arrest. They hadn’t heard back from their Florida counterparts as of the beginning of this week.
To describe Petty as being frustrated by the explanations offered falls somewhere short of the truth. In an email, Petty noted:
• “We presented video, audio, written and eyewitness evidence to the Macon County Sheriff’s Department that strongly supported our allegations. Our concerns were not based on alimony payments … but on a concern for my daughters, concern for Joseph and the other young males … and hoping to live in a place where sex between adults and children was not tolerated.”
• Petty also said there were other possible eyewitnesses involved: the neighbor, and the young jailer, “who had direct eyewitness knowledge.” Also, he said, personnel at Franklin High School had expressed concerns about the relationship between Joseph and Mills.
• Petty and his wife firmly believe, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, that a double standard governed officers’ and prosecutors’ reactions.
“If Liz was a 47-year-old male, and Joseph was a 14- 15-year-old girl, the adult would already be tried and convicted,” Petty said. “‘A crime is a crime’ … actions speak far louder than words.
“Because of their inaction, Liz continued doing and enabling the same things that we alleged until she was arrested in Florida … the victim and his family should sue Macon County for failing to protect him, and green-lighting Liz to continue her sick and very destructive and abusive behaviors.”