Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely was gambling in a Biloxi, Mississippi, casino when he was supposed to be at a sheriffs’ conference in Alabama, according to a filing last week by the state in his felony theft case.
Blakely, who is in in his 10th term as sheriff in Limestone County and is 70 years old, was indicted in August 2019 on multiple ethics and theft charges. His jury trial is set for July 12.
Assistant State Attorney General Kyle Beckman made the allegations in a brief opposing an earlier motion by Blakely. In that motion, which remains under seal despite a ruling by the court that it should be public, Blakely argued the judge should exclude from the jury trial any evidence of his “gambling and drinking practices.”
Beckman responded that Blakely's motion had no legal merit, and that the state would appeal if the court excluded the evidence.
“… Evidence that Blakely was in a casino in Biloxi … when the (Limestone County Sheriff’s Office) provided him travel money to attend an official conference in Orange Beach makes it ‘more probable’ that Blakely intended to steal LCSO funds,” Beckman wrote.
Blakely’s lawyer, Robert Tuten, did not return a call Monday.
The Attorney General’s Office argued that excluding evidence of Blakely being at casinos when money was wired to him from the Sheriff’s Office would effectively undermine the prosecution. There is nothing wrong with Blakely spending money from the Sheriff’s Office on official business, but the fact he spent it on gambling makes it theft, they argued.
“Alternatively, the jury would not hear evidence tending to show Blakely was not conducting official business — i.e. gambling — when he received LCSO wire transfers; it would not hear evidence that Blakely was in a casino in another state during an Alabama sheriff’s conference the LCSO paid him to attend; and it would not hear evidence showing Blakely gambled away LCSO funds rather than applying that money to law enforcement objectives,” Beckman wrote.
In the brief filed last week, prosecutors also provided more detail on the evidence they expect to present to the jury.
“The state expects to elicit specific relevant evidence that Blakely was in casinos in Las Vegas, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Atmore, Alabama,” Beckman wrote. “The state further expects to elicit specific evidence that during these visits Blakely solicited, received, or spent cash belonging to the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office or one of his subordinates.”
The prosecution also argued that Blakely’s effort to exclude evidence of his drinking should be denied.
“The state does not expect Blakely’s drinking habits — whatever they may be — to be a significant part of this case,” the Attorney General’s Office argued, but because the state’s witnesses are closely aligned with Blakely, “the state has limited control over whether any of its witnesses may mention drinking.”
The indictment filed against Blakely by a Limestone County grand jury in August 2019 makes no reference to gambling.
Last week’s brief, however, was not the first hint that prosecutors plan to introduce evidence that Blakely improperly used money for gambling. In a brief describing the pretrial evidence produced to Blakely by the Attorney General’s Office, Beckman indicated that at least two of the felony counts were connected to alleged gambling activities.
One folder of documents provided to Blakely, Beckman wrote, is “the Beau Rivage folder for gambling records that correspond with an August 2016 wire transfer.” Beau Rivage is a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The Beau Rivage documents relate to a felony charge of soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate. The indictment alleges that a “subordinate or person with whom he directly inspects, regulates, or supervises in his official capacity” wired $1,000 to Blakely on Aug. 17, 2016.
Another folder, according to Beckman’s brief, is “the Palace Station folder for records for hotel and gambling activities that correspond with a December 2015 wire transfer.” Palace Station is a hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
The Palace Station documents relate to a count charging the sheriff with use of his official position or office for personal gain. This count alleges a Limestone County Sheriff’s Office employee on Dec. 9, 2015, wired $1,000 to Blakely, “a family member, or a business with which he is associated.”
According to another brief by the Attorney General’s Office, Blakely “solicited wire transfers of cash between gambling sessions in Las Vegas and Biloxi while he was on official travel for the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office.”
The brief alleges Blakely was gambling at Palace Station Casino in Las Vegas and Beau Rivage in Biloxi, and that during these trips he solicited the wire transfers from Sheriff’s Office employees.
“Evidence that Blakely was gambling before and after he picked up cash from Western Union is plainly relevant,” Beckman wrote.
Blakely’s gaming activities continued into 2020, according to a Statement of Economic Interests the sheriff filed two months ago with the Alabama Ethics Commission. On that form, he listed income of $10,000 to $50,000 from the Tennessee Lottery for “gaming.”
On May 31, 2018, Blakely amended his 2016 Alabama Ethics Commission Statement of Economic Interests to report "more than $250,000" in household income from "TN Lottery and gaming establishments."
On the same day, he amended his 2017 Statement of Economic Interests to report $50,000 to $150,000 in household earnings from "gaming establishments."
His 2018 ethics disclosure, filed in May 2019, reported $50,000 to $150,000 in winnings from "gaming institute," and $1,000 to $10,000 from "(Louisiana) Racing Commission," with the income described as "race horse."
In a separate filing last week, the Attorney General’s Office proposed that about 500 jury summonses be distributed May 10, with jury questionnaires being sent out May 24. In addition to standard questions for prospective jurors, the form asks questions such as whether they are comfortable serving on a jury during a pandemic, whether they or family members have worked for or had encounters with the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office, and whether they have visited the Limestone County Rodeo grounds.
Retired appellate judge Pamela Baschab has been assigned to preside over Blakely’s trial. Retired Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins recused himself from the case, citing the pandemic and “my high risk status.” A trial had been set for March 29, about a year after it was originally scheduled, but Tompkins in January continued the case due to COVID-19.