ATHENS — Prosecutors presented casino records of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely’s alleged Las Vegas gambling during his trial Wednesday.
The state called a casino executive who explained spreadsheets giving times, dates, wagers, wins and losses from slot machines and gaming tables while Blakely was in Las Vegas to attend law enforcement training seminars in 2014 and 2015.
The gambling seems to have “occurred throughout the day,” said Nick Langenfeld, vice president of Station Casino. He investigates financial crimes such as money laundering for the casino, but he said he wasn’t aware of any alleged Blakely crimes other than those in the current trial.
Blakely is charged with 11 felony counts of theft and ethics violations. Wednesday was the eighth day of the trial and the third day of testimony.
Langenfeld said the records reflect electronic tracking of Blakely’s player card, but he admitted under cross-examination that someone else — such as Blakely’s wife, a friend or someone who found a lost card — could have been using it.
He said people like to use their own cards to earn rewards such as air miles and restaurant meals. On the other hand, he agreed with a defense lawyer that two people might share a card to earn points faster, although that practice is against casino policy.
Langenfeld was the last of four witnesses Wednesday. The others were employees of the Sheriff’s Office who described the two Las Vegas trips. Another trip was to Gulf Shores, during which Blakely took a side trip to Biloxi, Mississippi, and visited a casino.
Debbie Davis, chief clerk in the Sheriff’s Office and a longtime friend of Blakely, said he would borrow money from the Limestone County Sheriff Law Enforcement Fund, leave IOUs, and pay the money back. The fund contains money from pistol permits.
“On a regular basis, does anyone else but the sheriff put IOUs in the Law Enforcement Fund?” Assistant Attorney General Clark Morris asked.
“No,” Davis said.
A former Sheriff's Office employee testified Tuesday that Blakely would also use IOUs to borrow money from a safe containing the funds of jail inmates.
Morris challenged her statements several times by showing contradictions between them and Davis’ previous sworn testimony. Davis said she did not have access to records during the previous testimony. In response to several questions, she said she could not recall what happened.
The Las Vegas trips (by road, not air) took place in December 2014 and December 2015. The Gulf Shores trip was in August 2016. Each trip included other sheriff’s employees as well as Blakely and others. Prosecutors questioned expense checks written to Blakely for $2,500 in 2014; $2,000 in 2015; and $1,500 and $218.36 in 2016.
Davis explained the 2016 checks as a combination of $1,418.36 spent for condos and Blakely’s $300 per-diem travel allowance. She agreed with defense lawyers that the other checks could have covered fuel, food and other legitimate expenses.
On cross-examination by the defense, she said Blakely returned more than $900 to the Law Enforcement Fund from the 2014 trip.
The Gulf Shores event was a meeting sponsored by the Alabama county commissioners’ association. She said that while Blakely was on that trip, he phoned her from Biloxi, said he was in a casino and asked her to lend him money.
“I called my husband and told him I was going to loan the sheriff $1,000” from their personal funds, she said. She wired it. She said she didn’t know whether the money was for gambling.
She said she never feared that Blakely would fire her, and being an employee was not a factor in the loan. They were friends before she came to work for the sheriff 18½ years ago. He paid her back “as soon as he got back into the office.”
“Have you ever known the sheriff to do anything dishonest?” defense attorney Robert Tuten asked.
“Never,” she replied, “and I have known him a long, long time.”
Davis said it was common for Sheriff’s Office employees to cash checks, usually from the Law Enforcement Fund, and to ask that the checks not be deposited in the bank immediately. No money was lost from the Law Enforcement Fund or the fund that holds jail inmates’ money, she said.
Testimony from the former jail clerk and an investigator with the Attorney General's Office on Tuesday indicated Blakely had the clerk hold his checks for as long as 66 days, and that if 19 of those checks totaling $29,050 had not been held he would have overdrawn his personal account.
In a question to Davis, Tuten said someone at the conference invited the sheriff to play golf in Biloxi and three county commissioners were with them.
Sheriff’s Lt. John Morell and Investigator Jeff Kilpatrick testified about accompanying Blakely on the Las Vegas trips. Morell, who specializes in digital forensics, attended both seminars, and Kilpatrick attended the one in 2014.
The 2014 seminar was about electronic evidence. Morell said that although he was the specialist, the sheriff needs training in many subjects in order to supervise. Kilpatrick said he found it hard to participate in the technology seminar because he did not have enough previous training. Participants were expected to use their laptops, but “I didn’t know I needed to bring one.” He said Blakely did not have a computer, either.
The Las Vegas trips included networking, sightseeing and gambling, testimony indicated.
Witnesses said Blakely attended some of the conference events, but prosecutors’ questions cast doubt on the extent of his participation.
Why meet in Las Vegas? Tuten addressed that issue with his own question to Davis. He asked whether she agreed that organizations plan seminars in places that are interesting so that people want to attend, and that “if the host of a seminar held a seminar in Elkmont, Alabama, it probably would not be very well attended.” She agreed.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. today in the Limestone County Courthouse. Specially appointed retired Judge Pamela Baschab is presiding.