The Attorney General’s Office on Thursday filed notice of its 51st planned subpoena for witnesses and documents to be used in the criminal prosecution of longtime Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, providing a hint of how it intends to present the case.
At the March 9 trial, prosecutors hope to convince a 12-person jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that 69-year-old Blakely is guilty of 12 felonies and one misdemeanor. The felony counts include five for use of official position for personal gain, two for first-degree theft, two for second-degree theft, two for third-degree theft and one for soliciting a thing of value from a subordinate. The misdemeanor is for fourth-degree theft.
Several people on the subpoena list contacted by The Decatur Daily said they were surprised they were being asked to testify.
Sonny Brasfield, chairman of the Montgomery-based Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said he had no idea why he was included on the list of subpoenas to be issued.
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “No one has talked to me about this at all.”
Limestone County Commissioner Jason Black on Thursday said he had not expected to be subpoenaed.
“I have talked to (the prosecution) in the last few months, but they never told me I was going to be subpoenaed,” Black said.
He declined to outline the substance of his conversations with the Attorney General’s Office.
“I don’t think it would be good for the defendant or for the prosecution,” he said. “I just don’t think I need to discuss it, to keep from harming either side.”
The indictment issued by a 15-member Limestone County grand jury Aug. 21 made no mention of gambling, but the subpoenas and pleadings filed by the Attorney General’s Office since the indictment make clear that Blakely’s alleged gambling will be a factor in the trial.
The gambling-related allegations were first raised in court filings after Blakely’s defense lawyers complained of a digital “document dump” by prosecutors, who had turned over to the defense the equivalent of more than 60,000 pages in discovery. Part of the response by Assistant Attorney General Kyle Beckman was that the documents were easy for the defense to analyze because they were divided into folders.
One folder, 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 Casino" folder provided to Blakely's lawyers has 134 pages, according to the brief.
The Beau Rivage documents relate to count 11 of the indictment, 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.
Prosecutors this week requested the clerk of courts to issue a subpoena to Beau Rivage Resorts LLC.
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 Casino, Las Vegas" folder includes 18 pages of documents, according to Beckman's brief.
The Palace Station documents relate to count 8 of the indictment, 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 or an associate.
The prosecutors this week requested a subpoena of Kendra Deno, with no address or employer listed. A woman named Kendra Deno is executive contract administrator of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, which owns and operates Palace Station Casinos.
The wire transfers to both casinos, according to Beckman’s brief, were made through Western Union, which also is the target of a subpoena.
It is unclear from court documents which subordinate or subordinates allegedly wired the casino-related money to Blakely, but numerous Sheriff’s Office employees are being subpoenaed.
Among them are Chief Deputy Fred Sloss, patrol Capt. Guy Simmons and the office manager. The state turned over 44 pages of documents in a folder labeled "Fred Sloss," according to Beckman's brief. The state turned over a thumb drive, according to Beckman's brief, "loaded with six files containing the Microsoft Outlook email accounts for six current or former Limestone County Sheriff’s Office employees, including Defendant Blakely."
Counts 1-3 of the indictment allege Blakely stole specific campaign contributions that were intended for his principal campaign committee, Friends of Mike Blakely.
Count 1 alleges he took a $1,500 contribution issued by the Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee. Among those subpoenaed are Joyce Varnell of Athens-Limestone Association of Realtors, two other Limestone County realtors, and Jeremy Walker, CEO of Montgomery-based Alabama Realtors. Walker did not return a call Thursday afternoon.
Count 2 alleges he took a $4,000 contribution issued by Red Brick Strategies LLC. Red Brick Strategies, based in Huntsville, is a public relations firm that won an award for its "Sheriff Mike Blakely Gets Things Done" campaign ad in 2015. Trent Willis of Red Brick Strategies in Huntsville, who did not return a call Thursday, is on the subpoena list.
Count 3 alleges Blakely took a $2,500 campaign contribution issued by Austin Hinds Motors Inc. The Attorney General’s Office requested that a subpoena be issued to Austin Hinds of Arab, president of the company. Hinds was not available Thursday.
All three companies gave “Blakely’s campaign money that Blakely then stole,” according to Beckman’s brief.
In count 4, the indictment alleges a theft by Blakely of $3,000 from his campaign committee. The chairman of that committee, according to Alabama Secretary of State records, is Thomas Watkins. Watkins is on the subpoena list.
In his brief, Beckman said the state had gathered and turned over bank records from the campaign committee and campaign disclosure forms filed with the Limestone County Probate Office.
Other witnesses potentially relevant to alleged campaign finance violations are also being subpoenaed, including the custodian of records for both the Alabama Ethics Commission and the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, and John Plunk, an Athens resident who is a member of the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Counts 5, 6 and 9 for theft and count 7 for use of official position for personal gain allege Blakely removed money from the Lawrence County Sheriff Enforcement Fund. Subpoenaed witnesses include several Sheriff’s Office employees, as well as Limestone County Administrator Pam Ball and the Limestone County Commission purchasing/accounting clerk.
Black, however, said the discretionary fund “does not fall under the County Commission. That’s a completely different fund that’s kept at the sheriff’s department.”
In his brief, Beckman said the state turned over to the defense 24,378 pages detailing account activity at First National Bank involving the Sheriff's Office's five accounts.
The indictment also alleges, at Count 13, that Blakely obtained “interest-free loans … from a safe that held money belonging to Limestone County inmates.” In the brief, Beckman notes that Blakely later wrote checks from his personal bank account “to repay the loans he took from the safe when he lacked money.”
Regions Bank and Bank Independent are both on the subpoena list. Also on the list are several employees who deal with inmates in the detention services division of the Sheriff’s Office, including Capt. Vanessa Rich, Lt. Tammy Waddell, Lt. Roy Brooks and work release director William Daws.
At least one previous inmate of the Limestone County Jail is also on the subpoena list.
Count 12 of the indictment alleges Blakely used his position for personal gain by obtaining two interest-free loans totaling $72,189.68, through a cashier’s check or credit. Count 10, accusing him of the same felony, claims he personally benefited from two checks totaling $1,718.36 in August 2016.
Beckman in his brief asserts that Blakely told multiple witnesses that prosecutors would be asking about the two transactions and "told at least one witness why he received this money so that that witness would 'understand' when he or she was questioned by law enforcement about the matter."
In addition to Bank Independent and Regions Bank, prosecutors included Pulaski, Tennessee-based First National Bank, other banks and a credit union on the subpoena list.
Robert Tuten and Marcus Helstowski, Blakely's defense attorneys, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. The state Attorney General's Office declined comment.
The reason for the presence of other people on the subpoena list is unclear. The former owner of Tall Paul’s Rent-All in Athens, who could not be reached Thursday, is on the list, as is Athens real estate attorney Randy Thigpen. He did not return a call Thursday.
While nothing in the indictment references Gulf Shores, the subpoena list includes John Boller of Gulf Shores Rentals Inc. Boller said he has been questioned about Blakely by the Attorney General’s Office.
“Very candidly, I think I was asked one time before if he had ever been a guest here,” Boller said Thursday. “I think that’s why my name is on the list, because I had confirmed that he was a guest. I have no clue of why they asked. I don’t know why that would have made a hill of beans’ difference to anybody.”
The trial will be overseen by retired Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins, who was assigned to the case after all Limestone County judges recused themselves. Late Wednesday, he ruled against Blakely's request that pretrial motions by the defense be sealed from public view.
Blakely has been sheriff since January 1983.