Finally out from under the cloud of a criminal prosecution, former Morgan County Warden Leon Bradley was upbeat last week until he recalled the day his daughter discovered he had been charged with a crime.
“She was in the cafeteria sitting with her friends when she looked up and saw me on the news, on TV,” Bradley recalled of the day charges were filed against him. “We hadn’t had a chance to talk with her about it, to explain what was going down. That’s not a good feeling as a parent. Those were tough times.”
Bradley’s home was raided and he was fired from his job of 13 years in October 2016. Eleven months later, he was charged with misdemeanor computer tampering. The charge was based on an allegation that he forwarded a confidential document to a blog critical of Sheriff Ana Franklin.
After listening to testimony from numerous witnesses in a hearing that concluded last week, Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson announced he would dismiss the charges. He did so Friday in a blistering order that rejected much of Franklin's testimony as false and concluded she and three others in the Sheriff's Office "endeavored to hide or cover up their deception and criminal actions under the color of law."
At Franklin’s request, the charges were filed by the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office. In testimony that galvanized the courtroom April 20, an Etowah County investigator testified his department was misled by Franklin’s office.
“I believed they lied to us, they used us,” investigator Steve McGlathery testified.
Franklin, in a text on Friday, declined comment "until we work through some of the next proceedings."
Bradley, 63, said he has struggled with depression and humiliation in the 18 months since he was fired, but that God has sent people to him when he needed it.
“There were a couple guys that were in the jail ministry that brought us food, money,” Bradley said, his voice choked. “Unbelievable. One guy said, ‘Some of us at work know you got a bad deal. You’re going to need this.’ And he gave me gift certificates.”
Bradley’s lawyer argued to Thompson that his client’s prosecution was part of an effort by Franklin to silence the blog managed by Falkville businesswoman Glenda Lockhart, and that the sheriff misled the court in obtaining a search warrant for Bradley’s home on Oct. 4, 2016, and Lockhart’s business the following day.
“They wanted him charged with computer tampering, a felony,” attorney Nick Heatherly said of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office. “It went from a felony investigation to hundreds of misdemeanors to a single misdemeanor.”
He said charges were filed shortly before the one-year statute of limitations ran out. “They would have been barred from filing any charges, so they had to come up with something,” Heatherly said. “If Leon did indeed forward an email, show me a law on the books that says that’s a crime.”
Testimony at the hearing revealed that information used to secure the search warrants came from Lockhart’s grandson. He testified Franklin paid him to collect information from Glenda Lockhart’s business and her computers. Franklin acknowledged the payment in her testimony, but denied it was inappropriate. Thompson found Franklin also threatened the younger Lockhart with arrest if he failed to fully cooperate.
Bradley on Thursday said he was on alert the day before the search warrant was issued because he knew his office had been searched. Deputies testified at the hearing that Justin Powell, a Sheriff’s Office employee with information technology expertise, was instructed by Franklin to search his work emails.
Bradley said he also felt he was being followed. In the hearing, a deputy acknowledged a GPS tracker had been attached to Bradley’s county-owned vehicle before the search warrant was issued.
When deputies descended on his house, Bradley said, he was at home on his lunch break. He said Lt. Robert “Bones” Wilson showed him the warrant and asked him to waive his Miranda rights. Bradley said he declined. What he did not discover until much later was that Wilson was recording their conversations during the more than two-hour search.
Wilson presented him with termination papers as they drove from the search to the Sheriff’s Office. “They were already filled out,” Bradley said. “So I was done before they saw any evidence.”
During the hearing, Franklin testified she received information implicating Bradley from the blogger's grandson several days before the search warrant was executed.
"That's when we realized there were issues with Leon Bradley," she said.
At the Sheriff’s Office, Bradley met with Franklin, her lawyer and several deputies. Unknown to him, the conversation was recorded. Heatherly said he listened to the recording in preparation for last week’s hearing.
“It was a four- to five-hour meeting,” Heatherly said. “Ana is telling Leon and everyone else in the room how these posts on this blog are affecting her.”
Heatherly said the conversation sounded at times like an exit interview.
“It was bizarre,” he said. “It was an interrogation under that guise, with them asking him about communications with the blog.”
Bradley said he felt vindicated by Thompson’s decision to dismiss the charges, but that he and his family have had a hard time.
“It was not a pretty thing, and it’s still not,” Bradley said. “The invasion of privacy was number one. Someone has been in your stuff. And my wife and I were afraid they had planted a bug in the house. We were afraid to have conversations in our own house. We were afraid to talk on the phone. We felt violated.
“I was out a job; that weighed heavily on me. My daughter at that point was a freshman in college at a private school. It weighed very heavily on me that I didn’t have a job and that I was trying to get my daughter through school.”
He said his wife, who is the director of a nonprofit agency, felt people deliberately avoided talking about the charges.
“She feels that discomfort,” Bradley said. “She brings it home at times. Sometimes it’s worse than others.”
Bradley, who worked 11 years for the Huntsville Police Department before starting at Morgan County, said it’s been a tough 18 months.
“I found myself on a day-to-day basis listening to a lot of sermons, music that had messages,” Bradley recalled. “These helped keep my faith strong. One of the biggest things was individuals who happened along at critical times to encourage me. That happened time and time again, and I credit that to God.”
He said he struggles with the damage to his reputation.
“It was my good name,” Bradley said quietly. “From cradle to now I’ve been a Bradley, and the Bradley name means you’re going to do the right thing. … I try to make the right choices. I live that way. That’s who I am. I want my good name back. That means more to me than anything else.”
Bradley said he’s not angry with Franklin, who is not running for re-election.
“Now my wife, she tells me to this day she’s still praying about that,” Bradley said. “She’s really struggled with anger. She knows she can’t get to heaven hating somebody. She’s prayed about that. … Depression is there for me. I’ve learned I need to be doing stuff, I need activity. I can’t let myself just sit there and drown in it.”
Bradley said he’s not sure what’s next, but that he knows he’s not ready to retire. Franklin has not offered to give him his job back, but he thinks about it.
“People ask me, ‘Would you go back?’ I don’t know,” Bradley said. “If God wants me to go back and he sees fit, if I know that, I’m going back. But it might be time for me to move on. I don’t know, but I’m praying about it.
“Before I leave this life, I want to be able to witness to Ana Franklin personally and help her in her Christian experience. I don’t know if that will ever happen.”