MONROE, N.C. (WBTV) - The Union County Sheriff’s Office withheld text messages and deleted other related records to the investigation into Kristy Brooks, the Union County mom who went into hiding with her child in late 2015 before turning herself into authorities in January 2017.
WBTV filed a public records lawsuit against UCSO seeking three months’ worth of text messages related to the Brooks investigation in August 2017.
At the time, attorneys for UCSO were adamant that there were no text messages related to Brooks’ case.
“There are no such texts. Never were according to my people,” a lawyer for Sheriff Eddie Cathey wrote an attorney for WBTV in May 2017.
But, ultimately, the case was settled in an agreement that required, among other things, UCSO to produce hundreds of text messages sent and received by Cathey, Chief Deputy Todd Elmore, his spokesman, Tony Underwood and other deputies investigating the case.
Records included in the final production of documents from UCSO to WBTV show some messages related to the Brooks investigation were deleted by deputies.
The Public Records Act requires text messages and related metadata be preserved. Rules governing discovery in criminal cases require relevant text messages be produced to defendants before trial.
In addition to producing hundreds of text messages, the settlement agreement required UCSO to implement a new policy for retaining text messages that complied with the Public Records Act and also to pay the attorney’s fees and costs incurred by WBTV for bringing the lawsuit.
In total, Union County spent $170,322.57 in legal fees, of which $57,772 went to reimburse the station. The county paid its attorneys nearly double. Records obtained by WBTV show the county paid its attorney, Richard Long, to defend the sheriff at first.
Later, though, county commissioners approved Cathey hiring his own attorney, James Wyatt.
Long billed the county $250 an hour for his work on the case. Wyatt billed nearly three times that, charging $700 per hour for work defending Cathey in the public records lawsuit.
In total, the county paid lawyers $112,549 to defend the sheriff.
A spokesman for Cathey declined to give an interview or issue a new statement for this story.
“We don’t have any further information to share beyond what has already been released concerning this matter,” UCSO spokesman Tony Underwood said in an email. “We respect the judicial process and will accept whatever decision comes from it.”
Brooks is on trial for one count of felony obstruction of justice. She was originally arrested in January 2017--just weeks after she spoke with WBTV while in hiding--on a warrant for felony child abduction.
The district attorney dismissed that charge and a grand jury indicted her, instead, on the obstruction of justice charge.
Records obtained by WBTV found UCSO charged Brooks with child abduction despite the advice from a criminal law expert at the UNC School of Government, who said Brooks had not committed child abduction as defined by the law by going into hiding with her daughter.
On Monday, the judge presiding over Brooks’ trial ruled that attorneys in the case could not make reference to “child abduction”, “kidnapping” or “taking.”
The judge rejected a request from Brooks’ defense attorney that prosecutors be limited to only presenting evidence from December 2015, when the indictment alleges Brooks engaged in conduct that obstructed justice.
Jury selection in the case is set to begin Monday morning.