GRANVILLE COUNTY, N.C. — A North Carolina sheriff stands accused of urging the murder of a former deputy who had a recording of him using racially offensive language, authorities say.
Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins was indicted Monday on two counts of felony obstruction of justice, according to court records. Wilkins is accused of trying to get another man to kill former Deputy Joshua Freeman, who he believed was going to expose his racist talk.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is prosecuting the case, said Wilkins' Aug. 12, 2014, phone conversation with the "well-known" man who threatened Joshua Freeman's life was caught on tape, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh. Lorrin Freeman and Joshua Freeman are not related.
Joshua Freeman worked for the Sheriff's Office from November 2011 to August 2014 but was let go in the days leading up to Wilkins' alleged crimes, WRAL in Raleigh reported.
Wilkins, who was reelected in 2018 for a third four-year term, is accused of advising the unnamed man to kill Joshua Freeman, “whom the defendant knew to have expressed his intention to soon publicly reveal a purported audio recording of the sheriff using racially offensive language to authorities in Raleigh,” the indictment states.
The court records do not detail what Wilkins is alleged to have said, or what ultimately happened to the recording of his words.
The indictment against the sheriff alleges Wilkins encouraged the man to “take care of it” and said, “The only way you gonna stop him is kill him.”
According to the indictment, Wilkins counseled the would-be gunman on how to kill Joshua Freeman in a way to avoid getting caught. He offered two tips, according to the document: Get rid of the murder weapon and keep quiet.
“You ain’t got the weapon, you ain’t got nothing to go on,” Wilkins allegedly told the man, the court records allege. “The only way we find out these murder things is people talk. You can’t tell nobody nothin’, not a thing.”
Wilkins and the individual discussed a time in which to kill Joshua Freeman and a location that would ensure it would be Wilkins’ own Granville County Sheriff’s Office investigators who would get the case, the indictment says. Wilkins assured the man he would not tell investigators of his prior knowledge of the crime.
The indictment accuses Wilkins of failing to prevent harm to Joshua Freeman or warn him of the “credible threat” to his life. It alleges the sheriff also failed to seize the gun the other man planned to use, despite the person showing him the weapon at one point.
“The defendant failed to properly execute his duties because of his personal animosity towards Joshua Freeman,” the indictment states.
Joshua Freeman was never harmed, though the indictment offers no indication why the alleged plot failed.
Wilkins went before a magistrate Monday and was released on $20,000 unsecured bond. Court records show he was ordered to have no contact with anyone named in the indictment.
He was also ordered to surrender his passport, if he has one.
Read the indictment against Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins below.
"No one is above the law," Lorrin Freeman said Monday, according to WRAL. "It is always painful when someone who has the public trust faces these types of allegations for voters who put them in that place.
“Any time you have someone who is sworn to uphold the public trust, to protect their community, to investigate and report crimes, allegedly engage in this type of conduct, it is something that needs to be brought to justice, and so we will continue to follow the evidence in this case.”
Several followers of Wilkins' public Facebook page offered support in the wake of the indictment.
“You will always have our support,” one woman wrote. “Praying for you and your family.”
“Our friendship goes back 30 years or more and you have always been a great friend to me,” another woman wrote. “You were there for me many times. I believe in you and you have my support, always.”
Lorrin Freeman said Wake County is handling the case because Mike Waters, her counterpart in Granville County, could potentially become an important witness at trial. Waters, who addressed the case in a statement on his office's Facebook page, wrote to Lorrin Freeman in November to ask her to look into the case.
Watch Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman discuss the case below, courtesy of the News & Observer.
WRAL reported that Joshua Freeman, who Waters represented in 2014 while in private practice, gave the future prosecutor the tape recording of Wilkins' conversation with the man who talked of killing the former deputy. It was not clear Friday how Freeman obtained the recording.
Waters said he immediately turned the tape over to the FBI.
The Washington Post reported that Waters met with North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents about the recording in January 2017, but nothing happened.
"Quite frankly, it did not get to the top of their investigative list," Lorrin Freeman told WRAL about SBI agents.
Waters gave the recording to a different SBI agent in October 2018, but still, no investigation was initiated, the Post reported.
That is when Waters turned to Lorrin Freeman to initiate a probe into the sheriff. She agreed.
"I have reviewed this recording," Lorrin Freeman wrote to SBI agents, according to the Post. "It contains a conversation between two individuals, one of whom appears to be the Granville County sheriff, about a former deputy sheriff and culminates in a discussion about committing a homicide."
In his Facebook statement, Waters expressed frustration at the amount of time it took to get an investigation going.
"At all times since (turning over the recording), I have provided assistance to investigators, and once Ms. Freeman opened a criminal investigation, have urged that this matter be given investigative priority," Waters wrote. "I understand it is a matter of great importance to the people of Granville County, and it has been a point of frustration that the investigative process has not been more expeditious."
He wrote that any allegations of wrongdoing by law enforcement are troubling, particularly when they involve a sheriff elected by the community.
"Over the next few months, my office will continue to lend assistance to the ongoing investigation as requested, while we continue to do our daily work of protecting victims, prosecuting those who violate the law and seeing that justice is administered," Waters said.
WRAL reported Lorrin Freeman said she worked to obtain obstruction charges against Wilkins because obstruction would be easier to prove in the five-year old case than solicitation of murder or conspiracy.
The Granville County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to discuss the indictment, but County Attorney Jim Wrenn said the board has no authority to remove Wilkins, an elected official, from office as his criminal case winds its way through the court system, WRAL reported.
Lorrin Freeman confirmed that fact to the News & Observer.
"Technically, he can continue to serve if he chooses, until convicted," Freeman told the newspaper.
Spectrum News' Charlotte bureau reported that Wilkins has indicated he will not step down.
Wrenn said he is considering trying to get Wilkins out of office through the courts but wants to hear the recording himself before making that decision. Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly, said state law has a provision allowing a judge to suspend a sheriff and allow a county commission to appoint a temporary replacement pending the outcome of a criminal case.
"The statute is there to allow removal of sheriff," Cohen told Spectrum News. "One of six causes is, in fact, conviction of felony. Others are some of the things in his indictment, like willful misconduct, corruption, willful neglect or refusal to perform duties of his office. Some of them match the charges in his indictment."
The News & Observer reported that the probe into Wilkins' alleged actions against Joshua Freeman has led to investigations of the Granville County Sheriff's Office's accounting practices, as well as the operations of its drug unit. Freeman was a member of the drug unit when he was with the agency.
"Part of this investigation has centered on why this sort of conversation would have occurred, what the underlying motivation would have been," Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday, according to the newspaper. "Additional information has come to light regarding operations and accounting practices of the Granville County narcotics interdiction team."
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