Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin and three of her deputies are the subject of a scathing court order, issued today by a judge who called their actions deceitful and criminal.
Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson wrote in the order that the sheriff along with Blake Robinson, Robert "Bones" Wilson and Justin "JP" Powell had acted criminally during the investigation into the fired jail warden and a local blogger. The warden was arrested on a misdemeanor at the culmination of the investigation, but the judge has dismissed the charge.
The sheriff and her deputies "endeavored to hide or cover up their deception and criminal actions under the color of law," Thompson wrote.
Franklin couldn't be reached for comment. She and the deputies have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
The judge's order comes just days after a hearing at which 11 witnesses testified about the sheriff's investigation into fired warden Leon Bradley and local blogger Glenda Lockhart. A central question of the hearing was whether Franklin and her office illegally obtained evidence to get Thompson to issue search warrants for Bradley's home and Lockhart's office in 2016.
Thompson wrote that Franklin and Robinson "deliberately misled" the court to get the warrants. Specifically, the judge wrote, the sheriff's office "intentionally withheld" the fact they paid and threatened their confidential informant.
Lockhart authors the Morgan County Whistleblower, a blog that's been critical of the sheriff and her office for years. Bradley was fired and came under investigation after the sheriff accused him of leaking law enforcement-sensitive information to the blog.
Lockhart's grandson, Daniel, was the informant who worked with the sheriff's office. Daniel Lockhart testified about the sheriff paying him $500 to gather information about his grandmother. Daniel Lockhart went into his grandmother's business after hours and installed a surveillance software, known as a keylogger, on his grandmother's computer, he testified. He spied on his grandmother at the request of Franklin, and deputies Robinson and Wilson. Daniel Lockhart also claimed Powell provided the keylogger and showed him how to install it on his grandmother's computers.
The judge wrote today that the sheriff's office provided the keylogger so it could be "unlawfully" installed on Lockhart's computer. The sheriff's office instructed Daniel Lockhart to "unlawfully" go into his grandmother's business, Straightline Drywall and Acoustical, Inc. in Falkville, to gather documents and other information, the judge wrote.
During testimony last week, Franklin vehemently denied knowing anything about the keylogger software. Because of Bradley's former position as the warden, the Morgan County District Attorney's Office recused from prosecuting the case. The Alabama Attorney General's Office took over.
The sheriff also said she didn't want the situation to appear like a conflict of interest, so she brought in an outside law enforcement agency to bring charges against the warden.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin sent Investigator Stephen McGlathery to probe the case for Morgan County. Using evidence gathered by Franklin's crew, McGlathery got a warrant for the fired warden's arrest.
The judge agreed, writing in his order that Franklin's office "lied" to get Etowah County's cooperation.
The sheriff had "shopped" or asked for assistance in the case from several other agencies that declined, including the DA's Office, Madison County sheriff's office, Limestone County sheriff's office and The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
The judge has suppressed the information gathered through the search warrants, saying the evidence was illegally obtained. However, the judge has declined to hold contempt hearings against Franklin and her deputies. He said he's leaving that up to prosecutors. Asked today about the case, Morgan County DA Scott Anderson said he can't comment on "matters that may or may not be under investigation."
"It's very concerning," Anderson said.
The order and hearing come after Bradley's attorneys, Robert Tuten and Nick Heatherly, asked the judge to dismiss the charges, suppress the evidence and hold the sheriff in contempt.