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SPRING LAKE -- The Spring Lake Police Department was stripped of its remaining police powers Monday, and two of its officers were arrested.
Sgt. Alfonzo Devone Whittington Jr. and Sgt. Darryl Eugene Coulter Sr. were arrested after being indicted by a special Cumberland County grand jury.
About midafternoon, Sheriff Moose Butler and District Attorney Ed Grannis met with Police Chief A.C. Brown and Town Manager Larry Faison to discuss the action being taken against the Police Department.
They delivered an order from Chief District Court Judge Beth Keever saying that all criminal work within the town, including misdemeanors, would be handled by the Sheriff's Office.
Grannis also said he plans to dismiss all pending misdemeanor cases filed by Spring Lake officers and will evaluate pending felony cases.
The action, which Grannis later called unprecedented, has in effect stripped Spring Lake police of any remaining powers.
The Sheriff's Office set up a mobile command unit at the Spring Lake Family Resource Center on Odell Road. Butler said roughly four deputies on rotating shifts will work out of that location.
Starting today, all emergency calls in the town will be forwarded to the Sheriff's Office. Residents who need assistance should call 323-1500.
Butler could not say how long his officers would handle Spring Lake's investigations.
"We're stretched, but we're going to be here till the issue's resolved," he said.
Butler and Grannis met with four members of the county Board of Commissioners behind closed doors following Monday's arrests.
After the hour-long meeting, board Chairwoman Jeannette Council said the commissioners support Butler providing law enforcement for Spring Lake residents until at least June 3. Council said the county can afford the expense without a special appropriation.
After June 3, the commissioners urged Spring Lake officials to contract with the sheriff to continue the service until town leaders reconstitute the Police Department "as a fully functioning law enforcement agency."
Late Monday, many Spring Lake officers said they did not know whether they should show up for work today or what the future holds for them.
Town leaders evaded those questions Monday.
"Give us a little time," Mayor Ethel Clark said before leaving Town Hall. "We're still formalizing a plan."
Brown remained in his office after Grannis and Butler left and would not answer questions from reporters. He surfaced briefly to check his vehicle and said, "I got a hot one," before going back inside.
Faison referred all questions to a news release he said he faxed. He then slipped out of Town Hall to avoid reporters waiting at the rear of the building. The Observer did not receive a fax.
2 officers charged
Whittington, who joined the department in October 2005, was charged with 11 crimes, including embezzlement by public officer, obtaining property by false pretenses, larceny and obstruction of justice. The charges stem from $2,900 that was allegedly taken from the department's evidence room. Whittington, who also served as the department's evidence custodian and internal affairs investigator, allegedly took the money between September and January, according to the indictment. He then directed officers to alter reports and lie about the handling of the money. His bail was set at $100,000.
Coulter, who has been with the department since July 1999, was charged with 20 crimes, including breaking and entering, second-degree kidnapping and obstruction of justice.
The charges stem from an April 27, 2008, incident at a home on the 400 block of Vass Road.
According to the indictments, Coulter broke into the home, which was occupied by Mark Anthony Jones Jr., Jimmy Jovan Taylor and Samuel Darnell Wallace. He assaulted the men and forcibly removed them from the home while threatening them with a handgun and a shotgun, kidnapped them and then held them against their will by handcuffing the men.
The indictments allege that Coulter, while supervising three officers also involved in the false arrests, had no legal justification for the actions.
Coulter also was indicted for his alleged actions during an investigation at the Sleep Inn Motel. According to the indictment, Coulter lied when he said he smelled marijuana in a room from which officers seized $2,900. That's the same money that Whittington is accused of later taking from the evidence room. His bail was set at $250,000.
Both officers appeared before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge E. Lynn Johnson about 4:30 p.m. They were escorted into the courtroom by agents with the State Bureau of Investigation. Johnson read the charges against them and told them the maximum penalty they face for each.
According to Johnson, Whittington could face 24 years, two months in prison if convicted on all charges. Coulter could face 32 years, four months in prison.
Whittington said he planned to hire his own lawyer. Coulter asked for a court-appointed lawyer, which the judge said would have to come from outside the county's public defender's office.
String of problems
Monday's arrests are the latest in a string of problems for the Police Department.
In a letter to the county's two top judges Monday, Grannis said he first realized the department had troubles in December 2006. It was at that time, the District Attorney's Office learned Spring Lake officers mishandled child abuse allegations and the subsequent death investigation of 3-year-old Anijah Burr.
He later asked that all homicides be investigated by the Sheriff's Office and then expanded that request to include all felonies.
In mid-2007, Grannis said he asked the SBI to conduct a criminal inquiry into the department's narcotics division.
An independent assessment of the department, done at the request of the town Board of Aldermen in late 2007, found a number of problems, including a lack of training for officers, a lack of written directives and the leadership of Brown.
Originally, Grannis said he was concerned that the department lacked trained manpower and expertise. Now, he said, he has a much deeper concern.
Grannis wrote that the department still was under investigation by state agents.
He said the SBI's report made him "genuinely disheartened" and that many of the questions raised in the report came from officers within the department.
"Within our democratic society, we entrust law enforcement with significant authority and responsibility in carrying out our criminal laws," he wrote. "... This report raises genuine questions concerning the entrusting of such significant responsibilities to the Spring Lake Police Department."