GULFPORT -- Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd has such a habit of going after his political or personal enemies that a lawsuit alleges his employees have come up with an acronym for these investigations -- APE, short for Acute Political Emergency.
Attorney Adam Miller filed the lawsuit in federal court Tuesday on behalf of Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan against Byrd, Jackson County and four detectives, including former lead cyber-crime investigators Hope Thornton and Linda Jones, and the county's insurance carrier, Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America.
Hagan is seeking a total of $30 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
The lawsuit alleges Hagan was maliciously prosecuted and falsely arrested in 2011 on charges of molestation, child pornography and embezzlement.
The lawsuit accuses Byrd, Thornton, Jones and detectives Eddie Clark and Chad Heck of violating Hagan's civil rights, inducing others to give false testimony, engaging in perjury, false imprisonment, defamation, witness tampering and gross negligence.
A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Hagan after he was arrested in November 2011 on the charges of embezzlement and molestation. He was accused of embezzling a city-owned laptop computer. The grand jury did indict Hagan in August on a charge of child exploitation, but the District Attorney's Office dismissed the charge in November, citing insufficient evidence.
When asked for a response to the allegations Tuesday, Byrd said, "Bring it on. We're ready." In January, when notice of the suit was sent to Byrd, he sent a statement saying, "I welcome this lawsuit . A civil trial will bring our side of this case to light, and the truth can finally be told."
The lawsuit outlines the allegations against Byrd and others over the course of the Hagan investigation.
It says the injuries against Hagan began Nov. 29, 2011, when Thornton told Byrd of allegations from a third party about Hagan's alleged molestation of a child. Thornton interviewed the third-party witness, the suit says, but never made an attempt to verify the information with the alleged victim before notifying Byrd of the alleged molestation.
As soon as Byrd heard the allegations, the suit says he told Thornton, "I want this m----- f----- in jail today."
The suit says Thornton knew she did not have any basis to obtain a search warrant at that time but Byrd instructed her to conduct an investigation into possible child pornography on Hagan anyway.
Suit: Detective 'fearful'
"Upon information and belief, Thornton was fearful of having to follow through with such an order and contemplated resignation or possibly losing her job because she had no basis for a search warrant, and that obtaining such a search warrant would violate ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) protocol in addition to violating the law," the suit says. "Thornton was concerned that to do what the sheriff had ordered would cost her and the Jackson County Sheriff's Department their (ICAC) certification."
The suit says Thornton, at Byrd's direction, obtained a search warrant from Justice Court Judge Cecil Byrd, the sheriff's brother, to conduct a search based on a child pornography investigation. But, the suit notes, "There was never any allegations, reports or evidence of child pornography involving Hagan."
The suit also alleges Thornton, Mike Byrd and others knew there was no evidence to charge Hagan with molestation or embezzlement. In addition, the suit states Mike Byrd attempted to influence others to put pressure on the Ocean Springs city clerk to provide false testimony and evidence to a grand jury hearing the embezzlement case.
Suit: Sheriff 'cursed' staff
When deputies objected to Mike Byrd's intent to target certain people in investigations for personal or political reasons and without probable cause, the suit says, the sheriff "cursed them and threatened their jobs," or "demoted and fired employees that refused to perform illegal and/or improper investigations and/or other tasks.
"The Jackson County Sheriff, Mike Byrd, created and maintained a culture, pattern and practice of going after his perceived enemies, conducting improper investigations, violating citizens' constitutional rights, both state and federal, which created policies, practices and procedures that led to the violation of Hagan's Mississippi and United States constitutional rights."
Hagan was an outspoken supporter of one of Byrd's opponents in the last sheriff's election.
The suit alleges Byrd ordered the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County to put Alderman Matt McDonnell under surveillance in an attempt to bring charges again him and influence Hagan's case. McDonnell has said other law enforcement officials told him a sting was set up Sept. 4 in downtown Ocean Springs, but he wasn't there.