Witnesses with links to Sheriff Mike Byrd testify before grand jury in Jackson County

Judge signs order keeping identities of 12 confidential

mbbaker@sunherald.comJuly 20, 2013 


PASCAGOULA -- A Jackson County grand jury is hearing evidence in an ongoing investigation in which a judge has signed an order to keep the identities of 12 witnesses confidential.

Witnesses are typically identified in grand jury reports, but not in a report filed in the Circuit Clerk's Office this month.

Several newsmakers in law enforcement and government have testified before the grand jury, according to court records, and many of those witnesses have a link to incidents involving Sheriff Mike Byrd.

Grand jury investigations are secret, so District Attorney Tony Lawrence can't comment on what the grand jury is discussing. A grand jury decides if enough evidence exists to issue an indictment. Grand juries typically hear a wide range of cases during their term.

Lawrence, though, has confirmed in court records his office has investigated the actions of sheriff's investigators involved in the arrests of former Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan, who has filed suit against the Sheriff's Office.

Hagan alleges the sheriff and some of his investigators participated in improper search and seizure, witness tampering, perjury and false arrest and provided false information in sworn arrest affidavits and search warrants, among other things.

Hagan also alleges Byrd issued orders directing narcotics agents to target Ocean Springs Alderman Matt McDonnell for arrest, though McDonnell was never arrested.

Records show these key witnesses have testified in front of the grand jury, although sheriff's investigators routinely testify in cases they have worked:

Jackie Trussell: The former commander of the now-defunct multi-jurisdictional Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor simple assault in a shooting at the task force office that resulted in an injury to another agent. Trussell, who has since resigned, was a member of the drug task force when Hagan says the sheriff ordered agents to target McDonnell.

Chad Powell: The sheriff's office drug agent who was injured during the 2012 shooting at the drug task force office. In addition, he was a drug agent at the task force when Hagan says the sheriff ordered agents to target McDonnell.

Linda Jones: A former cyber-crimes investigator, since reassigned to work as a school resource officer. She and sheriff's Detective Hope Thornton investigated the Hagan case. Jones is named in Hagan's lawsuit. In addition, a judge has ordered the District Attorney's Office to turn over evidence from its investigation into Hagan's arrests to defense attorneys because the information could be used to challenge the credibility of Jones as a witness in cases she investigated.

Mick Sears: A captain in charge of the sheriff's criminal investigations division, where both Thornton and Jones worked at the time of Hagan's arrests.

Mark Dunston: Deputy chief of the Ocean Springs Police Department. Hagan has alleged Byrd attempted to influence high-ranking Ocean Springs officials to pressure the city clerk into providing false testimony and evidence to a grand jury in the investigation into Hagan's alleged embezzlement of a city-owned laptop computer.

Lionel Cothern: Chief of police in Ocean Springs.

Shelly Ferguson: City clerk in Ocean Springs.

Chad Heck: A sheriff's investigator who along with Jones, Thornton and sheriff's investigator Eddie Clark, is accused in Hagan's federal lawsuit of violating Hagan's civil rights, inducing others to give false testimony, engaging in perjury, false imprisonment, defamation, witness tampering and gross negligence, among other things. Investigators also testify in cases they have worked.

Matt McDonnell: An Ocean Springs alderman who Hagan alleges the sheriff directed his drug agents to target for arrest.

Grand jury witnesses are prohibited from discussing their testimony.

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