Sheriff Mike Byrd pleads guilty to federal felony charge in Alabama

Plea costs him right to voteand hold office

mbbaker@sunherald.comDecember 10, 2013 

Plea costs him right to voteand hold office

By MARGARET BAKER

mbbaker@sunherald.com

MOBILE -- Four-term Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd on Tuesday pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of knowingly engaging in misleading conduct toward another person with intent to prevent the communication to a federal law enforcement officer.

Byrd, 64, entered the plea before Chief Judge William H. Steele in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Alabama.

Prior to entering the plea, the judge reminded Byrd that by pleading to the felony charge he has lost certain rights, specifically the right to vote, carry a firearm or hold public office.

As of late Tuesday, Byrd had not resigned from office. Byrd's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, said he planned to talk to Byrd on Tuesday night to determine what the next step will be.

In court, the judge said a pre-sentencing report will be prepared prior to Byrd's sentencing on March 11, 2014.

Though the federal government has recommended a sentence of six months house arrest and six months probation, the judge could impose another sentence in the case to include jail time.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

A number of agents with the FBI Safe Street Task Force in Pascagoula attended Tuesday's plea, along with FBI agents from Mobile, who investigated the case leading to the charge.

Byrd had a few supporters, but no family in the courtroom. In addition, Pascagoula police officer Jeff Barnes, who has run for sheriff in the past, attended the plea hearing.

The plea deal

In the documents Byrd signed as part of his plea deal, he admitted he ordered computer evidence and video footage from a patrol car's dashboard camera destroyed in the case of John Mark Stahl.

Stahl was arrested June 19, 2012, on charges accusing him of stealing a sheriff's Deputy Christopher Goff's patrol car.

Byrd admitted he kicked Stahl in the groin after Stahl had been handcuffed and was "unresisting." It was less than a week later, the agreement said, when Byrd told a deputy to delete from his patrol car the patrol car dashboard camera footage that showed what happened at the scene.

"You need to get rid of this video," court records quote Byrd telling the deputy.

The Sun Herald interviewed Stahl in August while he was in custody in Rankin County.

The FBI was investigating the events surrounding Stahl's arrest when the agents questioned Stahl.

"The feds came to me and told me they were waiting on me to get there so they could talk to me because they were investigating the sheriff for other acts of physical violence and things at the (Jackson County) jail," Stahl said.

Stahl estimated he led authorities on a 17-mile chase ending in Mobile County.

Stahl said he was hoping to get to Mobile to call an attorney, but admits he was "confused."

He said he stopped when he saw three Mobile County sheriff's deputies had set up a roadblock. He said he used the patrol car's radio to let deputies know he was going to surrender.

When he tried to get out of the patrol car, he said another Jackson County patrol car pulled up beside him, blocking the driver's side door. He said he decided to pull up a little more so he could get out, but a Jackson County car rammed the rear of the car he was in, and "the car went in the ditch."

He said he was then pulled out of the car and thrown down in the dirt. "I told them I was surrendering. I didn't actually resist," he said.

Also, he said, "I told (a deputy) I was sorry for taking the car, at which time he told me it was too late for all that. Then I got a boot in the face. I literally got a boot in my face and … the officer stomped on my head. When I was snatched up, I was picked up and put up against the (deputy's) car, facing the car."

By the time Byrd arrived at the scene, Stahl said he stood handcuffed, facing a patrol car. He said Byrd kicked him in the groin, then backed up a little and kicked him again.

"I took a couple of deep breaths," Stahl said. "My knees buckled, but I didn't go to the ground." Stahl said a deputy was holding him up against a patrol car at the time.

After Stahl was placed in the back of a patrol car, he said Byrd said "he was going to use every bit of influence and power that he had to make sure that I spent the rest of my life in prison for embarrassing him, his office and his officer."

Stahl admits he felt he deserved some type of punishment but said, "I do not deserve the physical punishment that I got."

"I mean I think an officer should be held to a higher standard," he said. As for Byrd's actions, he said, "He took it more as an embarrassment to him and his department than it was reacting to anything that happened. There shouldn't be any propensity for anything other than the highest level of moral and ethical standards."

Byrd talks to witnesses

A federal grand jury investigated events surrounding Stahl's arrest.

According to the court records, Byrd approached Goff on Aug. 29 while he was responding to report of an abandoned vehicle.

Byrd said: "Do you remember me saying anything to that guy (Stahl)?" Kicking him or assaulting him, 'cause I don't,'" the court records said.

By that time, court records say, Byrd knew he was the subject of a federal criminal investigation and knew he may have broken the law when he kicked Stahl in the groin.

A day after the Sun Herald article was published, court records said, Byrd approached deputy Bruce Nevels, identified as a witness to Stahl's arrest in the newspaper, to demand Nevels "explain it."

Byrd: 'Wipe' the hard drive

In addition, on Aug. 19, Byrd called an information technologist with the department to his office, court records said. When the employee arrived, Byrd said, "They ain't gonna get s--t off me!"

Byrd then directed the employee to "wipe" Byrd's computer hard drive. The sheriff, records said, was concerned about emails stored on his office computer.

Byrd admitted the employee retrieved the computer tools to erase the hard drive "in such a manner that no one would know what ... (he) was doing."

Byrd then told the employee to drill a hole in the computer hard drive to ensure no one could ever recover any data from it.

In addition to the federal case, Byrd is still facing 29 felony charges and two misdemeanor offenses in state court.

The state charges portray Byrd as a sheriff who allegedly used his office to retaliate against perceived enemies; order deputies and office staff to raise money for private causes; conceal a shooting at the county narcotics task forced office; pressure witnesses to testify falsely before a grand jury; demand free lawn mower repair; and punish a female deputy who rebuffed his sexual advances.

Byrd's state charges, as listed are 10 counts each of fraud and embezzlement, one perjury charge, and two charges each of second-degree hindering prosecution, witness tampering, extortion, attempting to persuade another to commit perjury and intimidating an officer in the discharge of his duties.

A status conference in the state's case is set for Thursday at 9 a.m. before Special Judge William Coleman. The trial is set for March 10, a day before Byrd is scheduled to be sentenced in the federal case. However, Owen said, the pre-sentencing report on Byrd may be completed in enough time for the sentencing in the federal case to proceed before March 11.

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