Hancock County

Not guilty of assault on Bay mayor’s daughter: ‘They made up a story’

Jeff Harding’s van.
Jeff Harding’s van. Sun Herald File

Local businessman Jeff Harding was acquitted Wednesday of charges he assaulted Mayor Les Fillingame’s daughter and grandson in a supposed road-rage incident.

Harding stood trial in Bay St. Louis Municipal Court on two charges of simple assault, a charge of following too closely in a vehicle and a charge of reckless driving. Judge Steven Maggio found him not guilty on all but the reckless driving charge.

Harding was ordered to pay a fine for the traffic violation plus court costs.

Though the verdict seemed a large victory for the former mayoral candidate, after the trial Harding said the case should have never been prosecuted.

“There was no assault,” he said. “At least that’s pretty clear. They made up a story. They sure did fabricate it.”

Harding has long been a vocal critic and fierce political rival of Fillingame. He has in the past faced misdemeanor charges for other politically fueled incidents.

How it began

This case began Aug. 13 when Harding took to the road in an old junkyard minivan he’d customized with bright colors, signs and other gimmicks poking fun at Fillingame and his administration.

Dubbed the “Less Fillin-machine,” Harding’s van featured a large jail cage on its roof, a loud “ooga” air horn and decals bearing statements such as “Les Lies a Lot,” “Corruption” and “Daddy said I get $15/hr.,” as well as $3 bills showing Fillingame wearing a crown.

That day, Harding drove the van through the city and past the mayor’s home. He was later arrested when Fillingame’s daughter, Katie Stewart, filed the four charges against him. Stewart works as a clerk in City Hall.

In the affidavits, she alleged Harding “did purposely, knowingly and unlawfully attempt to put (her) in fear of imminent serious bodily harm by following her bumper to bumper, blasting horn, putting (her) and her 7-year-old in fear of causing accident or bodily harm.”

According to a Bay St. Louis police report, Stewart told officers she visited a grave site at the Gulf Coast Memorial Cemetery on Longfellow Road and noticed Harding following her after she left, headed east toward Bouslog Street.

She claimed he laughed as he stalked her onto U.S. 90 east toward Turner Street and down to 10th Street, where she fled to her father’s house “seeking protection,” the report said.

However, problems with Stewart’s account of the events emerged during Wednesday’s trial.

Strong defense

The defense produced video recorded by surveillance systems from several businesses near the supposed assault.

It showed Harding’s vehicle was always at least several car lengths behind Stewart’s. The only time his van appeared to close on her vehicle was for a few seconds as Stewart very slowly turned onto Turner Street.

Furthermore, defense witness Aaron Whitney, a friend of Harding and an auto dealer who sold Harding the van, testified it was incapable of exceeding than 15 mph because of a bad knock from an engine rod.

“It was perplexing that it even ran at all,” Whitney said.

He said he was planning to scrap it until Harding asked to buy it.

Whitney, an eyewitness to the Aug. 13 incident, said he was in his own vehicle following Harding along the entire route in case the van broke down.

He said they were talking by cellphone as they drove and didn’t even notice Stewart until the end of the route when they saw a car slowly pull over on U.S. 90 near Turner Street. It appeared the driver was stopping to look at or perhaps take a photo of the oddly customized van as it drove by, Whitney said.

It wasn’t until her car approached the mayor’s house that they realized it was Stewart, he said.

In her testimony, Stewart admitted Harding was a “political enemy” of her father and conceded he was not following her bumper to bumper the entire time as she had said in her affidavits.

“I just wanted him to leave me alone — me and my family,” she said.

Reckless driving

The prosecution also called her 7-year-old to the stand, though the courtroom was sealed during his testimony.

Another factor aiding the defense was a Bay St. Louis police car patrolling not far behind Whitney’s vehicle as he and Harding drove down U.S. 90.

Defense attorney George Healy pointed out the officer took no action to stop “this supposedly dangerous situation.”

“We’ve shown that the affidavits were false by video testimony,” Healy said in his closing remarks.

The judge concluded the city did not meet the burden of proof for the charge of following too closely or two charges of assault.

Maggio did find proof of reckless driving based on the defense’s admission Harding knew he was driving a van that was in poor mechanical condition.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller