Jackson County

DA seeks to revoke Sheriff Mike Byrd's bond for contacting witnesses

PASCAGOULA -- Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence wants Sheriff Mike Byrd cited for contempt of court and his bond revoked for contacting and intimidating witnesses who testified against him in his criminal case, records show.

In a motion filed Tuesday, Lawrence said Byrd violated the conditions of his bond on 31 criminal charges when he contacted deputies to ask them about their grand jury testimony.

The questioning, Lawrence said, was done "in such a manner as to place pressure on witnesses to testify falsely."

"The state would show the sheriff is using his position as sheriff and supervisor of witnesses to compel them to talk about their testimony and has used direct and subtle intimidation on witnesses," Lawrence wrote. "The sheriff is engaging in conduct which appears to be attempting to manipulate witness testimony and harass witnesses.

"The actions of the sheriff are a willful, direct and contemptuous violation of the order of this court."

If Byrd's bond is revoked, he will go to jail to await trial.

Byrd has been free on a $31,000 bond since Aug. 30, when he was arrested in Ocean Springs on 29 felony charges and two misdemeanor offenses, which included 10 charges each of fraud and embezzlement and two counts each of second-degree hindering prosecution, witness tampering, extortion, intimidating an officer in the discharge of his duties and attempting to get someone to perjure themselves, along with one count of perjury.

The charges accuse Byrd of pressuring a detective to sign a criminal affidavit to arrest a man in a murder, though the deputy didn't think the man committed the crime. He's also accused of retaliating against anyone he perceived as personal or political enemies and of trying to cover up a July 2012 shooting at the office of the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County.

In addition, Byrd is accused of ordering surveillance on a city police chief and city alderman, pressuring a female deputy to engage in sex acts, sending narcotics agents to follow a man who opposed the development of a downtown hotel in Ocean Springs and to do surveillance on employees of a Mexican restaurant after they embarrassed Byrd by refusing to accept his check during a campaign dinner.

Other charges accuse Byrd of ordering employees to solicit money for the Jackson County Sheriff's Annual Gospel Sing, using county property and county money to pay for their time and of attempting to get a police chief and deputy chief to pressure a witness to change her testimony in an embezzlement case against a former Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan, though that charge and others against the former alderman were ultimately dismissed.

If Byrd's bond is not revoked, Lawrence is asking the courts to at least ensure the conditions of Byrd's bond are enforced, which include orders that the sheriff have no direct or indirect contact with any of the witnesses regarding their testimony, including through any third-party communication or email.

Lawrence said Byrd has contacted Lt. Curtis Spiers and Sgt. Brad Lewis regarding their orders to follow the employees of the Mexican restaurant "in an attempt to persuade them and convince (Spiers and Lewis) that the operation was due to illegal immigration only, when in fact that was not true."

In a statement Spiers said Byrd called him twice last week about the surveillance on the restaurant employees and to see if he had testified before a grand jury. Spiers said Byrd indicated he was trying to gather evidence for his attorney to discredit any testimony from Jackie Trussell, a former deputy who served as commander of the county drug task force before his involvement in a July 2012 shooting resulting in his indictment. Trussell later pleaded guilty and resigned.

Lewis said in a statement Deputy Chief Ken Broadus first contacted him last week to ask him about the surveillance on the restaurant employees and asked if he remembered the sheriff had told him he had received information about illegal immigrants working at the restaurant.

"I stated I did remember him saying that," Lewis said in the statement. "It sounded like Chief Broadus had his phone on speakerphone so I did not advise him (of) everything else the sheriff told me about the workers at the Mexican restaurant." The same day, Lewis said, Byrd called him to ask if Trussell had been there when the restaurant employees were arrested and then wanted to know if Lewis remembered Byrd had directed him to do the surveillance because he had received information about illegal immigrants working there.

"I felt like Sheriff Byrd was trying to distance himself from the arrest I had made in this case and wanted me to hear his side of this situation so I could prepare if I was interviewed," Lewis said. "Sheriff Byrd was attempting to get me to say that I agreed with his statement. Instead, I advised Sheriff Byrd that I have already been before the grand jury about this."

Lewis said Spiers later called and said Byrd wanted him to do research on Lewis.

"After hearing the sheriff is attempting to have other members of the Sheriff's Department investigate me, that really concerns me," Lewis said.

In addition, records show Byrd contacted Lt. Ken McClenic in an attempt to convince him that the city of Ocean Springs had requested the surveillance on the man who opposed the development of a downtown hotel.

"The conversation with the sheriff amounted to an attempt to force Ken McClenic to testify falsely," Lawrence wrote.

Byrd's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, had only one comment Tuesday.

"I'm going to prepare a response to the motion but I may not have that complete until Friday," Owen said.

Byrd has a status hearing in his case scheduled for Sept. 20.