“After speaking with the district attorney [Ashley Welch], I determined his services were no longer needed,” said Sheriff Chip Hall.
Dep. Jimmy Henry, who allegedly attended the Saturday, Oct. 25, party, was placed on administrative leave the following Monday, Oct. 27, and continued to receive his salary of $37,600. But he wasn’t actually fired until Hall and Welch, who both won their current seats in the November elections, discussed the issue last week.
A single-sentence press release announcing Henry’s dismissal didn’t elaborate, and due to legal restrictions neither would Welch or Hall.
“It’s a murky situation, because you have personnel laws from one side and you have ethics rules that prevent me from commenting on a pending investigation,” Welch explained.
Henry’s wife, Maria, who was also allegedly at the party, was also placed on leave. An emergency dispatcher for the county, she was placed on paid administrative leave between Nov. 5 and Dec. 9. When it became clear the investigation would drag out for a while, she was allowed back on staff at her same salary of $29,400.
However, she was reassigned to be an administrative assistant for the Emergency Management Department.
“We felt the position of telecommunication operator in our 911 call center was too close to other departments involved in the pending case and its investigation,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten. “Consequently, we wanted her to return to work and we reassigned her in a position with the same pay grade and similar qualifications.”
Elected officials like Hall have more flexibility when hiring and firing employees than do other county employees, Wooten said. The county will re-evaluate Maria Henry’s employment pending the outcome of the investigation.
Sgt. Josh Yopp had initially responded to the party, said Jackson County Sheriff Department Maj. Shannon Queen, due to reports of careless driving and a vehicle complaint in the area.
Later, a rape investigation launched when students at Smoky Mountain High School told their teacher about the party, according to an Oct. 27 search warrant unsealed last week.
According to the warrant, officers spoke with the girl, 14, who had allegedly been raped. The girl told officers that she had been drinking Jell-o shots and other alcoholic beverages while at the party and ended up leaving with Sylva resident Cody Jenkins, 24.
Jenkins took her to his home and had intercourse with her, the warrant alleged.
The search warrant was executed the same day granted, Oct. 27. Investigators retrieved a laundry list of items, including Jell-o mix boxes, a Jell-o shot glass mold, receipts for American Vodka, a used condom, clothing and bedding.
In a separate search, issued and executed Oct. 28, investigators took DNA swabs from Jenkins.
Two days later, Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts issued an order sealing the warrants for 90 days to prevent the information contained in them from jeopardizing the investigation or the rights of those involved. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement had many pending interviews with minors in relation to the case, according to a motion to seal by Assistant District Attorney Ann Ansley.
However, the investigation was quickly turned over to the State Bureau of Investigations due to conflict of interest.
“We started investigating and found out we had some employee involvement,” Hall said.
“During the initial course of the investigation, we determined that we were going to request assistance,” added Maj. Queen.
SBI cases can go on for quite a while before resulting in any charges. For example, an investigation into embezzlement at the Macon County Board of Elections that launched in January 2014 is still ongoing, though the person being investigated has since resigned her post and been replaced.
The benefit of an SBI investigation, however, is that the case can be examined by someone who is not as connected with the community or people under suspicion.
“If you have an investigation that comes across our desk, we have to make sure it was independent and impartial,” Queen said.