Okla. sheriff, LEOs quit in protest over dangerous jail conditions

The Oklahoma sheriff and most employees resigned over poor conditions including carbon monoxide discovered at the jail


Kris Dudley
Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Okla.

NOWATA, Okla. — Former Nowata County Sheriff's Terry Sue Barnett's attorney described Tuesday's hearing before District Judge Carl G. Gibson as an ambush and confusing.

Tulsa attorney Paul DeMuro said at a press conference following the 9 a.m. Tuesday hearing that Barnett stands by everything she has said and done — "It's been in the best interest of her staff and employees."

"She cares deeply, deeply about this county, and there's a reason why this county hasn't been able to hold a sheriff for this past term," DeMuro said.

Monday, Barnett and most employees at the Nowata County Sheriff's Office resigned after Gibson ordered inmates brought back to the Nowata County Jail. The inmates had been relocated to the Washington County Detention Center on Feb. 28 after carbon monoxide was discovered in the jail. It had sickened some jail employees.

Gibson said he had the lost the ability to control Barnett as one of the reason for Tuesday's administrative hearing. The other was the release of a violent prisoner.

DeMuro said in a press conference following the court proceedings, "I think everyone is confused by what happened today, including myself."

DeMuro also said, "What we saw was a judge who was out of control ... still disregarding the safety of the jail and was instead attacking the sheriff who was the only one trying to do something about it. The proceedings were invalid. There were no judgments or orders issued."

Tuesday's hearing also had no legal impact, DeMuro said in a Wednesday morning phone interview with the EE.

When asked if there would be legal repercussions from the hearing held Tuesday, DeMuro said, "No comment."

The court proceeding, which involved more than one heated exchange between DeMuro and Gibson, did not answer any questions or solve any problems.

Gibson said Barnett had shown willful noncompliance and taken the position to continue to keep the jail shut down and not bring the prisoners back when requested.

He continued to say his records show that the carbon monoxide leak was "cleared and repaired."

Barnett refused to bring the prisoners back to Nowata County until the problems of carbon monoxide and black mold were fixed. Nowata County Commissioners backed the law enforcement officials going so far as to find alternative solutions for the jail and the formation of a jail committee to seek answers on how to remedy the jail problem. Gibson contacted witnesses Monday for the administrative hearing. He called Mirta Hallett, retired major with the Nowata County Sheriff Office; Mike McElhaney, Nowata police chief and Jason McClain, South Coffeyville Police captain, to testify Tuesday.

DeMuro said he was blindsided by the calling of witnesses.

McElhaney was questioned by the judge as to the decision made by the sheriff to release a violent prisoner. "He (the prisoner) is a violent person, and he is the last person that should be released back into the community. He has threatened myself, other officers and other citizens."

When McClain was questioned, he spoke of an incident recently where the sheriff asked South Coffeyville to not make arrests over the weekend because there was no staff in Nowata to handle an arrest.

DeMuro said he didn't believe it was unusual for neighboring law enforcement agencies to talk with one another.

He added he didn't think it was out of line to avoid arrest if there is no staff to handle it.

When DeMuro's line of questioning grew too lengthy, the judge harshly ordered the attorney to stop.

"I can ask what I want. I don't know what is going on here," said DeMuro.

There was more than one occasion when the DeMuro and Gibson went head to head.

DeMuro said more than once that "this is an old-fashioned ambush."

He also said, "This is an outrage. This whole proceeding is invalid. It's a chance for you to air your grievances against the sheriff. It's a personal hatchet job against the sheriff. This whole proceeding is out of order. It's not a contempt proceeding. I don't know what's going on."

The judge said "that's your opinion."

When questioned by DeMuro as to the witnesses who were called to testify, the judge said, "They are here because I asked them to be here. I'm going to ensure the safety of the community."

DeMuro asked, "Why aren't you concerned about the safety of the jail?"

When the testimony of three witnesses was complete, the proceeding ended.

Nowata County Commissioner Burke LaRue said he was hoping for a positive direction. "This is not a positive direction," he said.

He also said he had no idea who the next sheriff candidate might be.

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©2019 the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise (Bartlesville, Okla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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