Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
OXFORD — The county attorney said Tuesday he may consider asking a judge to remove Granville Sheriff Brindell Wilkins from office after the sheriff was indicted on criminal charges connected to an alleged plot to murder a former deputy.
Wilkins remains in office and has not responded to multiple requests for comment. He was indicted by a grand jury Monday on two counts of felony obstruction of justice following a 10-month investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.
According to the indictments, investigators reviewed a tape of a 2014 phone conversation Wilkins had with another person he knows. During the call, Wilkins is said to have urged the other person to kill former deputy Joshua Freeman.
The sheriff believed Freeman possessed and planned to release recordings of Wilkins “using racially offensive language,” the indictments claim. The sheriff fired Freeman 10 days earlier.
“The only way you gonna stop him is kill him,” Wilkins was allegedly recorded as saying in the conversation with the would-be killer, who has not been named by authorities.
Documents show that Wilkins is accused of providing tips to the person on how to execute the killing and to do so “in a manner as to avoid identification.” According to documents, Wilkins is quoted as saying “you ain’t got the weapon, you ain’t got nothing to go on” and “the only way we find out these murder things is people talk. You can’t tell nobody nothin.’”
The sheriff also discussed a specific time and location in Granville County to carry out the killing, the indictments allege.
Officials said there is an ongoing second investigation into the sheriff’s office accounting practices and drug interdiction efforts. Details of that case were not released and it’s not clear if it involves Sheriff Wilkins or other county employees directly.
The indictments accuse Wilkins, 59, of withholding knowledge of the threat to kill Freeman and failing to take law enforcement action to protect Freeman.
Wilkins, a Democrat in office since 2009, was served his indictment Monday by agents with the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. He appeared before a magistrate and was released on a $20,000 unsecured bond. Wilkins will first appear in Granville County court Oct. 9 at 9:30 a.m.
A staff member at the Granville County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday said Wilkins was in the office that day. The sheriff’s office directed questions to Granville County Attorney Jim Wrenn.
“I think these charges would be unsettling to anyone, and so are unsettling to me,” Wrenn said Tuesday at a press conference. He said he learned of the indictments Monday evening.
State law provides that sheriffs can only be removed from office by a superior court judge for a handful of reasons, including being convicted of a felony or neglecting or refusing to do the duties of his office. The process must be initiated by the appointed county attorney, the elected district attorney or a petition of at least five qualified voters.
Wrenn said he is taking serious his obligation to consider requesting Wilkins be removed from office, although he said he will not make a decision until he has had a chance to review the evidence against Wilkins, including hearing the recorded phone call. He said he would also consult with the county commissioners and law enforcement before making a decision.
At an emergency meeting of the commissioners Tuesday, elected officials voted to make Wrenn the county spokesman regarding the indictments. Wrenn said the commissioners do not have oversight of the sheriff’s office and cannot compel Wilkins to step down.
Wrenn acknowledged that the indictments might cast a cloud over the sheriff’s office, but added that Wilkins must be presumed innocent as the case goes to court.
“Let me be clear in the fact that the commissioners and I are united in the fact that Granville County must have a chief law enforcement officer who upholds the law without animus or bias, who does not use his office for personal gain and who does not obstruct justice,” Wrenn said.
Wrenn said he was not aware of any officials calling for Wilkins to step down.
“The allegations in the indictments are extremely troubling,” said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel to the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, a nonprofit comprised of all 100 state sheriffs, including Wilkins.
Caldwell said he hopes citizens continue to have faith in the criminal justice system in Granville County.
“The indictment as I read it involves one person,” Caldwell said. “So I don’t see that the public should have any concern about the remainder of the criminal justice system in Granville County or of the criminal justice system across the state or across the country.”
Granville County District Attorney Michael Waters recused himself from the prosecution. That’s because in 2014, while he was in private practice, he was representing Deputy Freeman.
According to a letter Waters wrote to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, Waters was given a copy of the recorded phone call with Wilkins in August 2014 — the same month the call was recorded. He immediately turned the recording over to the FBI after meeting with a special agent.
He never heard anything back from the FBI, so in 2017, Waters said he turned the recording over to officials with the SBI. He provided the SBI with another recording in October 2018.
In the letter to the Wake district attorney, he urged her to request the SBI begin an investigation. She did so in November.
“I understand it is a matter of great importance to the people of Granville County, and it has been a point of frustration that the investigative process has not been more expeditious,” Waters said Wednesday in a statement.
He added that the allegations are “troubling” and that “no one is above the law.”
Deputy Freeman, 33, was hired at the sheriff’s office in 2011. He was transferred to the sheriff’s drug interdiction team the following year.
He was let go Aug. 2, 2014 because “his services are no longer needed,” Sheriff Wilkins wrote in a letter to human resources.
The indictments claim Sheriff Wilkins discussed the murder plot 10 days later, on Aug. 12.
Freeman’s current attorney, Boyd Sturges, acknowledged that the sheriff can fire any deputy without reason.
Sturges said following Freeman’s dismissal, the sheriff’s office brought felony drug charges against Freeman. Those charges were ultimately dropped by prosecutors because “the evidence was not strong enough,” Sturges said.
He added he was heartened to learn of the indictments this week.