Jackson County Times

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Saga of The Grand Ridge Mayor

By Bo McMullian

There were warning signs during the last few months that Grand Ridge’s new mayor wasn’t working out. He was reprimanded by the town council earlier this year for using abusive language and cursing to staff and his relationship with long-time city manager J. R. Moneyham was so bad the council had to settle disputes at every meeting.

But there were great big flashing neon signs, practically, that Chris Wright, 30, would not make a great mayor before he ever ran for office in April 2009. Wright had a criminal record of seven arrests or citations from 2003 to 2007 and his arrest on the felony charge of grand theft auto last week makes it eight.

There were four traffic charges, including three arrests for driving with a suspended license. There were three criminal misdemeanor charges, none of which resulted in convictions, including battery, criminal mischief and stalking. Although the misdemeanors were not prosecuted for various reasons, the complaints written by officers with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, coupled with Wright’s behavior while mayor, may tend to expose a violent temperment and a problem with authority.

Last Wednesday, April 14, Wright was arrested for the theft of an automobile that had been reported stolen in 2006. State Farm Insurance, according to court documents, has long since made a settlement with the owner, Audrey Colley of Chattahoochee, for the theft of her property. On Thursday, April 15, the town council met, choosing council member Kim Applewhite as vice-mayor and relieving the mayor of any official duties concerning signatures. Then, the next day, last Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist suspended Wright from office.

“Florida law provides the governor may suspend from office any elected municipal officer who is arrested for a felony,” the order reads, and grand theft auto is a third degree felony carrying a maximum prison sentence of five years. Only convicted felons are prevented from holding public office.

The auto theft charge is Wright’s second felony arrest. On June 8, 2007, Wright was arrested by the Sneads Police Department on a charge of felony criminal mischief. It was alleged that Wright had shouted obscenities at the driver of a 2003 Mustang on Keeves Road and then “struck the driver’s side rear quarter with his fist.” The case was reduced to a misdemeanor because it was determined that the damages were more than $200 but less than $1,000. Later, the state attorney’s office decided not to prosecute.

On August 5, 2007, Wright and two other men were charged with battery by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department for allegedly grabbing and holding a juvenile in Greenwood against his will in an apparent attempt to “retrieve a stolen radio,” the criminal complaint said. The state attorney’s office again declined to prosecute because “the victim in this case does not wish to pursue the charges,” according to court documents.

A misdemeanor charge of stalking was filed against Wright in January 2004 by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. A Marianna homeowner claimed that Wright and a juvenile were harrassing him and his son in his front yard. Two months later, the state dismissed the case, “as an alternative remedy was found,” according to court documents.

Wright was arrested for driving with a suspended license once in 2004 and twice in 2003. He was charged with another traffic offense, “financial responsibility suspension,” in 2003.

Earlier this year, Wright, who was employed only as mayor, drove a city fire truck in violation of city policy one night and wrecked it, almost turning the truck over on a dirt road. Wright was not charged, but townspeople are still wondering why an investigation was never done. The damages to the truck were mild and it has since been returned to service.

Applewhite, contacted by the TIMES on Tuesday, said she had no knowledge of Wright’s criminal record. Wright won a decisive victory over incumbent James Barwick last April, campaigning on promises of ridding the town of corruption. Applewhite said the council will have to wait and see what happens in the criminal case before any special election is held. Meanwhile, the town will operate with four council members only. If Wright is cleared, Applewhite said, he could be reinstated by the governor.

But the grand theft auto case does not seem to be flimsy, as the misdemeanors turned out to be.

According to Major Donnie Branch, who spoke to the TIMES on Tuesday, the sheriff’s department isn’t buying Wright’s stated excuse that the owner’s sister asked him to move, and later hide, the car.

“She denies giving him permission,” Branch said. Sheriff’s Investigator Jason McAlpin and others looked into this case for a week after being led to the stolen car before arresting Wright, days after interviewing him. McAlpin wrote in the complaint that Wright’s own statements showed evidence of guilt.

In particular, McAlpin wrote: “Wright stated that approximately one year after taking the vehicle from the ballpark, he received a call from (the owner’s sister Stacey) Copeland stating for him to get rid of the vehicle, at which point he carried the vehicle to (Ronald) Bennett’s house.” The car was found on April 7 at Bennett’s house near Sneads on the Old Spanish Trail. Bennett reportedly told McAlpin that Wright had drove it there a year ago. The car had reportedly been sitting at the house of Jimmy “Buddy” Maddox, another mechanic friend of Wright’s, before that. The day of the alleged theft, the car was reportedly taken by Wright to his own residence.

In the meantime, Major Branch told the TIMES, the car had become the property of the insurance company, and that owner was being deprived of its use of the vehicle, by Wright, and that is auto theft.

The 2001 Lincoln Navigator, the property of Colley, a black woman living in Chattahoochee, had been reported stolen on Nov. 5, 2006 by her sister, according to the complaint. The car had reportedly been left overnight at the Porter Park recreation area in Grand Ridge. Wright says the sister asked him to take the car, reports state, but the sister is apparently not telling that version to the sheriff’s department.

Wright spent the night in jail last week and was released the next day on $5,000 bail. No court date has been set, pending the result of the state attorney’s investigation process, the Jackson County court clerk’s office said Tuesday. There may be a lesson for voters to learn from this experience.

1 comment:

  1. why does his past have to do with now!!! you didnt have to go into detail about it!! leave the good ol boy alone he was just trying to help somebody not become a felon!!!