By Neirin Gray Desai, Samuel Boudreau & Elena DeBre
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting
Throughout his career in law enforcement, Sam Dobbins patrolled the streets of Mississippi with impunity, despite a history of racist remarks and policing, a reputation for violence and allegations he nearly beat a man to death.
On July 20, the Lexington Board of Alderman voted Sam Dobbins out as Lexington police chief after MCIR reported on a 17-minute recording filled with racist and homophobic slurs in which he boasted he had killed 13 people in the line of duty.
On Tuesday, civil rights organization JULIAN filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against the city of Lexington, its police department and Dobbins personally, alleging that under his leadership the police department subjected its almost 85% Black citizenship to discriminatory policing in violation of the First, Fourth and 14th amendment rights and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When contacted by MCIR regarding the lawsuit and other allegations that have been made against him, Dobbins declined to comment.
According to an ACLU of Mississippi public records request, revenue generated by the city’s police department through fines and tickets, issued for violations such as no seatbelt, cars “following too close” and “disturbing the peace,” increased more than threefold once Dobbins was appointed chief in July 2021.
When Dobbins arrived in Lexington as an officer in August 2020, he was a largely unknown entity, but he had served in law enforcement in Yazoo City over a decade prior and subsequently in the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department, from where he was terminated on Sept. 9, 2013, according to the Humphreys County chancery clerk. There, he had developed a bad reputation and had a checkered past, many of his former colleagues told MCIR.
Beating In The Humphreys County Jail
A complaint made to the Humphreys County Circuit Court in March 2013, and since settled out of court, alleged Dobbins, then a deputy sheriff, arrested Timmy Smith of Isola during a “routine traffic stop” for possession of a weapon.
Smith was held in the county jail for nearly three and a half months, and beaten to the point of requiring treatment at the surgical intensive care unit at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
This was not the first time Dobbins had pulled over the Humphreys County trucker. In an interview with MCIR, Smith said Dobbins stopped him more than 15 times before his eventual arrest. “It got more and more progressive,” Smith said. “He just started pulling me over, and a couple of times he roughed me up.”
Then, on July 4, 2012, Smith said Dobbins pulled him over, grabbed him out of his truck and handcuffed him. His lawyer, Ronald Stutzman Jr., told MCIR that Smith was charged for having a bowie knife.
His charges were eventually dropped on Oct. 17, 2012, the same day that “Sam and Ross almost killed me,” he told MCIR. Cleveland Ross was an investigator with the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department. Efforts to get a comment from Ross were unsuccessful.
Jackie Lee and Reginald Clayborne, inmates at the time, both remember when Smith was beaten. Lee said Dobbins and Ross came in wearing black gloves and spraying mace. “It was called suiting and booting,” said Lee, explaining how he had seen Dobbins don black gloves during prior beatings in the jail.
“They sprayed mace at everybody,” Clay recalled in a separate interview. “And after that, they just started beating the man. The man was kicking and screaming and everything,” he said, referring to Smith.
According to the lawsuit, an EMS crew responded to a call at the Humphreys County Jail and arrived to find Smith “lying on his back and unresponsive.” Deputy Ronnie Buchanan told the medical staff Smith had attempted to hang himself.
The medical technicians recommended Smith be taken to a medical facility, but they said Buchanan refused and sent them away.
Thirty minutes later, the same EMS crew was called back to the jail. This time, they found Smith in a “drastically worsened condition,” according to the lawsuit, a statement the defendants denied in their response.
Diane Johnson, one of the emergency medical technicians who responded to both calls, told MCIR that when she arrived the second time, Smith was lying naked on the ground in the jail’s holding cell.
She described seeing his jail uniform discarded to the left of him — a snow white t-shirt and orange pants that were now blackened. Johnson recounted that the officers were ordering Smith to get up, but he couldn’t move.
James Kimble, the jailer in Humphreys County for over 20 years, outlined for MCIR a pattern of disciplinary procedures similar to the accusations made in Smith’s lawsuit.
“I’m going to get these leg irons, I’m gonna strip you butt naked, and I’m going to put these on your legs, and I’m going to lock them. Every time you move, they’re going to tighten up,” said Kimble, recounting how he would treat inmates in the jail. “You act civil, I’ll treat you civil. You act like an animal, I’ll treat you like one.”
Stutzman, Smith’s lawyer, told MCIR about a recorded interview with an inmate who witnessed what happened to his client. The inmate told him, Stutzman said, that “they had Timmy, his exact words were they had him ‘strung up like Jesus’ in the drunk tank, had him handcuffed up on the cell and they were beating him and tasing him, and beat him to the point of unconsciousness.”
Trauma unit staff at the Patients’ Choice Medical Center in Humphreys County and University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson remarked in the lawsuit on “lacerations,” “marks to his wrists and ankles” and “abrasions to his body.”
Smith was in intensive care at UMMC for eight days.
“I don’t sleep at night because of Sam,” Smith told MCIR. “I fall asleep two or three hours a night just to keep myself from reliving some memories of things I went through in the jail when I got messed up with Sam.”
‘There Was A Lot Of Stuff In His File’
Dobbins has a track record of racist conduct beyond Humphreys County, a former supervisor said.
After working as a truck driver from 2001 to 2005, Dobbins’ policing career began a few years later when he worked as an officer for the Yazoo City Police Department, but, according to the Yazoo City Herald, submitted a letter of resignation shortly after in 2010.
Eric Snow, the police chief that hired him, said Dobbins had a history of racist conduct. “I talked to my assistant chief and he remembered that we wrote a lot of stuff up on Sam,” said Snow. “Some of it was racial,” he continued, “I can’t remember how or what stuff, but there was a lot of stuff in his file.”
Joey Head worked as a deputy for the Yazoo County Sheriff’s Department during Dobbins’ tenure in Yazoo City. Head described incidents in which fellow Black law enforcement officers in the county would complain that Dobbins would refer to them as “boy” and “n***r.”
“He’s just not a person that should have been in law enforcement,” said Head.
During his tenure as a Humphreys County sheriff’s deputy from 2010 to 2013, Dobbins was also sued in the U.S. District Court in 2012 by Tianna Creel, a White woman from Isola, who accused him of making sexually inappropriate and racist remarks regarding her mixed-race baby.
On Feb. 24, 2012, he and several other Humphreys County deputies went to Creel’s house to execute an arrest warrant on Derek McDaniel, who is Black. According to the lawsuit, Creel asked the deputies if they had a search warrant to which she said Dobbins responded that one was not needed.
“Defendant Dobbins snatched Plaintiff’s arms behind her and took her into custody and made her sit in his patrol vehicle with her hands handcuffed behind her back for two and a half hours,” alleged Creel in the lawsuit filed on Oct. 1, 2012. The lawsuit goes on to claim that Creels infant child was snatched from her arms “crying and screaming,” and that Dobbins threatened to jail her for “harboring a fugitive” as well as with losing her child.
Included as part of the complaint was the claim that her arrest was unlawful and in breach of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.
Later in the lawsuit, she also alleges that Dobbins “continuously taunted the Plaintiff for her present, as well as past, choice in boyfriends partially because the Plaintiff’s daughter is multi-racial.”
The case was settled in September 2013 but the exact terms are unknown. When MCIR reached out to Creel regarding her case, she indicated that she was reluctant to talk about specifics for fear of breaching the terms of the settlement agreement.
Soon after the incident in 2012, Creel appealed to former Sheriff J.D. “Bubba” Roseman to complain about $2,000 that had gone missing from her house on the day, as well as the way in which Dobbins had made sexually inappropriate comments and rummaged through her underwear drawer.
In a tape Creel secretly recorded, which was provided to MCIR by Boyd Atkinson, the Cleveland lawyer who filed her lawsuit, Roseman can be heard telling her: “You got a White boy mad at you because you screwing somebody Black.” When Creel responds that she doesn’t know that to be true, the sheriff said, “Well, I’m telling you that. I’m telling you.”
Atkinson has sued Humphreys County and Dobbins successfully several times in the past decade for 1983 Civil Rights violations.
“He ran Humphreys County like a feudal kingdom,” said Boyd of the county’s late sheriff. “He and his minions that were disguised as deputy sheriffs did what they wanted to, when they wanted and how they wanted to. I just caught them a few times, God knows how many other cases slipped through the cracks,” he said.
A New FBI
In the wake of Dobbins’ termination as Lexington police chief last month, a local official told MCIR that an FBI investigation into the fatal 2012 shooting of Ralph Winston, who Dobbins referenced gunning down in the 17-minute recording obtained by MCIR, is underway. “I understand that there is a federal investigation being handled,” Humphreys County Interim Sheriff Dean Johnson told MCIR on July 19.
The FBI did not respond to a comment for confirmation.
When MCIR requested a copy of the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department incident report on the shooting of Ralph Winston, Johnson said that records from before 2020 had been “destroyed,” following a change of administration, and were no longer held by the department.
On Aug. 23, 2012, Winston, 58, was shot by law enforcement in Humphreys County, where Dobbins was an investigator at the time. A Mississippi Bureau of Investigation probe was opened the same day. MCIR obtained a copy of the MBI report.
At the time, Winston was living out of his car, in a blue Isuzu Rodeo, across from the cornfields of Riven Oak Farms, and just down the road from his family’s house.
Winston had been living on the Hairston’s land for years without a problem, according to a farmhand who works on Riven Oak and grew up on the farm.
Born and raised in Silver City, Winston fathered three children with Melissa Boroughs. His mental health, however, slowly diminished in his late twenties, said Boroughs, as he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and returned home to live near his father. “He did have some mental issues, but he wasn’t violent,” his brother Perk Winston told MCIR.
According to the MBI report, farm owner Bob Hairston made a 911 call regarding Winston, “stating the victim was trespassing on his property and the suspect had a gun under his seat.”
Perk Winston confirmed that he carried a gun. “He was in the woods,” Perk explained. Dobbins refers to the gun in the recording, saying, “I’m talking about a man had a gun, a man had to die.” The MBI report states Winston had a 12-gauge shotgun.
A worker at Riven Oak felt uncomfortable around Winston, said the farmhand, who didn’t want his name used since he still works at the farm and doesn’t feel safe.
“Ralph wouldn’t hurt nobody,” he said. “Everybody around knew Ralph, but there was just a worker that didn’t know too much about Ralph,” he said. That worker kept complaining about Winston to the Hairstons until they eventually called the police.
“Shortly after Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived on the scene, the victim began firing gun shots at their vehicles,” the MBI report says.
The farmhand, who witnessed part of the shootout, did not see who fired first. He was preparing to load grain into his 18-wheeler, parked at the intersection of Allendale Road and Highway 149, when he heard the gunfire.
Winston’s truck was cutting across the cornfield, toward the highway, with four police cars on his tail, shooting at the car. “Humphreys County came to him like they were in the military or something.”
In the Lexington recording obtained by MCIR, Dobbins refers to the cornfield shooting. “I chased this motherf—er across the field. I got him. He was DRT [dead right there] in the field. The vehicle was shot 319 times, but he was hit 119 times by me.”
According to the MBI report, a total of 96 bullet holes and ricochet marks were recorded on Winston’s car and a “blood pool” was found covering the driver door, seat, floor, and steering wheel.
“Sam and Buchanan were doing the action,” the farmhand said, referring to Dobbins and Chief Deputy Ronnie Buchanan. “They put all types of bullet holes in that man’s car.” He said that the deputies eventually used their own guns to shoot at Winston. “When they ran out of ammo, they went and got their personal guns out of their truck and started using that.”
Asked about deputies having their own rifles, Bruce Williams, who served as an officer for the Belzoni Police Department at the time and is now running for Humphreys County sheriff in an upcoming election, said Dobbins would often keep his own rifle in his patrol car. “He would carry a rifle on duty,” said Williams, “an AR-15, .22 rifle.”
The witness at the scene said Winston was fatally shot when he surrendered. “Ralph had plenty of bullet holes. He was already shot up. That man got out of his truck and had his shotgun in his hands and he surrendered. He put the shotgun up in the air with his back turned, and they shot him down,” the witness said.
The MBI report counters this account, saying, “Winston stopped his vehicle in the corn field, threw his shotgun out onto the ground and exited the vehicle. He retrieved the weapon and reportedly aimed it at the deputies causing them to use deadly force to stop the assault.”
Medical technician Diane Johnson, who had also responded to the Timmy Smith calls, was part of the EMS crew tending to Winston before the helicopter arrived to airlift him to Jackson. Johnson recalls driving through the field to reach Winston and finding him lying between the rows of corn, with a shotgun to the right of him.
Bullet injuries were in his right hip, his left jaw, and his arms, Johnson remembers. “There were so many we couldn’t even count them all,” she said. He was still conscious when she reached him.
“Every time he was trying to talk, the holes that were in his face, it was like a water fountain,” she said. “And the blood was just a steady stream that was spurting up out of his face.”
Johnson recalled that Winston asked her to pray with him. He was pronounced dead when he reached the hospital, the MBI reports.
When MCIR visited Buchanan’s home for a comment, his sister, Carla Gordon, approached the door. She said Buchanan was too sick with diabetes to speak with MCIR.
“If this has anything to do with the ex-police chief in Lexington, he’s already said he’s not commenting,” she said. “He wants nothing to do with that. He’s retired. Everything is on record. There’s nothing my brother did that makes him look bad, and everything is on the record.”
This story was produced by journalism students in the Immersion Program, part of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletter (https://www.mississippicir.org/sign-up).