Where the sheriff is king, these women say he coerced them into sex

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Sheriff Eddie Scott sits for a portrait in his office in West Point, Miss. on June 29, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

Sheriff Eddie Scott has been the top lawman in rural Clay County, Miss., for more than a decade despite repeated allegations.

By Ilyssa Daly & 

Jerry Mitchell

JA Guest Writers

Part I

Ilyssa Daly examines the power of sheriff’s offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship. Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter who has examined civil rights-era cold murder cases in the state for more than 30 years.

In 2012, three months after Eddie Scott became sheriff of Clay County, Miss., a claim by a woman he had helped put behind bars threatened to tarnish his earliest days in office.

The woman said in an April court filing that, while chief deputy less than three years earlier, he had coerced her into a sexual relationship after she was arrested. Promising to use his influence in their rural community to keep her out of prison, she said, the lawman drove her to a hog farm to have sex in his patrol car on at least five occasions.

She laid out her allegations in state circuit court in October 2012 and asked a judge to overturn her prison sentence. To back up her story, the 26-year-old showed suggestive letters with a return address of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and signed by then-Chief Deputy Scott, who was 47.

“Hey Sexy,” he wrote to her in prison nine months before his election to the top job. “Got my blood pumping hard after reading the last two letters. Can’t stop thinking of how tight it is. I want all of that and more if you can.”

The revelations could have led to an internal investigation, a criminal inquiry or a public reckoning for the newly installed sheriff. Instead, powerful officials in Clay County took no action.

Judge Jim Kitchens ruled against the woman. Sheriff Scott’s predecessor, Laddie Huffman, had known of the allegations before retiring but did not report them to state or federal law enforcement agencies. There is no record of any internal investigation or disciplinary review.

The court file for the woman’s case – the only public record of the allegations – went missing at the Clay County Courthouse, likely for years. It was placed in the wrong filing cabinet, lost among hundreds of cases, until reporters pressed for it this summer while investigating other allegations against Sheriff Scott.

In interviews, Sheriff Scott would not directly answer whether he had ever had sex with the woman. When asked about his relationship with her, he called it a “mistake.” He denied coercing her.

“What she didn’t tell was, she was coming up to the office with her tits hanging out,” he said. “I never put myself in that position anymore.”

But an investigation by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today, which included dozens of interviews and a review of court records and exclusively obtained internal documents, found that during his 11 years in office, Sheriff Scott has repeatedly been accused of using the power of his position to harass women, coerce them into sex and retaliate against those who criticize him or allege abuse.

In rural communities like Clay County – dominated by farmland and economic hardship – some sheriffs rule like kings. They can arrest anyone they choose, smear reputations and hand out reprieves and other favors. They have enormous latitude to hold people in jail as long as they please and they answer to no one, typically facing little press or prosecutorial scrutiny.

Three months ago, The Times and Mississippi Today told the story of another sheriff’s office, less than 40 miles away. Former Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree rose in the ranks of his Mississippi department and kept his elected office for years despite similar accusations of abuse. He was voted out in 2019 and now faces federal charges of bribery.

But in Clay County, Sheriff Scott remains in power even after repeated allegations of misconduct.

A local woman said the sheriff had repeatedly forced her into sex during her eight months in jail starting in 2017. When she began telling people after her release, she said, a sheriff’s deputy arranged to have drugs planted in her car – an allegation corroborated by a secretly recorded conversation with a man who said he had planted them.

In a court filing last year, a man claimed that Sheriff Scott had pursued a sexual relationship with his girlfriend and helped her avoid a lengthy prison sentence when the couple’s child died in 2019 with meth in his system. Prosecutors charged the parents with child neglect. While prosecutors sought only probation in the mother’s case, they offered the father a plea deal that called for 10 years in prison.

Also last year, a woman who once worked for the sheriff sued him, claiming he had subjected her to months of sexual harassment, including texts commenting on her breasts. After she filed her complaint, Sheriff Scott fired her boyfriend, a captain in the office.

At least five people who accused the sheriff of misconduct, or who were potential witnesses in the cases, said he had retaliated against them, efforts they believe were intended to silence them or discredit their allegations.

In 2021, the F.B.I. began investigating allegations against the sheriff. They interviewed nearly a dozen witnesses, including Sheriff Scott and staff members in his office. No charges have been filed.

Officials familiar with the allegations and how they have been investigated, including federal prosecutors, declined to comment. Sheriff Huffman, citing poor health, said he did not remember any of the allegations. Judge Kitchens did not respond to a request for comment.

In multiple interviews, including one on camera with reporters, Sheriff Scott, now 58, has denied harassing women, coercing them into sex or retaliating against anyone. He said he has had to defend his reputation from “con artists” and “drug users” who were inventing accusations to avoid jail time or somehow benefit financially.

The sheriff said he was the victim in all of this, and that he had been under attack. “It was a coordinated hit on me,” he said.

In a statement recently in response to this story, Sheriff Scott reiterated his innocence and called the article “completely slanted, one sided and without any basis in fact.”

“I have cooperated fully with all authorities, news media and any others regarding questions concerning these allegations and will continue to do so,” Scott wrote.

A Popular Figure

Sheriff Scott and his siblings grew up milking cows on their family farm in Montpelier, Miss., a rural crossroads along Highway 46 marked by a single gas station and the Baptist church his family attended.

After high school, he married, had children and worked at Bryan Foods, a meat processing company and one of the area’s biggest employers. Then he was called to serve on a Clay County grand jury and became fascinated with police work, he said.

In 1999, he became a full-time deputy for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. He fought the drug trade just as meth was emerging as the scourge of rural America and he eventually became an investigator, responsible for solving the county’s occasional murders. He rose to chief deputy, second in command to Sheriff Huffman.

The logical heir when Sheriff Huffman retired, he won his first election in 2011 and took office the next year.

Today, Sheriff Scott is one of Clay County’s most popular figures and the face of area law enforcement. His brother, Terry, is listed as senior investigator on the Clay County Sheriff’s Office website; his son James serves on the Mississippi Highway Patrol’s SWAT team; and his sister, Tanya, has worked as the nurse for the county jail.

On the 137-acre spread where his family once raised cows, Sheriff Scott hosts fish fries and crawfish boils, where he swaps stories and swigs cold beer with fellow law enforcement officers and some of the county’s most powerful officials.

Sheriff Scott has covered his office walls with images of John Wayne, whom the sheriff considers his hero. The actor and the characters he played symbolize everything good and decent in America, Sheriff Scott said. “They don’t build them like him anymore.”

In his office, he keeps a Christmas card from former President Donald J. Trump, whom he has met several times. Beside it is a Bible that, he said, reminds him of his childhood.

“Back when we were kids, we all went to church and learned the difference between right and wrong,” he said. “And we’re not seeing that now.”

A New Allegation

Sheriff Scott’s public persona clashes with what a woman named Amber Jones says she experienced after she failed three drug tests and was arrested for violating probation in May 2017.

That summer, Ms. Jones, then 21, was called down from her cell at the Clay County Detention Center to the sheriff’s office, where Sheriff Scott asked if she would like to help out filing paperwork.

She had spent weeks in a dirty jail cell without seeing the sun, she recalled. She told him yes and became a trusty, an inmate with special privileges, working for the jail records administrator, Patty Stange.

One day in the office, Ms. Jones recalled, Sheriff Scott held out a hand to her and said, “If you take this splinter out of my finger, I’ll give you an eight-hour home pass.”

Desperate to see her family, she agreed, and a few days later, the sheriff himself checked her out of jail to take her home, she said. A mile down the road, the sheriff stopped the car by a small brick house and told her she had to change out of her jail clothes.

Ms. Jones said she felt uneasy as the sheriff led her inside, through a bedroom to a bathroom. He gave her a T-shirt and left her alone to change.

But he eventually returned and came up behind her, Ms. Jones recalled, touching her and commenting on her tattoos. Without another word, the sheriff pulled her to the bed and forced her to have sex, she said.

Ms. Jones said she felt that she had no choice – he was the sheriff. “I felt like I was worthless, like I didn’t have any control over my own body,” she said. “There was nothing I could do to stop it.”

After she visited her brother and returned to jail, she said, the sheriff called her to his office and told her she didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant because he had been “fixed.”

For the rest of Ms. Jones’s eight months in jail, this pattern continued, she said: Sheriff Scott offered her home passes to arrange sexual encounters.

Her accusations were detailed in a federal lawsuit filed last year by a former employee of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Caitlyn Wilson. The suit claims that Sheriff Scott sexually harassed Ms. Wilson, and it cites Ms. Jones’s allegations as evidence of the sheriff’s mistreatment of women. In sworn testimony in June of this year, Sheriff Scott declined to say whether he had ever had sex with Ms. Jones, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. The case is set for trial next year.

This article was co-reported by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today.

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Where the sheriff is king, these women say he coerced them into sex

By Jackson Advocate News Service
September 5, 2023