UPDATE 1 p.m. 10.7.20
In 2017, while he was county attorney, County Manager Mike Stephens told two detectives that “he did not believe” allegations that Joey Prince’s replacement at Animal Control was mishandling money, so detectives “did not need to investigate her,” according to statements.
County Manager Mike Stephens instructed former Sheriff Lewis Hatcher and two detectives not to pursue additional investigations into Columbus County Animal Control in 2017 after the arrest of a previous director, according to statements obtained from the sheriff’s office.
Stephens was county attorney at the time.
The statements were filed by then-Capt. Jason Soles and Det. Paul Rockenbach, who were investigating former Animal Control Director Joey Prince. Prince resigned in 2017, and was arrested in May 2018 for embezzling around $1,500 from two GoFundMe accounts which were used to provide care for animals. The accounts were not set up by or controlled through the county, Prince and county officials said.
Prince has provided receipts showing the money was used to provide medical care for the animals, receipts he says investigators and the district attorney’s office has refused. That case is still awaiting trial.
In September last year, a judge ordered the county to provide emails between Prince and then-County Manager Bill Clark, but those emails were apparently destroyed, County Attorney Amanda Prince said. The county did not have an email retention policy at the time of Prince’s employment, although state law has required that most emails be preserved since 2009.
Prince was replaced by longtime employee Loretta Shipman in the top post at the shelter.
The detective’s statements were included in a 2019 memo from Chief Deputy Aaron Herring to Assistant District Attorney Allan Adams. Jody Greene had replaced Hatcher as sheriff by that point, and Greene had ordered a review of pending cases.
Herring was asking guidance from Adams about the Prince case, and noted allegations of additional wrongdoings at the shelter made when Prince was interviewed by detectives.
“The discussion concerned me as to another employee that could have been involved in the same crimes whom is now the Director of the Animal Control,” Herring’s memo read. “The detectives involved in the case and conversation at that time has prepared statements of the events that took place as a record.
“I want to forward you those statements to review, as law enforcement we have a duty to investigate crime that we have knowledge of and I believe this could be an issue for you and maybe Jon (David) or Chris (Gentry, assistant district attorney) to look into. I do not want anything to corrupt an ongoing case whether that case is closed or not and I do not want discovery of evidence in a case withheld from the District Attorney’s Office.”
In the statements, Soles and Rockenbach say that Hatcher initiated the initial investigation after Prince left the office and Loretta Shipman was promoted to the post.
Rockenbach states that he was told by Prince that Shipman was allegedly embezzling funds from the shelter. After relaying that information to Hatcher, Rockenbach and Soles said they were ordered to meet with Stephens and Hatcher.
Stephens told the detectives that since he had not received any complaints about Shipman, and new financial safeguards had been put into place, there was no need for additional investigations. Stephens also told the detectives that “he did not believe Loretta was taking any money and we did not need to investigate her,” according to the emails.
Prince was arrested shortly after the meeting with Stephens.
UPDATE 1 p.m. 10.7.20
Shipman was thrust into the spotlight last year after an investigation into sexual harassment accusations against Stephens by a Board of Elections employee. Shipman, who was not named in the public complaint, was a vocal supporter of the county manager during the process. County commissioners ordered an independent investigation into the accusations, and Stephens was cleared after the second law firm hired by the county made an unpublished report to the board about the allegations.
David’s executive assistant Ashley Bullard said in an email that the DA’s office does not investigate cases.
“We have been working closely with the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office in regards to any investigation into the Columbus County Animal Control pursuant to our statutory responsibility to advise law enforcement,” the statement read. Bullard also referred requests for additional emails between the ADA and sheriff’s office to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. The request was forwarded to the AOC office this afternoon.
We have reached out to Stephens through county attorney Amanda Prince for comment. This is a developing story.