Detective, his wife out of jobs; email inquiry continues

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 22, 2011

By Karissa Minn and Shelley Smith
SALISBURY — State agents are investigating whether a former detective with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office broke the law by creating a fake email address to send an embarrassing memo to the newspaper and county officials.
Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said the SBI is looking into the matter involving Jason Whitley, who left the department March 28.
Whitley, who specialized in investigating Internet crime, is accused of sending the email using the name of a woman who worked with his wife in the Rowan Tax Assessor’s Office.
His wife, Stephanie Whitley, was fired Monday, according to county officials. The county could not release the dismissal notice until she has a chance to appeal, according to County Manager Gary Page.
Both Whitleys left after an internal investigation began, Page said.
A message left at the couple’s home Thursday was not returned.
The email was sent Feb. 22 to all five Rowan County commissioners and blind copied to several other recipients, including Salisbury Post reporters. It contained a memorandum that had been given to employees at the Tax Assessor’s Office.
The memorandum outlines a behavior policy for those who work with or in view of the public. The memo includes rules against employees “belching or passing gas” and slumping in their chairs.
The email, which had “Appropriate Behavior?” written in the subject line, said the following:
“To whom it may concern, We were strongly earged (sic) to sign this yesterday. I am curious why natural bodily functions and our posture have become an issue to Rowan County that we have to sign memo’s (sic) of this nature. Thank you”
The email appeared to be sent using a Hotmail account registered to Melody Patterson, an employee in the Tax Assessor’s Office who transferred there in November from the Department of Social Services. After Patterson and her father complained to the county, an investigation determined she did not send the email.
Patterson said Thursday she has been told Stephanie Whitley doesn’t like her, even though the two women don’t know each other. And Patterson said she has never met Jason Whitley.
“The fact that it’s someone in law enforcement is very disheartening, because you put your trust in people in law enforcement,” she said.
Jason Whitley faces a potential charge of misuse of a government computer, Auten said. The Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney Brandy Cook and Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins asked the SBI to investigate.
Cook and Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Moose have reviewed cases on which Whitley worked as an investigator. Cook said she’s asked the Sheriff’s Office to reinvestigate some of the cases. And Cook said she doesn’t yet know if she’ll call Whitley as a witness in any of those cases.
“We would have to make that determination at a later date,” Cook said. “We’re waiting for the SBI to finish its investigation.”
By itself, impersonating someone online is not against the law in North Carolina, though it violates the terms of service of some email providers and social networking websites.
Related offenses that are illegal include cyberstalking and accessing a computer for “devising or executing any scheme or artifice to defraud.” Both acts are misdemeanors, but accessing a government computer for illegal purposes is a felony.
“This made me realize how easy your identity can be stolen,” Melody Patterson said. “Anybody can create an email to look like it’s from whoever they want to.”
The Post ran a story about the memo Feb. 23 without mentioning its apparent sender. A few days later, Dan Patterson contacted the Post asking for a copy of the original email. He wrote that someone had opened a fake Hotmail account to send it in his daughter’s name, and that she believed her job was in danger.
“Melody has been treated very rashly by supervision in (the) tax office,” Dan Patterson said. “They pretty well accused her of this email being sent before they ever got to the bottom of it.”
He said he spent the next few weeks trying to clear her name and prove who really sent the message. He contacted Hotmail to report fraudulent activity and also called local law enforcement and the state Attorney General’s Office to ask for an investigation.
In early March, Page wrote to Melody Patterson that the county no longer held her responsible for sending the email, but its information technology department couldn’t determine who did. The email originated on the county’s public network, department staff told him.
Barbara McGuire, real and personal property manager in the county assessor’s office, said Thursday that neither she nor Tax Administrator Jerry Rowland can comment on the issue.
Contact Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222 or Shelley Smith at 704-797-4246.