Former jail officer sues sheriff SBI looking into details of case involving another fired deputy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2013

SALISBURY — A former detention officer has filed a federal lawsuit against the Rowan County sheriff. And another former deputy is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Alleging racially derogatory remarks and sexually offensive comments by male co-workers, former jail officer Krystal Connor filed a harassment suit against Sheriff Kevin Auten in a Greensboro federal court in April.
Connor was shown the door last May after authorities probed an incident involving a misdemeanor shoplifting charge filed against Connor at Concord Mills mall.
An internal investigation spotlighted at least three department policies Connor violated, according to court records.
But Connor — citing the dropped charge — said she didn’t violate any policies and claims the alleged harassment and ultimate termination were due at least in part to her race or gender.
Connor filed suit against Auten just weeks after Auten canned longtime Sgt. Sharon Hovis on what he said was a “totally separate” incident.
The details surrounding Hovis’ departure are murky.
Auten fired Hovis on Feb. 28 after 20 years of employment at the Sheriff’s Office.
Hovis’ termination letter states simply, “Your employment with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office is no longer needed.
“You are to immediately return all Rowan County Sheriff’s Office equipment, uniforms, identifications, keys and other department property to Captain S.A. Towne,” the letter read.
In a phone interview Friday, Auten said he couldn’t comment on the details regarding Hovis’ dismissal.
“There’s no litigation she’s filed yet,” Auten said. “We certainly anticipate it. There is an ongoing criminal investigation by the SBI.”
Hovis was hired in June 1992 and was promoted to the rank of sergeant in June 2006. She could not be reached for comment Friday.
Auten said he could not provide additional detail on the nature of the state’s investigation.
Hovis’ letter pales in comparison to Connor’s memo, which outlined the three violated policies cited in her termination.
“Based on an internal investigation of the events surrounding your arrest by way of citation on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, where you were charged with aiding and abetting larceny, your services with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office are being terminated immediately,” the letter to Connor states.
Upon notifying her supervisor, Connor said the charge was “absolutely false,” court records show. The charge was later dropped, citing “insufficient evidence per prosecuting witness,” the lawsuit said.
In the suit, Connor’s attorney, David Shelby of Salisbury, referred to a meeting with an unemployment benefits officer of the state’s Employment Security Commission.
The hearing official said Connor “did not violate any of the employer’s work rules,” according to the lawsuit, “and was not discharged for misconduct or substantial fault connected with work.”
But the department never looked back.
Connor had been out of work for nearly three months when the charge was dismissed, records show.
In the filed response, Auten said Connor was terminated “due to her violations of the described policies taken together with her previous breaches of policy and poor job performance.”
In Connor’s termination letter, the department said Connor violated the policies of General Conduct, Obedience to Laws and Regulations and Associating with Criminals and Criminal Suspects.
Connor was hired Sept. 8, 2009, as a detention officer in the downtown jail. Records show she held that position when she was terminated.
Her firing memo provides a window into the situation surrounding the 2012 Concord Mills larceny incident and the policies deputies are told to abide by.
“Sheriff’s Office employees must especially exercise good judgment even when not on duty, keeping in mind their special identification by the public,” the letter reads. “A thorough review of the video evidence from Off Saks 5th Avenue by members of the Sheriff’s Office and other information clearly shows your involvement with the theft of perfume from the business.”
It states further, “The video clearly shows you handing perfume to your charged co-conspirator, Tonya Michelle Jones, a known convicted felon. The security devices for the perfume were removed in your presence and the same perfume was found in your mother’s pocketbook outside the store.”
Connor declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.
In the letter, Auten said Connor did not notify supervisors until April 20, 2012 — three days after the incident. Department policy requires officers to disclose any such charges or citations to supervisors the following business day.
Connor was charged on a Tuesday and told her bosses that Friday.
In the third cited policy, Auten said deputies “shall not associate with persons who they know or reasonably should know to be criminals, suspected felons, person under criminal investigation, or who would have a reputation in the community for involvement in criminal behavior except as necessary in the performance of official duty or otherwise unavoidable because of family relationship.”
That policy wasn’t followed, Auten said.
“You were arrested/cited with Tonya Michelle Jones, who has an extensive criminal history. Jones has been previously convicted of shoplifting, resisting an officer, driving with a revoked license, forgery (multiple felonies) and larceny,” Auten wrote. “Her criminal record should have been known to you.”
Auten said Friday he could not comment directly on Connor’s termination or the internal investigation, citing the ongoing litigation.
“We disagree with every one of them,” Auten said of the suit’s claims. “We intend to be in court. We just adamantly disagree with her accusations and allegations.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.