Former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Lee Medford, who was serving a 15-year sentence in federal prison on corruption and extortion charges, has died from COVID-19.
Medford, 74, died Wednesday, June 3, at a hospital outside of the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, according to a Bureau of Prisons press release. Medford was first evaluated for hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, on May 20, by medical staff at the prison.
Medford was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“On Thursday, May 21, 2020, his condition declined and he was placed on a ventilator,” the release states. “On Wednesday, June 3, 2020, Mr. Medford, who had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions which the Centers for Disease Control lists as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, was pronounced dead by hospital staff.”
Medford became the 15th inmate at the Butner complex to die of COVID-19. The low-security facility Medford was housed in has had 367 inmates and six staff members test positive, with six inmates dying. The medium-security Butner facility has had nine inmate deaths.
Medford, who had started his career with the Asheville Police Department, had a projected release date of Oct. 11, 2021.
Medford sentenced to 15 years
Medford was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years in prison on corruption and extortion charges for taking bribes from illegal video poker operators in return for allowing their businesses to operate. Medford was first elected sheriff in 1994 and served until he lost to Van Duncan in 2006.
Duncan, who retired in 2018, had his run-ins with Medford, having worked for him, but he said June 3 he had no intention to talk about the negatives concerning his old boss.
“As a society, sometimes we tend to remember folks for their biggest faults,” Duncan said. “So, instead of doing that I’d just like to say, Sheriff Medford did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
“He had a big heart, he did things for people they couldn’t do for themselves sometimes,” Duncan continued. “And not to brush over some of the problems he had, but his family loved him and he did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
Medford was also notoriously loyal to his friends, Duncan said, and he’s not one to judge him for his faults.
“Goodness knows, for what did happen, he paid a huge price,” Duncan said.
Asheville attorney Sean Devereux said Duncan’s tenure, known for high ethical standards, stands “in stark contrast” to Medford’s.
“While I don’t always agree with Van Duncan’s politics, he played by the rules, and it was a breath of fresh when we got a sheriff that did play by the rules,” Devereux said. “There was a great deal of cynicism as a consequence of Medford believing the ends did just the means and that he was above the law.”
Medford was in the thick of several notorious murder cases in which he behaved unethically, either pressuring witnesses for testimony or his own detectives to make a case, sometimes on flimsy evidence or witness accounts.
The Walter Rodney Bowman slaying in September 2000 resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of five African-American men and ultimately cost Buncombe County millions of dollars in settlements. All told, $8.2 million went to the defendants once the wrongful convictions were overturned, with just $2.8 million paid for by insurance.
In the criminal proceedings, Devereux represented one of the men, Kenneth Kagonyera, who pleaded guilty in December 2001 to assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. He was exonerated in 2011 by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and later received a $515,000 settlement from the county.
Medford, Devereux says, was a law enforcement officers who “was of the view that the ends justified the means.
“And he was the one who determined what the end was – it was up to him,” Devereux said. “He was a not observant of the Constitution, shall we say.”
Kickback schemes and lots of cash
While in office as sheriff, Medford developed an elaborate kickback scheme revolving around illegal video poker machines and their operators. He allowed them to operate in return for cash payments.
Illegal gambling operators delivered thousands of dollars in cash at a time to Medford in his office. Some of the money also came from golf tournaments Medford held twice a year, with gambling operators asked to contribute and sponsor teams.
While Medford spent some of the money on his campaigns, during non-election years, he pocketed the money, witnesses said at his trial. He lost $54,000 in bribe money at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, where he gambled on county time.
The day he was convicted, Medford said he was saddened by the jury’s verdict that he was guilty of using his position to extort money from gambling operators, money laundering and conspiracy to run an illegal gambling business, according to previous Citizen Times articles.
“I am disappointed,” he said on the steps of the federal courthouse. “That is all I can say. I am not going to criticize the jury.”
Twenty-four people involved in illegal video gambling had already pleaded guilty by the time of Medford’s conviction.
Medford was sentenced for racketeering, violence, conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, obstruction of state and local law enforcement, and conspiracy to conduct an illegal gambling business, according to the BOP release. He had been in custody at Butner, which houses 1,184 male inmates, since Dec. 9, 2008.
Medford was ‘old school’ but had a ‘sense of honor’
Asheville attorney Stephen Lindsay, who represented Medford in the federal case, described him as one of the finest men he’s ever known, one with “a sense of honor about him” who grew up in “old-school” law enforcement where previous sheriffs had looked the other way at liquor running, as long as they got a cut.
“Bobby came with lot of baggage, obviously, but I came to like him very, very much,” Lindsay said. “There are very few people I’ve encountered in my life who had as much integrity as he did.”
Lindsay acknowledged that may sound a bit odd, considering Medford’s long list of convictions, but he said Medford was an old-school cop who looked out for the little people, hard-working mountain folks just like him. As an example, he cited a conversation he had with Medford as they were trying to get the disgraced sheriff’s case resolved.
“Some of the offers being made to him involved him talking about people in our community who law enforcement believed had done some bad things,” Lindsay said. “I remember he leaned back in his chair and he said, ‘Steve, give them a message from me: You can tell them to kiss my (expletive) ass.'”
Medford was plagued by back pain and other ailments, and was taking a lot of pain medications later in his term as sheriff, Lindsay said, adding that others in the department took advantage of Medford’s lax management. Medford did not believe video poker should be illegal, in fact feeling that it helped mom and pop shops stay in business.
He got a cut of the proceeds, but he felt it was “a lesser evil,” Lindsay said.
“He has a sense of honor about him and there was a very clear line with him,” Lindsay said. “He did so many good things for people, whether it was getting a bus ticket for someone to get back to family in Oklahoma, or getting someone heating oil because they didn’t have the money.”
“In the end he was convicted of some things, but his last words to the people around him who took advantage of him were, ‘If you need to throw me under the bus to take care of you and your family, then that’s what you need to do,'” Lindsay continued.
Ethical problems in murder cases
But Medford was a complicated man, and he was corrupt in more ways than greasing his palms with gambling money. He also had a complicated history in his job with high-profile murder cases.
After Karen Styles, 22, was abducted and murdered off the Hard Times trail while out for a run on Halloween day in 1994, Richard Allen Jackson ultimately was arrested and charged with murder. Styles’ body wasn’t found for nearly a month after she went missing.
While Medford was interrogating Jackson, the suspect said, “I think I need a lawyer present.” After consulting with an assistant district attorney, Medford continued the interrogation, telling Jackson he knew the man had bought a rifle and duct tape three days before Styles went missing.
Jackson confessed, but his lawyers later contested the confession and the case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which overturned Jackson’s 1995 conviction and death sentence for the kidnapping, rape and murder. In ordering a new trial, the justices said in an unanimous opinion that Jackson’s graphic confession to the grisly slaying shouldn’t have been allowed into evidence during his trial.
Ultimately, federal prosecutors convicted Jackson on gun charges, securing a spot for Jackson on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the 50-year-old remains today.
Medford was not one to cross
Former Asheville Citizen Times investigative reporter Tonya Maxwell cited another case in which Medford’s behavior was far more egregious, ethically.
In December 2000, north Buncombe County resident Mary Elizabeth Judd, 18, went missing while walking to school in the morning. Medford put intense pressure on his investigators, and half-brothers John Collins and David Hammack were arrested in November 2001 and charged with murder.
The brothers were held for nearly two years before being released. Through her reporting, Maxwell discovered that the key witness against them, Lynette Smith, had fabricated her description of seeing the brothers loading a body into their car.
Smith said Medford had pressured her into lying by threatening to take Smith’s children and jail her as an accessory to the crime. She later recanted.
“I don’t think there’s any code of honor in railroading two innocent men for homicide and threatening a woman by saying you’ll take away her children,” Maxwell said. “He fired deputies who were trying to do the right thing under him, and I don’t think there’s any code of honor in firing deputies who were trying to right that wrong.”
Medford also threatened to jail Maxwell after she called him at home seeking information on the case, and she says she was followed home by deputies on several occasions.
“There no question that he was much beloved,” Maxwell said. “I saw that he could be very delightful and charming, but if you were to get cross-wise with him, God help you.”
One issue Maxwell and Lindsay agree on is that Medford did not deserve to die of COVID-19 while in federal custody.
Lindsay said Medford resigned himself to the prison sentence at Butner, where at one point Medford shared a cell with notorious convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. But with all of Medford’s health issue, Lindsay says he should’ve been released and sent back home to Buncombe to live out his days among remaining friends and family.
“There are few people I’ve encountered in my life that I liked as much as I liked Bobby Medford,” Lindsay said. “I know some people may roll their eyes, but I just have to say he could be just a gem of a gem of a human being in so many ways.”
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