I-TEAM: Judge rules Richmond County Sheriff’s Office policy violates Constitution

Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 6:40 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Our I-Team is exposing the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in what an Augusta judge calls an outrageous abuse of the law.

At the center is a video recording in a double-murder that violates the U.S. Constitution.

What’s more, we uncovered this illegal activity likely wasn’t a one-time mistake. It appears it was a policy at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. So I started digging into another high-profile case happening about that very same time and found it might have happened again.

Preston Overton and Janell Carwell -- their lives never intersected, but in the summer of 2017, their stories intertwined.

Both went missing around the same time. Overton was a young Augusta father of two. Carwell was a high school student missing at only 16 years old.

There were searches, but none of those countless miles ever gained any ground. In both cases, there were arrests and murder charges even before either body had been found.

This is the time-frame the I-Team is putting under the microscope. The 326 days it took to find Carwell’s remains and the 665 days Overton’s family waited in agony before he was discovered.

Documents suggest during those searches, a judge found other crimes were taking place. Only this time, those enforcing the law are accused of breaking it. Specifically, the Richmond County sheriff and some of his deputies.

Sheriff Richard Roundtree refused to sit down for an interview to shine light on any of this. We first reached out at the beginning of October, again in November, December, and finally, here we are in January.

Despite being accused of wrongdoing, the sheriff wouldn’t give the I-Team a statement, either. So court documents will have to speak on his behalf.

Let’s start with the Overton case and Feb. 27, 2018. A search that day at the Richmond County jail “located two handwritten papers that were believed to be a map of some type.”

At that point, Overton had been missing for more than 8 months. The maps were found in Vaughn Verdi’s cell. Verdi was one of the suspects charged with murdering Overton and also killing another man, Chad Garner.

Garner’s body had been found shortly after the men went missing, but with Overton still missing, investigators were interested in this map. They were so interested they transported Verdi and another suspect in the case, William Krepps, 10 miles from the jail to the criminal investigation division at the sheriff’s office.

Both were placed in separate interview rooms where they met with their attorneys. But here is where the problem arises for the sheriff’s office. According to court documents, those attorney/client conversations were recorded.

An investigator testified this wasn’t “accidental” because “it is the policy of the sheriff’s office to record everything that occurs when a person is in the interview room.”

The judge calls it outrageous abuses of statutory and constitutional law, saying “these facts shock the conscious of anyone who has even a modicum of knowledge of the law.”

The judge goes further writing -- in all caps -- “it is a felony to record attorney-client conferences.”

“I was furious after that hearing,” former Augusta District Attorney Natalie Paine said.

“I didn’t understand what they were exactly, trying to say, like that I was conspiring with the sheriff’s office. I mean, that’s insane,” Paine said. “That is just insane.”

Paine says attorneys typically meet clients at the jail in a room with no recording equipment instead of at the sheriff’s office in a room set up to record everything.

“Maybe once or twice a year, a defense attorney comes up to, to it would be in that facility in that capacity talking with the defendant,” Paine said.

She says when this happened deputies would turn off the audio -- but still monitor the video -- for safety purposes.

“They’re like, okay, well, it’s muted,” Paine said. “Like nobody’s listening to it. So, we’re not listening to it. We don’t know what they said.”

But regardless, under the law, recording this at all is still illegal.

An attorney for one of the suspects, Vaughn Verdi, testified he reviewed the footage and was surprised to see and hear this meeting. So Verdi’s attorney filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Roundtree himself plus other investigators on the case and their supervisors for violating his client’s civil rights.

“I mean, literally, that was not intentional at all,” Paine said. “Whatsoever.”

“And you, you were questioned about that. And that’s what you said, ‘All I can tell you is that nobody did it with the intent of surreptitiously recording an attorney-client speaking,” our Meredith Anderson asked Paine.

“And that was what was implied in the motion,” Paine said. “I mean, what was implied was this was like some grand scheme to I mean, to find, you know, to hear what they were talking about or something, when it’s just that wasn’t the case at all.”

The judge agreed, finding “no member of law enforcement or the district attorney’s office entered into any type of conspiracy to violate the rights of any of these defendants.”

Instead, the judge blamed a “faulty policy” at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.

“In order for somebody to be charged with a crime, there has to be an act and an intent,” Paine said. “And there was no intent, and even the judge found there’s no intent. Nobody can be criminally charged for that. It was a literal accident.”

Two months ago, Augusta commissioners unanimously approved a settlement in the case, awarding 27-year-old Vaughn Verdi $50,000 in tax-payer funds. He was originally charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence. He’ll serve 6 years in prison followed by 3 years probation.

But does this policy bring any concern to other cases or put them in jeopardy?

“There was,” Paine said. “There have been. There was another case where, because of this case -- and I didn’t, I truly did not know what had happened -- and I brought, you know, I brought it to the defense attorneys.”

The I-Team uncovered it happened again. We obtained a motion filed in Richmond County Superior Court, stating in June 2017, another attorney-client meeting was recorded at the sheriff’s office.

The suspect in this case was Leon Tripp. He’s accused of killing his stepdaughter 16-year-old Janell Carwell. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Carwell’s disappearance shocked Augusta in the summer of 2017 -- as her mother cried for our cameras -- begging for her return to the time both she and her husband were arrested for the crime.

Just this past summer, we learned investigators believe Tanya and Leon Tripp tried to hire a hitman to kill Carwell at least three times.

Meanwhile, the I-Team has learned Leon Tripp’s attorney has filed paperwork not only accusing deputies of illegally recording his meeting with his client, but he takes it one step further, suggesting he’s “reasonably certain” that meeting was “reviewed by law enforcement.”

It’s where Sheriff Richard Roundtree changed the status of Carwell’s case.

“It’s not missing persons case -- it’s a homicide,” Roundtree said.

Court documents suggest knowledge of her death could perhaps be linked to that recorded meeting. Furthermore, the motion alleges deputies also recorded a conversation between Tripp and his mother.

Paine says she can’t comment on any of this.

“I have to be careful about that. Because Leon Tripp has a pending case, I can’t discuss that at all.”

But she can talk about the Overton case since it’s settled. The suspect who did lead investigators to the body is now serving a life sentence.

But you might say Overton’s murder case brought about immediate justice in another way.

“We completely revamped the way the interviews were done now,” Paine said.

Those changes hopefully prevent any further civil rights violations and taxpayer settlements from ever having to happen again.

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