The three men who want to be the next sheriff of Henry County came together in a public forum on Tuesday night, and the event evolved into a two-man showdown.
Although many topics were discussed, two contentious issues showed quite clearly that this race will be intense right up to Nov. 5.
John Cassell, veteran of law enforcement, was on the attack against three-term incumbent Sheriff Lane Perry, and the third candidate, former deputy Jerry Farmer, avoided the heavy blows. Much of the secondary stuff is a story for another day.
Near the end of the session at the Oak Level Ruritan Club on Tuesday, Cassell called on Mike Seidle, a former county supervisor who was in the audience, to say in front of the 100 or so present what he said Seidle has been telling some people about him.
Cassell: “Mr. Seidle, do you have something you need to ask me or bring up? You’re going around all over the county bringing up something from the past. I want you to do it right here in front of everybody, instead of behind my back. What have you got?”
Seidle then stood up, summarized the research he had done from articles in the Martinsville Bulletin and asked Cassell questions about an incident 23 years ago, in January 1996, when Cassell was a security guard at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville and a drill was conducted at the hospital emergency department. Misdemeanor criminal charges were filed against Cassell and others who participated in that mock hostage-taking training drill.
Cassell and others were acquitted, but several emergency department nurses who alleged they were traumatized by the event filed a $30 million lawsuit. That later was settled with undisclosed terms, according to the news reports in Seidle’s possession.
Cassell said he was just doing his job, doing what he had been told to do by his supervisor when he participated in the drill, and he contended Seidle is just playing dirty politics and was put up to that by Perry.
Perry, seated at the head table, appeared to shake his head side to side, as if he felt no, when Cassell made that suggestion about him.
Cassell said at one point, referring to Perry: “This man right here could have brought it to me, to my face, but he decided to get you [referring to Seidle] involved in it.”
Seidle responded, “No, he did not. I’m the one.”
Perry said later in an email in response to a question from the Bulletin: “As I have been campaigning this year, I have had a number of people asking or making comments about the situation at the hospital in 1996 as they decide who to vote for. This is my 4th campaign, and I have never conducted a dirty, mudslinging campaign and I am not starting this time. I have not requested anyone to release any of that information.”
At the meet-and-greet, Seidle seemed to want to know if Cassell might engage in similar conduct to the 1996 incident if he were to be elected sheriff and potentially expose government to expensive lawsuits.
Seidle asked Cassell: “Are you going to do the same thing with another police group or law group, or are you going to do it as the law prescribes?”
According to a Bulletin article, Martinsville General District Court Judge Frank Greenwalt listened to about 2½ hours of testimony about the training drill before finding Memorial Hospital’s security director Manuel Jeff Bledsoe and security guard John Wayne Cassell not guilty.
Cassell had been charged with four counts of assault and battery and four counts of brandishing a firearm. Bledsoe of Danville was charged with four counts of aiding and abetting in the assault and battery and four counts of aiding and abetting in brandishing of a firearm.
According to the article, in the 4 a.m. drill, five armed and masked gunmen stormed through unlocked doors in the emergency room and held the employees there hostage while they demanded drugs.
Nurse Susan Martin testified, “I really believed the entire time I was going to die.” She also testified that at one pointed Cassell pointed the gun he was holding at her back and touched her with it, according to the article.
However, according to the article, Judge Greenwalt said the videotape of the drill, which was aired in court, never showed whether Cassell had a gun to Martin’s back.
The drill was devised by hospital security employee Jimmy Craig in late 1995 and approved by the hospital’s safety committee, according to testimony, the article said. Bledsoe testified he didn’t participate in the drill but instead watched in on the video screen in his office. Cassell testified he participated in the mock drill because his supervisor had told him to do so, and Cassell never intended to harm anyone in the drill, according to the article.
Then-Commonwealth’s Attorney J. Randolph Smith said in his closing arguments that although Cassell participated in the drill, he did nothing other than “walk around in the (hospital) hallway with a gun,” according to the article.
Judge Greenwalt said the hospital’s security staff “didn’t deliberately set out to induce fear in the minds (of those in the drill). I don’t have any doubt … of the discomfort and the fear they (the hospital nurses on duty during the drill) suffered in this occasion…. (But) it was done in pursuance of some responsibility … (although) I didn’t see anything that specifically said you must do a drill and a specific hostage situation,” according to the article.
Greenwalt said Cassell participated in the drill because he was “doing what he was told to do,” according to the article.
According to one article after the January 25, 2016 drill, then- Hospital Administrator Joe Roach admitted the problem in the simulated hostage drill in the emergency room “was too realistic” and said steps were taken to ensure the situation would not occur again. The physician in the emergency room at the time knew about the drill, as did the nursing supervisor and other staff, but nurses and other hospital employees were not aware that it was a drill, according to the article.
According to a November 1997 Bulletin article, neither side was releasing details of a settlement reached in a $30 million lawsuit filed by three nurses formerly employed at Memorial Hospital who claimed they were traumatized in the mock hostage drill at the hospital. Nurses Karen Southerland, Susan M. Martin and Lisa Y. Meadows filed the suit against the hospital claiming they were victims of “severe mental shock and distress” as a result of the Jan. 25, 1996, according to the article. The monetary amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
“I was just doing my job,” Cassell said at one point during the discussion Tuesday.
The baby at Walmart
Another contentious issue emerged in a question about how the sheriff’s office had handled an incident Monday at Walmart, when an infant was left unattended in a parked car.
The sheriff’s office sent out an email at 6:04 p.m. Monday that at 11:37 that morning, when deputies arrived at the scene, “a citizen had already broken the window out and removed the infant from the vehicle. The infant was taken inside the store. EMS responded and checked the child. The child did not suffer any injuries.”
The news release added that deputies obtained surveillance video from store security cameras, and after reviewing the video, it was the determined the child was left in the motor vehicle with the engine off for less than 10 minutes. At 10:24 a.m. Tuesday a second release revealed that after all evidence was reviewed with the commonwealth attorney and Child Protective Services that Francis Cabiness Kissee, 62, 316 Inge Drive, Martinsville, was charged with misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Cassell had made a comment to Star News later Tuesday in which he questioned the effort of the lieutenant who handled the situation.
“That call wasn’t handled the way it should have been,” he said Tuesday night. “The sheriff had mentioned earlier, our main purpose is to take care of the children, their welfare. Charges, I can’t say. I don’t know the case well enough. I don’t know all the factors dealing with that. What we look at on any case is the totality of the circumstances.
“A lot of people were asking me what should have been done. First of all, it should have been … to get Social Services involved in it, Child Protective Services. Let them make a decision. There might have been a history on this, with this, the babysitter, the caretaker at the time. ….
“[If you] Let the person go with that child and something else happens to it, liability is going to fall on the sheriff’s office. The welfare of that child should have been utmost and taken care of. I would have called CPS [Child Protective Services], and then while they were en route, followed up on my statements and everything and determined what would happen then.”
Cassell said he understands that the investigating officer was at home and was called back in.
“It happened at 11:30 in the morning. Nothing was done about it. I think the charges came out about 6 o’clock. … He was called back to do some charges on it. Then CPS was notified eight hours later,” Cassell said.
Asked if he thinks the lieutenant was lazy, Perry responded: “Absolutely not. … He has never been lazy. He is a very conscientious officer, a very forward-thinking officer. He’s up on our technology. He’s been an investigator, serving many roles, and served nothing but exemplary service.
“One of the things that comes out of this, people want to arm-chair quarterback the situation. This was not a situation that has been like other incidents. …. I say first and foremost … the child should never have been left in the car, but we do come in and do a thorough investigation. This entire investigation has to be reported to the court. It will decide guilt or innocence.”
Perry said officers obtained statements, reviewed video and later Child Protective Services and the family were notified. He said the child was safe.
“We want to do a thorough investigation,” Perry said.
“There was a case sometime back that involved a time window similar to this and when it went to court to my knowledge it was dismissed, and there were some comments from the judge that led as to how this should be, basically, what you think are guidelines for later decisions. We are always trained do what the court says is the interpretation of the law.”
Perry added that the investigating officer was not called back in. “He came of his own accord and issued the warrants. And it is still being evaluated.”
A man in the audience who didn’t identify himself asked Perry: “Was this infant released back into the custody of the babysitter after this had happened?”
“Yes it was,” Perry responded.
The man then said, “That was a bad decision right there.”
Perry replied: “That’s your decision.”
In response to a question from the Martinsville Bulletin about why the child was released into the custody of the babysitter, Perry wrote in an email: “... After the officer evaluated the situation, he determined it was not a danger to release the child to Francis, the babysitter. CPS was called at 6:55 p.m. CPS would have to be contacted to see about their final decision.”
The third candidate, Farmer, said of the incident: “I can’t really add to it. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. I know one time I had a similar situation at Walmart where a babysitter got in trouble at Walmart. She had actually left the child there. All I can say is I would have called the parent. I would not have let the babysitter take off with the child. That’s just opening it up for a lawsuit. Anybody can know that.
“All I can say is, in prior history, with the child I had, I couldn’t have let the suspect, and just cut her a summons and let her go on with the kid. I wasn’t going to do that. Like I said, that’s opening yourself up to a lawsuit. I made sure I got hold of the parent. I made sure the parent came down there and got the child. … That was the biggest mistake … just letting the babysitter take off with the child.”
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.