HENDERSON — Prosecutors have secured new indictments in a case involving the Vance County Sheriff’s Office that accuses its second in command and two deputies of conspiring to dodge North Carolina laws on civil asset forfeiture.
A grand jury handed up the indictments of Maj. Stephen O’Neal Staton, Deputy Purav J. Patel and Deputy Mitch Taybronn Pittman on April 14, but they remained sealed under a judge’s order until Monday.
On Tuesday, all three were booked at the Wake County Jail, according to a Twitter post by managers of that facility. Court documents indicate that all three received unsecured bonds, of $50,000 in Pittman’s case and $35,00 in Patel’s and Staton’s, that allowed them to go free.
The charges stem from an official-corruption investigation that’s unfolded since the summer of 2020, and that concerns allegations that narcotics deputies successfully pressured the owner of a 2007 Cadillac STS that had been involved in a car chase to sign it over to the sheriff’s office.
North Carolina law usually allows authorities to pursue asset forfeiture only after a person accused of a crime has been tried and convicted, and then under court supervision.
The proceeds are supposed to go to the K-12 schools.
Prior court filings have alleged that Staton tried to interest federal Homeland Security Investigations in seizing the car under federal asset-forfeiture law, which is less restrictive and allows local law enforcement agencies to share in the proceeds.
But officials with the federal agency told him that would be a “no-go” on its end because the car didn’t meet its “equity requirement” for a seizure.
The sheriff’s office went ahead anyway, with Pittman and Patel visiting a Virginia car dealer that had a lien on the vehicle and Staton talking with the car’s owner. The deputies also talked with the car owner the following day, with Pittman allegedly telling her she would otherwise face going to state prison and have to fight for the car in federal court.
Pittman was already facing charges — two of extortion and one of obstruction of justice in connection with the case and another involving a 2007 Infiniti G35. The charges against him in the April 14 indictment are in addition to those, District Attorney Mike Waters said.
In all, this month’s grand jury returned eight charges against each of the men. All but one are felonies.
Each faces counts of embezzlement by a government employee, conspiracy to embezzle by a government employee, motor vehicle title fraud, conspiracy to commit motor vehicle title fraud, accessing a government computer to defraud, conspiracy to access a government computer to defraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Rounding out the list, Pittman faces a count of extortion, while Staton and Patel each face one of obstruction of justice.
The extortion charge against Pittman, who’s 47, concerns the alleged threat to the car’s owner, while the obstruction charge against Staton and Patel, who are 25 and 52, respectively, is about the alleged circumvention of the “judicial process proscribed for civil asset forfeiture.”
Pittman’s previous indictment had already addressed the circumvention point.
The embezzlement charges allege the Cadillac had been “seized as evidence” by the sheriff’s office “in a criminal case and held in trust until final disposition by the court.”
Prior court filings have alleged the car chase began when Sheriff Curtis Brame saw “what he believed to be a potential hand-to-hand drug transaction” being conducted from the Cadillac. The car was impounded, but Waters in his filings has said no drugs were found in the Cadillac or on the man driving it.
The conspiracy to commit motor vehicle title fraud charge against each of the men is a misdemeanor.
Waters said his office sought the investigation in June 2020 after receiving information about the seizure and transfer of the Cadillac. North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation and the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles’ License & Theft Bureau have led the probe.
An SBI agent, W.D. Marsh, used a search warrant in January to collect “electronic documents and data” from Vance County’s information technology office and with it had permission to look through emails, calendars, notes and other documents in the Staton’s work account.
Waters issued a statement that stressed the deputies, like all people accused of crimes, are innocent until proven guilty. But he also said he’s “concerned with the allegations” as “all allegations of wrongdoing by law enforcement are troubling, especially when they involve sheriff’s deputies in whom the community has placed its trust.”
“The justice system must be fair and impartial,” Waters said. “No one is above the law.”
Asked about the case, Sheriff Brame said he was drafting a statement, but he had not issued it as of press time on Tuesday evening.
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.