GSO police used downtown high-rise for surveillance under Wray
Following the resignation of Greensboro police Chief David Wray in January 2006, the department’s criminal investigation division discovered that, unbeknownst to many outside the former chief’s small circle, a group of Greensboro police officers enjoyed free access to a space in a 14-story high-rise on South Elm Street that advertises its property to telecommunications tenants and operates on two separate power loops.
Diana Poston, a co-owner of the Guilford Building, said her family has allowed the police to keep a set of keys to the building since at least the mid-1990s. She said she believes that initially the police used the top floor of the building to conduct surveillance of drug dealing and prostitution, and then as downtown rebounded, they shifted attention to monitoring crowd dynamics. The police were never charged for access, and no contract was created to formalize the arrangement. Three floors of the telecommunications building are undeveloped, according to a description posted on the website of Downtown Greensboro, Inc.
“There is an area just above the intersection of Elm and Washington with a lot of glass,” said Poston, whose family has owned the building since 1993. “You can kind of sit back and watch the activity below. Downtown turns into another world after dark. They can watch to see how many bike cops they might need. I would provide a table and a set of chairs.”
Poston said at some indeterminate time keys provided to the police were returned to her. She did not recall who initially requested access to the building on behalf of the department. The exact purpose and duration of the police operation also remains unclear.
Julius Fulmore, a Greensboro police officer formerly assigned to special intelligence who is suing the city for conspiracy to ruin his reputation, alleges that the Guilford Building served as a base of operations for a wide range of activities by the undercover unit, including spying on black officers, monitoring people involved in the truth and reconciliation process, and maintaining surveillance and editing equipment used to alter recorded conversations.
“It was strategically located where they could listen in with truth and reconciliation and with Nelson Johnson,” said Fulmore’s lawyer, Amiel Rossabi, referring to the leader of a fateful 1979 anti-Klan march and a key initiator of the truth and reconciliation process.
Monty Henry, president of California-based DPL-Surveillance-Equipment, said a direct sight line would allow for real-time surveillance with a laser-based listening device, but placing bugs inside rooms or attaching them to outside telephone exchange boxes is often more practical. He said the laser-based listening device retails for about $7,000.
“The effectiveness is another story,” he said. “A lot of times the reason people don’t use them is, you don’t have a controlled environment. You’re going to have cars, trucks, birds and people talking. You end up with a lot of noise and you don’t know what’s happening. You typically have somebody processing the audio. You’re going to be sitting there trying to take out the trains, the dogs, the cars and everything else.”
Rossabi identified Detective Scott Sanders, an indicted special intelligence officer, as a key figure in the downtown location. Two of Sanders’ indictments stem, from an allegation that he wrongfully accessed a computer loaned to Fulmore by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for use in an organized crime drug enforcement task force, or OCDETF, case. “Sanders was taping everybody,” Rossabi said. “They had editing equipment, so if you said, ‘I’ll see you on Friday,’ they could make it sound like you said, ‘I’ll see you on Monday.'”
He added that the recordings, many of which have not been released by the city, might reveal that Sanders and others have violated federal and state wiretapping laws, along with statutes on obstruction of justice and filing false documents.
“That’s not true,” said lawyer Seth Cohen, who represents Sanders. “The FBI investigated that and found there were no violations of federal and state wiretapping laws.” An FBI spokeswoman in Charlotte would neither confirm nor deny that the allegation was investigated.
Cohen also disputed the suggestion that recorded conversations might have been falsified by Sanders. “He didn’t do that,” Cohen said. “There is absolutely no evidence of that.”
City Manager Mitchell Johnson acknowledged that a downtown location was discovered shortly after Wray’s resignation, but said an internal investigation revealed its use was appropriate. Police Chief Tim Bellamy said he learned at the time that the Guilford Building was used for an OCDETF investigation. Stating that the investigation continues to this day, the chief declined to elaborate. A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s office for the middle district of North Carolina also declined to comment.
The city manager said the downtown location raised no concern when he learned of its existence.
“At the very beginning, there was an issue of some offices downtown that the other [criminal investigation division] guys were not aware of,” he said. “Then they looked into it, and they determined it was used for appropriate purposes. You would think that an intelligence operation would have places outside of their offices where they could conduct operations. I don’t find that abnormal.”
David Lawrence, a professor at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill with expertise in municipal government, said he knew of no statute or ordinance that would require police to draw up a contract to formalize an arrangement to operate on private property free of charge. “If people want to give things to local government, they’re certainly free to do that,” he said. “If the owner of the building allows the police to use it without compensation, I don’t know of anything wrong with that.”
Johnson said he was similarly untroubled by Rossabi’s claim that the special intelligence unit kept editing equipment at the Guilford Building.
“I can imagine why you would want to have editing equipment, just to compile things together,” he said. “They have different tools so that they can enhance the dialogue better. They’ve got stuff that can be used to get rid of hiss.”
In addition to allegations of illegal activities by the special intelligence unit at the Guilford Building, Fulmore is also the source of claims made by a group of pastors led by the Rev. Nelson Johnson that the unit, at the direction of then-Sgt. Craig McMinn, destroyed documents related to the Klan-Nazi shootings. Johnson organized an anti-Klan march that was attacked in Morningside Homes, and the former Communist Workers Party leader lost five friends in the carnage.
The police department is currently investigating the allegation. Fulmore, along with other former members of special intelligence, has been undergoing periodic interviews by the department’s internal affairs division.
Fulmore also alleges that during his time with the special intelligence unit he was told to monitor the Rev. Johnson, who remains a staunch critic of city officials for their reluctance to address the 1979 killings and who has played a key role in initiating the truth and reconciliation process to examine the legacy of the event.
“Fulmore was assigned to surveil Nelson Johnson,” Rossabi said. “The years were between 2000 and 2004. Anytime Nelson Johnson made a speech, special intelligence assigned Fulmore and others to be there and take pictures.”
Police spokeswoman Lt. Hope Newkirk said she was unaware of any current police surveillance of the Rev. Johnson, and declined to comment on past activity by the special intelligence unit.
Through Rossabi, Fulmore also claims that private detectives Randy Gerringer and Art League enjoyed access to the Guilford Building. After retiring from the force in January 2001, Gerringer returned to work as a hire-back in August 2004, according to police records. He was assigned to handle security at a number of public events held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005 and simultaneously conducted surveillance on Lt. James Hinson, another black officer who was the target of extensive investigations by Sanders.
League helped apprehend members of the Klan-Nazi contingent as a member of a tactical unit after the deadly 1979 shootings. Since then, he has criticized the Rev. Johnson for purportedly instigating the confrontation to gain sympathy and publicity. After retiring from the department two decades ago, League went into business as a private investigator. Among the services advertised by League, who is licensed in counterintelligence, are surveillance and bugging computers.
While acknowledging that he currently employs Gerringer, as he did during the period when Gerringer was assigned to special intelligence as a hire-back, League denied receiving any pay from the department since his own retirement, and said he can’t remember the last time he was in the Guilford Building.
“I didn’t even know what Randy was working on,” League said. “He kept his business private; I kept mine private. I’m so glad we did too, so I could place my hand on a Bible and take a lie detector and say I had no knowledge of what he was working.”
City Manager Mitchell Johnson suggested he was aware of no evidence that special intelligence work was subcontracted to League.
“Art League was not an employee and should not have been involved in using equipment or doing anything,” he said. “I think he was someone they talked to, like they do to a lot of investigators. I’m not aware of them having him under contract.”
A claim by Rossabi that the special intelligence unit conducted extensive surveillance from the Guilford Building on participants in the truth process and on black community leaders is difficult to evaluate because the city has released only selective recordings made by Sanders. One episode, disclosed by the police department in April 2006 after Wray’s departure, involves surreptitious recordings made of black community leaders, among them the Rev. Johnson, lawyer Joe Williams and opthalmologist Thomas Brewington, but the recordings appear to have been prompted by suspicious behavior on the part of a High Point member of a violent crime task force named Delilah Summers, not by the activities of the various community leaders. Summers’ Greensboro counterpart, Cathy Vance, wore a wire and recorded conversations as the two went around Greensboro soliciting support for the program. That revelation was reported in YES! Weekly as early as December 2006.
At the time he learned from Chief Bellamy that he had been recorded by Vance, Johnson told YES! Weekly that nothing about the meeting with the two women struck him as particularly noteworthy. “I think the person was saying I should be part of it,” he said. “I was saying I didn’t see how I could add anything else to my plate.”
The city manager said he accepted at face value the explanation given by retired vice-narcotics Capt. Rick Ball that Summers, not the black community leaders, was the target of the surveillance.
“I don’t think Captain Ball had any intention to surveil other people,” Mitchell Johnson said. “Ms. Vance was just doing what she was told to do, so I don’t think she should be chastised….. It’s unfortunate because it put us in an embarrassing situation when for all intents it was utterly useless. The issues with the woman, if there was a concern we could have just ended our relation with her. It’s kind of a lot to go through over a relatively small issue.”
Almost two years after Chief Bellamy personally alerted the Rev. Johnson and others that a police employee had recorded their conversations, the department has continued to resist calls to release the CDs. Bellamy said recently that the recordings are part of an ongoing investigation. Both the city manager and the chief indicated it’s possible that police investigators have not listened to everything in the trove of recordings seized from Scott Sanders, but Bellamy said, “I can tell you they’ve listened to a large amount.”
Rossabi expressed surprise at Chief Bellamy’s statement that the Guilford Building was used as part of a federal drug investigation. He said Fulmore was certain that Sanders and Gerringer, who were assigned to special intelligence rather than vice-narcotics, had access to the building, along with League, who has denied working for the department since the 1980s, with the exception of sweeping Chief Wray’s office for bugs free of charge.
At least two federal drug investigations dovetailed with Sanders’ investigations of black police officers for corruption. Fulmore was assigned to an OCDETF investigation into drug trafficking by Terry Bracken in 2003. When a female inmate at the Guilford County Jail alleged that Fulmore was providing protection to Bracken, Sanders was assigned to investigate, according a city legal report completed in the fall of 2005. The inmate’s allegations were never substantiated, and Fulmore was disciplined for a separate infraction of failing to document contact with a prostitute. Bracken pleaded guilty last October to selling marijuana and selling a firearm to a convicted felon.
Risk Management Associates, a Raleigh company commissioned by the city manager’s office to probe allegations of misconduct under former Chief Wray, noted in its 2005 report that information regarding Lt. Brian James might be part of a larger legitimate federal criminal investigation. James was implicated in the investigation after a Jamestown woman, Nicole Pettiford, bragged to a federal informant that she could procure inside information from police officers, and then made a series of phone calls to the lieutenant. Wray’s second in command, Deputy Chief Randall Brady, reported to his boss in a September 2005 memo that an “investigation revealed James did not release information to Pettiford.” It remains unclear if this particular OCDETF investigation remains in progress.
Fulmore’s lawsuit against the city alleges that unlawful surveillance continued until the day Wray resigned. In an official statement released two weeks after the former police chief’s exit, the department announced that then-interim Chief Bellamy determined that there had been “irregularities in the practices of the special intelligence division, vice-narcotics and police administration” involving “the handling of internal investigations, and top administrators in the police department were aware of and approved them.”
Since that time, the city’s focus on allegations of misconduct has concentrated on special intelligence. The criminal investigation undertaken by the State Bureau of Investigation appears to have taken the same course: The two officers who were subsequently indicted, Sanders and Sgt. Tom Fox, were members of special intelligence.
Fulmore’s lawsuit against the city has been stalled while the state of North Carolina pursues its criminal prosecution against Sanders and Fox. Rossabi said that to discover evidence of unlawful surveillance and falsification of documents he has subpoenaed the recordings made by Sanders.
“I was asked by the city and [Special Prosecutor] Jim Coman to wait until the criminal prosecution is completed,” he said. “That’s supposed to happen soon. I asked for every other transcript or recording of any medium that was made that referred to Julius Fulmore or Brian James that was not being used by the state in its prosecution.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.