Hotel interview reveals tactics of special intelligence

by Jordan Green

As lawyers with the special prosecutions section of the NC Justice Department review evidence in a criminal investigation of the Greensboro Police Department’s previous administration, a federal lawsuit sheds some light on how the special intelligence squads efforts to gather damaging information about black police officers might have violated the rights of private citizens.

A lawsuit filed last fall against the city of Greensboro claims that Nicole Pettiford, a 37-year-old hotel clerk and car saleswoman from Jamestown who tried her hand for a time at brokering information between police and suspected criminals, was held against her will in a Greensboro hotel room by Detective Scott Sanders for six hours and prevented from communicating with her husband.

The woman was held for questioning “about her supposed knowledge of the activities of certain black police officers,” the lawsuit states, continuing, “The police officers specifically informed plaintiff Nicole Pettiford that she was not free to leave. Neither was she allowed to answer her cellular phone, which rang several times over the course of the evening, as her husband grew increasingly concerned about her whereabouts.”

The interview, which took place at the Residence Inn in November 2004, also raises questions about the role of federal law enforcement in the questioning.

Sanders’ participation in the case, involving a drug dealer who had agreed to become a cooperating witness, led him to Pettiford, according to a confidential document known as the RMA report that the city of Greensboro commissioned in the fall of 2005 to probe allegations of misconduct within the police department. Pettiford bragged to a drug dealer-turned-informant that she knew police officers who would give or sell her confidential information, according to the report. Sanders arranged to have the informant call Pettiford, who in turn called her police contacts while the informant secretly remained on the line. Unbeknownst to Pettiford, Sanders was also listening in.

In one scheme to snare a black police officer, Pettiford called Officer Lawrence Alexander and stated that she had been followed for several days. She told Alexander the description of the vehicle and its tag number, and he ran the information in a state Division of Motor Vehicles database. Private investigators from Raleigh-based Risk Management Associates who were hired by the city determined that “there was no mention of pay in exchange for the information or any mention that the information was being sought for a criminal offender.”

Alexander was interviewed by the special intelligence section, and after the officer was cleared criminally the matter was referred to his supervisor. Alexander was found to have violated his computer access privileges, and received a reprimand for the violation.

According to knowledgeable sources, Pettiford received as much as $1,250 from the informant as a down payment for a promise to procure inside information that she never obtained.

Another black officer repeatedly contacted by Pettiford was Lt. Brian James, who served as public affairs officer for the department at the time. James had met Pettiford when she was a night clerk at the Ramada Inn and he worked there off-duty, according to the RMA report.

The investigators hired by the city determined that the last contact between Pettiford and James took place in the parking lot of the Sam’s Club store on Wendover Avenue in October 2004. Accounts vary as to whether James got into Pettiford’s vehicle or Pettiford walked up to James’ truck and spoke to him through the window, but in either case Sanders had Pettiford under surveillance and took photographs to document the meeting.

James was later interviewed by the special intelligence squad about his relationship to Pettiford.

“It was an innocuous meeting,” said Walt Jones, a lawyer who represents James and Alexander. “Nicole called him up and said, ‘I’d like to show you some baby pictures.’ Sam’s Club had donated some money to the department for its Crime Stoppers program. Wray had gone out there to received the big, two-foot check. Brian James took some pictures of the event. Brian went out at lunchtime to deliver the pictures to Sam’s Club. Brian said [to Nicole], ‘Sure, I’ll be at Sam’s Club at lunchtime if you want to meet me.'”

About a month later, in November, the scheme by the special intelligence section was revealed to Pettiford when Sanders stopped her as she exited the McDonald’s on Martin Luther King Drive with her two children. According to Pettiford’s lawsuit, the detective ordered her to accompany him, suggesting that she take her car to her husband’s workplace and drop her children off with her sister.

The lawsuit claims that a female officer drove Pettiford to the Residence Inn off of High Point Road near the Four Seasons Town Centre, where she was detained for six hours – without food or sleep, without being read her rights and without warrant or probable cause.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina appears to have played a central role in the interview. An affidavit by police Detective Jeff Flinchum that was filed with the federal courts by the city of Greensboro describes Assistant US Attorney Cliff Barrett’s appearance at the hotel.

“According to Ms. Pettiford, shortly after she entered the room, Mr. Barrett arrived in his Cadillac, entered the hotel room, introduced himself to her, and gave her one of his business cards,” Flinchum states. “Mr. Barrett then informed Ms. Pettiford that he was investigating [a named individual] and that she ‘messed up their investigation by telling [another named individual] that [she] could get some information on him from some officers.”

In a recording dated Dec. 21, 2005 of a conversation between Barrett and Sanders filed as evidence with the courts, a person identified as Barrett says: “I was in the hotel room absolutely. I mean, I went in there and told her what the damn deal was, that she needs to get up off her ass and start telling the truth and cooperate, or else she was going to go to prison.”

Barrett reportedly stayed in the hotel room for about 10 minutes.

Pettiford’s lawsuit indicates that Sanders and other police officers also told her “that she was going to lose her children because she would be spending 40 years in federal prison.”

Pettiford’s lawyer, Camille Payton, said in a recent interview that she considers the threats to be unethical.

“A more sophisticated person might have seen through their ruse,” Payton said. “To this day, every time I talk to her she wants me to confirm that there will be no federal charges pressed against her.”

Whether Pettiford was the target of a federal investigation or only a useful pawn remains unclear. In a brief filed on Feb. 23, lawyers for the city of Greensboro state that after the Residence Inn interview Pettiford hired a lawyer who called Barrett and was told that she was “under federal investigation.” In another recording police later reasoned was made in September or October 2005, Barrett states that Pettiford “was in the middle of a federal – you know, drug and money laundering case.”

Pettiford’s lawsuit contends that at no time did the police have probable cause to believe that she had committed any crime.

Seth Cohen, a lawyer who represents Sanders, disputed Pettiford’s claim that she was held against her will.

“There was no kidnapping whatsoever,” he said in an interview on Feb. 28. “That’s absurd. There was nothing sinister about it…. She wasn’t told that she wasn’t allowed to leave.”

Pettiford’s lawsuit indicates otherwise.

As midnight approached, the complaint states, the officers informed Pettiford “that she could leave only after allowing the officers to search her car and her husband’s car.” Without a warrant or probable cause, the police ordered Pettiford to unlock her house and submit to a search of the home she shared with her husband and children, the complaint continues, adding: “This search was conducted in a violent and abusive manner, during the course of which police officers verbally assaulted and abused plaintiff Nicole Pettiford with the intent and purpose of humiliating and embarrassing her.”

The police seized several financial records and other documents belonging to the Pettifords without their permission, the lawsuit states. Then, when Anthony Pettiford returned home, the police searched his car without his consent. No criminal charges were ever filed as a result of the interview and search, according to the lawsuit.

The interview left investigators frustrated because Pettiford was unable to provide any information about corrupt black officers, but that was not the end of the woman’s troubles.

The next day Sanders contacted Pettiford by phone, the lawsuit alleges. “He contacted her employer, Green Auto Sales, and informed her employer that she would be going away to federal prison for 40 years,” the complaint states, “which ruined her reputation among her coworkers, resulting in an inability for her to sell cars, and eventually forced her to resign her employment.”

Sanders’ alleged harassment reportedly extended to making calls to Pettiford’s mother and her bank.

“She had written a check that she later learned was not good, so she contacted the bank and let them know that she would make the check good within a day,” Payton said of her client. “And they were not planning to file charges against her, at least that was what she was led to believe. At some point later, Detective Sanders got involved and she was later charged with passing a worthless check.”

The lawsuit also contends that Sanders contacted officials with the Division of Motor Vehicles “to arrange a frivolous hearing.”

“He let it be known that he was making her life miserable just to show her that he had the power to do so,” Payton said.

A year after the interview at the Residence Inn, investigators from Risk Management Associates were wrapping up their probe into the Greensboro Police Department and preparing to deliver their report to City Manager Mitchell Johnson. Deputy Chief Randall Brady, to whom Sanders reported, would retire in November 2005 after undergoing a lie detector test and giving answers the administrator found to be deceptive. Chief David Wray would resign in January after being locked out of his office by the manager. As investigators closed in, Wray placed a call to Barrett at the US Attorney’s Office.

“The chief called me this morning,” Barrett says in his Dec. 21 conversation with Sanders. “I think he’s concerned about what’s going on.”

“Anything you did in this case you did at my direction, and you know, everything was done properly,” Barrett says. “I stand behind everything that was done. I stand behind everything you did. Anybody that’s got a problem with that, you know, you’re welcome to send them my way. I’m happy to talk to them.”

The city submitted the recording as evidence to support a plea for Pettiford’s case to be dismissed, contending that because Barrett and the US Attorney’s Office directed the investigation, the city and police officers who acted under Barrett’s supervision “have derivative sovereign immunity as their alleged acts constitute acts of the federal government.”

The US Attorney’s Office declined to release two other segments of Barrett’s Dec. 21 conversation with Sanders on the ground that “they related to federal grand jury matters.”

Multiple calls to the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro requesting comment on the federal agency’s role in the Residence Inn interview were not returned.

Payton argued that the case should go forward whether Barrett was directly involved or not.

“The fact that Barrett on this recording appears to take responsibility is of no consequence,” she said. “Remember, he’s the same man that lied to my client. None of the people in that room with my client were paid by him. They were paid by the city of Greensboro.”

Since the State Bureau of Investigation began its criminal probe into the activities of Wray’s police department, Sanders has been suspended and placed on paid leave.

Payton said she recently listened to recordings released by the city of a conversation between Sanders and Brady in which the deputy chief appears to direct the detective to fabricate evidence, if necessary, to rid Chief Wray of a troublesome neighbor. “Before it’s over with, you and I are going to figure out some way to get her kicked out of that freaking place,” Brady says, “even if we have to do something to make it look like she’s done something.”

That resonated with Payton.

“Aha, there’s proof that they would make stuff up to get what they wanted,” she said. “That’s exactly what they did with my client. I believe it would have gone further if the problems with the police department hadn’t taken place.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at