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Police officers dispute claims in Bledsoe series

by Jordan Green

Two black police officers suing popular true-crime author Jerry Bledsoe and conservative weekly newspaper The Rhinoceros Times have attacked the credibility of one of the writer’s primary sources, a white detective who pursued the plaintiffs. In one instance, they called a passage of the “Cops In Black and White” series “blatant lies.”

In response to questions from the defendants, the plaintiffs wrote that Lt. Brian James, then executive officer to deposed Chief David Wray, drove to a Greensboro big-box store to deliver a copy of a photograph to management and not, as the series suggested, for the purpose of meeting with a woman suspected of trying to buy inside information from the police. “The people in the photograph, including Chief Wray,” the document states, “know that to be true, and therefore statements about James going to the… parking lot to meet Nicole Pettiford are blatant lies.”

Editor John Hammer defended the passage in his newspaper last November, writing, “We now believe that James did not drive straight to Pettiford’s car because James arrived in the parking lot first. It was Pettiford who drove straight to the police car that James was driving. We again fail to see the defamation in being wrong about who drove to whose car. The point of the statement was that it was a planned meeting, not a chance meeting, and we stand by that implication – regardless of who arrived first.”

The plaintiffs accuse The Rhinoceros Times of pursuing an agenda rather than accurately portraying facts and events, contending that the newspaper “sensationalizes stories and seeks to inflame its readers by appealing to bias or prejudice,” and “intentionally omits relevant information in its stories if that information does not support its intended bias, slant or prejudice.”

Hammer did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

In documents filed as exhibits in the civil suit, James and Officer Julius Fulmore contest point for point the accuracy of more than a dozen statements published in the The Rhinoceros Times, beginning with passages that suggest a link between the two officers and a third black officer, Lt. James Hinson, whose discovery of a tracker on his police vehicle brought scrutiny to the Wray administration and set in motion a series of events that led to the chief’s resignation.

“Fulmore did not ‘join with Hinson to rally black officers,’ and defendants have no evidence that such joinder occurred,” one response reads, while another states that “a review of GPD records will show that James Hinson was never [Brian] James’ training coach at the GPD. This is an example of trying to link James and Mr. Hinson not based on the facts, but based on the wish to create a better, more sensational story.”

Other statements contested by Fulmore and James deal with purported perceptions by investigators of the two black officers’ possible corruption.

One of Fulmore’s responses contends “there is no evidence, credible or otherwise,” that authorities believed he was the source of a leak to a drug dealer about a federal task force investigation, and says it is “contrary to the facts and police reports” that a task force led by Fulmore and targeting drug dealer Terry Bracken “produced less information in nearly two years” than a new investigation that excluded Fulmore.

Fulmore also says there is no evidence that any investigators harbored concern that he might be aware of criminal activities by a con artist named Pamela Williams and might be involved in them. The plaintiff’s responses also skewer a passage in the Bledsoe series that describes Fulmore’s state of mind at a time when a bitter rival, Detective Scott Sanders was investigating allegations by Williams that Fulmore was involved in drug dealing.

“Since Bledsoe never spoke with Fulmore, there is no way that Bledsoe could say that Fulmore was deeply concerned about what Williams would be telling authorities,” the response reads.

Similarly, Lt. James dismisses claims in the Bledsoe series that he was suspected of corruption.

“James was never a prime suspect in any criminal investigation, whether it was a major federal drug and money laundering investigation or any other investigation,” his response states, “and defendants failed to produce a single piece of evidence (credible or not) to support such defamatory statements.”

James contends that if Sanders’ suspicions formed the basis of the statement, then Bledsoe should have been given pause by a series of events: the indictment of Sanders in September 2007 for obstruction of justice and other charges, a report on the Wray administration by Risk Management Associates that was leaked to the press in 2006, and conversations Bledsoe had with state special prosecutor Jim Coman and attorney Walter Jones at the outset of the series.

The plaintiffs’ strategy has included an attempt to demolish the credibility of Sanders, whose investigative reports form the backbone of Bledsoe’s reporting in the series. In response to a request for admissions, the plaintiffs denied the “genuineness” of several reports either authored by Sanders or based on his investigative work.

“Any transcript of an alleged interview involving Scott Sanders is suspect due to the actions of Scott Sanders, including without limitation, the actions that are subject to the criminal indictment of Scott Sanders,” they wrote. “Moreover, Scott Sanders wrongfully procured I-2 software and other high technology devices to alter tapes and recordings.”

Seth Cohen, who represents Bledsoe and The Rhinoceros Times, along with Sanders, said in a letter to Rossabi that “there is no evidence to support the allegations that Scott Sanders manipulated any tape,” including investigative interviews with James and Fulmore. Cohen characterized the plaintiffs’ claim that nothing prepared by his client could be considered genuine as “nonsensical,” adding that if their position was “that material produced by Scott Sanders may not be accurate, that is a different issue.”

Cohen also notified Rossabi, with whom he shares a congenial courtroom rapport, that he intended to review documents held by the plaintiffs. Both lawyers have addressed each other in correspondence by their first names, and Rossabi signed his letter, “With warmest regards.”

“I will not allow you to make copies unless your clients agree to a reasonable protective order,” Rossabi responded. “Your clients have a history of selectively printing material in order to put people in a false light; I do not think the court will sanction that sort of behavior.”

In court documents, Fulmore also contested a statement by Bledsoe indicating that the plaintiff failed a polygraph test related to an allegation that he slept with a prostitute who was also his informant.

“Discovery will likely show that defendants knew that Fulmore did not fail, and simply ignored or left it out of the articles written about Fulmore in this matter,” reads the statement, which contradicts an internal affairs report based in part on Sanders’ investigation.

Both officers objected to an editorial written by John Hammer – the only item in the suit that doesn’t contain Bledsoe’s byline – suggesting they “hang out with prostitutes and drug dealers.” In James response, the lieutenant argues that if that was the case, Chief Wray would have known about it and not allowed him to serve as his executive officer.

Hammer called the allegation of defamation “ludicrous” in a story published in The Rhinoceros Times soon after the lawsuit was filed.

“What I actually wrote in the Oct. 11, 2007 paper was, ‘The city council could demand that more information be released that would explain why police officers who hang out with prostitutes and drug dealers are still on the force, while the officers who investigate such behavior are forced to retire, resign or are put on administrative leave,” he wrote. “The huge difference is that the sentence I actually wrote didn’t mention James and Fulmore. Their names are not in the paragraph or anywhere near this sentence in the story. Much later in the story I mention that James and Fulmore were not investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation.”

Fulmore estimates he has lost about $25,000 in annual revenue at an auto repair shop he owns, and about $15,000 in annual revenue that would have been derived from participation on law enforcement task forces, in addition to suffering “damage to his reputation, negative impacts on his family and social and religious life.”

James, who has aspired to the position of chief, claims to have lost income from promotions that might have otherwise been his. “Though James’ reputation remains stellar to some,” his response states, “it has necessarily been tainted by the defamatory statements” published in The Rhinoceros Times.

The libel lawsuit filed by the two black officers is not the first instance in which Bledsoe had been accused of distorting the facts to serve an agenda.

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a pastor with recent ties to both plaintiffs, published an open letter to Bledsoe in March 2007. That year, Johnson invited James to meet with Guilford College students in a public forum that saw the police lieutenant receive a hammering for the department’s handling of an alleged assault against three Palestinian students. Johnson was also the target of surveillance by Fulmore during the officer’s assignment with the special intelligence section, and later Fulmore told Johnson that the unit had destroyed files related to a fatal confrontation between activists organized by Johnson and a Klan-Nazi coalition in 1979.

The passage in the “Cops In Black and White” series in which Johnson took issue dealt with Bledsoe’s reporting about the Pulpit Forum, a group of black pastors who have taken up the cause of the black police officers.

“In your article you stated that the Rev. Mazie Ferguson and I founded the Pulpit Forum,” Johnson wrote. “That statement is false. The Pulpit Forum was formed in the early1960s as a reaction to the newly formed interracial ministers’ alliance, a merging of black and white Christian ministerial groups…. I attended a few Pulpit Forum meetings from 1986 to 1989 with Rev. [Otis] Hairston, but I did not attend the meetings regularly until after I graduated from seminary and returned to Greensboro as assistant to Pastor Hairston at Shiloh Baptist Church. The Forum had been in existence for over twenty years by that time.”

Almost all reporters commit errors – a mortifying experience that typically leads to a hasty published correction. Johnson saw something else.

“I feel I must emphasize here, Mr. Bledsoe, that it seems to me unlikely that the falsehood of attributing the founding of the Pulpit Forum to Rev. Ferguson and me is merely an innocent error,” he wrote. “I do not believe that it is just sloppy reporting. It is more likely part of a system of views that serves your interest in smearing, discrediting, and dismissing a whole category of people with whom you disagree.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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