If you haven’t been tuned into Lagniappe’s coverage of Baldwin County lately, you’re missing out on some high-quality intrigue worthy of an ’80s nighttime TV soap opera.
It may not have Victoria Principal and Larry Hagman, but “Baldwin” as a televised drama would certain rival some of the favorites of years gone by.
“Dallas” was famous for launching the “Who Shot J.R.?” T-shirts, while “Baldwin” might popularize the phrase “Why’d They Shoot Jonathan Victor?” Lagniappe is currently in court with the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) trying to determine just that by getting them to release body-cam footage from 2017 when Victor, of Louisiana, wrecked on I-10, and that somehow culminated with this accident victim being shot and killed by a deputy with a high-powered rifle.
While subsequent investigations cleared the deputy and the department of any wrongdoing, the only video made public shows deputies already a good distance from Victor’s car screaming at him as he exited the wrecked vehicle. They told him not to advance and to put down the cloth item in his hand that he pointed in the deputies’ direction. Once Victor had been shot several times and killed, they found out it was simply a fanny pack.
The main question not answered in the bit of video released by the BCSO is why deputies were gathered around ready to shoot a man who’d just had a car accident. Logically, you’d have to guess someone became convinced Victor had a weapon, and perhaps the body-camera footage we’ve been denied could explain those circumstances. But Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack is playing J.R. Ewing on this one.
Mack is also still dealing with an investigation surrounding a high-speed chase in April in which one of his deputies chased a car up and down I-10 — including going the wrong way down the interstate — which led to the deaths of a father and son traveling through the area, as well as the three suspects burning to death. On the surface at least, the deputy’s actions appear to have violated almost all of BCSO’s pursuit procedures, but Mack was defensive immediately after the crash and there’s not been a peep about it since.
If “L.A. Law” was more your speed for ’80s primetime soaps, “Baldwin” won’t leave you hanging. We recently wrote about a lawsuit featuring some of the biggest players in Baldwin County development circles over the past 15 years and allegations they tricked a man named Phillip Bass out of $2.4 million using a “straw man” to purchase and resell 247 acres of land. It would make a fantastic soap opera plot. Bank records and documents from the transaction seem to pretty clearly show Pennstar — a company that was controlled by Clarence Burke and the DeLaney family — did not pay what a doctored HUD statement presented to Bass alleged it did.
But for some strange reason, a week before trial was to begin, Circuit Court Judge Joseph Norton threw the case out and sealed files that normally wouldn’t have been made secret, but divulged the ownership of Pennstar, Baldwin County Sewer Service and several other development companies. Norton’s move was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court, which also provided no reasoning as to why it did so, and now Judge Norton is overseeing the breakup of the partnership.
Still, it’s hard to understand why the case didn’t go to trial. Almost anyone could see the paper trail suggests things weren’t handled as presented to Bass. In a true head-scratcher, David DeLaney, general partner for Alliance LTD, even called us after the story ran a few weeks ago and admitted — twice! — that he thought his business partner Burke had lied to Bass. Talk about your cliff-hangers!
But the plot thickens. Judge Norton’s close ties with some of the people in the case got us looking at his financial disclosure statements, and it seems even after seven years on the bench Norton is still claiming payments from his former law firm of between $50,000 to $150,000 a year for referral fees. These payments have actually gone up over the past couple of years. It seems a bit strange, especially when no other judge in Baldwin or Mobile counties has anything like that going on.
When we looked a little deeper, Norton’s former law partner, Brian Britt, actually had a pending case sitting on the judge’s docket for nearly a year that was set to go. Nothing much had happened other than Norton issuing a couple of perfunctory orders setting hearings, but there was no indication he didn’t intend to hear the case. When we asked Norton about it though, he quickly recused himself, citing a conflict of interest, and vacated the two orders, which only raises the question of why he didn’t do that earlier.
Britt has told us the money is for a case they referred to another firm before Norton joined the bench and he’s entitled to the money, which is fine. Except neither will tell us which case it was or who the referral firm was, which leaves us all having to take their word for it.
“Baldwin” would also have plenty of episodes that would excite both “Dallas” and “L.A. Law” fans. There’s the fascinating case of attorney Harry Still, who says his courthouse security clearance was pulled by the Sheriff’s Office after he released a podcast asking questions about the 2016 death of Peyton Little. Still claims Little was a confidential drug informant for the Sheriff’s Office and his death investigation was handled improperly. Now, in a move J.R. would certainly approve, Sheriff Mack has pulled Still’s security clearance, which means he can’t even bring his cell phone into the courthouse.
Also, the Baldwin County Commission fired its law firm, Blackburn & Conner PC, last week, in part saying they had too many conflicts of interest to effectively represent the county. It just so happens some of those conflicts involve the representation of Baldwin County Sewer Service and David DeLaney. And let’s not forget former Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, who works for Burke and played a big role in setting up the “straw man” in the Bass lawsuit, made hiring Blackburn & Conner his first official act after being sworn in. Or that Daniel Blackburn was part of a group that got paid more than $6 million for selling land to Baldwin’s Megasite. Whew! See how confusing-yet-exciting it all gets?
Oh, and you won’t want to miss the episode about the developers who stuck the property owners association with paying $1 million for a swimming pool. That’s an instant classic!
Like I said, if you’re not paying attention to “Baldwin,” you’re missing out. This next season is bound to bring even more intrigue. Stay tuned.
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