01/07/05 — One ex-policemen given active prison term

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One ex-policemen given active prison term

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on January 7, 2005 2:09 PM

Former Mount Olive Police Sgt. Joshua Joseph Ehnert will spend 75 days in prison for stealing from Hispanic men he had stopped for traffic violations.

He and two other former officers, Freddy Norman Southerland and David Allen Johnson, pleaded guilty Thursday afternoon in Wayne District Court before Judge Jack Jenkins of Morehead City.

"I can't say I'm sorry enough," said Ehnert, who was directed to report to the Department of Correction at 8 a.m. on Feb. 21 to begin his sentence. He told the judge he hopes to be able to put this behind him and start a new life.

Ehnert's lawyer, Geof Hulse said his client "will have to live with this the rest of his life." He referred to an agreement Ehnert and the two other men signed which said they would never work in law enforcement again. That was a part of the plea arrangement. "I know he disappointed himself," Hulse said. "He disappointed his community."

Hulse asked the judge to recommend separation from the general population in prison and work release. The judge said he would defer to the wisdom of the prison officials. He said he would not recommend work release.

Southerland's lawyer, Bob Rice, said he has known his client since he was a teenager. He said Southerland, who is 23 years old, has expressed shame and remorse.

"He allowed himself to get involved in something and did not use good judgment," said Rice. "You can't minimize what he's done, but it's out of character" for him.

Southerland, who had planned to make a statement, was too emotional to speak to the judge.

Johnson's lawyer, John Gomulka, told the judge his client is the youngest and least experienced of the three. Johnson has a learning disability, he said. He described Johnson as easily tractable, the lowest in the chain of command.

"He went along with his superiors, because of his diminished capacity," said Gomulka. He told the judge law enforcement was Johnson's dream. His father, Raymond Johnson, is in law enforcement with Wayne County. "This is an added embarrassment to his family."

Johnson read a prepared statement to the judge. He said if he could turn back the clock he would change everything. There was no reason for it, he said.

The men's former boss, Mount Olive Police Chief Emmett Ballree, said today that he feels pain for the families of the men.

"I know what it's like to go through something like this with someone in the family," he said. "The truest thing that was said in there was when David Johnson told the judge, 'None of us should be here.'"

He said he's glad all three apologized. His is a small department, and he had socialized with the men. The people in the department do things together. A personnel meeting isn't just a personnel meeting. They get together over breakfast.

"That made it especially hard," he said. "It still makes me furious they did this to themselves, to law enforcement in general and to the town and the department."

But as a father and as a friend, he said, it still hurts. He saw Southerland in the hall at the courthouse before they went in before the judge. He told him, "After this is over, you'll walk out the door, and it will be like a weight is lifted."

He said he hopes the men will be able to put this behind them. They've faced the consequences of their actions, but he doesn't want it to ruin their lives, "because they're all so young. The oldest is 30."

He said he appreciates the State Bureau of Investigation taking over the investigation. He knows some of them had ties with the men. "I know it's got to be hard investigating law enforcement officers."

The agents were quick and thorough, he said. They and District Attorney Branny Vickory kept his department informed about what was going on.

He said maybe the men's punishment and the restitution they will pay will help the victims have faith in the system again.

Ehnert's plea was guilty to four counts, two of them Class I felonies and two Class H felonies. One of the counts was conspiracy, the others larceny. The judge consolidated the two Class H felonies, and the sentences for two of the counts will run consecutively.

Ehnert received two eight-month sentences to run consecutively. After the 75-day active sentence, the rest will be suspended, and Ehnert will spend six more months under electronic house arrest. He will pay $2,520 restitution, court costs and lawyer fees.

Southerland and Johnson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, a Class I felony. They both received eight-month sentences suspended for 36 months of supervised probation. The 36 months was longer than usual, but Jenkins said he imposed the six additional months to give the men time to pay restitution. He ordered Johnson to pay $1,700 restitution and Southerland to pay $1,640 restitution.

He also ordered Johnson and Southerland to perform 100 hours of community service within the next 180 days and pay court costs and lawyer fees.

"A lot of emotion is in this courtroom," Vickory told the judge. "I can see it on chief Ballree's face."

It takes people trusting government for government in any of its forms to survive, said Vickory.

"When they don't trust it, you see what happens in other parts of the earth," he said. "When I first started this job I thought everything was black and white. Now, I know there's gray."