Top-ranking Forrest Co. Sheriff's Dept. officials on trial in federal court

Top-ranking Forrest Co. Sheriff's Dept. officials on trial in federal court
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee, right, and Chief Deputy Charles Bolton, left, leave the United States District Court William M. Colmer Federal Building in Hattiesburg Monday evening after the first day of a trial. /Photo Credit: WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Trial began Monday in federal court for a former Forrest County Sheriff's Department employee who was allegedly fired as a result of her testimony in the Ware vs. DuPree election trial.

Rhonda D. Lott testified in Forrest County Circuit Court in July 2013. Her testimony implicated high ranking Forrest County Sheriff's Department officials, including Chief Deputy Charles Bolton.

It was the actions that occurred after that 2013 testimony, which led to the suit against Forrest County (same entity as Sheriff of Forrest Co.) - Billy McGee, Charles Bolton and Sgt. Andrea Estrada of the sheriff's department.

In that 2013 trial, according to Lott's original testimony, an inmate, Samuel Lindsey, who was incarcerated in the Forrest County Jail at the time of the general election, was told by Bolton if he would vote for DuPree, he would be released.

Bolton denied these allegations.

A jury of eight was selected and seated in the William M. Colmer Federal Building in Hattiesburg, with District Judge Keith Starrett presiding.

Opening statements were brief, and followed by testimony from three former jail employees.

The first witness was Nakia Hargrove, a former employee who worked in booking at the jail and was fired for excessive force.

Hargrove was questioned briefly about Lott and her job at the jail.

"She did it will, we both did our jobs well," Hargrove said. "We were all cordial and we all got a long."

Hargrove was also questioned about the relationship between Lott and Estrada, prior to the Jul 2013 testimony.

"I didn't notice anything, we all worked together," Hargrove said. "(Lott and Estrada) had a working relationship."

The second witness called to the stand was Steve Jensen, a former corrections officer from the jail.

Jensen was also questioned about the relationship between Estrada and Lott.

There was one specific incident that was mentioned, that occurred after the mayoral election testimony.

"The one where (Estrada) said she would go ghetto on (Lott)… I'm not sure why it came up, Lott wasn't there, and I was just in booking and heard it," Jensen said.

Questioning continued regarding Estrada and Lott's relationship after the mayoral election testimony.

"For the most part (Estrada) treated everybody the same, pretty fair, every now and then it seemed like she was a bit harder on Mrs. Lott," Jensen said. "Smaller things she would catch, it seemed like she went through Mrs. Lott's stuff with a fine tooth comb, small stuff she would point out."

Andre Cooley, a former master control operator, was the third witness to take the stand.

Cooley worked at the jail from November 2009 to July 2014, and also worked in booking at one point.

Cooley was questioned about Lott and her time at the jail and her relationship with Estrada.

"(Lott) couldn't do any wrong and she was a truth teller," Cooley said. "Both (Lott and Estrada) behaved very respectfully to each other, I don't remember anything negative before her testifying."

Cooley said after Lott testified, things began to change.

"Basically it became very harsh, Estrada started to threaten Lott, making statements about her, things like get that white b****, and she don't know who she was f******with," Cooley said.

Cooley testified that Lott was placed under a high level of scrutiny, "Sometime before I left she was transferred to female 101."

Cooley said Lott was transferred to the female 101 section and was no longer working directly under Estrada.

It was this time that Lott received her first of many write-ups.

Cooley detailed an incident where Estrada wrote Lott up, and described no communication between the two of them.

"Estrada told them that she directly told Rhonda to come out of the zone, but she had no contact with her at all," Cooley said.

Cooley testified that he tried multiple times to reach Sheriff Billy McGee about the incident, because he felt it was wrong.

"I was making a big deal about it cause it wasn't right," Cooley said.

Cooley testified to a remark made by Estrada, who was allegedly quoting Charles Bolton. "They were working to get rid of (Lott)."

Cooley then addressed his meeting with sheriff McGee.

"He said he would take care of it, I explained she was being picked on and it wasn't right, he said he would take care of it," Cooley said. "She was fired the next week."

Cooley's testimony continued with statements about names and terms that Estrada called Lott.

"No more than three times did I hear Estrada refer to Lott as a b****, or a white b****," Cooley said.

During a 10-minute recess, Judge Starrett dismissed one of the jurors because he came forward with a conflict of knowing someone that could be called as a witness later in the trial.

A brief cross examination was done for Cooley, discussing his job description at the jail and his duties.

Rhoda Lott took the stand as the fourth witness in the trial.

Attorneys reviewed her past, from previous law enforcement jobs to merits and certificates she has received over the years.

Lott testified to the relationship between her and Estrada.

"I requested to be trained by her when I started, (Estrada) did it right, no short cuts, she did it right," Lott said.

Lott explained they were such good friends and they shared personal stories, swapped birthday gifts, often texted and talked, and she even invited Estrada to her wedding.

"All that changed after I testified in the trial," Lott said.

Lott had no previous complaints or write-ups prior to the Ware vs. DuPree trial.

Attorney's questioned Lott about the time frame she received the subpoena to testify.

"I received a subpoena about 45 minutes before court, I was sitting on my porch drinking coffee in my pajamas, and I didn't know anything before that," Lott said. "I panicked, I didn't know why I was needed and I didn't want to be there."

Lott stated time and time again, she did not want to testify, saying she knew it would not be good for her job.

On Monday, Lott and attorneys read through the transcript from that 2013 trial, where Lott testified about a phone call that took place between Estrada and Charles Bolton.

Lott recited what was said in the phone call:

"Chief Bolton was asking for information, he was very angry, wanted his address and wanted it pulled," Lott said.

Lott added that she heard Bolton say… "The son of a b**** is gonna pay…" and he was headed to (Lindsey's) house.

That original testimony took place on a Monday in 2013, and Lott returned to work that Wednesday.

A new policy was sent out by sheriff McGee that the Internet had been taken away from employees computers and employees could not publicly support any candidate on or off the clock.

"When I walked in to work everyone just stared, no one spoke, I was on the front page of the paper and it was sitting on a desk nearby when I walked in," Lott said. "Everything was changed, Estrada didn't say a word to me, and when I tried to talk to her, she just turned her back."

Lott testified that Estrada made a comment in her presence one day regarding the election trial.

"No white man gonna beat DuPree, and (Estrada) just stared at me," Lott said.

Lott said she went to a high supervisor between five and seven times, looking for help, she also reached out to sheriff McGee multiple times for help, before filing an EOC complaint.

Lott testified about the multiple write-ups after the election trial.

"I only ever saw one actual write-up," Lott said. "I walked in for work one day, investigator Nick Calico advised me that I was suspended pending an investigation… I asked why... he said it's not relevant, not to show up or call the sheriff's department until they contacted me."

Lott never returned to work, she received a letter on Sept. 16, 2014, from sheriff McGee stating that she was terminated.

"I never got the chance to speak to Sheriff McGee," Lott said. "They made it where I didn't even want to go to work, no matter what direction I went in, no one would do anything to help me."

Lott detailed the stress that it added in her life.

"I didn't sleep well, I dreaded what may happen to me, I felt broken after I testified," Lott said.

Lott began to break down on the witness stand, with tears streaming down her face she stared across the room to sheriff McGee and Charles Bolton.

"I was told Sheriff McGee was a man of integrity," Lott said. "I told the truth and the truth cost me everything, everything!"

McGee and Bolton both stared back, neither making a move at the crowded defense table.

"I trusted that the truth was going to be the right thing, and it cost me everything," Lott said. "I loved my job, I wanted it to be my career… and now I don't even come to Forrest County anymore, I feel like there is a target on my back."

Trial will continue Tuesday morning with cross examination of Lott at 9 a.m.