By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News
A search of Mitchell County pawn records has uncovered two occasions in 2009 when Yancey County Chief Deputy Tom Farmer traveled to Spruce Pine to pawn weapons.
Mitchell County authorities allowed the newspaper to inspect daily pawn reports in response to a public records request.
Yancey County Manager Nathan Bennett had “no idea” if the guns belong to the county because he says the sheriff’s department apparently didn’t provide county leaders with any regular inventory of weapons prior to his request for one when he came into office.
Sheriff Gary Banks might know, but he has said he is already trying to piece together an accurate gun tally after this newspaper documented that Farmer pawned a county-owned gun in January.
What can now be certain is that Farmer - a county government ethics instructor and the sheriff’s second in command - has a documented history of turning to pawn shops for quick cash.
As reported last week, Farmer pawned at least one county-owned Sig Sauer semi-automatic gun at Alan’s Jewelry and Pawn in Asheville. Banks has since said that the gun is back in county possession. This week we can report that Farmer pawned two guns, a fact known more than a week ago but not previously reported because some details on the pawn record didn’t match well enough for the paper to say point-blank that the second pawn occurred. We can now say two guns were illegally pawned, and that we informed Sheriff Banks of the existence of a second lost gun.
In the Spruce Pine situation, Farmer pawned two Glock handguns at Mountaineer Pawn - also known as Music, Jewelry and Loan, located at 12513 N.C. 226 South.
In the days since that initial report, the sheriff has sent out a press release saying he considers the allegations serious, that the one gun had been returned, that a deputy had been suspended, and that “while I can neither confirm nor deny many of the allegations or statements made in the newspaper, because the story alleges criminal misconduct and involves personnel matters.”
He later asked the newspaper to turn over any information it has in order to assist his investigation.
Banks did leave an after-hours voice message with the newspaper late last week, but since then he has limited all communication between himself and this newspaper to email, despite an invitation to talk “over a cup of coffee.”
The Mitchell County pawn records were made available Tuesday after this newspaper asked the sheriff’s department in Bakersville to make them available. The department referred the request to County Attorney Hal Harrison, who later that day decided that the documents were public records. The hundreds of pawn reports were quickly made available that evening by Mitchell County Sheriff Donald Street. Among the hundreds of pages of pawn activities were notes that Farmer had pawned a Glock 9mm pistol and a Glock .45 caliber pistol.
The .45 caliber was pawned on June 25, 2009, then pawned again - along with the 9mm pistol - on Sept. 17, 2009, the records show.
Late Tuesday, Sheriff Banks sent this newspaper an email escalating his interest in our notes and information, demanding that we turn over to him any information pertaining to Farmer and his pawn activities. Banks said he needed the newspaper records as part of his “pending investigation” of Farmer.
“I would rather work with you and hope you are not impeding my investigation,” the sheriff wrote.
The newspaper declined to cooperate, citing numerous state court rulings that protect journalists from such demands. Key to the newspaper’s demurral is the fact that any details of crimes are readily available to the sheriff once he opens an investigation.
State law requires pawn shops to document transactions and to provide those records to law enforcement. Banks – the chief law enforcement officer in Yancey County - should be able to obtain that evidence either by looking them up online at a secure website designed and maintained for that purpose or by telephoning the Asheville Police Department or the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department to request information about Farmer’s pawn activity.
In his first press statement regarding the pawning of the weapon, Banks said that this newspaper had acted hastily and in a “sensational” manner when it reported that his trusted deputy had traded guns for money.
Banks then asked the county to pay for the hiring of an attorney to represent him, but that request was denied by the county manager.
At the direction of the County Board of Commissioners, the county manager has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to step in and investigate the pawning of the department weapon.
The board of commissioners met in closed session Monday morning to discuss the situation..
“We just basically got an update,” Commission Chairman Johnny Riddle said Thursday. “They’ve given it over to the SBI and (District Attorney) Jerry Wilson. They’re going to be bringing in somebody from out of the county” to investigate, Riddle said.
He said some commissioners voiced the opinion that the sheriff should have been told of the request to see the gun inventory before it was released to the Yancey County News
, but others - including Bennett and County Attorney Donny Laws - apparently strongly disagreed.
“The assertion that an officer sworn to uphold the law would so egregiously violate that oath, placing the community at risk, is unacceptable,” Bennett wrote in his certified letter to the district attorney asking for an investigation. “Yancey County will support prosecution of this matter if these claims are substantiated.”
On Thursday the Yancey County News
filed a public records request for copies of all communications, purchase orders and emails between the county and the companies that make Glock guns and the company that makes Sig Sauer guns in an attempt to further determine the identification of the guns pawned in Asheville and Spruce Pine.
Next: Tom Farmer resigns
The Yancey County News editorial from March 17