Sheriff Mike Andrews thought the bronze Confederate soldier outside the old Durham County courthouse was bolted to a 20 ton stone.
“We assumed wrong, and I accept responsibility for that,” Andrews said. “But when [the protesters] put the rope on the monument, and I was listening to the [scanner] chatter … our first thought process was they can pull it all day long, and it’s not going anywhere.”
That mistaken belief was one of many factors that influenced how the Sheriff’s Office handled the post-Charlottesville demonstration Aug. 14 in which local activists placed a ladder at the back of nearly century old Confederate statue. Takiyah Thompson climbed the ladder and threw a strap down to people gathered at its base who easily pulled the soldier down, the statue crumpling as it hit the ground.
In his first interview since the toppling — and about a month since the defendants were found not guilty or had their cases dismissed — Andrews explained why his deputies didn't arrest anyone that night and why he had thought law enforcement had a strong case against the defendants. Major Paul Martin and Chief Deputy Donald Ladd of the Sheriff's Office also sat in on the interview.
On Aug. 15, the day after the toppling, County Manager Wendell Davis and Andrews said in a press conference that those responsible would be charged with felonies.
“Let me be clear, no one is getting away with what happened,” Andrews said.
But that is just what some say happened after District Court Judge Fred Battaglia dismissed three misdemeanor charges against two people in the case and found another person not guilty in three short trials.
The day after those trials District Attorney Roger Echols dismissed the charges against the five remaining defendants saying it would be a misuse of resources trying them on the same evidence. The defendants included Thompson, who did interviews after the toppling talking about why she participated.
Meanwhile, 2018 is an election year for both Andrews who faces one challenger, and Echols, who faces two. Battaglia's seat will also be on the ballot this year, and the judge plans to run for re-election. The filing period begins June 18.
'Back of people's heads'
In the wake of the charges being dismissed, the Durham County GOP reached out to Battaglia. He spoke March 8 to about 45 mostly Republicans baffled by how the situation unfolded.
“The back of people’s heads ... that is what I saw,” Battaglia said of the video footage shown in court. “The one person you could clearly see was Ms. Thompson. [She] was clearly visible. She was never tried that day.”
Battaglia also implied the assistant district attorney on the case was "third string" by using a sports metaphor and said it appeared she didn't have any help.
Echols said in an interview that his office used the evidence it had. “Obviously we don’t investigate. The sheriff’s department does,” he said. “I am not being critical of the sheriff’s department in any way."
Andrews said the Sheriff’s Office provided about 20 video files to the District Attorney’s Office. The videos included footage taken by deputies that showed the statue being pulled down. None were used in court.
Echols said he is not aware of his office receiving those videos.
The Sheriff's Office also tried to gather other physical elements like the ladder and the statue, Martin said. Deputies didn’t search cell phones or find other documents outlining the planning.
“This is not a RICO investigation,” Martin said, referring to investigations into criminal organizations. “This is a statue falling.”
Still, the Sheriff’s Office investigator has said the DA’s Office indicated it had what it needed, Andrews said.
“I was advised that they felt the video was ample enough to do what they need to do,” Andrews said.
The prosecutor used two videos in court. One was shot by a local resident, picked by the Associated Press, and edited by The Washington Post, which limited how it could be used in court. The second video was shot by Durham County security manager Ed Miller.
Andrews said he hasn’t seen the videos that were used in court.
The Aug. 14 Durham demonstration was on law enforcement’s radar about 24 hours before it was scheduled.
On Aug. 13, a vigil was held in downtown Durham in response to white supremacists and nationalists marching that prior weekend against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. . A 32-year-old counterprotester died after a white supremacist supporter drove his car into the crowd. Two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash after they completed surveillance in Charlottesville.
Andrews was at the vigil, he said.
Before it ended, a Durham Police Department Criminal Intelligence Unit officer sent an email to county and city officials warning that the Aug. 14 event might be “more concerning than tonight’s vigil.”
“In the description they mention tearing down all confederate monuments – so there could be property damage,” the email states.
The Sheriff’s Office had 80 deputies and detectives assigned to the Aug. 14 protest and the downtown area, Martin said. They were worried about snipers, people driving into the crowd, weapons in and outside of the crowd and explosive devices, he said. The bomb squad was there, along with a bomb-sniffing dog. EMS was also standing by.
In previous incidents people had painted the statue. Andrews had asked to county to put a protective solvent on the statue that would make it easy to clean up, he said.
“That is why we didn’t over respond or over react when they came out with the ladder,” he explained.
Emotions were raw, Andrews said.
“They were hollering at the police, very vulgar language, “ he said.
There were children in the crowd, Andrews said. And they thought the statue was bolted in the 20 ton stone.
At the heart of his reaction is that he didn’t want anyone to get hurt, Andrews said. He didn’t want the chaos from Charlottesville to spread to Durham, he said.
“If we started going out and dispersing tear gas or arresting people what would that have evolved into for Durham?” Andrews asked. “This is my home. This is where I grew up. And I would not want to be put in the position where innocent people were hurt.”
Andrews said they spoke with their legal adviser about the charges, who spoke with Echols.
The Sheriff’s Office sought felonies, which requires a $1,500 threshold, because the statue was a “historic artifact that has been sitting there for a long time, and there had to be value to it," Andrews said.
What was Andrews' response to Echols dismissing the felony charges?
“I can’t tell the District Attorney how to run his office and [which] cases to take forward," he said.
“We did our job as far as applying the law that presented itself to us," he added. "We felt that a crime had been committed.”
The Herald-Sun staff reporter Zachery Eanes contributed to this article.