In a more than 20-year career in law enforcement, Darryl Wilson has brought a lot of cases to court. He enjoys taking criminals off the streets, heâll tell you, even if it means dodging bullets or blades to make an arrest. Getting a vague tip that leads to a big bust after weeks or months of investigative work is not only satisfying, he says, but also thrilling. Wilson refers to police work as his hobby, but one he was fortunate enough to get paid to do.
But on March 1, less than an hour after the culmination of his latest court case, Wilson sat in a downtown Mobile restaurant sipping a low-calorie beer, about ready to leave it all behind.
"Iâve been in some miserable places,â he said. "Iâve been shot at, stabbed at, seen some of the worst things you can imagine. But I would do it all over again if I could.â
What he wouldnât do, Wilson said, was relive the past two years of life, the period he was the target of former Bayou la Batre Mayor Stan Wrightâs retaliation.
In January 2011, Wilson was a captain in the Bayou la Batre Police Department. In addition to his routine duties inside the city limits, he also assisted federal investigations with ties to south Mobile County. The extra work earned him an average of $10,000 a year and resulted in arraignments in international drug smuggling cases. Among other things, Wilson aided in intercepting a 4,500-pound marijuana shipment from Jamaica and disrupting the flow of hundreds of thousands of ecstasy pills from Canada.
The interesting thing about policing Bayou la Batre, Wilson said, is as small and remote as it is, itâs a cultural melting pot. The 2010 census recorded just over 2,500 residents, but Asians were the second-highest represented demographic. There are plenty of poor and working-class families, but also a handful of wealthy residents. Drugs are as rampant as any major metropolitan area and Wilson said heâs worked cases from Houston to Miami with ties to the Bayou.
So he was shocked while he was on medical leave in February 2011, just days after he reported a suspicious land transaction between Wright and the city, to receive a letter from Wright effectively barring him from future collaboration with federal agencies. Then, without ever consulting his chief of police, Wright ordered a sergeant to go Wilsonâs house to retrieve his city-owned vehicle or have him arrested for theft. When Wilson eventually returned to work, Wright had reassigned him to general patrol, giving him the oldest car in the fleet.
Wilson wonât go on the record with many of his other accusations about Wright. In a separate pending civil case, Wilson is seeking an $800,000 judgment against Wright and the city of Bayou la Batre for the circumstances of his demotion and subsequent resignation.
But he testified in court last week, where Wright was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States, theft, witness intimidation and retaliation, that he feared bodily harm. He was never afraid of the gun of a drug dealer, Wilson said, but Stan Wrightâs revenge and influence made him afraid to step outside his house.
Wrightâs indictment was filed Sept. 30, 2011. Beyond the charges for which he was eventually convicted, Wright also faced three counts of money laundering. Originally, there were also two co-defendants, former Bayou la Batre grant manager Janey Galbraith and Mary Cook, Wrightâs daughter. In a scheme prosecutors referred to as "the taxpayer-based solution,â Wright conspired with Galbraith to sell a piece of his own property to the city to help with Cookâs debt.
With a parade of 23 witnesses, prosecutors showed the $27,300 Wright was accused of stealing originated in a $15 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant intended to fund long-term housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Months before the Bayou la Batre City Council approved the sale, Wright and his wife Robin loaned Cook $27,300 to pay for an equity line of credit she incurred from a previous divorce.
"This has to be the biggest coincidence in the history of the world,â Assistant U.S. Attorney George May told the jury during closing arguments. Or "this is a simple case of a crooked politician who figured out a way to funnel $27,000 into his daughterâs pockets.â
The evidence showed Wright devised a scheme to sell two-tenths of an acre of property he owned to the city he governed, which needed a sliver of it to meet state traffic regulations at the FEMA-funded Safe Harbor public housing development. While neighboring property owners were never asked to sell more than was necessary for right-of-way, Wright sold his entire parcel for a price prosecutors said was equal to $131,000 an acre.
Within two weeks in October 2007, Wright deeded the property to Cook, who then sold it to the city. The only notice given of Wrightâs previous interest was an admission at a City Council work session, just an hour before the sale was tucked into a $500,000 lump sum expenditure.
"I want the whole world to know, my daughter owns a piece of that property,â Wright announced in an audiotape of the meeting played for the court. "I used to own it, but I deeded it over to her.â
After some inaudible discussion from a contracted engineer about how he determined the price per-square-foot of the right-of-way acquisitions, Wrightâs distinctive voice booms again:
"Before the rumors started flying, I wanted to explain to the public how this all came about,â he said.
But he didnât, prosecutors proved, not at that work session, not at the subsequent meeting, or anytime since. The evidence showed details or discussion about the propertyâs size and price were absent from any city agenda or minutes, concluding they could have only been determined by looking at the deeds and payments after-the-fact.
Defense lawyer Authur Madden argued the sale was legal because it was approved by the City Council in a public meeting where Wright admitted his previous ownership and later abstained from the vote to purchase it. Madden said the decision to sell the entire parcel was based on an engineerâs decision that what would be left behind would be an "uneconomic remnant.â
"The defense would have you believe that a piece of property worth $131,000 an acre as a whole becomes worthless if you take away a portion of it,â May countered.
Regarding the defenseâs view the sale was legal because it was approved by the City Council, May said the City Council is not a court of law.
"If the mayor had asked the City Council for $27,000 to buy a kilo of cocaine, does that make it legal?â he asked.
In the charges involving Wilson, the prosecution brought former police sergeant Jason Edwards, who Wright ordered to arrest Wilson if he didnât turn over his city-owned vehicle.
"I didnât arrest him because first, he was my captain and second, because no crime had been committed,â Edwards testified.
Things became worse for Edwards after that, he said. After refusing to arrest Wilson, Wright told Edwards to write down the events of that day. Edwards told the mayor he didnât feel comfortable with his request. Shortly after that, Edwards was accused of stealing money from the departmentâs evidence room, a still-pending case Edwards denies.
"I was asked by Stanley Wright to write a statement, but I didnât feel comfortable. He told me to âpick a side,ââ he said. "The same day was when I was accused of stealing money.â
Former Bayou la Batre Police Officer Matthew Winston offered the most explicit testimony regarding Wrightâs intentions toward Wilson. Winston, who had resigned earlier to pursue a more lucrative construction career, was remodeling a house of Wrightâs when he decided to ask Wright about his motivation.
"That motherf*cker told the FBI me and Janey was crooked, that we were taking money,â Wright told Winston. "Thatâs why heâs on patrol and thatâs why heâs driving that raggedy ass car and heâs going to stay in it.â
Throughout the trial, Wrightâs defense characterized his actions as "small town police politics,â emphasizing the mayor never willfully intended to threaten Wilson. In explaining the statements Wright made to Winston and other witnesses about Wilsonâs loyalty, Madden suggested he was just worked up after being labeled a thief.
"Stan Wright is not a perfect man,â Madden said. "When one looks back on their life, there are many things they would do differently. But with this, there is no intent. Stan Wright did not intend to commit a crime.â
The jury, comprising three men and nine women, took about 90 minutes to return their guilty verdict on all four charges.
There seemed to be a mixture of shock and surprise when Wrightâs verdict was read. Any lawyer will tell you, if a jury takes less than an hour to return a single felony verdict, itâs probably not good for the defendant. Wright was convicted of four felonies. In the courtroom, there were a couple of audible gasps and one womanâs muffled crying, but Wright stood stone-faced. Having just been reelected in November, he was beginning his 13th year as Bayou la Batreâs mayor.
The Monday after, the city was already preparing to move forward. According to municipal attorney Jay Ross, who represents the city along with Missty Gray, the mayorâs seat was vacated at the time of conviction and the City Council will have 60 calendar days to appoint another mayor if they choose. If not, Gov. Robert Bentley would appoint someone based on recommendations from council members. If the governor chooses not to, there will be a special election.
But first things first, Ross said he was asked by the city what to do about security.
"Not to say that [Wright] would attempt to gain access, but the city is in process of changing the locks, as a precaution,â he said March 4.
The City Council is expected to discuss Wrightâs succession at a March 11 work session and may make a formal vote as early as the regularly scheduled City Council meeting March 14. Ross said he was researching whether City Councilwoman and Mayor pro tem Ida Mae Coleman could legally handle administrative duties in the absence of a permanent mayor.
Ross also spoke to the apparent inadequacy of the City Councilâs legal representation revealed during the trial. Gray, his former partner at the law office of Ross, Jordan and Gray before they both joined the larger firm Adams and Reese, testified that she approved the sale of the property, when evidence later demonstrated it was clear conflict-of-interest.
"She was mistaken in hindsight,â Ross said, suggesting the error was possibly the result of not having enough time to review the transaction as it related to federal guidelines.
"Itâs always a good practice to allow a governmental body to have time to review things,â he said. "Each city and county may have its own way of doing things but clearly, giving time to consult and review is the best practice.â
City Councilwoman Annette Johnson, a vocal opponent of Wrightâs who is currently serving the first year of her first term, said whatever the council decides, she was hopeful the city could take a brighter path.
"I think the trial said a lot about openness and accountability in municipal government,â she said. "Personally, if we donât learn from it and continue to do business like we have in the past, we donât need to be participating in government. Everybodyâs going to be anxious about being sure we donât go down the same path.
"My hope and prayer is that we can try to get better transparency. I hope we can get our new website put through so everything can be posted and people can see what our agendas are. We also need to adhere to the agenda. There is no reason to rush anything through.â
Bayou resident John Ladnier echoed that sentiment, adding that he hopes the community can move past the divisiveness and vitriol of the last election and begin to work together.
"Well, Stan Wright said it best himself,â Ladnier said. "The truth would come out and the community needed to move forward. I was raised to be careful what you ask for and he got exactly what he asked for. The truth did come out, heâs facing 35 years and now the community and the city can move forward.â
Ladnier, like many of Wrightâs dissenters, donât think the probe into his tenure should end with the conviction. Publicly and off-the-record, as well as in a few passing statements during the trial, people have long complained about Wrightâs mismanagement of other money and contracts, including those related to the BP oil spill. If it wasnât illegal, they say, it was at the very least highly unethical. Ladnier calls Wrightâs governance the "FBI system,â an acronym for friends, brothers and in-laws.
"Look at the level of manipulation that was uncovered,â Ladnier said. "This is the tip of the iceberg. Iâve got a gut feeling the man will spend the majority of the next few years in court. It stands to reason this is not the only thing the man has done corruptly or the only person he harmed, there are other people involved. I think the government is shaking the rug to see what runs.â
Back in the restaurant, Wilsonâs post-verdict beer was not one of joy, but rather one of relief. Although his cell phone lit up continuously with congratulatory messages and calls, Wilson still got choked up speaking about how Wright ended not only his career in Bayou la Batre, but also that of former Police Chief John Joyner, who Wilson refers to as his best friend.
"You have to understand, John and I were going to retire together,â he said. "We had a pact. Youâll retire as police chief and Iâll be your captain. When I got this investigation started, I expected [Wright] would cooperate and disclose whatever he needed to clear his name. But he didnât. He fought it tooth and nail and acted like he could not only beat the system but that he could be the system. He overstepped his authority.â
Wilson left Bayou la Batre to become police chief in Dauphin Island, a position he recently resigned to assume part-time work at the Mobile County Sheriffâs Office and pursue his own business â that of a Certified Fraud Examiner. In early February, he and his business partner, Virginia Shanahan, announced they were opening DV Consulting, a company to investigate all levels of civil and criminal fraud.
While charges against Stan Wrightâs daughter were dropped, Galbraith was convicted last year for her role in the scheme, receiving a sentence of three months in prison and ordered to pay a $75,000 fine. Wrightâs sentencing in early June carries the possibility of five years for conspiracy, 10 years for theft and 20 years for the dual convictions involving Wilson, along with $1 million in possible fines.
Speculating, Shanahan said she would be disappointed if U.S. Judge Kristi Dubose didnât impose a harsh sentence.
"No disrespect to the judge, but I donât think there are very many people who wouldnât do three months in federal prison in exchange for $2.5 million,â Shanahan said, referring to the amount Galbraith was paid to inappropriately administer nearly $50 million in federal grants for Bayou la Batre since 2006.
"But if you go light on someone who threatens witnesses, someone who openly retaliated against a top cop, what kind of message are you sending?â she asked. "The truth is, there are other Stan Wrights out there. The truth is, the world is full of bullies. And until someone like Darryl Wilson stands up to expose them and someone like Judge Dubose stands up to hold them accountable, corruption will be tempting and innocent people will be preyed upon.â
Lagniappe News Editor Katie Nichols contributed to this report.