NC sheriff who made racist remarks has history of controversy. Can he outlast this one?

By Ivey Schofield

Sitting behind a mahogany desk, surrounded by certificates of achievement and piles of paperwork, Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene complained about the red tape he had to deal with every day.

When Greene beat the incumbent by 37 votes in 2018 to become the first Republican sheriff of this southeastern North Carolina county, he thought he would be kicking down doors and arresting drug dealers. Instead, he said, he spent much of his time writing office policies, shaking hands with politicians, posing for pictures at campaign events and listening to the nearly constant ring of his cellphone.

“I wasn’t prepared for the BS of the job,” Greene, 53, said in August during a wide-ranging interview with the Border Belt Independent at his office in Whiteville. 

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Greene’s tenure as sheriff has been marked with controversy from the start, from an investigation by state election officials to criticism of his decision to receive nearly $4 million in surplus military equipment from the federal government.

The biggest controversy yet arose late last month with the release of a 2019 recorded phone call in which Greene made racist remarks and disparaged Black employees within his own office.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser suspended Greene from office after local District Attorney Jon David requested the move. In a petition to the court, David accused Greene of committing corruption while in office. 

A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 24 to determine whether Greene will be formally removed from his post. Greene’s name will remain on the Nov. 8 ballot alongside that of his Democratic opponent, Jason Soles, who released the audio recording to WECT.  

Jody Greene, left, and Jason Soles, right.

Greene, who has not spoken publicly except on Facebook since the phone recording was first reported, said in a Sept. 29 post he would not resign, despite calls from David and the local and state NAACP and a probe by the State Bureau of Investigation. He said the release of the audio by Soles six weeks before the election was “a page from the old political handbook.”  

Greene’s decision to stand firm likely came as no surprise to his supporters who were wooed by his campaign promises four years ago to bring more respect, technology and professionalism to the sheriff’s office. Now he is tasked with convincing Columbus County voters that he deserves another term. 

The question is: Will a man who has consistently weathered political storms outlast this one? Or will voters opt for Soles, a veteran law enforcement officer who says he refused to work under Greene’s rule? 

Greene, who is white, grew up in Cerro Gordo, a town of about 240 residents 15 miles from Whiteville. One of four children, his father died when he was 9. His mother was a school teacher.

Surveilling a Black neighborhood

Greene, who said he always dreamed of a career in law enforcement, graduated from West Columbus High School and then attended Southeastern Community College. He took his first police job, as a beat cop in the Columbus County town of Chadbourn, in 1990. 

Related story: Can Jody Greene be reelected?

He went on to serve as a narcotics detective for the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office for five years and then moved to the N.C. Highway Patrol, where he rose through the ranks for two decades in Robeson, Halifax, Moore and Columbus counties. 

As sheriff, Greene said he wanted to make Columbus County, a rural area hit hard by the opioid epidemic, a safer place. Reducing drug-related crime is his top priority, he said. 

“This is my home,” Greene said, “where my children are, where my grandchild is.” 

Greene’s tactics, however, have been met with skepticism, especially from some African American residents. 

In 2018, before he was elected, Greene promised to save a predominantly Black unincorporated community near the South Carolina border, which he said was “riddled with drug dealers.” Three years later, he stapled an official notice from his office to a tree in Greene Acres: Deputies were surveilling the area 24/7.

Jenell Longs, who grew up in the community and now lives in Pennsylvania, said she was heartbroken. 

“The people are so good and so loving,” she said, explaining that many Green Acres families have been there for generations. “They don’t want this negative outlook.”

Instead of focusing on arrests, Longs said, the county could help residents gain better access to clean water, job opportunities and public transportation. 

Soles, who is white, said he too questioned Greene’s focus. 

Jason Soles talks to about 300 supporters at a campaign rally in Whiteville on Oct. 3.
Photo by Les High

“Drugs are sold everywhere,” he said. “You can’t go around the county targeting certain areas with minority neighborhoods.”

Racial tensions were evident in the 2018 election, when Greene narrowly defeated incumbent sheriff Lewis Hatcher, who is Black. 

Hatcher said at the time there were at least 180 absentee ballots that were unaccounted for, enough to potentially swing the election his way. He sued but ultimately dropped the lawsuit and waited for the official findings from the state Board of Elections, which investigated whether Greene actually lived in Columbus County. 

The board ultimately ruled in Greene’s favor, allowing him to take over duties as sheriff after months of uncertainty. 

Hatcher did not return requests for comment for this story.

In the February 2019 recorded phone call with Soles, who worked at the sheriff’s office at the time, Greene referred to some deputies as “Black bastards.” He also said he thought employees who were aligned with Hatcher should be fired.

Soles said he was the interim sheriff at the time, despite some reports that Aaron Herring, current chief deputy, held the position. Regardless, Soles said that was when he started getting late-night phone calls from Greene like the one he released to the television station two weeks ago.

“I knew right then if he was elected I wouldn’t work under him,” Soles told the Border Belt Independent in mid-September. 

Military equipment

Soles, 42, also grew up in Columbus County. He graduated from basic law enforcement training in 2001 and went to work in Clarkton, a town in Bladen County. He then went to Tabor City for two years, Whiteville for six years and the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office for eight years.

He now serves as an auxiliary police officer for the city of Whiteville – a volunteer position. He said Greene blackballed him from getting a paid job there. 

Greene could not be reached for comment on the issue.   

Soles said he has wanted to be the Columbus County sheriff since 2001, but he figured he would continue to wait. When he stopped working in law enforcement full time, he said, he began to pray. He said God gave him signs to run. 

If elected, he said he would work to enhance community watch programs, boost cooperation with local and state agencies and put more deputies on patrol. 

Like Greene, Soles says he wants to fight drugs. Both candidates say they must focus on helping drug users instead of arresting them. 

Arrests for drug violations in Columbus County nearly tripled between 2017 and 2020, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office last year. 

“We’re going to be very aggressive on drugs,” Soles said. “However, we’re going to do it professionally.” 

Soles’ biggest promise, perhaps, is to unify Columbus County. He said Greene has stoked divisions. 

Soles was among several critics of Greene’s decision to acquire $3.8 million in surplus military equipment, including two helicopters and an armored vehicle, from the federal government. 

Some said they were concerned about the optics of the equipment, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

“When you see officers gear up in that manner, I think it’s highly inappropriate and intimidating. It makes me feel unsafe,” Jeremy Simmons, who is Black and serves as the chaplain for the Columbus County hospital, told “The Laura Flanders Show” this summer. 

Greene has defended the equipment. Recently, he said, deputies used an armored vehicle during a domestic violence call in which a suspect barricaded himself and fired a gun. He said he credits the military equipment for keeping his deputies safe. 

“It’s to help people,” he said, “not hurt people.” 

Soles agreed that some of the equipment, like the high water rescue vehicle, is beneficial. But he questioned the armored vehicle. 

“It’s just sending the wrong message to people,” he said. 

Greene told the Border Belt Independent this summer that he was not trying to militarize the sheriff’s office. He also brushed off the notion of racial tensions. 

A campaign ad for Jody Greene in Columbus County.
Photo by Les High

“It’s not Black or white. The people who believe that have their eyes closed and heads in the sand,” Greene said. “It’s all about power. They try to make it a racial thing.”

A contentious sheriff’s race

Greene and Soles both said their campaigns have taken a toll on their families. 

Soles, who won the Democratic primary in May with 63% of the vote, said he and his opponent, Victor Jacobs, agreed to run clean campaigns. The loser, he said, promised to support the winner. 

But Soles got emotional when he talked about how his family has been threatened and harassed leading up to the Nov. 8 election. 

“That’s where it hurts the most,” he said. “It’s my name on the ballot, not my family’s.” 

Soles told WECT he released the 3-year-old phone recording, which he said he previously shared with Columbus County commissioners and N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, because he “wanted help.” 

“I’m not doing it for me anymore,” Soles said. “Now I’m doing it for the citizens, to give them a voice and give them a sheriff to trust to be transparent.”

Greene got quiet when he thought about the impact on his family. Attacks against them, he said, bring out a different side of him. 

He said his wife and the chief deputy of the sheriff’s office periodically change the password to his Facebook account in an effort to prevent him from posting when he’s mad. 

Two weeks ago, Greene took to Facebook several times, alleging that Soles released the phone recording to elevate his agenda and incite racial divisions. 

“I feel the recording is a personal attack, an attack on my accomplishments as sheriff and an attempt to discredit the successful work of the sheriff’s office for the last four years,” Greene said in a post. “These are the same people and groups from the 2018 election that spread defamatory lies and misinformation about me and the election proceedings.”

Greene said he has had many accomplishments as sheriff. Under his tenure, sheriff’s deputies got a pay raise, along with other employees. He successfully lobbied for new uniforms to replace ones that he said were old and tattered. He provided training opportunities and wrote use-of-force policies. He added an extension office on the east end of the county

The sheriff’s office also got millions of dollars from the state last year for a new main office and detention center. In the meantime, the office is planning to move next door to the former Columbus County Board of Education building. 

Soles said he will work to control spending if he is elected. 

In 2017, the sheriff’s office had a budget of $6 million from county commissioners. In 2020, the budget swelled to almost $7 million

The election

A community meeting hosted by the Columbus County branch of the NAACP drew a large crowd on Oct. 4.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Local get-out-the-vote efforts are underway. Last Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered at a community meeting hosted by the local NAACP. The group said it wanted to galvanize before early voting starts on Oct. 20 to encourage constituents to vote against Greene. 

“If he don’t step out, kick him out,” said Andy Anderson, a South Carolina pastor and Columbus County community leader. 

Greene still has plenty of supporters, though.

Kevin Harrelson, who owns several businesses in Columbus County, said drug dealers fear Greene’s reelection. 

“You can always judge a man by his enemies,” Harrelson said.

In August, Greene said he was proud of his decisions, regardless of any pushback. 

“It shows I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “If you’re doing something, people are going to talk about it and be mad about it. And I’m not sitting on my hands doing nothing.”

Greene smiled at the thought of remaining in office. He unhooked his reading glasses, placed them on his shoulder and leaned forward in the leather chair in his office – an office that now belongs to an interim sheriff, who was appointed by county commissioners last week.

“I’m not a quitter – never have been, never will be,” he said. “It’s the first time in my life Columbus County is moving forward in a positive way. I want to see it through.”

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Columbus County voters will choose on Nov. 8 between Republican Jody Greene and Democrat Jason Soles in the sheriff’s race. Photo by Ivey Schofield