Clouds over Columbus County

By Carli Brosseau and Sarah Nagem

This story is co-published by The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent.

Not three months after Bill Rogers accepted an appointment as Columbus County sheriff, he received a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury in Raleigh. 

At the center of the investigation was his predecessor as the county’s top law enforcement officer, Jody Greene. Rogers had known Greene most of his life—first as schoolmates, then as a fellow state trooper. He’d long counted Greene as a friend; they even vacationed together. When the legitimacy of Greene’s first election as sheriff was challenged in 2018 over questions about where he truly lived, Rogers went to the county Board of Elections hearing and sat in the first row

But in September 2022, as Rogers was preparing to retire from the Highway Patrol and focus on the six hog houses and thousands of acres of corn and beans he owns with his brother in Evergreen, the Wilmington TV station WECT published a recording of a phone call Greene made to a sheriff’s office employee while that earlier election was in limbo. In the call, Greene complained about the legal fees that were mounting as he fought to clinch a victory over Columbus County’s first Black sheriff and vowed to fire Black deputies, whom he called “Black bastards” and “snakes.”

As it became clear that Greene was at risk of criminal charges stemming from his conduct as sheriff, county leaders named Rogers to take his place. The two men whose families once smiled together in photographs stopped talking.

Rogers still hasn’t listened to the recording, and based on his long experience with Greene, he doesn’t believe the former sheriff is racist. But he worries that the investigations set off by the recording will continue to hang over Columbus County like a “dark cloud.” 

Outside the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

Greene’s problems have only multiplied in the last year as what began as a probe into racial discrimination has expanded into a federal and state investigation of misuse of power and political intimidation. The ballooning case has called to mind a past federal probe into the seamy intersection of law enforcement, politics, and crime in this southeastern county of just 50,000: Colcor.

The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent have found that dozens of people have testified in front of the grand jury that summoned Rogers to Raleigh. 

Among those called to testify are at least six sheriff’s deputies, Rogers said. That includes his chief deputy, Jerome McMillian, who served during Greene’s tenure as both a court bailiff and county commissioner. Chris Chafin, the police chief in the Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, said he also testified in front of the 23 jurors who meet monthly to hear evidence and decide whether federal investigators have enough to indict. 

So did Ricky Bullard, chairman of the county’s Board of Commissioners and proprietor of a butcher shop in Greene’s home town of Cerro Gordo, who had declared himself a Greene supporter “thru thick and thin” after the release of the recorded phone call.

Though the full scope of the federal grand jury’s investigation remains unclear, some of the lines of inquiry state investigators pursued have already been made public. Jon David, the district attorney for Columbus, Bladen, and Brunswick counties, laid out a long list of accusations last year based on the work of the State Bureau of Investigation in a bid to remove Greene from office. These included claims that Greene had sex on duty with a subordinate, intimidated county commissioners, and sought to have perceived political enemies criminally charged, among others. 

An investigator working for David’s office also seized eight cell phones from the sheriff’s office evidence room, according to a search warrant return. In applying for the warrant, the investigator argued that the cell phones would “constitute evidence of obstruction of justice and willful misconduct and maladministration,” WECT reported. Greene’s deputies had originally seized them from a Chadbourn home along with four marijuana plants and bags of white powder and green leafy substances, the records showed.

Rather than allowing David’s allegations to be aired in court, Greene resigned, paving the way for Rogers’ appointment. That sequence actually happened twice—the first time in October 2022, just moments before David began his court presentation, then again in January, after Columbus County voters elected Greene a second time. All three men are Republicans.

David declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigations. “I want to talk about this a lot in the future,” he said, “but that season is not yet upon us.” 

* * *

It’s not yet clear when the dark clouds looming over Columbus County will burst.

It’s common for corruption investigations to take more than a year, as prosecutors tread carefully out of concern for political consequences and to avoid unfairly besmirching public officials’ reputations, researchers Kristine Artello and Jay Albanese found.

The two have interviewed dozens of former FBI agents and prosecutors. And as Artello, an attorney and associate professor of criminal justice at Fisher College in Boston, notes, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has made corruption—especially bribery—more difficult to prove. “Usually, in corruption cases, there’s other things going on there,” she said, “so they’re probably looking at the budget—where did he spend the money?—hiring practices—were they discriminatory?—as well as others, because it’s better if you can get him on some of that.”

Part of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office complex. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

Greene declined an interview request from The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent.

Corruption prosecutions are most often brought by federal offices, rather than state or local, because there is more political distance between the accused and those seeking to bring them to account, Artello said. But corruption prosecutions dropped dramatically since a peak in the late 1990s, data compiled by researchers at Syracuse University show. In just the past five years, they declined 30 percent

Michael F. Easley Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, whose father faced his own corruption investigations as governor, has proved willing to take on these difficult and risky cases. A grand jury indicted a current Wayne County sheriff’s deputy and a former one in August on charges related to alleged bid rigging and drug trafficking. In the previous two years, he announced cases involving embezzlement in Spring Lake, bribery at Rivers Federal Correctional Institution, and embezzlement at Fort Liberty.

David’s office has also gone after misbehaving cops. William Anthony Spivey, former police chief in the town of Chadbourn who faked his own death last year to evade criminal charges related to missing drugs, money, and guns from the department’s evidence locker, pleaded guilty in September to 14 felonies and could serve more than 22 years in prison. Marty Lewis, former Fair Bluff police chief, was found guilty of drug charges in 2014 after the State Bureau of Investigation said he sold drugs to the town clerk and undercover agents and staged a robbery in an effort to conceal missing evidence. 

Colcor—short for Columbus County Corruption—was a 1980-1982 sting operation that led to federal charges against 40 people, among them a police chief, a district judge, a powerful state senator, and the lieutenant governor. 

Federal prosecutors painted a picture of a community where political leaders focused on securing their continued power and enrichment, where votes could be bought and payoffs were commonplace. Some county residents say that culture has endured, though they don’t all agree about who’s to blame.

Greene’s supporters invoked Colcor when his 2018 election was challenged. He was the first Republican sheriff candidate in the county with a real shot at winning, and his backers perceived the investigations into Greene’s residency and get-out-the-vote operation as the work of the same Democratic political machine that the FBI targeted in the 1980s.

More recently, Colcor has been on the lips of Greene’s detractors, who are eager to see the grand jury’s work unveiled. Giles “Buddy” Byrd, a longtime Democratic member of the county’s Board of Commissioners, puts it this way: “Colcor wasn’t nothing compared to what this is going to be.”

The wall of sheriff portraits inside the office’s lobby has yet to be updated. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

* * *

A federal corruption investigation can take one of two main forms: a grand jury investigation like the current one or an undercover sting. Colcor was the latter.

It started with the opening of an arcade in Whiteville, the county seat, called “The Hangout.”

Proprietor Joseph Thomas Moody was both a long-haul trucker and “a part-time informant mercenary,” in the words of a 1984 Greensboro News & Record investigative series. The FBI had previously used him to investigate murders and truck hijackings.

Moody found himself repeatedly in trouble with Whiteville officials, the newspaper reported: For playing music one minute past the mandated closing time, for not buying a fire extinguisher from the right person, for giving away teddy bears as rewards for high scorers. Moody came to suspect the pattern was part of a shakedown.

In jail on an assault charge, he told his cellmate his woes. The News & Record reported that his cellmate told him: “Around here, you got to pay people off.” Moody called the FBI, which had been amassing corruption complaints from others in the area. At least one local police officer had complained to the DEA that a sheriff’s deputy was protecting a big-time drug smuggler, now-public FBI records show. And Robert Pence, the FBI special agent in charge for North Carolina, told a newscaster after the indictments that the Charlotte office had been hearing about bid-rigging and vote-buying in the area for years.

The FBI brought in its own undercover agents, who set up a gambling operation in nearby Lake Waccamaw and then a Whiteville gold-and-silver-buying business. They posed as associates of the Detroit mob. The fronts gave the undercover officers more leads than they could act on, as they were awakened at all hours with deal propositions. 

Not long after they set up the Lake Waccamaw operation, the town’s police chief, Harold Lowery, mentioned to the officers that he was in a financial pinch, owing alimony and child support. He offered to protect the gambling business for seven months. The requested payment was $600—100 per month of protection, with one month thrown in free, according to the undercover officers’ reports.

Other officials were recorded delivering on their pledges to help the men masquerading as narcotics “heavies” and accepting money in exchange. Judge J. Wilton Hunt, who was a frequent poker player, at least once sitting down to play in his professional robe, made calls to expedite the undercover officers’ business license. 

One call was to Ed Walton Williamson, the county commission chairman who approved the license in a single day, sidestepping the required police investigation. Williamson also offered to deny licenses to potential competitors. He would go on to connect the undercover officers with two of the most powerful politicians in the state, Sen. R.C. Soles, of Tabor City, and Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, of Clarkton, in neighboring Bladen County.

Williamson told the officers that Soles’ blessing was necessary to pursue the legalization of liquor by the drink. He suggested seeking a vote to do that in Bolton, a tiny majority-Black community whose votes Williamson said he controlled. Though Williamson didn’t know it, the election was an effort to test the integrity of the electoral process, since for years the FBI had been getting complaints. The State Board of Elections later invalidated the election results, which favored drinks by the glass, due to the FBI’s role.

Richard Wright, an attorney and state legislator from 1974 to 1988, recalls being targeted in the probe. A client came into his office and asked for his help setting up a supper club in Bolton. “And I said, ‘That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of. Nobody would go to Bolton to have supper,’” he recalled. 

Then the client put $100 on his desk. He kept stacking up bills—$2,000 in total. Wright told the client to take that money and hire Sen. William Smith, an expert on alcohol policy who was not running for reelection. 

The client put another $100 bill on his desk. “We really need your help,” Wright recalled him saying. “And I said, get that money and get out of here.” 

Later, a friend who worked with the federal authorities played him a recording of the encounter, said Wright, now 79. “They were trying to entrap me, and thank God I didn’t take the bait.”

Of the 40 people indicted as part of Colcor, 38 were convicted, one died before trial, and another was acquitted. Evidence the FBI developed was also used to prosecute five people on state charges. Four were convicted.

Pence, the FBI’s top officer in the state, considered that outcome a great success. The two men found not guilty, however, were the politicos at the top of the chain—Green, the lieutenant governor who later pleaded guilty to evading taxes as part of another large-scale federal investigation, and Soles, who beat all four charges against him: bribery, vote buying, perjury, and helping a county commissioner collect payoffs. 

After the trial, Soles received a hero’s welcome in Tabor City. The mayor draped him in a necklace of lush white and red flowers as several hundred people gathered downtown to celebrate his win. A banner over the main road into town declared “Welcome Home Senator Soles.” A poster affixed to a nearby speed limit sign read: “Soles-4 Colcor-0 How ’bout that!” 

Soles left the General Assembly in 2011 as the body’s longest-serving member. He died in 2021.

* * *

Like R.C. Soles, Jody Greene, 55, has a track record as a political survivor.

A hometown boy who attended West Columbus High School, he had nearly three decades of experience in law enforcement when he ran for sheriff in 2018. As was the case in much of rural America, Columbus County was experiencing a political shift: White voters, who had long picked Republicans for president and Democrats for local seats, found solace in the tough-on-crime, drain-the-swamp message of Republican President Donald Trump. Greene promised to rid the county of drug dealers. 

But the election was arguably as much about race as the drugs and poverty that plagued the community. Greene’s friend, a highway patrolman named Kevin Conner, had been shot and killed during a traffic stop near Whiteville weeks before Election Day. The suspect in Conner’s death was Black, and Greene supporters later linked to a militia group called the Oath Keepers spread false rumors that Lewis Hatcher, the incumbent sheriff, was related to the suspect and tried to help him escape.

Greene beat Hatcher by fewer than 40 votes. But the vitriol intensified when residents filed election petitions alleging irregularities at the polls and questioning Greene’s involvement with McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative accused of harvesting absentee ballots in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Greene’s residency became the biggest sticking point. Did he and his wife really live in a cramped RV with South Carolina plates parked in the Cerro Gordo community where he grew up? At the time, they also owned comfortable homes in neighboring Robeson County and on the South Carolina coast. 

Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene spoke with supporters during his swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Nagem)

In a 3-2 vote, with Democrats in the majority, the Columbus County Board of Elections ruled against Greene

The State Board of Elections disagreed, ultimately allowing Greene to serve. However, the board said Greene shouldn’t have been sworn in while the election was under dispute. Greene had fired at least two deputies and demoted four before a certificate of election was issued.

Through a legal settlement, Greene and Hatcher agreed neither would oversee the sheriff’s office. Their lawyers said Jason Soles, who oversaw the detectives in the office and had no relation to R.C., would take over day-to-day responsibilities. But Aaron Herring, whom Greene had hired as chief deputy, told The News Reporter that he instead was filling the role “in accordance with statutory guidelines.” The change drew criticism from some Black residents, who make up 30 percent of Columbus County’s population. Herring had been accused of assaulting a Black man during a 2015 arrest. And though he was found not guilty more than two years later, concerns lingered about the treatment of Black residents by the sheriff’s office. 

It was during the limbo in early 2019 when Greene was looking for a “snitch” who might have been sharing information with Hatcher. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of these Black bastards,” Greene said in a phone call that Soles recorded. “I’m going to clean house and be done with it.” 

Commissioner Byrd said he heard the tape within days of its recording, but his pleas for his colleagues to take action fell on deaf ears. “Nobody wanted to hear it,” Byrd said. “The commissioners at that time gave Jody Greene all the credit for them being elected.”

While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Columbus County, many white voters say the Democratic Party no longer represents their values. Bullard became the fourth modern-day Republican to serve on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners when he switched parties in 2019. Four other Republicans have been elected since 2020, and they have the board majority.

In the affidavit, Soles said he also took the tape to a State Bureau of Investigation agent, “who indicated that although the behavior was inappropriate, it did not rise to the level of criminal conduct.” 

While the tape went largely unheard, some local officials grew weary of Greene’s harsh style. Among them was Edwin Russ, who served on the commission from 2008 to 2020 and had previously admired Greene. “But once he got sheriff,” Russ said, “he was just so demanding.” 

Greene was a bully who had a habit of making late-night, profanity-filled phone calls to commissioners and others whom he perceived as obstacles, according to interviews and affidavits. Russ said he too felt inclined to press record after numerous such calls from Greene. 

During that recorded call, which took place in the summer of 2020, shortly after the county commission denied Greene’s request to buy riot gear and give his employees a bigger raise, Greene threatened to remove air conditioners from a school property that was being used for court hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened to arrest one of the Democratic commissioners. Deputies later arrested Byrd on suspicion of property crimes; an outside “conflict prosecutor” said the charge should be dismissed.

When Soles left the sheriff’s office in 2019 and went to work at the Whiteville Police Department, an irate Greene banned him from county property. The inability to go to the jail rendered Soles useless as an officer. Town Manager Darren Currie said Soles had been a valuable addition to the small-town department that struggles to recruit experienced officers. “It was a big loss,” he said. 

Currie said the situation soured his relationship with Greene, adding that “a lot of the issues” within the sheriff’s office stemmed from the top administration. “If things were going his way, then everything would be OK,” he said of Greene. “If something wasn’t going his way, he could get very upset very quickly.” 

Greene’s power seemed only to be growing. In 2021, the commissioners hired Boyd Worley—the attorney who represented Greene in his election disputes—to be the county attorney on contract. The previous county attorney was given a new title. Greene also managed to bring the county’s animal control operation under his control.

When Soles opted to run for sheriff in last year’s election, he had a decision to make: Should he release the recorded phone call to the media? He posed the question to his campaign committee, according to Lee Croom, Soles’ stepfather, and everyone but Soles’ mother said yes. 

Jason Soles talks to about 300 supporters at a campaign rally in Whiteville in October 2022. (Photo by Les High)

The language Greene used in the call outraged much of the community, including members of the local NAACP. But his staunchest supporters seemed angrier at Soles. “There were more people that were concerned about the release of the tape than they were about the content of the tape,” Croom said. “That was disappointing to us.”

Greene continued his campaign without acknowledging that a judge had suspended him, the state sheriff’s association had taken the rare step of calling him to a hearing, or that the state agencies had rescinded grants over concerns about possible civil rights abuses.

His Facebook page continued to list him as sheriff. And at the county’s agricultural fair, Greene steered a black Mercedes SUV that bore “Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene” magnet decals at the front of the sheriff’s office convoy. The county GOP chairman said Greene had his full support.

Greene coasted to reelection. But before taking office, he set in motion a request for $170,000 he said he was owed in back pay, plus $250,000 to pay out benefits to employees who had left the office.

Greene’s criticism of county leaders continued months after his second resignation. “It’s time,” he wrote in a May 4 Facebook post, “to put some out to pasture.” His displeasure extended to fellow Republicans, including Rogers, Bullard, and McMillian, who he accused of being pawns for the county manager

“Just because someone is registered as a republican doesn’t mean they stand for anything,” he wrote. “I know we have more rhinos (cowards) in office, that absolutely shouldn’t be their.”

* * *

There are signs that Greene is not the only one investigators are interested in. 

Questions about payments the county made to businesses with connections to Herring, his chief deputy, also have been turned over to investigators, according to Byrd, the county commissioner.

While Herring helped administer the sheriff’s office budget, the county made several payments to Show Ridez, a Whiteville company that provides auto detailing, decal application, and other vehicle services, Byrd said and a county attorney confirmed last year.

A 2022 video on the Show Ridez TikTok account lists Herring as owner, though Herring said in an interview that year that he was owner of Show Ridez Automotive Services, which was a distinct business. Two other men are listed in filings with the county’s Register of Deeds as owners of other businesses with similar names, and a 2015 Facebook post on the Show Ridez page lists the three men as co-owners. 

A man answering the phone for Show Ridez in September hung up when asked to explain the relationships between the three men and their similarly named legal entities. Byrd said by the time the county was paying Show Ridez, Herring had bought his partners out. Herring has not responded to recent interview requests.

A Whiteville business with ties to Aaron Herring, the former sheriff’s chief deputy. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

Byrd brought the county’s Show Ridez payments to the attention of his fellow commissioners during a September 19, 2022 meeting. Even before he broached the subject, the meeting was tense. Byrd had warned the county manager about “turmoil out there you might want to get involved in” related to the county’s 911 center.

A former state trooper had been selected to fill a newly created position, and Greene’s critics, including Byrd, thought the hiring signaled Greene was angling to take that office over.

McMillian, the former state trooper who was then a commissioner and court bailiff, was visibly irritated by Byrd’s comments. He turned his head away. “Damn, how come there’s always all this stuff going on that nobody else on the board knows about?” McMillian said.

“You might be talking to the wrong people,” Byrd retorted. “I talk to the common man. I don’t talk to the big white collar man all the time.” 

“Ain’t that what you is?” McMillian shot back.

Byrd went on to raise two more sensitive subjects: the sheriff’s office’s commission of a glitzy recruitment video and the Show Ridez payments.

“I’m having people call me who want to know how much we have paid Show Ridez last year and up to this point of this year; I have no idea,” Byrd said at the meeting. “And someone called me about another issue about the county bringing in 11 cars and having some work done on them and they said the bill was either $330 per car or $430 per car … but the county didn’t pay the individual that done the work. The county paid through Show Ridez.”

Herring approached Byrd after the meeting and bumped him with his chest, Byrd said. 

Byrd said he never was never told the cost of the video, but he did later learn that the county had paid more of Herring’s businesses and that Greene and Herring had each violated a policy requiring the board of commissioners to sign off on all county expenditures over $25,000. One of those unapproved expenditures was for a computer software update that cost $467,000, Byrd said.

The county has not fulfilled a request from The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent for records related to the Show Ridez payments. It is one of numerous requests, some made as long as a year ago, that the county has yet to answer. 

The petition aimed at removing Greene from office contains further suggestions that investigators could be targeting Herring. One of the affidavits included with the petition includes a description of Herring choking a Black student with a learning disability. 

The Columbus County Republican Party has apparently come under scrutiny too.

The State Board of Elections is currently auditing their financial filings, spokesman Pat Gannon said. 

A 2021 report stated that the party committee had raised $31,667 from individuals over the election cycle, but none of its filings account for that unusually large amount. Gannon said he could not comment on specifics while an audit is in progress. 

The party owes $2,450 in late filing penalties, but has asked for waivers related to some of its 2022 reports, Gannon wrote.

* * *

Rogers is confident he can repair relationships between the sheriff’s office and the community.

“Everybody was telling me it was going to take two years to get everything calmed down in Columbus County,” he said. “And I said, ‘There’s no way. I can do it quicker.’” 

He suspended, demoted, then fired Herring and replaced him with McMillian, whom he trusts from their time together on the highway patrol and who is Black. Rogers has been filling positions left open after an exodus of deputies last fall. He also named a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist.

Rogers has plenty of connections, from the fire stations where he volunteered to the neighborhood convenience stores where farmers gather to talk. He encourages his buddies to continue calling him “Bill” instead of “Sheriff.” 

Current Columbus County Sheriff Bill Rogers in his office. (Video still from the sheriff’s office Facebook page)

“When I got here, everybody was uptight because of the investigation,” Rogers said. “I wanted to make everything relaxed and get the community back involved and get [deputies] talking to people. The people help us solve cases. No matter how good of an officer you are, you’ve still got to have some help from the community. They’ve got to trust you.” 

Some Columbus County residents say they’ve noticed a difference. Franklin Thurman, chairman of the local Democratic Party, said deputies aggressively followed him in his car during last year’s election in an apparent attempt to intimidate him. Now, he said, “For the first time, deputies will come up and talk, have a conversation.” 

Rogers expects the end of the grand jury investigation to make it easier to move forward. But wounds are deep and memories are long. 

“There will probably be scars forever,” Croom said. “You know the Hatfields and McCoys? People just don’t forget.” 

Ben Rappaport of the Border Belt Independent and Johanna F. Still of The Assembly provided additional reporting for this story.

* * *

Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The Assembly. She joined us  from The News & Observer, where she was an investigative reporter. Her work has been honored by the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and published by ProPublica and The New York Times.

Sarah Nagem is the editor of the Border Belt Independent. She has worked as a journalist in North Carolina for 15 years, reporting and editing stories about education, government, public safety, and more. Reach her at