A McDuffie County Sheriff's deputy who a grand jury chose not to indict after a rape allegation earlier this year has been temporarily taken off the road after being issued a restraining order by a Superior Court judge in Thomson last Friday.
Deputy Mike Coke is now working in the jail, said McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.
Judge Danny Craig of the Augusta Judicial Circuit issued the restraining order in McDuffie County Superior Court at the request of Bobbie Jo Thomas - a McDuffie County EMT who initially accused the deputy of sexual assault in March. Judge Craig was summoned to hear the case, because the two local judges, Roger W. Dunaway, Jr., and Harold Hinesley had to recluse themselves so as not to create a conflict of interest on either side.
The sheriff said Deputy Coke, who has been with the sheriff's department for 17 years, is planning to appeal the restraining order. The Protective Order, which is good for 12 months, prohibits Deputy Coke from approaching Mrs. Thomas or any member of her immediate family within 500 yards, "unless necessary within the course and scope of (his) duties as a deputy sheriff," according to court records obtained by The McDuffie Mirror.
Sheriff Marshall said he took Deputy Coke off the road patrol and assigned him to jail duties until he can determine the legality concerning the deputy carrying his department-issued firearm while the order is in place.
"I'm going to do what I think is right," the sheriff said, adding that he has an obligation to protect the citizens of McDuffie County "and my people, if they're right."
Sheriff Marshall said he was not going to defend Deputy Coke's initial actions, but said the protective order issued by Judge Craig is nothing more than a retaliation effort by Mrs. Thomas after she received a speeding ticket from Deputy Coke last month.
A copy of the ticket shows the deputy stopped Mrs. Thomas for going 89 mph - according to his police radar - in a 55 mph zone at 7:20 a.m. on June 7 on Augusta Highway. Sheriff Marshall said when Deputy Coke realized it was Mrs. Thomas he'd pulled over, he called another deputy to the scene. Mrs. Thomas said she was speeding because she was running late for work. Probate Judge Valerie Burley said Mrs. Thomas has until Friday, July 24, to either pay the $295 fine associated with the ticket or plead not guilty.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Marshall is defending himself against charges from an Augusta radio station and some of Mrs. Thomas' supporters of a cover-up effort between his office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney's office.
"I feel like I'm being crucified for it," Sheriff Marshall said Monday. "They act like they have a vendetta. I've been fair and truthful about this.
"I'm not upholding what happened in the beginning," Sheriff Marshall said. "He (Deputy Coke) made a poor decision."
The turmoil began in early March, when Mrs. Thomas initially accused the deputy of a sexual assault at his home.
The case file on the sexual assault allegation - obtained by The McDuffie Mirror through an open records request - shows that Mrs. Thomas had changed her story on several occasions during the investigation and that she and Deputy Coke had exchanged tawdry text messages in the weeks leading up to the March incident. From the beginning, the deputy said the act was consensual, while she claimed an assault took place.
Sheriff Marshall turned the investigation over to the GBI, who sent their case file to the District Attorney's office for presentation to grand jurors.
Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders said he had only two options.
"I could have dismissed it or I could have taken it to the grand jury," Mr. Sanders said. "We decided to take it to a grand jury."
The case was actually presented to a grand jury by Chief Assistant District Attorney Durwood Davis - testimony being given by Mrs. Thomas and others for nearly two hours, Mr. Sanders said.
"We took our time presenting this case to the grand jury," Mr. Sanders said. "There's no question about it."
Grand jurors met for two hours in the case, but did not render a true bill or a no bill. It means that the case is officially closed unless new evidence is uncovered.