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In Trigg County, an ongoing special investigation looms over the sheriff’s race

Trigg County Sheriff's Office

Trigg County voters in this fall’s general election will see only one name on the ballot for Trigg County sheriff: incumbent Aaron Acree — a former Kentucky State Police trooper — who was appointed to the position by Judge-Executive Hollis Alexander in 2020.

But four write-in candidates are challenging Acree, in part, because of a Kentucky State Police special investigation this spring looking into allegations of official misconduct by Acree.

The situation has led to arguments and rumors on social media over the circumstances of the investigation, and for some residents like Lisa Champion, the investigation is one of several reasons why there’s a loss of trust in the sheriff’s office.

Champion said she’s been raising her concerns about the investigation and other concerns with the sheriff’s office at Trigg County Fiscal Court meetings, which she feels like has brought the ire of others — particularly the sheriff’s supporters — against her in the county.

“It's just a shame what this has done to the community. It has divided it so badly,” Champion said. “I’ve been vocal about the issues regarding the sheriff's office, but unfortunately it has repercussions for doing so.”

A suspension, then an investigation

The radio station WKDZ broke the news in July that the Kentucky Attorney General’s office had appointed a special prosecutor to lead a Kentucky State Police investigation into Acree and his office for allegations of official misconduct.

One of the four write-in candidates for Trigg County Sheriff, Michael Sandbrink – along with another former Trigg County Sheriff’s Office deputy Michelle Kent – sued Acree in July, alleging he illegally suspended and terminated them in retaliation for them notifying the FBI in March of “actual or suspected violations of state and federal law committed by Sheriff Acree.”

The lawsuit states Sandbrink’s report to the FBI included “allegations of improper sexual conduct” by Acree with an unnamed female while Acree was on duty and in the sheriff’s office.

Defense attorneys for Acree, the Trigg County Fiscal Court and the Trigg County Sheriff’s Office denied the allegations in an August court filing.

In an interview with WKMS News, Sandbrink provided letters showing he was suspended with pay from his position as a deputy on April 14, and he was terminated on June 30. He said he was running as a write-in — having filed to run two days before the lawsuit was filed — to bring integrity and trust back into the office.

Sandbrink declined to talk about the details of the lawsuit or his knowledge of the circumstances regarding the special investigation, saying it would be revealed in upcoming court proceedings.

“I feel like the community has been put through a lot in the past few years, and I think it's time to build back the trust and the integrity that has been lacking in that agency,” Sandbrink said.

Acree told WKDZ in September he suspended — and eventually terminated — Sandbrink and Kent after Sandbrink had allegedly disconnected the agency’s surveillance system for a 24-hour period. Acree said, while he was out of town, Kent and Sandbrink also allegedly told other deputies to report to them, not Acree, if there were questions and concerns.

Sandbrink called Acree’s statements “totally false and untrue” but declined to comment beyond saying that court proceedings would reveal the truth.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office, according to WKDZ, appointed a new special prosecutor in the investigation in September. Then-special prosecutor Todd County attorney Jeff Traughber in a letter said he didn’t have the necessary resources to prosecute the case and that it was “apparent” the investigation may result “in multiple charges including at least one felony.”

45th Judicial District Commonwealth’s Attorney Clayton Adams, who oversees Muhlenberg and McLean counties and was appointed as the new special prosecutor in the investigation, said he expects to take the results of the investigation to a Trigg County grand jury before the end of the year.

“It is my intention to present the entirety of the results of the investigation to the Grand Jury,” Adams said in an email. “Any charges returned would be within the sole province of the Grand Jury upon hearing the evidence presented.”

Acree had told WKDZ he spoke with state investigators in April and was not aware of any felonies being discussed regarding the investigation.

In an email to WKMS News, Acree declined to comment on the ongoing investigation and didn’t respond to a request to arrange an interview.

Michael Manazanares, another write-in candidate for sheriff, said he decided to run for Trigg Sheriff in April shortly after learning about the active investigation. He resigned from his position in the agency in July.

“We've had an integrity issue there in the department for quite some time, not just with the current investigation but with the previous sheriff,” said Manazanares. “I was frustrated, irritated that we're going down that again, and I felt led to a file to straighten out the perception that the public has with law enforcement.”

A history of integrity issues

Acree is the second Trigg County sheriff in a row to be investigated by the state. A Kentucky State Police investigation eventually led to former Trigg County sheriff Jason Barnes being convicted in 2021 of a misdemeanor of providing alcohol to a minor and a felony of tampering with a witness.

Barnes was indicted in August 2020 and resigned the same month. Acree was appointed as sheriff shortly after.

In December 2020, a former Trigg County High School student sued Barnes, the fiscal court and other law enforcement officers, alleging that Barnes and officers had groomed and pressured her for sex during her internship at the sheriff’s office.

The attorney representing the former high school student at that time told WKMS News one of the purposes of the lawsuit was to show the “whole story” regarding the charges Barnes faced and how others were allegedly involved. The lawsuit was settled in 2021.

David Tomlinson, the third write-in candidate for sheriff, said he was one of sheriff’s office deputies in the Barnes administration who was let go when Acree became sheriff.

Tomlinson said, when he was with the agency under Barnes, he went on medical leave in December 2019 to have his knees replaced. He only learned Barnes was being investigated after coming back to the agency in February 2020.

“I kind of wish that I hadn’t took my medical leave when I did. I might have seen it and might have been able to stop it and intervene, and I might have my career,” Tomlinson said. “They were our leaders who we look up to for guidance and leadership, and instead of guiding and leading they were doing something else.”

Tomlinson said he had not read the previous lawsuit regarding the former high school student and didn’t know what the lawsuit had alleged. He said people in the county encouraged him to run to return public trust in the law enforcement agency and to help improve transparency and call coverage throughout the rural county.

Ronnie Masaz, the fourth write-in candidate for sheriff, doesn’t have any previous law enforcement experience and has been employed by the Christian County jail for over a decade.

Masaz told WKDZ in April he wanted to “put integrity” back in the office and, despite his lack of experience, he believes his character qualifies him for the office.

Wanting stability

Leadership of both political parties in Trigg County expressed that residents want stability in the law enforcement agency.

Trigg County Republican Party Chair Jim Pelham attended a candidate forum hosted by WKDZ earlier this week where the four write-in candidates and Acree spoke.

Pelham said his party hasn’t backed Acree, a Republican, or any of the write-in candidates and believes all of them are “good candidates.” He said he also believes Trigg County residents are looking for stability in the agency.

“I think they're looking for a little bit of moral character. I think they're looking for all of that and doing the job as well,” Pelham said.

Trigg County Democratic Party Chair Jan Culwell, whose party doesn’t have a candidate on the ballot, said she believes the write-in candidates may split the anti-Acree vote in November’s election.

“People are disheartened by the fact that there have been so many investigations. But I think that they are ready to move forward with Acree,” Culwell said. “I think they want a clean sheriff's office. They want one with no controversy.”

Hope Uher, a resident who lives near the Trigg County-Christian County border, said she’s afraid to call the sheriff’s office for help in part because of concerns over previous use of force incidents by the deputies.

“For the last two sheriffs that we've gone through, our moral compass has disappeared, and it's time we get it back,” Uher said.

At the candidate forum, the write-in candidates were asked various questions including how they would deal with sexual harrassment complaints and how to improve the perception of the sheriff’s office. No mention was made by any candidate of the ongoing special investigation.

During his closing statements, Acree told the audience to “vote on what you see — not what you hear.”

“I'm not here for the money. I'm not here for the power. I'm here for longevity. I'm not retired, I've got a long way to go before I retire. I plan on finishing my career right here in your county,” Acree said. “Public safety is my number one concern and going forward we're gonna continue to do what we're doing skyrocketing numbers, putting bad guys in jail, making contact with the public and earning their trust.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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