A Dewey Beach man charged by Dewey Police with theft of a public document was exonerated Oct. 4 when prosecutors withdrew charges for lack of prosecutorial merit.
“Most people would feel relief,” said Jeffrey Smith. “I am more concerned because the truth didn’t come out in trial.”
Smith attorney Tim Willard said Smith was wrongfully charged.
“These charges were especially disturbing because they were brought by the law enforcement agency that [Smith’s] interest group was challenging about their accounting procedures,” Willard said.
Willard said the Department of Justice ultimately made the right decision to drop the charges.
“Unfortunately, not all the evidence was turned over, and my client had to suffer through the ordeal of being arrested and defending himself,” Willard said.
Dewey Police arrested Smith Aug. 10 after he declined demands from audit committee Chair Larry Silver to return a draft audit report distributed and discussed during a public audit committee meeting Aug. 3.
Charging documents reviewed after Smith’s exoneration state that Silver told police he received a laceration on his hand when he tried to grab documents from Smith.
Smith said the laceration likely occurred when Silver tried to pull Smith’s license plate off his Jeep.
“Mr. Silver admits in his statement that he tried to remove my license plate, so I took a photo of it after I read the report,” Smith said. “Clearly [the laceration] was done by the license plate. The bend in the plate was not there before.”
Silver told police he tried to remove the plate because “he believed that if he retrieved the license plate he would have proof of who took the document,” charging documents show. Silver said the cuts on his finger were clearly due to Smith’s disorderly conduct.
Willard said someone who removed another person’s license plate without their permission could be charged with theft, a criminal mischief misdemeanor or a Title 21 offense. Silver was not charged with attempted theft or tampering with a license plate.
Charging documents included statements from six witnesses. Witness 5, Dewey Mayor T.J. Redefer, stated that during the public meeting, attendees were told the documents were drafts, not public documents, and must be returned.
Commissioner Gary Persinger, who was present at the Aug. 3 audit committee meeting, told the Cape Gazette editorial board Aug. 21 that no such announcement was made.
Redefer also describes Smith’s “angry and out of control” behavior.
Audit committee Secretary Diane Hanson said Redefer left the meeting early and was not present to witness the altercation.
No one else who received the document, including two reporters, was charged with theft. After making a copy of the public document, the Cape Gazette returned the original as a courtesy.
Smith said directly after the Aug. 3 meeting, he was speaking with Hanson, who said independent auditor Roy Geiser, the author of the report, handed one to Smith.
“Jeffrey didn’t even ask for it,” Hanson said. “Roy just gave it to him and didn’t say anything about it having to be returned.”
Smith said he began to walk to his car when Silver followed after him to demand the report.
Smith said after the incident, which his wife witnessed from the car, he considered going to Dewey Beach Police to report Silver’s behavior and attempted theft of his license plate.
“We decided to get some lunch and sleep on it,” Smith said. “I was shocked when I got a call from Dewey Police the next day.”
Smith said Dewey Police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey called, told him none of the reporters kept the report and asked him to come in to discuss the matter. Smith retained Willard as counsel and turned himself in to police Aug. 10.
Willard requested all videotape recordings of the incident, as at least three surveillance cameras in the vicinity are maintained by Dewey Police. On Sept. 5, Willard received two DVDs purportedly containing footage of the event, but they could not be viewed for technical reasons.
On Sept. 21, Willard received two new DVDs with files converted to a common mp4 format. The videos could be viewed, but time and date stamps had been removed. Videos showed the building, but cut off when Smith’s car turned into the parking lot and resumed when his car departed.
The altercation between Smith and Silver was missing from the submitted videos. Charging documents state surveillance video captured the group leaving the building but not the altercation.
“The video would very likely show the wrongdoing of Silver chasing after me, grabbing the documents and trying to remove my license plate,” Smith said.
Smith is director of the watchdog group Dewey Citizens for Accountability, which has been investigating the Dewey Police Department.
Redefer said he was happy the case was dismissed.
“The culture of our town is changing, and I am very optimistic that the future will be even better as we work toward civility in all areas of Dewey Beach,” he said.