Thursday, April 20, 2023

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins (left) speaks at a press conference concerning Trent Lehrkamp on April 17, 2023, with interim Glynn County Police Chief O’Neal Jackson (right) to his side. Credit: Jake Shore/The Current

Bullying or misinformation?

Two dueling narratives have emerged in the viral story of Trent Lehrkamp’s alleged bullying. 

In one narrative, teenagers from a wealthy Georgia enclave bullied an autistic teenager, Lehrkamp, who nearly died from alcohol consumption, and the incident was being covered up in a county known for police misconduct. 

In the other narrative, a non-autistic Lehrkamp was an active participant in partying with St. Simons Island teens, drinking himself to the point of extreme intoxication, and mostly consented to what was misinterpreted online as abuse.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

At a press conference Monday, Brunswick-area district attorney Keith Higgins presented the second narrative in a Powerpoint and hit back at what he called social media misinformation. The Current has posted the slides online for all to read. Meanwhile, Lehrkamp’s family reportedly told TV stations that the 19-year-old was clearly the butt of the joke and a target of abuse. 

What we can sort out for sure was that the Glynn County Police Department filed misdemeanor charges against the parents whose house the alleged drinking and abuse took place: James and Lauren Strother. They were each charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and “maintaining a disorderly house.” 

The Current reviewed court documents and found that James C. Strother, 46, of the multi-generational Strother family on St. Simons, has faced criminal citations before relating to underage activities. 

In July 2021, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources cited Strother with allowing a 14-year-old to drive a boat without a license or safety course taken in the Blue Ridge Lake in North Georgia, a DNR report states.

In 1995, Strother was cited for possession of alcohol by a minor … when he was a minor himself. A DNR officer cited Strother, then 18, for having alcohol while out on the Hampton River. 

The DNR officer who cited Strother 27 years ago was Rod Ellis, who now serves as the chief of Glynn County Schools Police Department. Ellis told The Current he didn’t remember giving the ticket, but he said, at the time, there was a concerted effort by local law enforcement to ticket for underage drinking.

“It was prevalent. A lot of underage drinking,” Ellis said. “The same stuff happened back then but you just hear about it more now because of social media.”

Securus, one of the major telecom providers to prisons and jails, has a $3.00 deposit fee in addition to charging per minute of a phone call, according to S’hantel Butler. “You’re minimizing how much the prisoners can do,” Butler says, “and you’re maximizing the profits.” Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

Phone fees in jail: How we reported this

Last Friday, The Current‘s Jake Shore reported on how jails in Coastal Georgia reaped in revenue charging fees for jailed people’s communications, while maintaining Covid-era bans on visitation. Five of six of those county jails with visitation bans reported making $1.5 million in fees in 2022.

From each sheriff’s office, The Current had to obtain copies of contracts to discern which telecom providers they contracted with and how much they charged in phone rates (each sheriff had slightly different costs). Then, The Current requested reports where telecom providers documented the sheriffs’ cut of each phone call.

From there, reporters had to do a lot of spreadsheet math to calculate the total revenue sheriffs generated charging for phone fees. Between all six jails, the number surpassed $2 million between 2021 and 2022.

The most surprising part of the story came when our news outlet used a texting service to reach thousands of Coastal Georgians to ask if they’d been impacted by costly jail phone fees. Over 400 people responded. Not all were useful, but dozens said they had been affected, and five wanted to talk about their experiences.

Having loved ones in jails is a stigmatizing topic and almost all of the conversations occurred on the condition their identities would be protected. The interviews brought us personal stories from families who couldn’t stay in touch without growing debt. In the meantime, experts made it clear that family contact improves the chances of rehabilitation for someone who’s been jailed.

Chatham County District Attorney
Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

Ex-prosecutor wants sanctions, DA fights back

A fired former prosecutor is asking a federal judge to sanction Chatham County’s district attorney for allegedly dodging a deposition. The DA says she was prosecuting a Savannah rape case, which takes priority over an employment lawsuit dispute.

The ex-prosecutor, Skye Musson, is suing the DA’s office, Chatham County, and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia in the U.S. Southern District of Georgia. Musson alleges she was retaliated against after complaining in January 2021 that DA Shalena Cook Jones’ office was a ‘boys club’ and that she was passed over for promotions.

Last Friday, Musson asked a judge to sanction her former boss, accusing Jones of manufacturing a “conflict” to prosecute a rape case instead of appearing for her court-ordered deposition on April 11.

Reached by phone, Jones denied Musson’s allegations.

“I was in the middle of a capital case,” the DA said. “That takes precedence over a civil matter.”

Jones also told The Current her prosecution of the case was not due to staffing issues. The agency has had issues filling positions of felony prosecutors in Superior Court.

I prosecuted that case because its an important case to our community,” DA Jones said. “These cases mean a lot to me, and they mean a lot to the victims.”

The rape trial last week was against Tyrone Glover. Prosecutors accused Glover, a Savannah apartment maintenance man, of raping a woman he had been living with in 2018 and another woman in 2020, who was living in the apartment complex he worked at, court documents say. His public defender, however, argued that DNA tested from both cases did not match Glover’s.

The case resulted in a hung jury (jurors were split on their decision), and the DA’s office intends to re-try the case in July.

Covid’s over but county jails still profit from virtual communication

Jails run by Coastal Georgia sheriffs collect more revenue from detainees trying to stay in touch with loved ones over phone, video or text messaging, while they still ban in-person visitation after Covid. Jails in Chatham and Glynn counties were the biggest earners on the coast.

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As Arbery trial starts, Glynn County seeks accountability

A six-month investigation of Glynn County police, court and government documents show a persistent lack of accountability among local law enforcement and district attorney’s office that stretches back a decade.

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Chatham DA: No charges for Savannah police officer who killed man at traffic stop

A local Savannah official, whose district the shooting occurred in, was shocked to find out the news of no charges against the officer: “we hire and fire people to protect and serve the community.”

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Lawmakers: Georgia Senate passes divisive district attorney oversight bill on Day 27

The eight member panel could remove district attorneys and solicitor generals for a variety of issues, including refusal to prosecute certain crimes or physical or mental incapacity.

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...