- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

HORSE PASTURE, Va. — The drug-related indictments of the Henry County sheriff and his officers are the topic of conversation all over this rural Virginia county, but residents are more concerned about their community’s image than the case itself.

“People are talking it up,” said Chris Shuler, a beer truck driver from Horse Pasture. “It just makes it harder for the county to move on.”

For several years now, there has been no chance to move on as one blow after another has hit this county of 56,000 residents in the Blue Ridge foothills along the North Carolina line.

The area was once a textile and furniture hub, but manufacturers pulled out in the 1990s and left behind economic despair with double-digit unemployment that lasted from 2002 to 2005. At the same time, a former county administrator went to prison for embezzling more than $818,000. In September, a mortgage lender filed a lawsuit in Indiana contending that numerous residents of Henry County and the adjacent city of Martinsville had been victims of a massive fraud scheme.

“Unfortunately in this community, we’re very resilient, and we get a lot of opportunity to prove it,” Deputy County Administrator Tim Hall said.

The federal indictments unsealed in Roanoke on Nov. 2 say Sheriff H. Franklin Cassell and 12 of his current and former officers, as well as seven other persons, were involved in a scheme to sell drugs seized in criminal investigations.

Other evidence such as guns and electronic equipment also was stolen, prosecutors said.

“It’s kind of put a damper on this town,” said Henry Carter, a county resident. “If you can’t have people in there you can trust, what are you going to do?”

Sheriff Cassell, 68, who had a career with the Virginia State Police before becoming sheriff 14 years ago, was charged with interfering with federal agents’ investigation and with money laundering.

Florence Draper, whose well-kept brick rancher sits next door to Sheriff Cassell’s in the Irisburg neighborhood, was surprised by the indictments.

“They’re great neighbors,” she said of the sheriff and his wife, Margaret.

Mrs. Draper, a retired schoolteacher, said that about 15 years ago she and her husband sold the Cassells the 5-acre tract where they built their house.

A federal SWAT team arrested Sheriff Cassell at that house. He was released on $25,000 bail but did not return to the department, and on Wednesday he said he would take an unpaid leave until the case is resolved.

Six of the current officers indicted have been placed on administrative leave, and the seventh was fired. In releasing them, a federal magistrate judge ordered the officers not to work in law enforcement.

Since 1998, prosecutors said, cocaine, steroids, marijuana and other drugs that had been seized by the sheriff’s department were resold to the public. The ring distributed drugs from a house owned by a sergeant who agreed to cooperate with the investigation, authorities said.

County residents to a man expressed surprise at the charges.

“It’ll make a bad impression,” said Buddy Arden of Horse Pasture, who was eating lunch at the Old Country Store. “We don’t need that.”

Donnie Davis of Ridgeway said he now has to go to Eden, N.C., to work as a textile mechanic and worried that the indictments will make it even harder for the county’s economy to recover.

“People are going to know one thing about Henry County,” he said as he left Clarence’s Steak House.

Not all of the news in Henry County has been discouraging. The area’s first college offering four-year degrees opened this fall in Martinsville, and there are plans to spend $20 million to build an arena in Martinsville and a soccer complex in Henry County.

Henry’s unemployment rate is down to about 5 percent, Mr. Hall said.

Still, the county is not far removed from past scandals.

“Not a week goes by that people don’t come in to pay their water and sewer bill and say we raised their rates because Sid Clower stole all our money,” Mr. Hall said.

Clower, the former administrator who went to prison in 2002, used county money for gifts and trips and to support an out-of-wedlock child.

“You work so long and so hard to build trust … and then someone can undo it so quickly,” County Attorney George Lyle said.

Repairing the community’s image will take much longer, Mr. Hall and Mr. Lyle said.

Nancy Cole of Ridgeway, who went to high school with Margaret Cassell, had no doubt that will happen.

“It’s a pretty strong bunch of people here,” she said. “We’ll survive.”

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