Citizen's arrest or kidnapping? Boone case presents many twists
Posted July 31
Boone, N.C. — It was just a phone, a lowly iPhone 4.
Yet a dispute over the device has one man serving five to seven years in state prison, his ex-wife accused of kidnapping conspiracy and sparked a mistrial this month after the discovery of hundreds of thousands of messages on it exchanged by teenagers.
Along the way, there have been allegations of a sleepy juror, two alternates enjoying luncheon beers across from the courthouse and a soft-hearted law-enforcement supervisor who stepped in to rent a prom tux. A stun gun and a set of black handcuffs round out the inventory of odd items attached to the unusual case.
On one side of the case is Daniel Wolfe, 39, artisan carpenter and furniture maker whose creations decorate many high-end homes in the resort communities surrounding Boone, and his ex-wife Kerry McCaffrey, 38, a grants writer at Appalachian State University. They have been accused of kidnapping Gregory Grubb, 21, a longtime family acquaintance they met through their sons.
On the misty night of May 2, 2016, two Watauga County deputies were stopped by the side of a road checking a driver for signs of intoxication. Another car pulled up and out popped Grubb, then 20, who pleaded with officers to unlock the handcuffs pinching his wrists.
“Not so fast,” said Sgt. Toby Ragan, demanding to know just why he was handcuffed in the first place.
“I was kidnapped,” Grubb replied excitedly. He said he'd gone to the house of a friend to retrieve a snowboard, that the friend's father had come over. The dad accused him of stealing the cell phone Grubb had been using for the last few years, threatened him with a stun gun and handcuffed him. In an unguarded moment, Grubb ran away and his grandmother came to pick him up nearby.
Deputies went to the house and found Wolfe.
Wolfe told officers that he'd flashed a stun gun to get Grubb's attention and handcuffed him because he intended to make what amounted to a citizen's arrest. He'd found out that Grubb had long been using a cell phone intended for Wolfe's youngest son and one that Wolfe had paid service fees for of at least $1,500.
Tried a citizen's arrest
When Wolfe contacted Verizon about the situation and inquired about a refund, a representative of the carrier told him he'd need some proof that the phone was indeed stolen, like police reports.
So Wolfe told authorities he borrowed the stun gun and the handcuffs from an old high-school friend who happened to be visiting him and captured Grubb.
It turned out to be a bad strategy. North Carolina law frowns on the practice of detaining a citizen by force and at the point of a weapon. Wolfe was tried in February and found guilty on first-degree kidnapping. He is serving five-to-seven years at the medium-security Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, with the possibility of work release.
His ex-wife, McCaffrey, went on trial in July charged with conspiracy in a first-degree kidnapping. Neither Wolfe nor McCaffrey have any previous criminal record.
It was at McCaffrey's home in rural Watauga where the confrontation between Grubb and Wolfe occurred.
Testimony at her trial roughly mirrored that at his: Grubb claimed Wolfe's youngest son, then about 12 years old, gave him the cellphone in 2012; Grubb believed the boy had parental permission to do so; and that Grubb didn't want Wolfe to call the police on him because Grubb was on probation for stealing checks.
Conflicting stories on marijuana
The boys of both families played together growing up and enjoying high-country sports like snowboarding, testimony showed. Both families became close through that connection and often spent holidays like Thanksgiving together. Then a schism developed about eight weeks before the handcuffs came out.
According to testimony at both trials – challenged by McCaffrey and Wolfe while sworn to by members of the Grubb clan – marijuana was the motive behind the confrontation.
Grubb testified that when Wolfe handcuffed him, he accused Grubb of stealing marijuana from his ex-wife. And Grubb's grandmother, Kathy Earp, who had raised the boy from infancy, testified that two months before the confrontation Wolfe and McCaffrey had come to her home and accused Grubb's older brother of taking $1,600 worth of marijuana from them.
"She said, 'He stole my weed,'" Earp testified. "I said what are you talking about?"
Wolfe and McCaffrey maintained that the confrontation at Earp's house had nothing to do with marijuana. They were there, they said, because they had discovered information about alcohol use on one their son's phones involving one of the Grubb boys and wanted Earp's help in cracking down on them.
At his trial in February, Wolfe was asked whether he was involved in marijuana. Wolfe declared that he didn't buy it, didn't smoke it and wasn't around it.
Whatever happened, it was the end of a close friendship among Earp and McCaffrey and Wolfe. "Our relationship was done and over with," said Earp, and they never spoke again.
Instagram drug ripoff
Grubb admitted dabbling in narcotic sales from time to time but said he ceased when he went on probation. But, he told an investigator from the Watauga Sheriff's Office, his brother and some other boys – who were never charged – had put together a syndicate to buy $450 worth of marijuana from "some dude on Instagram."
They sent him the money and they got a box in return – containing only paper. Grubb said he didn't tell his grandmother about the scheme.
There were more peculiar twists during the two trials.
A court deputy noticed a juror seemed to be sleeping during testimony in Wolfe's trial, got his attention and indicated he needed to pay continuous attention. Thereafter, he did so.
After closing arguments in Wolfe's trial, two alternates on the jury were spotted by people from the trial having a beer during lunch at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant on Boone's King Street. The judge was informed, but the prosecutor noted that they were going to be dismissed anyway before deliberations began, so the matter was dropped.
Paid for prom tux
In both trials, Capt. Dee Dee Rominger, who has been in charge of the Watauga County Sheriff's investigative division since 2006, testified that she took the original statement from Grubb. She recognized him, she said, as one of her students in the anti-drug DARE program she taught at his elementary school in the mid-2000s. He had won the student essay award, she recalled.
When Grubb, accompanied by his girlfriend, told her that during the fracas with Wolfe he'd lost the money he'd been saving up for his prom suit, she wrote a check for $180 to the tuxedo store so he'd be able to go.
"That day my heart broke because they weren't going to get to go to the prom," she testified in McCaffrey's trial. She'd known the family through various social services cases and other calls and knew they'd been through hard times. Her voice broke on the stand when she said she'd done similar things for others.
"If I was not emotional, I'd lose who I am," she declared, "and wouldn't do a very good job."
Defense attorneys at both trials probed whether it was appropriate for a high-ranking officer to become personally involved, to the point of giving money, to a complaining witness in a case, particularly when she oversaw the agency's investigative division handling the case.
Rominger said that she didn't instruct the deputy handling the case on how to proceed or whom to charge.
Lost evidence discovered
McCaffrey's trial was nearing its midpoint when the iPhone 4 resurfaced as an issue, a major legal one as it turned out.
Sgt. Lucas Smith, an investigator in the case, said that Wolfe and McCaffrey gave him the cell phone when they came to the sheriff's office for an interview. Smith mentioned that investigators had scrolled through the phone after getting consent from Grubb.
Defense attorney Eric Eller told Judge R. Gregory Horne that he wasn't clear on what Smith meant by examining data on the phone because he hadn't received any documents during routine discovery – the process in which information about the investigation is shared between prosecutors and the defense – about what was found in the device.
Jasmine McKinney, the assistant district attorney in McCaffrey's trial, said she had not received any such information either from investigators and promised to look into the matter.
The following morning, McKinney told Eller that about 227,000 items – texts, emails and other messages – had been found on the phone by investigators but somehow the information had not gotten to the district attorney's office or the defense.
"It was lost by an honest mistake," she told the judge. "No one knows what's on it."
Horne declared a mistrial and dismissed jurors who had been hearing evidence for two days.
Data overwhelms system
Advances in data processing have both streamlined and made cumbersome the sharing information within the justice system. Computer engineering allows easy file sharing between the two sides preparing for trial, but the technology available to ordinary people has resulted in an exponential increase in what attorneys must examine.
In North Carolina, that relatively new system of handling data is already being strained. A cloud-based system allows prosecutors to share discovery information with attorneys for the defense and time-stamps documents when they are released.
But modern cases often involve cell phone data, dashboard cameras, computer records or lengthy video for which the system does not have adequate bandwidth. This kind of information is shared in other formats like thumb drives or compact discs, which occasionally get lost, as apparently happened in McCaffrey's trial.
"I have no doubt that this was an honest mistake," Eller, who’d practiced law in Boone for 22 years, said afterward.
"With young people, their phones are their lifelines. We tend to get a huge amount of material off their cell phones."
It was not clear what the discovery of the evidence would mean in Wolfe's case, which is on appeal. His appellate attorney, Gordon Widenhouse of Chapel Hill, said it would depend on what information is on the phone and whether it contradicts trial testimony.
Watauga District Attorney Seth Banks said that the charges against McCaffrey were still pending. The new data would need to be reviewed before a decision could be made on whether to re-try the case.
"We'll evaluate the evidence," Banks said, "and we'll make the decision on how to move ahead."
Some question whether Wolfe's sentence was too harsh. Vivian Fox of Raleigh, who has a summer house in Blowing Rock where Wolfe has done work, said he has always been completely trustworthy with her and she's never known him to touch so much as a drop of alcohol. Wolfe used bad judgment with the handcuffs and stun gun, she said, but it seems to her as though the punishment is too severe.
"When this came down, I said this doesn't sound right," she said. "He doesn't belong in prison."
District Attorney Banks said he is limited by ethics rules in what he can say about pending cases, but the Wolfe and McCaffrey cases appear to have been handled properly.
"We're concerned with trying to uphold the law," he said. "This case was charged and brought specifically by law enforcement and we prosecuted it as such."