Misplaced iPhone evidence sparks mistrial in Boone kidnap case
Posted July 30
Boone, N.C. — A mistrial was declared last week in a Watauga County kidnapping conspiracy case after an offhand remark from a deputy led to the discovery that hundreds of thousands of messages on a cellphone had not been transferred from investigators to prosecutors or the defense attorney.
It was an odd twist in an already unusual case – Kerri McCaffrey, 38, a grants writer at Appalachian State University, was accused of conspiring with her ex-husband to handcuffs and threaten a teenager who had an iPhone 4 that they had given to their son years earlier.
McCaffrey's ex-husband, Daniel Wolfe, was convicted in February of first-degree kidnapping and sentenced to seven years. Wolfe, 39, an artisan carpenter whose creations decorate many high-end homes in the resort communities surrounding Boone, is serving his sentence at the medium-security Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine.
It was revealed at his February trial that Wolfe intended to make a citizen's arrest of Gregory Grubb, a friend of his sons, because he'd learned that Grubb, then 19 and now 21, had long had one of his boy's cellphones for which he'd paid more than $2,000 in service fees over the years.
When Grubb came to McCaffrey's home in May 2016 to retrieve a snowboard, Wolfe arrived with handcuffs and a stun gun, intending to hand him over to police for stealing the phone.
In an unguarded moment, Grubb ran away and later approached deputies parked at a traffic stop, asking them to unlock the handcuffs.
Neither Wolfe nor his ex-wife had any previous criminal records.
In testimony at McCaffrey's trial, Sgt. Lucas Smith, an investigator in the case, said that she and Wolfe came to the sheriff's office for an interview after the encounter and gave him the iPhone that Wolfe had taken from Grubb. After the phone was shown to the jury, Smith mentioned that investigators had scrolled through the phone after getting consent from Grubb.
Defense attorney Eric Eller later rose and told the judge 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 legal 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 on the case, said she had not received any such information either from investigators and promised to look into the matter.
The next day, she 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.
"It was lost by an honest mistake," she told judge R. Gregory Horne. "No one knows what's on it."
Horne declared a mistrial and dismissed jurors who had been hearing evidence for two days. Watauga District Attorney Seth Banks said that the charges against McCaffrey were still pending and the new data would need to be reviewed. "We'll evaluate the evidence," he said, "and we'll make the decision on how to move ahead."
Eller, who had practiced law in Boone for 22 years, complimented McKinney on her prompt and transparent handling of the revelation.
"I have no doubt that this was an honest mistake and she did exactly what a prosecutor should do in that kind of situation," he said after the mistrial was declared. "She should be commended."
It was not immediately clear what the discovery of the evidence would mean in Wolfe's case. His conviction is being appealed. His appellate attorney, Gordon Widenhouse of Chapel Hill, said it was too early to know what the messages might reveal and they would have to be carefully examined. "It is significant to me that there was a discovery violation in his co-defendant's trial that has led to a mistrial," he said.
In Wolfe's original Watauga County court file, the defense had filed a routine motion for discovery that included a request for copies of any mechanical or electronic recordings in the possession of the state.