Local News

Ex-Highway Patrol officer exonerated in slur case

Posted April 3, 2009 4:05 p.m. EDT
Updated April 3, 2009 6:17 p.m. EDT

— A retired captain with the state Highway Patrol said Friday he feels exonerated after being falsely accused in an investigation of a racial slur more than two years ago.

Retired Highway Patrol Lt. Virgil Lessane said in September 2006 that someone using the "n-word" left a voice-mail message on his cell phone. He said he could hear four men on speaker-phone during the message, including his boss at the time, Capt. Phil Jones.

Jones has been fighting to clear his name ever since, and when Lessane recanted that statement last month, Jones felt vindicated.

"That's all I wanted. I just wanted to clear my name," he said Friday.

Lessane sent to former Highway Patrol Commander Col. William Clay, maintaining that Jones was laughing when another trooper used the slur. He said in the letter that he was offended by Jones' actions and was distressed he didn't reprimand the trooper who used the slur.

"I was embarrassed," Jones said Friday. "I felt I was labeled a racist, which I'm not, (and) that my name had been basically dragged through the mud."

Although he maintained his innocence, Jones retired from the Highway Patrol in November 2006 – before facing any disciplinary action.

"I felt if I didn't retire, I would lose all my benefits and my retirement which I worked all those years for," he said.

Trooper Mitch Foard was accused of actually uttering the racial slur and was demoted. Foard also has maintained his innocence, but the State Personnel Commission has upheld his demotion.

Jones hired a lawyer shortly after the accusation was leveled against him and sued Lessane for defamation of character.

Lessane last month issued in which he acknowledged that he doesn't know who left the voice-mail message and that there was no evidence Jones was present when the call was made. He also said he knew Jones was "an honest person of high integrity," and he had never heard him use or condone any racial slurs.

Jones on Friday dropped his suit against Lessane, saying he was satisfied the signed statement was enough to clear his name.

The Highway Patrol declined to comment on the case because of ongoing litigation with Foard.