WRAL Investigates

Ticket-fixing case involved some with previous DWIs

Posted April 20, 2009 6:14 p.m. EDT
Updated April 21, 2009 9:21 a.m. EDT

— Some of the people whose cases were dismissed in an alleged ticket-fixing scheme have had run-ins with the law before and after their cases were dropped, WRAL learned after reviewing court records.

Six people, including former Johnston County prosecutor Cyndi Jaeger and former deputy court clerk Portia Snead, were indicted last month on charges that they altered court records and knowingly used illegal dismissal forms to get traffic cases against 37 people dropped.

District Attorney Susan Doyle asked the State Bureau of Investigation a year ago to look into the high rate of dismissed drunken-driving cases in the county. A WRAL investigation found that 46 percent of the DWI charges filed in Johnston County in 2006 were dismissed, compared with 21 percent statewide and 20 percent in neighboring Wake County.

Doyle said a tracking system installed in October 2007 found several discrepancies in cases that were scheduled for trial but had been dismissed months earlier.

Thirty-three defendants whose involved alcohol-related charges, primarily DWI. Some of the defendants had alcohol levels in their system that were more than double the 0.08 level at which drivers are considered intoxicated in North Carolina.

Elmer Bonilla, for example, was found passed out behind the wheel on the side of Interstate 95 with the vehicle still in drive on April 8, 2006. State troopers charged Bonilla, 30, of 947 Webb Mill Road in Four Oaks, with DWI and reckless driving after he registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.2.

No reason was provided for dismissing the case against Bonilla in September 2007, according to court records.

Eleven of the defendants had been charged previously with drunken driving or have had subsequent DWI arrests.

Stephen Edward Watkins, 42, of 1788 Cleveland Church Road in Smithfield, had four prior DWI arrests dating to 1993, including one where he registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. He was found guilty in two of the cases, and the other two were dismissed, according to court records.

His July 2007 case was dismissed because the officer who charged him wasn't the same officer who stopped him, according to court records. Watkins added another DWI in 2008 after registering a blood-alcohol content of 0.19, and he was placed on probation for 12 months.

Blas Villalon Colchado, of 3199 Barber Mill Road in Clayton, had three previous DWI arrests in Johnston County. All of them were dismissed because a trooper or a witness couldn't show up in court or tests weren't completed.

His May 2007 DWI was dismissed because of discrepancies in the blood-alcohol tests, according to court records.

Colchado's sister-in-law said she thinks he paid his attorney, Chad Lee, $1,000 to handle his May 2007 DWI arrest and might not know that his case was illegally dismissed.

"I don't think my brother-in-law knows," Fabiloa Villalon said, adding that she doesn't think he ever went back to court.

The indictments show that 70 dismissal forms with Jaeger's signature were filed after she left her job in September 2007. The dismissal forms were filed for clients of the four defense attorneys charged in the case – Lee, Lee Hatch, Vann Sauls and Jack McLamb. Snead is accused of deleting the attorneys' names from at least two cases from the courthouse computer system.

The majority of the defendants were Lee's clients. He was once a Johnston County prosecutor and, in 2003, he convicted Watkins in a DWI case.

Watkins couldn't be reached for comment.

Other defendants also either couldn't be reached or declined to comment. Authorities said some of them could be called as witnesses in the ticket-fixing case.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving was so concerned about the ticket-fixing allegations that the group plans to start a court-monitoring program in Johnston County this week, said Craig Lloyd, MADD's executive director in North Carolina.

"What (the program) does is go through and sees patterns. We have a database that looks for local, state and national trends," Lloyd said, noting MADD will also monitor cases in Harnett County.