Friday, October 13, 2006

Guilty verdict in Appalachia

Former letter carrier Don Estridge is the first to be convicted in the election-fraud scam.

Don Houston Estridge was convicted Thursday of stealing mail so others could steal votes in a town election that made a debacle of democracy.

A former letter carrier in the town of Appalachia, Estridge diverted blank absentee ballots intended for voters on his mail route to corrupt candidates and their supporters, who forged the documents to vote themselves onto the town council, according to testimony.

After convicting Estridge of three felonies, the Wise County jury recommended a sentence of 18 months in jail and a fine of $7,500.

Estridge was the first of 14 people indicted in March to be convicted in a small-town scam that has been called the state's biggest case of election fraud in recent history. All but one of the remaining defendants have agreed to cooperate with authorities, and several testified against Estridge during his two-week trial.

But no one could say they saw him steal any mail.

To prove Estridge's role in the conspiracy, prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence and some striking coincidences: Many of the voters whose mail was stolen lived on his mail route; the mastermind of the plot was overheard asking Estridge when absentee ballots had arrived at the post office; other defendants somehow knew just when to pluck ballots from mailboxes; and the name "Don" was written next to some voter names on a list found by police.

Estridge maintained he was led unknowingly into the plot.

Even if that were true, special prosecutor Tim McAfee told the jury, he should have realized something was amiss after attending a pre-election strategy meeting in which one conspirator said: "My fat a-- is going to jail."

Ballot theft was just part of the Election Day graft in Appalachia two years ago. Testimony also showed that some voters were offered beer, cigarettes and snacks in exchange for their votes, then rounded up and taken to the polls by the vanload.

"Is it something that is trivial, or do we think the right to vote is an integral part of democracy?" said McAfee, who asked the jury to send a message about the community's tolerance for such activity.

At the heart of the conspiracy was Ben Cooper, a member of the town council at the time who coveted the job of mayor -- and with it the power to fire Town Manager Vern Haefele, with whom he had clashed repeatedly, the jury was told.

Testimony showed how Cooper pulled others into the conspiracy, capitalizing on their gripes with town government. Owen "Dude" Sharrett, who feared losing his position as a town employee, convinced his son to run for council along with Cooper and then helped get them elected for the sake of job security. A woman upset with Haefele over a sewer leak in her yard agreed to haul voters to the polls.

For Estridge, it was a dispute with the town over a land transaction that drew him into the plot.

While admitting that he campaigned for Cooper and his running mates, Estridge denied any wrongdoing. In testimony Wednesday, the 63-year-old answered questions from defense attorney Walt Rivers briefly, almost curtly.

Rivers: "Did you think anything dirty was going on?"

Estridge: "No sir, I did not."

Rivers: "Were you part of a conspiracy?"

Estridge: "No sir, I was not."

Rivers: "Did you do anything wrong?"

Estridge: "No sir, I did not. ... I was just out campaigning."

On cross-examination by McAfee, Estridge struggled to explain inconsistencies between statements he made to police investigators and what he said from the witness stand.

"You're getting me all twisted up now," he said at one point, turning almost sideways in the chair and eying McAfee apprehensively.

A key point of contention was how many times Cooper -- a regular visitor to a post office where his brother, Sid "Pat" Cooper, served as postmaster -- asked Estridge about absentee ballots.

After admitting that it happened more frequently than he had first let on, Estridge also acknowledged it would be easy for him to determine whether the ballots that Cooper so desperately wanted were in the day's mail.

"I'm the most likely suspect because I'm the mail carrier," he told the jury.

While co-prosecutor Greg Stewart told the jury that Estridge choked on his own words, the 17-year postal employee also fell victim to the words of others.

Dude Sharrett and his son, Andy, told the jury last week that they were sitting on their front porch one day in April 2004 when the letter carrier walked by and waved an absentee ballot in the air, indicating that he was getting ready to deliver it to a neighbor's home.

"Not to my recollection, no," Estridge said when asked if he did that.

Throughout the trial, Estridge attempted to shift the blame to postmaster Pat Cooper. He suggested that even though Ben Cooper agreed to assist prosecutors, he would let him take the fall before implicating his brother.

Several members of the conspiracy were heard to say, "Pat's got us covered at the post office," the jury was told. Although state police did not charge Pat Cooper, a postal inspector testified this week that an investigation by federal authorities is continuing.

One of the goals in rigging the election was to take over not just town hall, but also a police department that was used to protect Ben Cooper's friends and harass his enemies, prosecutors have said. Estridge was not accused of participating in that part of the plot.

Cooper, who faces more than 200 charges, and the rest of the defendants who agreed to cooperate are expected to reach deals with the prosecution in the coming weeks.

Coalfield Progress staff writer Bonnie Shortt contributed to this report.