Jail cell porn business and questionable Wayne County jail hire to be focus of whistleblower trial

Top Wayne Co. Sheriff's officials will be on stand

DETROIT (WXYZ) - She says she was fired from the Wayne County Jail because she blew the whistle on one of Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s top guys.  

The county says they let her go because she broke the rules, and blamed her for letting an inmate run his multi-million dollar internet porn business out of his jail cell.

The 7 Action News Investigators have been digging into this case for two years, and it’s finally set to go trial on Monday.

In the history of jail scandals in Michigan, it ranks among the most outrageous: A federal inmate caught using a laptop in a jail cell to run his multi-million dollar porn business. When the case broke two years ago, the Wayne County Sherriff’s department couldn’t point the finger fast enough.

“In this specific instance, the system didn’t break down, one individual failed the system,” Undersheriff Dan Pfannes told 7 Action News in November 2012. All of the parties in the lawsuit are under a protective order, and are not currently allowed to comment on the case.

The individual they blamed was Renee Newell, the former Director of Jail Compliance.

“She was in a position of authority and responsible for monitoring the activities of certain inmates,” said Pfannes in 2012.

Newell says the laptop scandal wasn’t the only thing sheriff’s officials tried to pin on her.

As part of her whistleblower lawsuit, Newell says she was targeted when she crossed one of Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s top guys – the Chief of the Wayne County Jail, Jeriel Heard.

Newell reported to her boss that Heard had improperly hired a woman named Tiffany Burgess to work in the jail.   Newell told her superiors he was violating the rules -- by using money from the Jail Commissary to pay her $45,000 salary.

Curiously, within hours of Newell making that report, she became the focus of an Internal Affairs investigation.

“I knew at that point that there was some type of setup going on,” said Newell in a 2012 interview with 7 Action News.

During her interrogation, Newell says she was grilled about that laptop-porn business. This was her answer to the IA investigators: “That inmate being allowed to have that laptop came from Jeriel Heard.”

Incredibly, even after Newell was publicly blamed, Chief Heard admitted, he is the one approved that laptop.

“Why did you authorize Francis Sharrak to have a laptop in the jail,” 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo asked Heard in 2013.

“Oh that’s easy!  Because the federal detainee was acting as his own attorney. He needed access to information to represent himself. So, I consulted with the U. S. Marshals Service and they had no objection.”

But that’s not true - according to court documents the 7 Investigators uncovered, the U. S. Marshals did not approve that laptop. The feds called the decision to provide the computer “highly unorthodox.”

So why was Newell fired?

According to court records, the official reason was that she failed to tell her bosses that her half-brother had been locked up in the jail. But, that doesn’t hold up because an Internal Affairs report obtained by the 7 Investigators says she actually did tell her bosses.

“I did nothing wrong, and that’s why I felt that it was so unfair that I would be discharged,” said Newell in 2012.

All of this brings us back to Newell’s theory that she was fired and shamed for blowing the whistle on the improper hiring of Tiffany Burgess. In addition to Newell’s allegations that Heard did not get the proper approval for her hiring, Newell says she had also been told Burgess was Heard’s niece.

The county denies that Burgess is related to Heard and said Newell’s firing had nothing to do with that.

“She was an at-will employee, an appointee of the Sheriff, that was engaged in wrong doing and she was held accountable for it,” said Pfannes.

So why did the county block out a line in an email that Burgess sent to Chief Heard that touts her job experience?  After we appealed their decision to under the Freedom of Information Act to redact the line, they finally gave us the original version of the email where you can clearly see Burgess signing off the message with this line:  “Thank you so very much Uncle Jerry.”

“Is she a relative or close personal friend of yours,” Catallo asked Heard.

“Absolutely not,” insisted Heard.

“Do you have any relationship with her outside of work,” asked Catallo.

“Never,” said Heard.

“Or her family,” asked Catallo.

“Her family? I knew her family when she was a child and her father was president of the PTA that one of my children attended elementary school,” said Heard.

“So was there anything inappropriate about her hiring,” asked Catallo.

“Absolutely not. Nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical,” said Heard.

Tiffany Burgess told 7 Action News that she is not a blood relative of Jeriel Heard, and says she was hired because of her qualifications, although her contract was not renewed. Her hiring and the role that the Sheriff and others played in Newell’s dismissal will take center stage on Monday when her whistleblower lawsuit plays out in Wayne County

Circuit Court.

7 Action News will be there to bring you all of the details as some of the top ranking members of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office – including the Sheriff himself – are expected to take the stand.

If you have any news tips for Heather Catallo please email her: hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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