Officers allegedly targeted travelersPublished 10:00am Friday, May 6, 2011
Former policemen accused of more than 10 incidents
Two former Hanging Rock Police Officers targeted out-of-town travelers when they allegedly pocketed fines for traffic violation tickets, according to information released by the Lawrence County Sheriff’s office following a nearly six-month investigation.
Former Sgt. Ronald E. Blanton, 28, of Franklin Furnace, and Thomas S. Trent Jr., 22, of Portsmouth, are both charged with tampering with evidence and theft in office.
Blanton pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court. Trent is scheduled to be arraigned May 18.
Blanton most recently worked as an officer for the Coal Grove Police Department, but has resigned, according to Mayor Larry McDaniel. Trent was terminated from the Hanging Rock Police Department, said Police Chief Chris Steed.
According to a prepared statement from the sheriff’s office, the investigation that led to the those charges began Nov. 18, 2010, when Blanton and Trent, who were riding together in a marked Hanging Rock Police Department vehicle, allegedly stopped a woman from Baltimore, Ohio, on U.S. 52 in the Village of Hanging Rock.
The officers allegedly told the woman her traffic ticket could be paid in cash.
“The female was upset about the situation and questioned the validity of the traffic stop because of paying cash alongside the road and not receiving a copy of the ticket from the officers,” the release states.
The woman filed a complaint about the incident with the Baltimore Police Department, which then contacted the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Jeff Lawless and his staff then began an investigation in conjunction with investigators from the Lawrence County Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.
According to the release, the investigation revealed that the Hanging Rock Police Department officers commonly collected fines alongside the road during traffic stops, a practice that has since changed, according to the release.
Steed said that he didn’t know the officers were collecting fines and that when the practice was brought to his attention, he put a stop to it.
“Once I was aware of the fact, I addressed it,” Steed said. “No cash payments, no nothing along the roadside.”
Investigators contend that the woman’s ticket and money had not been turned into the Village of Hanging Rock.
“Through the investigation, both officers were interviewed and initially denied the allegations and the ticket from the Nov. 18, 2010, traffic stop mysteriously appeared with fine money,” according to the release.
According to the release, both Blanton and Trent admitted to taking the cash, not turning in the ticket and keeping the money.
The investigation also revealed that the woman’s traffic stop was not a lone incident and that approximately 10 similar instances had occurred, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office Detective Aaron Bollinger said. The two were splitting the money, he added.
The total amount taken has not been determined because the costs of tickets vary, Bollinger said.
Steed said the initial ticket in question was for $140.
The officers admitted to hiding the ticket to mislead investigators, according to the release.
The woman who originally complained about the ticket testified before a Lawrence County Grand Jury, which indicted the two men late last month, Lawless said.
“She wanted to see it through,” he said. “We’re thankful that she brought it to our attention. (If not) how long could it have gone on?”
The sheriff commended investigators for their work, saying that it is never easy to investigate “one of your own.”
“We never want to see anything like this happen,” Bollinger added. “It just gives us a black eye in law enforcement.”
A phone call and an email to Blanton’s attorney, Richard Wolfson, were not returned as of press time. Efforts to reach Trent were unsuccessful. It is unclear whether or not he has hired an attorney at this time.