Weeks after he was caught having a sexual relationship with a murder suspect, Memphis homicide detective Eric Kelly typed a letter to his superiors.
“It’s been a blast,’’ he said in the brief note last Halloween announcing his retirement effective Nov. 8.
And with that, the 26-year Memphis Police Department veteran effectively aborted an internal investigation that was exploring his involvement with a known gang member. The affair included a taxpayer-funded trip to Alabama, and it may have jeopardized at least two murder investigations.
He walked away with a $58,000 check — money the city paid him for unused sick time, vacation days and other benefits, even a $1,113 bonus.
Now, Kelly, 48, who’d been fired years earlier for his rough handling of a teenage suspect only to regain his job on appeal, will begin collecting a pension: $3,611 a month — $43,300 a year — for life.
“It sure sounds like a terrible situation,’’ said Joe Saino, who runs a popular website critical of the city’s spending and pension practices.
“He’s going to get the money and walk.’’
A wild card that still might terminate Kelly’s pension involves Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. She said in an emailed statement released through a spokesman that her office now is “reviewing (Kelly’s) file for evidence of any possible state criminal violations.”
Tennessee law blocks pensions for government employees convicted of malfeasance in office, yet the city has not always been successful in doing that. Though twice convicted of bribery, former City Councilman Rickey Peete famously was awarded a pension thanks to loopholes in the law. Others under investigation have converted their pensions to cash payouts upon leaving office.
So far, it’s difficult to say whether Kelly did anything that would rise to the level of a crime that might preclude a pension. City officials have withheld some records and have redacted names from released reports. Meantime, a spokesman for MPD has not responded to a reporter’s questions.
An investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found Kelly became involved with a suspect – a woman from Burlison, Tennessee, nearly 20 years his junior – who was at the center of an investigation into a grisly murder.
Available records don’t spell out the depth of Kelly’s involvement with Bridgett Stafford, now 29, a petite woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and an elaborate neck tattoo who appears in one photo on her Facebook page aiming a pistol into the camera.
But reports obtained by the Institute show the two met as Kelly was investigating the 2017 kidnapping and murder of a retired chemist who was savagely beaten to death for money and later found bound and nude near a drainage pond in Raleigh.
By the detective’s account, Stafford “was technically a witness.’’
“She had no direct involvement in the homicide at all,’’ the detective told an MPD hearing officer reviewing his case.
Yet records indicate Stafford’s involvement in the murder of Robert Glidden, 60, was very much an open question when Kelly initially took a statement from her in April 2018. By then, Glidden had been dead for nine months and police had only recently charged two men for his murder. Officers still were fitting the pieces together — chasing details on how Glidden was apprehended on July 31, 2017, and placed in a car trunk and how the suspects began running up charges on his ATM and credit cards.
According to a sworn affidavit Kelly signed in order to get a warrant to arrest Stafford and bring her in for questioning, two male suspects had put Glidden into the trunk of car and checked into a motel near Sycamore View and Macon.
“While at this location Bridgett Stafford arrived and was made aware of the kidnapping /robbery and the suspect’s attempts to use the victim’s credit cards,’’ Kelly said in the affidavit filed with Judicial Commissioner John Marshall.
“Stafford agreed to take the suspects to several locations to try and run up the charges on the victim’s credit cards. On 08/01/2017 Bridgett Stafford was positively identified by a witness as the person that drove (the suspects) and another male to a cell phone store where the group of people used the victim’s credit cards to purchase over $1,500 worth of cell phones and accessories.’’
Police eventually charged three men with Glidden’s murder: Nicholas Drew Waugh, 32; Eric Russell Curry, 36; and Michael Steven McGehee, 29.
Based on Kelly’s affidavit, Stafford initially was arrested on a charge of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.
But when she was indicted by the grand jury eight months later, she was charged only with theft of property between $1,000 and $2,500. Though both are Class E felonies, that development could factor into a determination of whether Kelly violated any criminal laws by perhaps promising favorable treatment to a witness.
“How consensual is this relationship?’’ asked Ron Rychlak, a University of Mississippi law professor who said prosecutors may have to weigh the power differential between Kelly, a seasoned detective, and Stafford, who is characterized in reports as a struggling mother of small children who had troubles with drugs.
“Is she thinking she’ll get better treatment if she has a relationship (with Kelly)?’’
Kelly denied any deal for sex in his statements to internal investigators.
“The way it was presented to me from the gentlemen from ISB (Inspectional Services Bureau) was that I had forced a statement out of a person in exchange for sexual favors,’’ Kelly told Deputy Chief Samuel Hines Jr. in an administrative hearing Oct. 18.
“… That is inaccurate and not true.’’
Kelly went on to say the initial charge of accessory after the fact was simply “an arm-twisting tactic’’ to pressure Stafford to come in and make a statement. The detective told Hines to check this out with the District Attorney’s Office and he named a couple of prosecutors with whom Hines should talk.
“It basically is used through the prosecutor’s office to force people to testify, which is what went on in this particular case,’’ Kelly said.
Efforts by The Institute to independently interview Kelly were unsuccessful. The Institute also attempted to locate Stafford through her attorney, Taurus Bailey, but that failed also.
A partial transcript of the hearing shows Kelly said his interview of Stafford later “evolved into contact with her, interpersonal contact with her’’ and he admitted at one point to having “sexual contact’’ with her.
“It occurred over a year ago before I even got promoted (to lieutenant),’’ Kelly said. “I know that this is at a minimum a total embarrassment on a certain level for this to be dropped in your guys’ lap. I’m not here to B.S. or snowball, there’s stuff that occurred that I have to take full responsibility for …
“The sexual relationship that occurred, it’s not a good look for me.’’
Kelly maintained that he was trying to help Stafford find a job and kick a drug habit that once involved “taking pills’’ and still included “smoking weed.” He said at one point he even introduced Stafford to Drug Court Judge Tim Dwyer, who “offered some suggestions and some things that she could do.’’
Internal investigators appeared skeptical.
“You provided the defendant with marijuana and allowed her to take photos inside your residence with several of your firearms,’’ reads a portion of the administrative charges filed against Kelly in June. A summons attached to the statement of charges also states:
“You stated you did not provide the defendant with marijuana. You stated you did not refer the defendant to anyone to purchase marijuana. Your text message exchanges contradict your statements.’’
Roughly three months after first questioning Stafford, Kelly took her on a city-paid trip to Montgomery, Alabama, traveling in a city vehicle and staying in a hotel paid for by taxpayers. According to two sources with knowledge of the trip, Kelly had gone to Montgomery to interview a suspect in a separate homicide investigation. Another homicide detective also made the trip.
The Institute has asked the city to produce Kelly’s expense reports but has not yet received a reply.
The detective explained his purpose in taking Stafford to Montgomery like this:
“I had invested some time with her and wanted her to have a level of comfort and I truly did not want to see the girl out on the streets. And so I told her, ’Look, I’ve got to go do this,’ I said, ‘Come ride with me,’ and when we come back we’ll get her living situation figured out. So that’s how she ended up on the trip with me.’’
Investigators made it clear, however, that Kelly’s involvement with Stafford had jeopardized several homicide cases on which he’s worked.
“By involving yourself in a sexual relationship with the defendant (you jeopardized) a murder case against her and her co-defendants,’’ Hines said while reading administrative charges accusing Kelly of compromising a criminal case.
“This has also placed increased scrutiny on your past and current cases. Your actions have tarnished your reputation and your ability to be relied upon in active and upcoming cases.’’
For Kelly, it was the latest in a long history of disciplinary charges against him. Among the most serious, he was dismissed from the force in 1998 for allegedly beating a teenage suspect, though he later won his job back through a civil service appeal.
Nonetheless, when Kelly suddenly resigned in November his retirement application sailed through. The city Pension Board approved Kelly’s application for pension benefits at its December meeting retroactive to his Nov. 8 resignation, city spokesman Dan Springer said.
“(It) can take up to 45 days for payment to begin,’’ Springer said in an email.
Pension benefits can be terminated upon conviction of a malfeasance-related felony “arising out of the employee’s employment,” though Springer emphasized that doesn’t affect employees or retirees who were simply under investigation.
“There is no basis for terminating benefits to an otherwise qualified City employee who has been merely charged with a felony, or who was convicted of a misdemeanor, or who has been found to violate internal policies, or who has been convicted of a felony unrelated to his city employment,’’ he said in his email.
It is unclear, however, if authorities could eventually terminate Kelly’s pension benefits should he be charged and convicted of a felony.
Though former councilman Peete was convicted of bribery in 1989 and again in 2007, he still managed to collect a pension, evidently because the pension prohibition didn’t affect employees who began making pension contributions in 1993 or earlier. MPD first hired Kelly in March 1993, and he presumably began making pension contributions then.
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.