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memphis cop retires after admitting sexual contact with murder defendant

Lt. Eric Kelly’s resignation allows him to avoid disciplinary action

A Memphis Police Department homicide detective who had sexual contact with a murder suspect retired last fall amid an internal investigation into his conduct, effectively allowing him to escape disciplinary action.

<strong>Eric Kelly</strong>
Eric Kelly

Lt. Eric Kelly, a 26-year MPD veteran, submitted a letter of resignation Nov. 8, five months after supervisors filed a statement of charges against him accusing him of compromising a criminal case, consorting with persons of criminal reputation and other allegations.

“You were the lead investigator of a murder case and began a sexual relationship with the defendant you charged in the case,’’ the document alleges. “You provided the defendant with marijuana and allowed her to take photos inside your residence with several of your firearms.’’

The charging papers, dated June 17, 2019, include this handwritten notation: “Held in Abeyance Officer resigned 11/8/19.’’

Acting on a tip from a source, The Institute for Public Service Reporting began checking in November for disciplinary charges against Kelly yet none appeared in public records. In response to a formal request filed under the Tennessee Open Records Act seeking all disciplinary actions against Kelly in 2019, MPD released paperwork related to a minor traffic incident from last winter.

When a reporter went to MPD’s human resources office last month and personally reviewed Kelly’s file, the statement of charges for consorting with a defendant – which had been lodged against him six months earlier – still did not appear.

The paperwork finally was put in Kelly’s file Monday, Jan. 6, as a reporter again asked for Kelly’s file.

MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kelly could not be located.

The case raises a variety of public safety and security concerns. For one, it is at least the second time in the past three years that MPD has investigated serious misconduct charges against detectives without pursuing criminal charges. MPD brass demoted but did not charge then-sex crimes detective Ouita Knowlton in 2017 after she was caught passing sensitive case information to a rape suspect.

The decision to prosecute rests with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Kelly case also poses the possibility that prosecutors may have a difficult time making charges stick in the murder case.

“Your involvement has potentially jeopardized the on-going legal proceedings against the defendant and co-defendants. Your current and upcoming cases are tarnished,’’ reads an administrative summons dated June 18 that describes an unauthorized, taxpayer-subsidized trip Kelly made with the defendant, a known gang member who’s been arrested 11 times.

“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.

“… You took a defendant on a work related trip to Montgomery, Alabama, in a city issued vehicle. You did not receive permission for the defendant to travel in the vehicle or spend the night with you in a hotel paid for by the City of Memphis.’’

In a statement made before a hearing officer, Kelly said he had admitted his relationship to the woman to internal investigators.

“I admitted to them that there was some sexual contact between me and her,’’ Kelly said.

However, Kelly emphasized that he did not use sex as leverage in the murder investigation.

“The way it was presented to me from the gentlemen from ISB was that I had forced a statement out of a person in exchange for sexual favors. That’s how it was presented to me. That is inaccurate and not true.’’

The woman’s name is redacted from reports released by MPD though her surname is listed at one point as Stafford. Identifying details about the homicide or the defendants don’t appear in released reports. The records indicate the woman was charged as an accessory after the fact.

Kelly characterized the woman as “technically a witness’’ who “had no direct involvement with the homicide at all.’’ The detective said the relationship blossomed after he made initial contact with her in court. Kelly maintained he tried to get the woman help for a drug addiction and to find a job.

He said he took her on a trip to Alabama in the summer of 2018, about four months after he’d taken a statement from her in connection with the homicide.

“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.’’

The Institute will update this story as it develops.

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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