The legal saga involving former Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, who is currently serving 15.5 years in a federal prison, ended Thursday afternoon.
Hodge appeared in Whitley Circuit Court and pled guilty to 18 counts of abuse of the public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.
As part of the plea deal, Special Judge David Tapp sentenced Hodge to the agreed upon 17 years in prison, which will be served concurrently, or at the same time as his federal prison sentence.
Tapp also ordered Hodge to pay $335,188 in restitution.
"We believe it is a proper and adequate disposition in this case," Gary Crabtree, one of Hodge’s attorneys, told the judge during the hearing.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble was pleased to have the matter resolved.
"Any time you have a public official, who is caught up in a criminal matter, it is a painful process," Trimble said. "It is painful to the community that elected that person.
"It is painful to the court system to see a person, who has allegedly committed a crime. It is painful all around to everybody. It is good to have it over and behind us."
Hodge appeared in court Thursday wearing a beige prison uniform with a white t-shirt on underneath.
In addition, he wore leg shackles and handcuffs that were attached to a chain around his waist.
When asked how he pled to each individual charge as it was read, Hodge responded, "guilty."
Hodge gave short answers to several routine questions posed to him by the judge, many of which dealt with whether he understood his rights.
Often he responded with yes or no or "I do."
However, Hodge struggled to answer when asked by the judge to describe the criminal conduct that was described in the charges listed in the indictment.
"I’m not asking you to go count by count but a general description of what were you up to Mr. Hodge?" Tapp asked.
Hodge spoke quietly to his two attorneys, Crabtree and Jason Williams, but didn’t answer.
After a silence of about 50 seconds, Trimble offered to describe the counts and allow Hodge to refute that if he disagreed with the description.
After a discussion of about 60 seconds between the judge, Crabtree and Trimble, Trimble began explaining the factual basis for the charges.
The first eight counts of the indictment dealt with the drug and alcohol account that Hodge maintained while sheriff. During that time most checks written from that account were to Hodge listed as being for undercover drug buys and confidential sources, Trimble said.
At the time though, the sheriff’s office presented few if any cases to the grand jury involving undercover drug purchases, Trimble said.
Tapp ordered Hodge to make $98,690 in restitution relating to those eight counts of the public trust.
The next four counts of abuse of the public trust in the indictment dealt with missing money from Hodge’s fee account, which covered general operating expenses.
The restitution involving those four counts of the indictment totaled $58,481.
The next three counts of abuse of the public trust listed in the indictment dealt with shortages from the tax accounts in Hodge’s office.
The restitution in those three counts totaled $158,017.
Two counts of the indictment dealt with tampering with physical evidence charges related to items seized from Rick Benson, including 17 guns and knives.
Hodge is also charged with two counts of abuse of the public trust relating to allegations that converted 12 of the guns for his own use, and sold three guns to a local attorney and gave two to his chief deputy.
Hodge was ordered to pay $20,000 in restitution to Benson.
The final count of the indictment dealt with a tampering with physical evidence charge related to drugs and weapons that then Deputy Ronnie Bowling, who is now a constable, seized on Nov. 15, 2009, and turned over to Hodge as evidence.
The evidence wasn’t logged into evidence by Hodge, Trimble noted.
"I think the judge wanted to make sure he understood what the commonwealth was alleging in each of those counts and that he understood that there was a factual basis to a guilty plea in those counts," Trimble said. "I just summarized the basis of it. I thought we had a very strong factual basis for each count."
Trimble said he thinks the case sends a message from the public to elected officials.
"If they are elected as sheriff, the public expects a sheriff to do what he is elected to do and not go to the other side and be a part of the problem," Trimble said.
Trimble said that even if the case had gone to trial, there is a 20-year cap on the maximum total sentence that Hodge could have received based on the type of charges he faced.
Hodge will be eligible for parole on his state charges, which aren’t violent offenses, after serving 20 percent of his sentence. There is no parole in the federal penal system and Hodge will have to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before he would qualify for early release.
At the close of the 39-minute hearing, Hodge’s attorneys asked that any local detainers on Hodge related to this case be released so he could be transported back to federal prison in Ohio.
Hodge is scheduled to be released from federal prison on Nov. 8, 2024.
In 2011, Hodge pled guilty in federal court to three felony offenses: conspiracy to effect commerce by extortion under color of official right, conspiracy to distribute Oxycodone and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Hodge admitted that on at least three separate occasions between 2004 and 2007, he conspired with Williamsburg defense attorney Ron Reynolds to extort money from individuals that the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department charged with felony drug trafficking offenses. Reynolds pled guilty in connection with the case and served nearly two years in prison. He has also been disbarred and can no longer practice law.
As part of his federal plea deal, Hodge was ordered to pay $64,897 in restitution to the Whitley County Fiscal Court once he is released from custody. He was also ordered to forfeit $50,000 to the federal government.
Hodge will be able to apply any payments he makes towards his federal restitution towards the state restitution, if the amounts involve duplicate allegations.
Also, any funds recovered by Whitley County from an insurance or bonding company will be applied towards reducing Hodge’s restitution. Hodge had a $100,000 performance bond while he was sheriff.
Trimble noted that the insurance or bonding companies could then sue Hodge in civil court attempting to recover the amounts they had to pay.
In addition, any funds recovered that the state auditor had classified as unaccounted will be credited towards Hodge’s restitution.
In early 2012 the Whitley County Fiscal Court identified about $114,000 in 14 dormant bank accounts that had belonged to Hodge’s office when he was sheriff.
Trimble said that amount would be deducted from the total amount of restitution that Hodge owes.
Trimble noted that defendants are required to remain on probation until their restitution is paid.
"Probation is not terminated until restitution is paid," he added.