Based on testimony from Johnson and KSP Detective Alex Wesley, Special Judge Harold Burks ruled there was probable cause for the case to continue and sent it to a Casey County grand jury, which meets next week.
Ellis, 57, of 5427 Ky. 78, pleaded not guilty last month to a single count of buying Johnson's vote, a Class D felony that carries a sentence of one to five years in jail. He is free after posting a $1,000 bond.
Burks, a retired district judge from Boyle and Mercer counties, was called in to hear the case after Casey District Judge Roger Elliott recused himself because his wife is former District 1 School Board candidate Sheila Elliott, who lost the race to John Cox. Casey County Attorney Tommy Weddle also asked to be removed from prosecuting the case because his sister, Linda Hatter, is superintendent of Casey schools and his family supported Cox in the race. Wright was named to replace Weddle.
Wesley, a Casey native who specializes in arson and explosives for the KSP post in Columbia, testified he was dispatched to a call of a vehicle on fire on Buck Springs Road on Nov. 1. Wesley said he arrived to find a charred pickup truck with the windows busted out in the middle of a creek. The truck belonged to Billy Joe Lyons, a grandson of Stella Johnson, who lives nearby.
At the scene, Wesley said he was approached by Jennifer Richards, Johnson's daughter, who asked him, "I know your out here for this fire, but do you really want to know what's going on in the county? There's somebody out there buying votes for a particular candidate."
Richards said she and her brother, Thomas Johnson, and others had received cash and whiskey from Ellis in exchange for a promise to vote for Sheila Elliott, Wesley said. The detective said he then asked Richards if she knew anyone who might try to sell their vote to Ellis and Richards said, "Yeah, my mother."
Recording device used
Wesley testified that he went to Stella Johnson's house and she agreed to call Ellis to set up an exchange that night. Johnson was equipped to with a recording device and twice called Ellis, once as late as 11:30 p.m., but Ellis said his "old truck wouldn't run." They agreed to meet at Ellis father's house at 10 a.m. the next day, Wesley said. Tapes of the phone conversations were not played during the hearing.
KSP agents planned to set up a video camera to record the buy, but Ellis came to the Johnson house early the next morning and paid her $25 in five dollar bills before police arrived, Wesley said.
Johnson testified, "I had just got up out of bed. I still had my pajamas one when I heard someone knocking on my door."
Wesley also said he interviewed Daniel Clarkson, Ronnie Johnson and Nicole Johnson, who said they talked to Ellis about selling their votes. Clarkson received both whiskey and cash because he needed the money to buy diapers, Wesley said.
Ellis' attorney, Raymond Overstreet, said that selling a vote or soliciting to sell a vote is an equal crime to buying a vote and asked Wesley why Johnson and others had not been charged. The detective said additional charges may be pending.
Under questioning from Overstreet, Wesley also said he told Johnson that selling her vote was a crime but did not promise her that she wouldn't be prosecuted or given any leniency if she cooperated with police in setting up a sting on Ellis.
"We advised her she could probably get in trouble over this," Wesley said.
Wesley also admitted that he did not see Ellis buy a vote from Johnson or anyone else, and did not recover any whiskey or five-dollar bills during a search of Ellis' house or vehicle.
Overstreet then called Johnson to the stand.
"None of this would have happened if my grandson hadn't got drunk," she said.
Wesley "asked me did I want to catch him buying votes and I said 'Yeah." I was wired and I called him on the phone and asked him what he'd give me for my vote. He said, 'Same as the others.' I told him I don't want no whiskey."
Overstreet repeatedly grilled Johnson over whether she had been promised any sort of deal in exchange for her cooperation with police or to keep Lyons, her grandson, from being prosecuted over his burned up truck. Johnson steadfastly held her ground as a bemused Judge Burks looked on and advised her that her testimony could be used to bring charges against her for selling her vote.
"I did it of my own free will," Johnson said.
"Did they tell you could be charged?" Overstreet asked.
"No," Johnson replied.
"Do you expect to be charged?" the attorney asked.
"Because I did the right thing," Johnson said matter-of-factly.
After the hearing, Wesley said the investigation in the alleged vote buying activity is continuing and more charges could be forthcoming. Part of the investigation is looking into why Ellis allegedly was passing out whiskey and cash to buy votes for Sheila Elliott, Wesley said, but so far there is no indication that Elliott was involved in the scheme.