Carter planning director beats theft charge

John Thompson • Jan 17, 2012 at 10:40 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Carter County Planning Director Chris Schuettler won a victory Tuesday when a grand jury returned a no true bill in a theft charge that had been filed against him.

Schuettler said he was pleased with the grand jury’s decision and said, “I knew it would eventually come out that the charge was not true.”

Schuettler’s attorney, Tom Jessee, also expressed his appreciation to the grand jury and said it should have been an easy decision for the jurors because the investigation by the state had been so poor.

Jessee said that during the discovery phase he determined the state’s evidence was based on two years worth of cell phone records from 2008 to 2010 that showed Schuettler had made phone calls from North Carolina while he should have been on the job in Carter County.

“You have to do a lot more investigating than that to charge a man with theft,” Jessee said.

Schuettler explained that in the mountainous sections of the county’s southern and eastern boundary, his cell phone would often be routed through a North Carolina cell tower when he made a call from Carter County.

“I had the only phone owned by the county that did not have free roaming,” Schuettler said. He said phone calls he made while inspecting properties in Roan Mountain and Elk Mills often were routed by Carolina West. Instead of showing the origin of the call as Roan Mountain, it would show the origin as Wilkesboro, Lenoir or another North Carolina cell tower.

“There has since been an agreement between Carolina West and Sprint so that these calls no longer show up as being made from North Carolina, but they did at the time of the calls,” Schuettler said.

Jessee said to further prove his client’s case, he had a bill in which Schuettler purchased gasoline in Carter County for a trip to Nashville at the exact same time as one of the phone bills indicated he was in North Carolina.

“He was going in the opposite direction (from North Carolina) and obviously made a phone call,” Jessee said. Some of the other calls were made on weekends, Jessee said.

Schuettler said he thought the theft charge stemmed from “the unfair and hostile environment I have had to work under.” Schuettler was referring to the battles he and Mayor Leon Humphrey have had over county planning since the mayor took office in September 2010.

The grand jury results were not known until late Tuesday and Humphrey was unavailable at that hour for comment. At the time the charges were originally placed Humphrey said, “I am not out to get Chris Schuettler.”

Humphrey said he was concerned a public trust had been violated and said public funds must be handled with care.

Throughout the court proceedings, the Planning Commission permitted Schuettler to remain in his position as planning director.

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