Monday, 24 June 2024

Former correctional officer sentenced for misdemeanor fireworks, ammunition charges

LAKEPORT – A former county correctional officer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession of illegal fireworks and tracer ammunition on Friday as part of an agreement reached with the Lake County District Attorney's Office.


Russell “Rusty” Wright, 38, of Kelseyville will be on informal, summary probation while he completes 160 hours of community service and will be required to pay a small fine, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff.


Shells, gun parts and magazines that were found in Wright's possession, and which are illegal, also were forfeited and ordered destroyed, he added.


“We didn't think jail time was appropriate,” Hinchcliff said.


Wright's attorney, Stephen Carter, noted, “The end result for Rusty is really excellent.”


Wright was arrested Feb. 2 and originally charged with felony grand theft, embezzlement by a public officer, receiving stolen property and possession of dangerous fireworks, as Lake County News has reported.


Based on those original charges, Wright was facing more than three years in prison, Carter said.


“We try and hold officers to a higher standard than civilians,” said Hinchcliff, but in the courts, the goal is to treat them equally and fairly.


“This would be an appropriate and natural disposition for anybody, no matter who they are,” Hinchcliff said.


He said Wright had no prior record whatsoever. In addition, Wright has already lost his position with the sheriff's office and likely won't be able to get another law enforcement job.


“He's already suffered a substantial penalty,” Hinchcliff said.


A correctional officer with the county since 1995, Wright was terminated for serious misconduct previous to the arrest, according to investigative documents.


Hinchcliff said that a Jan. 16 search of Wright's home turned up a duffel bag filled with belly chains, leg shackles and a new Taser, still in its box, which wasn't assigned to him and which was supposed to be in the jail's armory, where Wright had been a rangemaster.


Carter maintained that Wright had the items – including the Taser – as part of his job. “There was no criminal intent involved in his possession of that,” Carter said.


The items and the duffel bag were found while investigators served a search warrant on Wright's home in an attempt to locate a trigger mechanism – or sear – that they believed was taken from the armory, Hinchcliff said.


On Jan. 11 Senior Rangemaster Sgt. Don McPherson audited the 10 M16-A1 rifles belonging to the sheriff's office and discovered that the trigger of one of them had been replaced with one from an AR-15, a weapon similar to an M16-A1, according to search warrant documents.


The effect was that the M16-A1, which was supposed to be automatic, became semiautomatic due to the trigger change. Hinchcliff said a major investigation led sheriff's officials to allege that Wright took the trigger sear.


Hinchcliff said the investigation also looked into whether Wright had an automatic firearm and a .50-caliber BMG rifle in his possession. The search warrant affidavit indicated that Wright told investigators that he transported the two weapons in question to a friend in Utah.


The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives previously confirmed to Lake County News that it was involved in the investigation and working with the sheriff's office.


However, the weapons weren't found. Neither was the trigger sear, said Hinchcliff. “There was never sufficient evidence to charge him with it.”


As to why investigators pursued the weapons investigation against Wright so aggressively, Carter said he could only speculate.


However, Carter added, “It has always been Rusty's position, and my position after I saw the evidence, that he had committed no theft crime or embezzlement crime whatsoever.”


Carter said it's never been proven that Wright had any of the alleged firearms or parts. Many people, Carter pointed out, had access to the armory in addition to Wright.


The tracer ammunition was purchased by Wright in another state where it was legal, but was brought back to California where it is not legal, according to Carter.


Carter said that Wright had attempted to return the Taser, shackles and other equipment to Chad Holland, another correctional officer, but Holland “inexplicably” returned the items to Wright rather than taking them back to the sheriff's office.


Hinchcliff said after Wright was terminated sheriff's officials had to go back several times to get various items, including the key to the armory.


Carter said that Wright had simply overlooked the items, and after sheriff's officials came out inquiring about items, Wright began thinking about the gear he had as part of his job. “That's when he called Holland,” Carter said, in an effort to return the items.


Hinchcliff said Holland and Wright were friends, and Wright gave Holland the bag. Holland started to drive off with the items, had concerns about being involved, and then returned the bag to Wright.


Carter said the warrant came out a day or so after Wright attempted to give the items to Holland.


Search warrant documents stated that Holland, who along with Wright had been one of six sheriff's rangemasters, told officials in January that he had several unregistered assault weapons which he then turned over to them.


Sheriff Rod Mitchell told Lake County News in an interview earlier this year that Holland's case was investigated and he faced no criminal charges.


Holland continued his employment with the jail after that time. However, on Friday, Capt. James Bauman of the Lake County Sheriff's Office said Holland's employment with the agency ended mid-June. The specifics of why his employment ended are confidential.


Holland had been a correctional officer with the Lake County Jail for five years, Bauman said.


Like Wright, Holland served in the National Guard. Both did a tour in Iraq as part of the 649th Engineering Unit from September 2007 to May 2008, as Lake County News has reported. Wright served as a combat sergeant.


Another aspect to the case is a leak of the investigative report onto the Internet, which the sheriff's office is working with the California Department of Justice to investigate, as Lake County News has reported.


There have been concerns that whoever leaked the report violated Wright's civil rights, including right to due process.


Mitchell said Friday that the investigation is continuing, and remains in the hands of the Department of Justice.


As to whether or not Wright may sue over that breach, Carter said, “He's not indicated that to me.”


Carter said a felony prosecution threatened Wright's constitutional rights, including his Second Amendment right to possess firearms, which are important to him from the standpoint of hunting and personal defense, as well as his military career.


“Anything that involved a felony would have ended his military career,” Carter said. “I was really glad to save that for him.”


Carter said Wright expects to redeploy to Iraq early next year.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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