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A former Garland County sheriff's investigator pleaded guilty Monday in Garland County Circuit Court to stealing money from the Arkansas Narcotics Officers Association while serving as treasurer and was sentenced to two years' probation.

Michael Vernon Wright, 48, who resigned from the sheriff's department on July 1, 2017, with the rank of sergeant, was arrested March 13 and initially charged with theft of property more than $5,000, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but pleaded guilty to an amended charge of theft of property more than $1,000, punishable by up to six years.

Wright, who had no prior criminal history, was sentenced under the First Offenders Act 346 and in addition to probation was ordered to pay $11,380 in restitution to the ANOA within 30 days and $170 in court costs.

Wright appeared with his attorney, Gary M. Lax, of Hot Springs, before Judge John Homer Wright, who had agreed to hear the case after fellow Garland County Circuit Court Judges Marcia Hearnsberger, Lynn Williams and Wade Naramore had all recused. Special Prosecutor Jason Barrett out of Little Rock was appointed to represent the state.

Michael Wright, who lists a Pearcy address, was employed with the sheriff's department for 20 years, Garland County Sheriff Mike McCormick said shortly after his arrest.

Wright was arrested by Arkansas State Police after a warrant was issued March 7. The charge was filed by Barrett after an investigation by ASP Special Agent Joe Pickett out of Little Rock.

According to the probable cause affidavit, on July 18, 2017, Pickett made contact with Wade Baxter of the ANOA, who told him after the ANOA 2017 conference that he, Brandon Grimes, ANOA president, and Capt. Robb Rounsavall of the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office began asking Wright about the association's finances. Wright was unable to provide the group with an ending balance but told them the balance would be "somewhere close to $5,000."

Baxter said this estimate "did not sound right" due to deposits that needed to be made and additional association dues that could be coming in. He said on June 25 he sent a text message to Wright and Grimes asking why the deposits in question had not been made. Wright responded he was "working on it" and still had money bags in his safe at home. Baxter noted the deposits were made a couple of days later.

Baxter said Wright texted him on June 27 asking to speak with him. He said Wright then called him and "began crying, stating he was sorry." Wright told him he was having financial trouble and had written checks to himself out of the association's account. He told Baxter "this had been going on for a couple of years."

Wright told Baxter he did not know how much money was missing and Baxter notified the other ANOA board members of the situation. He spoke to Wright again on July 17 and Wright "continued to deny knowing exactly how much money he took" from the ANOA, but said he was willing to reimburse the association $8,500.

On July 20, Rounsavall told Pickett he was advised on June 27 by Baxter that Wright had admitted to stealing funds, approximately $3,000 to $4,000. Rounsavall said he spoke to Wright on July 5 and Wright told him he was having "financial issues" and took the money to pay his bills. Wright told him he believed he had taken $3,000 to $4,000.

Rounsavall said Wright contacted him again on July 17 and asked if he could sit down with the ANOA's leaders and "pay back the money he stole." He reportedly said he would be willing to show them which checks he wrote to himself.

An audit was completed by the Division of Legislative Audit and Auditor Jimmy Locke, who focused on the revenues for January 2013 through July 2017, determined there was a shortage of $8,147.95 during this period.

Locke also reported there was $25,084.68 worth of cash disbursements and reimbursements to Wright from the ANOA bank account that he determined to be "suspicious."

On Jan. 24, 2018, Pickett spoke to Grimes, who had previously asked the ANOA board to review the "questionable withdrawals" by Wright as identified by Locke. Grimes said the board examined the withdrawals and the approximately $8,900 shortage and would agree to "this loss total being recouped from Mike Wright."

The charge against Wright was filed directly to circuit court after his arrest and he had made an initial appearance on April 3 where he pleaded not guilty, but the case was scheduled for a disposition hearing Monday.

Local on 04/24/2018

Print Headline: Former sheriff's sergeant pleads guilty to theft

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