A Mayflower police officer has been fired after what the district attorney describes as "intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence" in the investigation of a woman accused of profiteering in the aftermath of the April 27 tornado.
20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland will not be pursuing charges against Melissa Brown partially in light of former officer Mark Winchester’s alleged withholding of evidence — or rather withholding that there was a lack of evidence that Brown had taken items meant for tornado relief for her personal gain.
Hiland said that Winchester’s findings included evidence he said showed that Brown, who lives in Cabot, was keeping disaster relief supplies that were supposed to be distributed to tornado victims. What Winchester didn’t turn over was evidence that tended to show that there were no relief supplies in Brown’s home.
In addition to the officer’s misconduct, Hiland said, the case against Brown was "incredibly weak" and that probably no charges would have been filed at any rate.
Winchester also failed to disclose a conflict of interest: Winchester’s son had been in a relationship with Brown that had ended before the investigation and her arrest.
"Melissa Brown not only didn’t commit a crime, Melissa brown responded to a need in the community following a tragedy and served in a way that all of us would hope to," Hiland said, speaking to clear Brown’s name. Though no charges were filed, Brown was arrested on suspicion of a felony and her mugshot and allegations mostly supported by Winchester’s statements were widely spread because of the state and national media attention on the disaster and massive relief effort.
The official investigation into Brown started when Winchester stopped a man driving a truck she owned that was loaded with disaster relief supplies. The man had a suspended license, and the truck was impounded and searched. Brown had also allegedly given a false name when she signed up to collect goods from the Mayflower supply depot.
But she and some associates also had a tent set up behind Lumber 1 in Mayflower, and Brown said in a police interview that a fundraiser planned there had been rained out the previous weekend. At that point in the interview Brown asked for a lawyer and the interview was stopped.
Brown hired Little Rock attorney Bill James, who told state media outlets that Brown had given her own time and money to help tornado victims.
Hiland said that two unrelated cases investigated by Winchester will probably also have to be dropped.
Mayflower Police Chief Robert Alcon said that his department has made progress in building its credibility, and that Winchester knew better than to withhold evidence.
"Holding back evidence to make you case like that - we just can’t have that especially in light of the tornado," he said.
Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said he hoped that by firing Winchester he hoped he had done what he could to correct the situation.