A Martinez woman who says a Columbia County Code Compliance officer entered her home without permission is gaining national attention since the incident.
Erica Masters, who captured former Code Compliance Officer Jimmy Vowell on surveillance video as he walked through her front door July 2 while she slept, will explain what happened on NBC’s The Today Show Wednesday morning.
The story went viral, appearing in news outlets worldwide via numerous online news sites. After Vowell’s termination Monday, Masters said she got calls from The Today Show, Inside Edition and Good Morning America.
“I am surprised,” Masters said. “I never expected it to get this far. ... I know media outlets love government corruption. I didn’t think this was one of those cases necessarily. This is teeny, tiny Columbia County and now the whole country knows about us.”
A Columbia County Sheriff’s Office investigation into the incident revealed no criminal intent, so Vowell wasn’t charged, said Capt. Steve Morris. After interviewing Masters and Vowell and reviewing Masters’ video, investigators consulted with District Attorney Ashley Wright to see if there were grounds for criminal charges, and concluded none existed, he said.
Vowell was fired, however, because he violated county policy when he entered a home without permission and for lying to his supervisor, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said Monday.
Vowell at first denied entering Masters’ home, where he was serving her with a violation notice for having overgrown grass, but later admitted going inside after learning about the video.
Masters said she installed the four-camera surveillance system before being medically discharged from the U.S. Army for depression. She’s been struggling to make ends meet as a model, body paint model, dancer and actress while waiting for her disability to be approved. The cameras, she said, provided a level of protection against potentially unsavory people who she could be around on the modeling jobs.
“Once (people) see the video, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘She just wants publicity,’” Masters said.
Masters said she woke just before noon July 2 to Vowell talking to her from her bedroom doorway. Vowell asked Masters to come outside to sign the notice, and waited in her living room as she dressed.
He claimed he walked into the home only after calling out several times, and smelling a foul odor coming from the front door that swung open when he knocked, according to a Facebook message Vowell sent to The Columbia County News-Times Publisher Barry Paschal a few days after the incident.
“I had no idea who lived there or even if anyone did,” Vowell wrote in the message. “I had no idea if someone was hurt, dead or what. ... From what I saw and (smelled), I reacted on instincts telling me something was not right in that house.”
The video shows Vowell knocking on the front door, moving around to a side door, then returning to the front door. The door appears to open when Vowell knocks, and he grabs the handle and closes the door and continues to knock. Because the video does not include audio, it’s impossible to tell what Vowell is saying.
After the incident, Masters first tried to reach Vowell’s supervisor, and then called 911. The dispatcher took Masters’ contact information and passed the information along to a Code Compliance supervisor, who contacted Masters.
Masters didn’t sound distressed while talking to the dispatcher, Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said.
“She never called and said ‘I want to file a report.’ It was like she wasn’t really sure of what to do, or who to talk to, and the dispatcher took it like she had questions about what the code enforcement officer had done, so (the dispatcher) made contact with code enforcement to call her. That’s why there was originally no report,” Morris said. “Now, we later came back and filed a report of our own because of this investigation, but it was basically an informational or suspicious situation report we filed placing her as the complainant.”
Masters didn’t call back to seek a police report, Morris said. Instead, the sheriff’s office called Masters the day after the incident to ask her if she wanted her to file a report because Johnson had called Sheriff Clay Whittle, asking him to initiate an investigation.
Masters said she intends to seek civil action against the county because she believes the 911 dispatcher should have sent a deputy to her home. She also contends the county didn’t properly check Vowell’s background before hiring him.
Vowell, a former Richmond County sheriff’s sergeant, resigned in 2004 after he admitted taking a laptop computer that was slated to be destroyed from the evidence room, according to a story published at the time in The Augusta Chronicle.
“This is a Columbia County reaction,” Masters said. “I don’t think it ever should have gotten to that point. I don’t think they should have had to react to something negative like this.
“Having a theft record, then making house calls just isn’t a good combination in my opinion. I don’t think he should have been hired in the first place.”