Columbia County has a mess on its hands.
When then-Code Compliance Officer Jimmy Vowell walked into Erica Masters’ home in July, without permission, he claims he did so out of worries for the safety of the residents in the Martinez home. But when his supervisors fired him, it was because he violated county policy – and denied it until he was caught on tape.
As a former law enforcement officer – albeit one fired for stealing a laptop destined for disposal – Vowell could be given the benefit of the doubt for thinking something was amiss when he visited Masters’ home to serve a notice July 2 about her overgrown yard.
During a hearing Monday, in which Vowell was appealing his dismissal, his attorney repeated Vowell’s contention that Masters’ vehicle appeared not to have been moved in a while, and that he smelled an undefined, foul, odor when the unlocked door to her home swung open as he knocked.
It doesn’t take an ex-cop to become suspicious under such circumstances. But because Vowell isn’t a cop, he should have backed away and called for one. After all: If the “odor” was that of a dead body, it wouldn’t be any more or less dead in the time it took for a deputy to show up.
Still, in the heat of the moment, it’s plausible that an ex-cop would have walked in despite the county policy prohibiting it. If things indeed were as he says they seemed, criticism of the decision to go in could be chalked up to Monday-morning quarterbacking.
But things weren’t as he suspected. Masters was asleep, in bed, and was startled awake by Vowell – who then retreated to her living room to wait so he could serve her with the violation notice that started it all.
Vowell’s attorney argues that he shouldn’t have lost his job. But here’s the thing: He might not have been fired if, after finding out his hunch was wrong, he’d contacted his supervisor and owned up to the violation.
Instead, they found out when Masters reported it – and then Vowell hedged on the details until she provided surveillance video clearly showing Vowell entering her home.
Violating a department policy is one thing. Lying about it when you’re caught is quite another. It’s hard to believe there’s a single taxpayer in Columbia County who would expect a county worker to keep his job under such circumstances.
County commissioners, who unanimously upheld Vowell’s firing, obviously agree.
What now? Vowell can’t have his old job back, but he should count his blessings: Masters could have shot him as an intruder, and authorities could have decided his entry violated not just department policy, but the law, too. He’s alive and free; that’s a lot to be thankful for.
But this mess isn’t over. Masters is seeking $300,000 in damages from taxpayers and Vowell. It’s unlikely a jury will ever hear her claim that the incident caused her emotional and physical distress; typically such cases result in a mutual-agreeable and secretive settlement.
However it works out, taxpayers likely will be on the hook. When do we get our appeal?