Judge to decide if Ralph Stuart gets criminal charges

Published 10:42 am Wednesday, April 10, 2019

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — An out of circuit judge sat on the bench Tuesday morning at the Sumter County Courthouse to decide whether or not to issue criminal warrants against a local law enforcement officer.
Maj. Ralph Stuart, chief investigator for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, is accused of inappropriately touching two staff members of the Southwestern Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, Julie Moreau and Patrick Cromer, on Oct. 18, 2018, inside a courtroom at the Sumter County Courthouse.
Julius Collins of Atlanta and Albany represents Moreau and Cromer while Jason Ferguson of Columbus represents Stuart. The case was presided over by Judge Richard Kent of Colquitt County, a state court judge in that county. The three Southwestern Judicial Circuit superior court judges recused themselves from the hearing.
Is background, Moreau and Cromer complained to their employer, District Attorney Lewis Lamb, on Oct. 19 that Stuart had inappropriately touched them while in the courtroom on Oct, 18, 2918. Cromer said that Stuart slapped him on his left buttock, while Moreau claims that Stuart repeatedly touched her hair and neck even while she attempted repeatedly to bat him away.
Lamb took the complaints to the sheriff on Oct. 22 and Chief Deputy Col. Bryant started an investigation. The Times-Recorder reviewed the case file, including the video, under the Georgia Open Meetings and Records Act.
Following the investigation, the sheriff’s office determined that Stuart’s behavior was a violation of the department’s Code of Conduct and deemed his actions “unbecoming.” Stuart was placed on two weeks’ suspension without pay. He was also been placed on three months’ probation and required to attend a training class related to professionalism.
District Attorney Lamb told the Times-Recorder at that time that his office has a conflict of interest in the case and couldn’t investigate the incidents in the courtroom or decide whether or not to prosecute Stuart.
Collins called six witness at Tuesday’s hearing, most of whom were shown a video of the Moreau and Cromer incidents. Courtroom security cameras routinely capture everything that goes on the courtroom, even during recesses, which is when the incidents in question occurred.
The first witness was Col. Eric Bryant, who testified that after his investigation, Stuart had been disciplined. He said his office requested that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also look at the incidents as an independent investigative agency to determine if criminal charges were in order. He said the GBI’s final decision was that the sheriff’s office had everything the sheriff’s office needed for review.
Bryant was shown the video and was asked questions by Collins about it. He watched Cromer walked down the aisle on the way out of the courtroom and saw Stuart “hit Cromer on the rear end” and that Cromer did not stop to talk with Stuart. That’s the conduct for which Stuart was penalized, Bryant said, and when asked by Collins, said it is “possibly criminal.”
Stuart’s attorney, Ferguson, on his cross-examination of Bryant, said the video shows no evidence of intent on Stuart’s part and told Bryant that Stuart was “remorseful” when he learned that Cromer was upset.
Collins asked Bryant if his investigation showed that contact had been made with Moreau and Cromer and he said yes. Bryant stated that being remorseful is not an excuse for criminal behavior.
The next witness, Lisa O’Neal, a victim advocate for the District Attorney’s Office, testified that she was seated next to her colleague, Moreau, in the courtroom the day of the incidents. She said she saw Stuart touch Moreau’s neck and hair and that Stuart had noticed a tattoo on the back of Moreau’s neck and moved her hair to get a better view of it. O’Neal said Moreau kept telling Stuart to stop and was waving her arms in an effort to make him stop. O’Neal testified that she said out loud, “That looks like sexual harassment to me,” and Stuart turned and looked at O’Neal and still tried to see the tattoo.
Julie Moreau took the stand. She testified that Stuart started talking to her and asking who she was and who “her people” were. Stuart was seated behind her and started touching her neck and hair and when she told him to stop repeatedly, he did not. She said it made her feel “very uncomfortable and violated,” like she had no control over the situation.
Ferguson, in his is questioning of Moreau, asked her if she intends to have her attorney file a civil suit against Stuart, and if she had talked to WALB TV about seeking $100,000 in damages. She said she didn’t recall the amount. She said the tattoo on her neck says “Blake.” She testified that when Stuart saw the tattoo, he asked who Blake is and she told him it was none of his business. She testified that Stuart never apologized for touching her. She said that it being after hours, it was the following morning before she reported to incident to her employer, Lewis Lamb, although she did tell her husband about it that night. She also said Stuart “poked” her in her shoulder.
Next came witness number four, Adam O’Neal, an investigator working for Ralph Stuart at the sheriff’s office. He testified that he saw Stuart swing his arm back and hit Cromer’s “butt area” and that Cromer looked back but kept walking. O’Neal, who is the son of Lisa O’Neal, also testified he heard Stuart said to Cromer, “Good job, Pat.” Collins asked if he had ever said this to the investigators and O’Neal said he had never talked to the investigators. O’Neal said Stuart’s contact with Cromer “seemed more like a congratulatory slap, like a baseball player” and not sexual. Collins showed O’Neal the video.
O’Neal said on the day of the incidents, the jury had the case which was a big one for the state, a child molestation case, and everyone in the courtroom was talking during the recess, about baseball, football, whatever. He said he thought Cromer was “a little upset” at Stuart touching him “because it was unusual court behavior” but he wasn’t concerned. He said later, Cromer showed concern on his face. He testified that he had seen Stuart’s contact with Moreau as well.
Ferguson, in questioning O’Neal, asked about the environment in the courtroom. O’Neal said it was “congratulatory” and people were shaking hands with each other. While he said he could not tell if Stuart touched Cromer “above, below, or on the buttocks,” he did not see it as “intimate” contact. O’Neal said he did speak to Stuart about the incident and that Stuart was concerned because “he didn’t mean it that way.”
On the Moreau touching incident, O’Neal testified he was seated next to Stuart at the time. He said being that Stuart didn’t know Moreau, but her asked who she was and who she worked for, and asked who “Blake” was and touched the tattoo on Moreau’s neck with his finger. “It was not harassment and it was not intimate,” O’Neal said.
When Collins questioned him again, he was asked again about the celebratory atmosphere in the courtroom. Collins referred O’Neal to the video, asking if there were any balloons in the courtroom. Answering Collins’ questions, O’Neal said it did not look like Cromer gave Stuart consent to touch his butt. O’Neal testified he did see Stuart touching Moreau’s tattoo with his finger and said Stuart did not have Moreau’s consent to do so. He said he saw Stuart touch Moreau only once. While watching the video, Collins asked O’Neal how many times Stuart touched Moreau’s hair and neck and again O’Neal said once.
Steven Douglas was then called to the witness stand. He is an investigator with the D.A.’s office. He testified that he, too, saw Cromer walk down the courtroom aisle and he observed Stuart “slap or smack” Cromer on “the lower back or butt.” Douglas testified he asked Adam O’Neal if he had seen it, and O’Neal said yes, he had seen Stuart smack Cromer “on the butt or buttocks,” not the back. Collins asked Douglas if Stuart congratulated him that day and Douglas said no, he didn’t recall that. He said he did not hear Stuart congratulating Cromer either before or after the smack.
Next came Patrick Cromer, a legal assistant the D.A.’s office for the last five years, who recounted that when he was leaving the courtroom to visit the restroom, Stuart slapped him on the “rear end or butt.” Cromer said he looked back at Stuart and never heard him say congratulations. Cromer said he felt violated because his personal space had been invaded.
Ferguson questioned Cromer about his telling WALB that Stuart had “grabbed” or “slapped” him and asked if he intends to pursue a civil case as well, to which Cromer answered yes. Collins established that the lawsuit is against the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.
Next came the defense witnesses. First up, Jeff Gordy, a former GBI agent, testified to Stuart’s character. He said he and Stuart had worked in undercover narcotics around the state then and that “Ralph never met a stranger” and “would talk to anybody.” Gordy described Stuart as a “truthful, honest person.”
Collins showed the video of the Moreau incident to Gordy, asking Gordy that if someone was touching his daughter or wife like that, a complete stranger, would he take issue with it. Gordy said he would have to know why first. Collins directed Gordy to view the video which shows Moreau waving her arms over and over, and asked Gordy if his daughter asked someone to stop over and over again and pushing him away, what he would do. Gordy said, “If my daughter said stop and he kept on, yes.” Gordy then asked Collins to rephrase the question, which Collins did, to which Gordy replied that he would need to hear the “verbiage” and to find out if it was “something other than horseplay or joking around.”
While watching the Cromer incident on the video, Gordy was asked if he could see Stuart’s hand. Gordy said yes but it was “blurry” and he couldn’t tell what Stuart was doing. Collins asked Gordy if he would have a problem with his grandson being touched in that manner. Gordy said, “not unless I knew criminal intent. Intent meaning you’re interested in that person or an unwanted touch.”
Ferguson then called Ellen Anderson, who is also an investigator at the sheriff’s office, working under Stuart. She said she was sitting two rows up from Moreau and had turned around part way in her seat and observed Stuart talking to the “two new girls,” asking them who their people were. She said she heard Stuart asked Moreau about the tattoo.
Under Collins’ questioning, Anderson said she didn’t see Stuart touch Moreau but heard him ask Moreau about who Blake is and saying “he has to be someone significant.” While viewing the video, Anderson says she never saw Stuart touch Moreau but did see Moreau fighting Stuart off.
During the summations, Collins explained that he is seeking criminal charges of sexual battery in the Cromer incident, and simple battery in the Moreau incident. He cited a 2015 case in the complaint lodged by Cromer, and said that the way Stuart touched Moreau was “in an insulting or provoking manner.”
“The evidence in this case shows that neither gave consent (to be touched). The video is everything,” he said. “The witnesses are everything.”
Ferguson, in his summation, reiterated that the courtroom environment was celebratory. He said if Stuart’s contact with Cromer was anything except congratulatory, they would have to go to every ballfield and football field and prosecute everyone for the doing the same. He said there was no intent on Stuart’s part. He said both civil complaints are dependent on the outcome of the hearing. He said there no intent in either the Moreau or Cromer incidents and that an employee’s 30 years hangs in the balance.
At 12:06 p.m. the judge called counsel into his chambers. They returned after about 10 minutes. The bailiff announced at 12:15 that the hearing was over.
Following the hearing, Ferguson told the Times-Recorder that it could be several days before the judge makes his decision.