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BRISTOL — Hillsville Mayor Greg Crowder was convicted last Thursday on a misdemeanor charge of impersonating a law enforcement officer and was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail and pay a $500 fine.
Crowder is appealing the conviction.
Bristol General District Court Judge Blake McKinney found enough evidence to convict the Hillsville businessman and mayor, but not his wife, LouAnne Crowder, who faced the same charge stemming from a March 14 incident.
Bristol Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bradwell called four employees from the Outback Steakhouse in Bristol as witnesses. They testified about what happened after Greg Crowder got concerned about rowdy customers at the table next to where he and his wife were having a meal.
The complaint Crowder made to restaurant management, according to testimony, involved a waiter serving alcohol to customers after they were already drunk and that the customers got “to-go” cups for their alcohol.
Edward Kaiser told the court that he fired the waiter after hearing from Crowder, whom he thought was an off-duty Alcohol Beverage Control agent.
Kaiser, a “partner intern” at Outback Steakhouse, had just returned to the restaurant from an event when the traveling manager asked him to speak to a customer.
Kaiser and Crowder had two conversations, as the witness described it — one about five minutes long and one significantly longer at the end of the night.
Crowder told Kaiser that Outback could get in trouble for the server’s actions, and he didn’t want the restaurant to lose its license for what was going on.
He described Crowder as seeming “frustrated” with the adjacent table, where customers were “intoxicated” and “loud and rowdy.”
According to testimony, Crowder stated he could contact the ABC agent who oversees Bristol, but he didn’t want to do that or get anyone in trouble, Kaiser said. He testified that Crowder said he thought the local ABC agent’s name was Brian, and that sounded right to the restaurateur.
Kaiser said he got the impression from conversation that LouAnne Crowder held the same position as Greg Crowder. That was “the gist” of it, and the witness admitted to the court he couldn’t remember the exact conversation that happened months ago.
Having dealt with ABC agents in the past, Kaiser said he believed Crowder enforced Alcohol Beverage Control rules, because he expressed knowledge about them.
The prosecutor had Kaiser pull up security videos on a laptop computer that showed him talking to the Crowders that night. Judge McKinney came around to the prosecutor’s table to view the video, which did not have any sound, as well as a still photo of the Crowders entering the restaurant.
Defense attorney Bob Ward, on cross examination of Kaiser, clarified that the partner intern had in fact talked to two employees about the situation — the traveling manager and the bartender — before going to talk to the customer.
“And they told you there was an ABC agent there, didn’t they?” Ward asked.
The defense attorney asked Kaiser if he checked into the complaints.
Kaiser answered that he found four beers, a bottle of wine and two to-go cups at the table in question. The customers said they were going to pour sodas in the cups.
Ward asked if Crowder got anything out of the restaurant by complaining. “He didn’t ask you for any favors, did he?” the attorney said. “He didn’t get a free meal out of you, did he? And he wasn’t drunk, was he?”
Kaiser answered “no” to the questions.
Outback employees recall incident
Outback traveling manager Stacy Craig had heard the concerns from Crowder, and offered the couple another table, which they refused.
“There was a complaint that a table was being loud and obnoxious,” she recalled.
So, the traveling manager watched the table in question. Craig confirmed the people at that table had been drinking and were young, but she didn’t see them doing anything inappropriate.
Crowder told her that he was an ABC agent, Craig testified.
Ward prompted Craig to read from the written statement she had made to ABC Special Agent George Sewell, who investigated the matter.
Asking if anything had happened to her since March that had “affected her memory,” the defense attorney said the word “agent” didn’t actually appear in her statement.
“I said, [he was] ‘with ABC,’” Craig agreed.
Bartender Bobbie Dotson testified that Crowder approached her twice to complain.
“He told me he was an ABC agent and there was a disruptive table and he wanted to see a manager,” she told the court. “He said he could get [the waiter] fired and the store in trouble.”
Again, Ward put the written statement made to Sewell in front of the witness. “Is the word ‘agent’ in there anywhere?” he asked.
No, Dotson agreed, but insisted that Crowder told her more than once he was an ABC agent.
Jennifer Martin, who served the Crowders their meal, testified that she remembered the couple and found them to be very nice.
She remembered talking to them about Crowder owning a convenience store in Hillsville.
Though Martin testified that Crowder said he was an “officer,” she stammered when Ward cross examined her about her written statement.
ABC agents testify
Bradwell then called ABC Special Agent Brian Edwards, who said he knew Crowder from his having an alcohol-licensed store in Hillsville. Edwards also went to high school with him.
Ward asked Edwards if the agent had seen a sign about alcohol in Crowder’s store.
The agent has seen Race In’s alcohol license posted on the wall, Edwards confirmed.
Ward asked what alcohol managers do. The agent said they make decisions about alcohol in a store. Alcohol managers are not employed by the ABC, he added in response to another question.
Ward moved to strike the charge against LouAnne Crowder, because “the gist” that Kaiser recalled was not enough to prove a she had done anything wrong under the legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In calling agent Sewell to testify, Ward asked him if any of the employees made statements to him at the time of his investigation that Crowder had called himself an ABC agent.
Sewell said not to his knowledge, and then the agent was quickly dismissed from the approximately 90-minute hearing.
Crowder takes the stand
When Greg Crowder took the stand, he told the court he holds a beer and wine ABC license for his Hillsville store.
Regarding March 14, Crowder confirmed that he and his wife went to Bristol for the spring NASCAR race and stopped at Outback.
“We just came to have dinner,” Crowder said.
Did you drink? Ward asked.
“Nothing,” Crowder answered.
Did you pay your tab?
But, the nearby table of two men and women was loud, he said. Crowder recalled that one woman kept telling the others to stop several times and then a glass got broken.
They were spilling drinks and fighting to keep each other out of the booth.
Crowder went to the bar to complain. He said he told employees he was an ABC manager and said if they let the situation go on, he would call the ABC.
“Did you say to them you an ABC agent?” Ward asked.
Did you talk to Kaiser? Ward asked. “Did you tell him you were an ABC manager?”
Yes, Crowder said.
Crowder didn’t deny going to complain about the others. As an ABC manager with training, he said he felt obliged to.
Ward asked if the ABC agent asked for Crowder’s side of the story or took a statement from him. No, Crowder answered.
“From your perspective, is this anything other than confusion” between the words “manager” and “agent?” the defense attorney asked. Crowder said he felt the misunderstanding explained the situation.
The prosecutor needled Crowder that his testimony was that all four of the other witnesses were wrong in what happened that night and he was the only one who wasn’t confused.
Bradwell asked Crowder why he told employees he was an ABC manager and why he thought would they care.
“I thought I was going to get into a violent confrontation to defend a female,” Crowder said.
Asked if he told that to anyone else, Crowder said he had told it to both Dotson and Kaiser.
“Did you ever use the words ‘off-duty?’” Bradwell asked.
“You wanted that other table to be quiet, didn’t you?” the prosecutor asked.
LouAnne Crowder testified that she never told anyone she was involved with the ABC board.
She said that she felt, as a customer, that she was in danger and that something very bad was going to happen because a glass was broken at the next table.
Judge makes ruling
After hearing all the evidence, Judge McKinney said he felt that a reasonable doubt remained in the case of LouAnne Crowder.
He found the case against her was not proven by the prosecution and dismissed the charge.
But in the case of Greg Crowder, the judge indicated he was persuaded by the four witnesses’ testimony.
He found Crowder guilty and sentenced him to 90 days, with 60 days suspended, in the Bristol City Jail and levied a $500 fine.
“We are going to appeal,” LouAnne Crowder said outside the courtroom.
An appeal date was set for March in Bristol Circuit Court.
Due to the appeal, the penalties were put on hold until after the case is heard by the higher court.