March 20, 2019 3:45 pm

Mass resignation leaves Oklahoma county without most of its sheriff’s department

WATCH ABOVE: A volunteer was answering emergency calls from the public after the mass resignation of Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett and the majority of her deputies.

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An Oklahoma county sheriff, undersheriff and more than half of their deputies have resigned over safety issues at the county jail.

Nowata County Sheriff Terry Barnett announced the resignations during a news conference Monday. She detailed multiple unresolved problems at the lockup, including carbon monoxide leaks and exposed electrical wires.

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Barnett and Undersheriff Mark Kirschner said they quit because Nowata County Associate District Judge Carl Gibson pressured them to reopen the jail nearly three weeks after inmates were evacuated from the facility. After the safety issues emerged Feb. 28, the county’s 14 detainees were transferred to the Washington County jail in Bartlesville, about 40 miles (64 kilometres) north of Tulsa.

“I believe in doing the right thing, and I am not going to stand down from doing the right thing,” Barnett said. “I will not sweep these things under the carpet.”

Barnett was elected sheriff in November 2018 after the sheriff at the time, Kenny Freeman, was arrested on embezzlement charges.

Gibson said he could increase her salary to $75,000 if the inmates were returned to county jail, despite the problems, Barnett alleged.

“I do feel like he tried to bribe me last Thursday,” she said, adding that her salary as an elected official is set by law.

“I looked straight at the judge and asked him, ‘Are you compromising my integrity?’ The judge never responded. I also stated directly to him I feel that Nowata County is an extremely corrupt county.”

Kirschner also alleged intimidation by Gibson.

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“I came in here, was ordered up here by the judge, and he basically said if I don’t get prisoners back over here, I would be in contempt and go to jail, and this job is not worth me going to jail. I have a family to take care of,” he said.

Gibson declined to comment on the allegations, according to Nowata County Courthouse officials.

Dede Kerns, a Nowata County dispatcher, said two guards and three dispatchers still work at the facility.

Kerns said the county office dispatches fire and ambulance crews in addition to law enforcement.

“If we all leave, all of those emergency services go away, and the community suffers,” she said.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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