May 28, 2010
For nearly three months, Jonathan Burns tooled the back roads of this rural county and later told Facebook about his adventures.
He drove the Isle of Wight County sheriff's car, he said, carried a gun and a stun gun, and assisted in hunting down bad guys. He had five pictures of himself on the page dressed in his uniform and referred to himself as a "cop."
"Tasers are great," he wrote.
Problem was, the sheriff's department aide himself used to be one of the bad guys.
In July 1998, when he was 17, Burns was convicted of larceny and three counts of arson. He was sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison, with all but six months suspended.
According to Commonwealth's Attorney Wayne Farmer, Burns worked as an electrician and stayed out of trouble. At some point, Capt. Paul Phelps, the sheriff's son and a second-in-command in the office, married Burns' mother-in-law. In his mind, Farmer said, that makes Isle of Wight County Sheriff Charlie Phelps and Burns relatives.
"Charlie has acknowledged that he knew Burns was a convicted felon," Farmer said Thursday. "I think he hired him because he was a family member. He was trying to give him a break. It was poor judgment."
Not only that, it has created a mess in law enforcement.
"The issue is not Jonathan Burns," Farmer said. "I think he's a nice-enough fellow, but he has no place in law enforcement."
Farmer said he fears that some of his cases could be compromised because of Burns.
Sheriff Phelps said Burns has never shown up at his family gatherings. He said Burns came into his office about 10 years ago, acknowledged his crimes and told him he wanted to do something to make up for his behavior.
"I was trying to give him a break," Phelps said.
In March, Phelps said that Burns was hired for a temporary position to conduct an inventory of the department's uniforms and equipment. Since the story came out, Phelps said, Burns and the department have parted by mutual agreement. He said he and the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office are investigating Burns' activities.
"So far, I've uncovered nothing that he made an arrest, served a warrant, wrote a ticket," the sheriff said. "We're still investigating it. If we find that Burns has violated the law, we will pursue charges against him."
Farmer said he believes it has put his office in a vulnerable position.
"I fully support the efforts of the governor and the former governor to restore rights to convicted felons," Farmer said. "But there is a process that Burns could have gone through to have his right to vote or to carry a weapon restored. He never went through that process.
"Now, I'm trying to meet my obligations."