Another view: Tillett story gained traction on slippery facts

By on January 6, 2016

Nags Head Attorney Neil W. Scarborough submitted the following article for publication in The Outer Banks Voice.

 “Not to oppose error is to approve it. Not to defend truth is to suppress it, and indeed to neglect to confront evil men, when we can do it, is no less a sin than to encourage them.”
— Pope Felix III

This is the first of three-parts. The first two examine the story involving Superior Court Judge Tillett’s son and the events afterward and introduces the reader to the people responsible for publicizing it and their likely reasons.

The third part examines the State Bar’s conduct in more detail and reveals the injustice they’re not only perpetrating but are trying to hide.

All the court documents and other materials related to this case are available for review on my website

The Story

By now, most are familiar with “the story.”

On April 4, 2010, Judge Jerry Tillett’s son was among those in a car stopped by KDH police officers.

Though no charges were pressed, Tillett for some reason took issue with the KDH police department and, in particular, with Chief Gary Britt. He commanded Britt and other town officials to appear in his chambers for a meeting during which he tried to intimidate Britt and, ultimately, had an angry confrontation with him.

Afterward, Tillett launched a systematic campaign against Britt. First, he wrongfully compelled town officials to divulge personnel files of KDH police officers. Then, overstepping his authority still further, he directed KDH police officers to address future complaints about Britt to him alone.

He even went so far as to direct then-District Attorney Frank Parrish to investigate Britt.

Britt, of course, was completely innocent. He was cleared of wrongdoing following an in-house investigation.

And now the judge is getting what he deserves, an investigation by the State Bar for misconduct.


Not exactly. In fact, there’s so much wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to begin.

For the sake of simplicity, however, I’ll start where the storyteller does.

The account you’ve read of the April 4, 2010 incident and the events thereafter is masterful.

The storyteller provides just enough information to make the story believable while not providing enough information to allow the reader to determine whether it’s true.

And interwoven with the factual statements is the tantalizing and scandalous: accusations of abuse of power, intimidation, corruption; secretive meetings and video tapes; the insinuation that Tillett’s son engaged in criminal conduct and that maybe, just maybe, Tillett somehow prevented charges from being pressed.

It’s all very provocative — and that’s exactly what the writer was going for.

Other than the conduct of KDH police officers, what actually happened the night of April 4, 2010 was uneventful.

Tillett’s son and his girlfriend were in town from Raleigh for Easter. They went to MexiCali’s intending to see his sister. When they didn’t find her inside, an acquaintance told him that he thought she had gone to another restaurant, to which another acquaintance offered to drive them.

MexiCali’s was full that night, so the acquaintance had parked across the street at a beach access. The four piled into the car and began to leave but were stopped by KDH police.

The officer performed a search of the car and occupants for drugs and found nothing, as did a second officer with a K-9 unit. No crime had been committed and so no charges were pressed.

Rather than apologize and wish the group a good night, however, the officer made a veiled threat, telling Tillett’s son “we’ll be looking for you.”

Bear in mind that Tillett’s son and his girlfriend had driven to MexiCali’s and were still dressed in church clothes. Tillett’s son has no criminal record of any kind.

Tillett’s involvement stemmed not from anything his son did that night butfrom what the officers did.

Contrary to the storyteller’s version, Tillett didn’t call the meeting with Britt and KDH officials; the town’s attorney, Dan Merrell, did.

Regardless, everything was caught on tape, right? According to the story, during the meeting in Tillett’s chambers on April 15, 2010 Britt told Tillett that the events of April 4th were caught “on tape” and that the good judge could review it himself, to which Tillett retorted, “tapes can be altered.”

Most readers likely took the account of this exchange as equivalent to an admission by Tillett that his son had broken the law and that Tillett knew it, which is precisely what the storyteller intended.

This time the storyteller hasn’t simply omitted facts; he has twisted them in an effort to manipulate the reader.

The story reads as if the righteous police chief, finding himself assailed by the angry judge, remains steadfast in his commitment to the truth and, backed into a corner, directs the judge to view “the tape,” which doesn’t lie, after all.

The truth is that Tillett and the Chief knew the tape didn’t show any criminal conduct by the occupants of the car; of issue was the conduct of the officers; and specifically, what they said, hence, Tillett’s dismissive attitude was about the value of the tape.

He was conveying that his son’s account of what happened that night was all he needed and, in any event, he already knew the comments made by the officer weren’t recorded because the town’s attorney, Dan Merrell, had already listened to the tape and informed Tillett of the fact.

What’s more, the inappropriate comments the officers made to Tillett’s son weren’t even the reason for the meeting. Tillett and other judicial officials had received numerous complaints about the conduct of KDH police officers prior to April 2010.

And on this occasion, the officers hadn’t failed to live up to their reputation: They stopped the car Tillett’s son was in without reasonable suspicion or probable cause (the minimal, threshold standards permitting law enforcement officers to make a stop), then held the occupants of the car for nearly 30 minutes while they awaited arrival of a “K-9 unit,” which is also illegal.

The unprofessional and inappropriate comments to Tillett’s son and the other occupants were merely the icing on the proverbial cake.

So then why were we told such a story? We were told this story precisely because it is a good story.

It is, in fact, just a clever “red herring” — a shiny object intended to catch the reader’s attention and distract her from the problems with the story.

I say it’s a clever use of the tactic because in this case it pulls double duty: It distracts the reader from the critical fact that more than a year elapsed between the date of Tillett’s son’s encounter with KDH police and the date Tillett ordered KDH personnel records to be delivered to his office.

And it also conveniently serves as the reason for Tillett’s purported beef with Britt and the KDH police department.

Again, the storyteller would have us believe that Tillett began a personal crusade against Britt in retaliation for KDH officers daring to stop his son.

But the fact that more than a year passed between the incident involving Tillett’s son and the date Tillett ordered the release of the personnel records undermines the idea that there was any connection between the two events.

Without the incident, however, the storyteller loses Tillett’s supposed motive for going after KDH.

So what does the storyteller do? He then downplays the time lapse and mischaracterizes the facts concerning the stop and the April 15 meeting so that it gives the impression of impropriety on Tillett’s part. (The reason Tillett ordered personnel files to be provided to him stems from events about which a book could be written. It’s covered in depth in a separate article that will follow this one.)

But who would concoct such a story and why?

Enter Steve Michael and the State Bar, which we will explore in the second installment.

Though I deeply respect Judge Tillett and would like to think I would have written this article for that reason alone, I feel honor-bound to inform the reader that I regularly practice in this district, and I both know and on occasion appear in Tillett’s court.

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