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Newman faces removal over handling of child sexual abuse case

Less than a year after he was sworn into office as district attorney for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, Greg Newman received word of a child sexual assault case that sounded horrific.

The alleged abuser, James Franklin Sapp, lived next door to the victim on top of Jeter Mountain. The child was 12 years old when she and her mother, Carol Lynn Owenby Siebert, met with a Henderson County sheriff’s deputy at the Waffle House on Upward Road to report “a statutory rape that had occurred over several years at the Sapp residence,” a search warrant application said.
Four days later, on June 16, 2014, the girl told detective Tonya Reeves during a lengthier interview that Sapp had started molesting her at age 5 and had raped her repeatedly over the next seven years. The girl told Reeves that “there was about 40 occurrences when something happened.”
"One of the ways I was hurt by James Sapp was that he took my virginity, which is a very precious thing to me, at the age of seven,” the girl said in a victim impact statement she wrote in 2015. “The sexual abuse started when I was only five.”
The girl, Valerie Marie Owenby, has now chosen to let the world know her identity, in coverage in the Asheville Citizen-Times, and throughout court filings and in state Bar records. Her case was at the center of a Bar grievance that Valerie and her family brought against Newman and it stands now as a core pillar in an inquiry a judge will hear next week on whether Newman should be removed from office. Although an effort to remove a district attorney is rare in North Carolina, state law and a state Supreme Court case establish guidelines for how the process works.
In a ruling on March 17, Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin wrote that there was adequate evidence for a hearing on charges that Newman's opponents raised in a February court filing seeking to oust him. One involves the Sapp case and Newman’s role in accepting a plea bargain that set the defendant free on a single misdemeanor charge. Another involves a separate case in which a defendant charged with domestic violence has accused Newman of vindictive prosecution. The case, which the defendant won at the state Court of Appeals level, is pending before the state Supreme Court. And a third involves a reprimand Newman received in 2019 when the Grievance Committee of the State Bar heard a conflict-of-interest complaint.

Telegenic and out front

A conservative Republican and former mayor of Hendersonville, Newman has won election and re-election since Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him as district attorney in July 2013. A go-to choice as host of local Republican conventions, Newman could always be counted on to deliver zingers mocking then-President Obama and other national Democratic figures. Telegenic and happy to explain his courtroom victories on camera, Newman has been more out-front as a prosecutor than his predecessor, Jeff Hunt, who preferred to let assistant prosecutors try even the highest profile of cases. When the big cases come up in Judicial District 29B, Newman casts himself in the leading role.
The Sapp case has puzzled courthouse observers since Newman settled it with such dramatic leniency six years ago. But it’s what Newman failed to tell the Owenby family that may have landed him in the greatest jeopardy as next week’s hearing on his removal looms.
The owner of a tree service, Sapp and his wife lived next door to Valerie and her father, Oppie Gene Owenby. When Valerie would stay overnight at the Sapps’ home, James Sapp would wait until his wife was asleep before sneaking into Valerie’s room and molesting her, Valerie told the detective. The 12-year-old told the detective that abuse involving touching, vaginal sex or forced oral sex had occurred some 40 times from the time she was 5 until she got her period, when she said Sapp quit the abuse. He warned her, she told detectives, that he would kill her and her family if she told anyone.
“My emotional damage was horrific,” Valerie said in the victim impact statement. “He made me feel like I was no longer clean and I felt as if I could never be true to myself. He forced me to lie to my family because he threatened me if I ever told that he would kill my grandparents and my father. That caused me to be fearful for not only my own life but also the lives of the people around me.”
In a statement filed with the motion to remove Newman, Owenby wrote that he learned of the abuse when the principal of the Christian school Valerie attended called to tell him his daughter had made an “inappropriate … worldly” comment to a classmate. He said yes when the principal suggested the school place Valerie in a “purity class.”
“Now we know what a ‘scarlet letter’ looks like,” Owenby wrote. “Coming from a church setting, I did not understand. Then, I learned what Mr. James Franklin Sapp had done to my daughter. I was raising my children to be God-believing, morally right, productive citizens, and taxpayers. Now, because of what Mr. Sapp has done, I will never know who my daughter could have grown up to become. … Mr. Sapp was my next-door neighbor, and I thought he was a friend. He knew about my faith in God, and he knew the way I was raising my children. Then I learned that Mr. Sapp had been sexually molesting my daughter since she was a small child!”
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Sapp on Sept. 3, 2014, and charged him with one felony count of rape of a child. Eight months later, on May 18, 2015, a Henderson County grand jury charged him with five felonies — one count of rape of a child by an adult, one count of sex offense with a child by an adult and three counts of indecent liberties with a child.
“It’s all a buncha bullcrap,” Sapp, 66, said Tuesday. “My lawyer (Chris Stepp) told me not to do something (to contest the charges) until after the 12th. I do want to put my word out there. I can’t do it today because I’m working. I don’t want to do it until my lawyer says I can because I want to sue the pants off them.”
Sapp said Newman recommended the plea bargain despite what Sapp asserted was his preference to go to trial. “I wanted to get it out there because they didn’t have no proof,” he said.
Sapp said he hopes to sue Valerie and her father. “A lot of that s--- is false,” he said. “She had a baby while we was going to trial — two of ’em. … She wished not to pursue it no more. That’s what she said, so I don’t really know what to say or what to do until my lawyer says what to do.”

Five felonies reduced to one misdemeanor

Given the severity of the charges against Sapp, there was never any doubt that the Owenby family was strongly interested in following every court appearance the defendant would make, according to court filings and the state Bar investigation.
Sometime before Oct. 13, 2015, Newman’s office informed Valerie and her parents that Sapp’s trial would be scheduled for Nov. 2, 2015. Then, 2½ weeks before that day, on Oct. 13, 2015, Newman allowed Sapp to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor count of assault on a female, identifying the victim as Valerie Owenby, which allowed the defendant to avoid prison time and avoid registering as a sex offender.
In its investigation of the grievance filed by the Owenbys, the state Bar attorneys said that neither Newman nor anyone in the D.A.’s office notified the family in advance of the plea agreement, a violation of state law requiring prosecutors to notify a victim “of the date, time and place of all trial court proceedings … that the victim has elected to receive notice.”
During Sapp’s court appearance, District Court Judge Athena Brooks asked the prosecutor’s office whether the victim and her family had been notified of the plea and offered a chance to be heard. Newman told the judge that the victim had been advised of the plea and had responded that they did not wish to be heard. The state Bar opened an investigation into the Owenby family’s grievance on April 3, 2017. In a complaint filed with the Disciplinary Hearing Commission July 2019, the Bar’s attorneys said that Newman had lied to Judge Brooks about notifying the Owenby family and later had lied to Bar investigators about other facts surrounding his handling of the Sapp case in October 2015. In his response to the Bar, Newman had said: “I had my victim/witness staff person prepare a bill of information and contact the mother of the victim. … I handled the plea in District Court instead of Superior Court, where a trial jury was under way. … I explained this situation to (Oppie Owenby) on the day the plea occurred. … Our file shows that the mother never returned the call.”
None of the statements was true, the Bar said. The Bar’s counsel said that the Owenby family was not notified of Sapp’s Oct. 13 District Court appearance, there was no jury trial in Superior Court on that date, Newman had not spoken with Carol Owenby on that day, and prosecutors’ office file contained no notes showing that Newman’s office called Carol Owenby about the Oct. 13 court date, nor a reference to Carol Owenby failing to return a phone call.
After a two-day hearing last November, the Disciplinary Hearing Commission found that Newman had committed misconduct in office by failing to notify the family of Sapp’s court appearance and plea bargain and had lied to Judge Brooks and the Bar about it. The commission suspended his law license for three years but stayed the suspension provided Newman pay the costs of the Bar proceeding, attend required education courses and “not violate Rules of Professional Conduct, including the North Carolina Crime Victims’ Act.”

Judge appoints independent counsel

Newman declined to be interviewed last week to respond to the allegations raised in the Bar complaint and the motion to remove him from office. He referred questions to his attorney, David Freeman of Winston-Salem.
“Counsel presents their evidence and we present our evidence. It’s like a trial,” Freedman said of the process Judge Ervin approved after a brief hearing last Thursday. “I can’t really discuss evidence from the hearing until we’re at the hearing. That would not be proper.” Asked specifically about the disciplinary order, Freedman said, “The findings of fact will come into the hearing from the state Bar and then we have the opportunity to present evidence and argue our case.”
Judge Ervin appointed James P. Coomey III as independent counsel to present evidence at next week’s hearing and in a subsequent order added Isaac N. Northrup Jr. of Asheville as a second attorney to assist him.
In a three-page affidavit she filed with Clerk of Superior Court J. Tyler Ray on Feb. 11, Peggy McDowell listed several reasons why Newman should be removed from office, including the state Bar case decided this year and the previous Bar order that disciplined Newman for dismissing a felony drug charge while serving as D.A. against a client he had represented in private practice nine years earlier. McDowell filed the affidavit on behalf of her daughter, Joanne McDowell, who is in a long-running dispute over her attempts to persuade Newman to investigate what Joanne McDowell describes as abuse of her son by his father. Joanne McDowell was in a bitter fight with her husband, an anesthesiologist in Atlanta, over custody of the boy. When she fled with the boy to Toronto, Newman charged her with child abduction. (Joanne McDowell won a ruling from a judge in Toronto in 2015 that granted her full custody of her son.) In the affidavit, Peggy McDowell cites the Leonard Schalow case and her daughter’s case as examples of vindictive prosecution.
In an order issued March 17, Judge Ervin found that Peggy McDowell’s affidavit:
• Failed to substantiate her assertions that Newman had vindictively prosecuted her daughter.
• Failed to provide any evidence that Newman suffers from “mental or physical incapacity” that would affect his ability to carry out his duties, nor had he shown “habitual intemperance,” which is among the causes for removal under state law.
• Made an invalid point regarding the fact that Newman had conducted 80 percent of his Superior Court cases in front of Judge Peter Knight, the district’s senior resident Superior Court judge. “Mr. Newman is not responsible for the assignment of Superior Court judges to sessions of court in District 29B,” Ervin said.
• Ervin found probable cause to hear evidence involving:
• The facts surrounding the state Bar’s order of discipline against Newman on Jan. 4 and its earlier reprimand for conflict of interest on May 4, 2019, and whether those charges constitute “willful misconduct in office.”
• Whether Newman had committed “willful misconduct” or “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute.”
• The possible vindictive prosecution of Leonard Schalow, a case that is pending before the state Supreme Court. Ervin found that “the allegations concerning the Schalow case could, if true, constitute ‘willful misconduct in office’ or ‘conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute’ and that there is probable cause for believing that the charges in Schalow may be true.”
Joanne McDowell and her mother, whose affidavit led to next week’s hearing, filed the three-page complaint without the help of attorneys.
“We’re OK with it,” Joanne McDowell said of the judge’s order that dismissed her own vindictive prosecution complaint against Newman.
Responding to the Owenby family’s grievance over the Sapp case, the state Bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission “conducted an extensive hearing” that afforded Newman “the opportunity to conduct discovery, to confront and cross-examine witnesses and to present evidence,” Cooney noted. Testifying were Carol Owenby Siebert, Valerie Owenby, detective Tonya Reeves, Lisa Buckner, Oppie Owenby, Judge Brooks and Newman. The D.A. was represented by F. Lane Williamson, a former chair of the Disciplinary Hearing Commission and a former Superior Court judge.
The law tilts in Newman’s favor when it comes to the judge’s ruling. Neither the complainant seeking his removal nor the independent counsel has the right to appeal a finding by the judge that removal is not warranted. If Judge Ervin, a Democrat who is the grandson of former U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, finds that the D.A. should be removed, Newman has the right to appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Asked whether he planned to argue that his client deserves to remain in office, Freedman said yes.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’d say that Mr. Newman has served his duties well as the elected D.A. of Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties and he should be able to remain the D.A. for these three counties. We are arguing there’s not sufficient evidence out there that’s cause to remove him.”