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ABSHER ACQUITTED

Michael Absher answers a question from defense attorney Doug Pearson. Michael Absher answers a question from defense attorney Doug Pearson.

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Michael Absher answers a question from defense attorney Doug Pearson.

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School Board member Michael Absher was found not guilty of two charges arising from three teenagers' statements to authorities that he had provided alcohol to them at Only Hope WNC, the homeless shelter he founded and operates on Allen Road in East Flat Rock.

The dramatic pronouncement from District Judge Patricia Young ended a 2 1/2 day trial during which the three teenagers testified that they had consumed beer or liquor at the home for youth and Absher's defense attorney cast doubt on the charges through witnesses who said Absher had purchased the booze for a Christmas party. Charged with two misdemeanor counts — aiding and abetting the possession of alcohol by a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor — Absher faced a consequence far greater than the penalties of jail and fines.

In his closing arugment, defense attorney Doug Pearson told Judge Young that if the trial had brought an extraodinary level of lawyering, evidence and maneuvering "had the most serious implications of a murder case because of what he has done with his life."

He depicted Absher as a Horatio Alger figure, rising above homelessness and abuse to rally support for, establish and operate a safe harbor for homeless teenagers. He won local praise and national recognition for his work.

As for the state's case, Pearson argued that the charges too broadly framed and too vague to hold up.

"There's no 'to wit' there," he said. "At the end of the day, my client was very clear that he did not provide it, he did not allow it, he did not give it to them."

“I feel great,” Absher said moments after the verdict, speaking to reporters from three news organizations that had provided wall-to-wall coverage of the bench trial in District Court. “It still disturbs me that youth would make those accusations. But we had to let the court do their job. I denied it several times and I still deny it today. I did not give these youth alcohol, I did not let them consume it. I would never do anything to jeopardize everything I’ve worked for eight years.”

“I lost a lot during this case,” he said. “I lost my apartment, I lost my property management job but I didn’t want to lose everything else. Multiple School Board members wanted me to resign and I refused. It’s going to be interesting to see what they say now.”

Aside from what he said was — and always has been — his unpaid job as the president of Only Hope and operator of the shelter, Absher works as a swing manager at McDonalds. He said he hoped the acquittal would restore the public's trust in Only Hope.

“I would never put any youth in jeopardy," he said. "I would never jeopardize anything that I’ve worked for, I would never sacrifice any of my homeless youth initiatives that I’ve done across the region and the nation. I believe in every child. I believe every child has the right to have a home. I thank God for having the opportunity to learn from this.”

He thanked his attorney, support from Only Hope board members and donors and “multiple elected officials” who have supported him. One elected official, attorney Michael Edney, the chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, was in the courtroom for the verdict.

Absher and his supporters have said they were eager to have their day in court and frustrated as they waited for unusual processes for two misdemeanor charges, such as bringing in a prosecutor and judge from Buncombe County.

“This was a misdemeanor case. It would be interesting to find out how much this cost the state," he said.

“I actually don’t know yet but I can ensure the public that my defense cost did not come from Only Hope,” he said. As a professional working with youth, he has insurance that covers the cost of his defense if he is accused of wrongdoing in the course of his work. “When you work with youth, things always happen," he said.

“Let’s not attack the youth for making that accusations,” he said. “That youth is very troubled. He does need some help. I still would support any kind of help that we as an organization could possibly do. Some are not stable and they have issues. .. I will never give up on any of these youth.”

"I feel that God and the community can help this house move forward. I’m probably going to be asking for help for the county again this year. We were cleared from DSS, too. If there was any wrongdoing I think it would have shown. We’ve been in operation the whole entire time.”

 

Pearson took a chance and put his client on the stand. Absher took several shots from prosecutor Jeremy Ingle but managed to parry Ingle's questions based on Absher's statements to investigators four days after the state's leading witness made the charges. The witness, a 15-year-old who was removed from the home on April 1, has been identified as Witness 1 because he is a minor.

The prosecution's case was based on separate incidences in which teenagers testified that Absher purchased alcohol or allowed the use of alcohol in the home. The teenagers told law officers and the court that Absher was aware that boys were drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade in the home around Nov. 25, 2016, and they told the court that Absher had bought Fireball whisky and two flavored vodkas on Dec. 16, 2016.

 

Absher acknowledged that he had bought three bottles of liquor for a Christmas party that night and testified that they were left at the party at a home on Berea Church Road and never in the group home.

In his closing statement, prosecutor Jeremy Ingle said the teenagers testified to things they could not have concocted because they got the details right.

“They planned it, they talked to each other, they got their story straight” in the defense narrative, Ingle said. “But we would contend that what the evidence shows after testimony is three individuals who have three different recollections of events, which is the natural course. Their recollections are different as to very tiny minuscule facts like where they went to dinner four months prior to the day the day they were questioned. That fact doesn’t matter.” (One boy testified they went to Pizza Hut, another said it was Papa John’s a third said Taco Bell.)

What mattered, Ingle said, was Witness 1’s testimony that described specific locations, specific activity and the exact brands of whisky and vodka that Absher bought the night of Dec. 16, 2016.

“That would also require that he knew at that date, at that time that he was not with him, he bought that vodka, Smirnoff, which is going to show up on that receipt, he also bought Fireball, which is going to show up on that receipt," Ingle said. "That requires a lot of planning, a lot of thought, with information that (Witness 1) really would have no reason to know. To just randomly come up with the date of Dec. 16 is pretty unbelievable. He provided the evidence of what happened.”

 

EARLIER COVERAGE:

 

A defense witness for Henderson County School Board member Michael Absher testified Tuesday that Absher brought three bottles of liquor to a Christmas party that was the same brand teenagers say Absher had bought for them the same night of the party.

 

Tanya Suttles,the first witness in Absher's defense, testified that she has known Absher for 15 years. On the evening of Dec. 16, 2016, she was hosting a Christmas party to which Absher was invited. Absher arrived with “Fireball Cinnamon liquor, a cheese ball and crackers, Smirnoff vodka – fruit and regular, pineapple and strawberry – and two steaks,” she said.

Suttles,who owns Tire Country of Hendersonville on Kanuga Road with her husband, Eric, testified that she went to bed and her brother drove Absher home to the brother’s apartment above the tire business because Absher had left his car to be serviced for a brake job the following Monday. Suttles said no detective ever interviewed her.

Absher is on trial in Henderson County District Court on misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting consumption of alcohol by a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Suttles's testimony was potentially significant because it offers an explanation for three specific brands of liquor that three teenagers testified last week Absher had bought for them and allowed them to drink at Only Hope WNC, the group home for homeless teenaged boys that Absher founded and operates.

As the second day of testimony opened Tuesday morning, defense attorney Doug Pearson spent nearly three hours attempting to undercut a detective’s investigation of the Absher case. Under cross examination, Sheriff’s Cpl. Aaron Lisenby, lead investigator in the case, testified that he interviewed the male teenager who initially made the allegations that Absher had bought booze for him and two other teenagers and allowed them to smoke pot in the house. The teenager has been identified as Witness 1 because he is a juvenile.

Lisenby said Witness 1 told him that he had had a good relationship with Absher until he was kicked out for fighting last April 1.

Challenging the thoroughness of Lisenby’s investigation, Pearson pointed out inconsistencies in his methods and attacked the precision of his probing into the teenagers’ use of social media.
District Court Judge Patricia Young, who was brought in from Buncombe County to hear the case, overruled Pearson several times as he asked Lisenby about details of the case and his techniques in fact-gathering. Specifically, Pearson questioned why Lisenby wasn’t more skeptical of Witness 1’s story and why he sought to interview no adults who were involved in Only Hope. Pearson asked the detective why he failed to seek help from the State Bureau of Investigation, which has more experience in analyzing social media and cell phone information. And the defense attorney questioned why Lisenby obtained no subpoenas to get receipts from restaurants where the teens said they had eaten or Absher’s bank records to corroborate or disprove the teens’ stories.
Lisenby said he had interviewed the three teenage boys – they were the first witnesses called on the first day of trial on Friday – as well as two more teen boys and two teen girls who knew Witness 1. Lisenby testified that he acquired a warrant to search Only Hope on April 5, and spoke with Absher there on that date. Absher told Lisenby that Witness 1 had been picking on a new resident and had been kicked out of the home and he denied that he had purchased alcohol for the teens. Lisenby testified that Absher told him that one of the teens had brought two bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the residence and he did not stop them from drinking. Absher told Lisenby that he had purchased alcohol at the ABC store in downtown Hendersonville but it was not for the teens. He told Lisenby that two of the teens, Witnesses 1 and 2, were drinking and that Witness 1 “was not someone to argue with” so he allowed them to drink.
Lisenby said Absher told him he knew they were drinking because he had a “keen sense of smell and could smell alcohol and he went to bed and left them drinking.” When Lisenby asked Absher why he didn’t call the sheriff’s office to report the teens, Absher responded that “he did not call the Sheriff’s Office because he didn’t think about that," the detective said. "He denied any involvement.”
Lisenby said he and Absher then went to view the video that would have been taken of the residence that day but it did not show footage from the day in question and he did not take the DVR machine with him for further investigation.
Pearson also questioned Lisenby about why he did not take the cell phone used by Witness 1 to provide Snapchat images to the Sheriff’s office to be analyzed by SBI and did not ask for a preservation order from Snapchat to be able to analyze the source and timing of the photos on the phone. Lisenby testified that he had limited knowledge of Snapchat.
“You didn’t reach out to further process evidence submitted on Snapchat … to get to the truth, to exonerate someone,” Pearson said to Lisenby. Lisenby said he only reached out to Homeland Security for help in getting records of purchases on Amazon.com.
Earlier Tuesday, the general manager of the Hendersonville ABC stores, Raymond English, testified that he had been asked to pull records for the purchase of Smirnoff vodka, Fireball Cinnamon whisky and Smirnoff pineapple vodka on Dec. 16, 2016. English testified that he found such a purchase on that date but could not identify who had made the purchase because a prepaid Visa card had been used. In the case of such cards, the computer system identifies the transaction as a gift card and unlike a credit card purchase no name is associated with the transaction.

After Suttles finished testifying, defense attorney Pearson called Paula Boone, a volunteer at Only Hope. A former probation officer in Richmond County, Boone lives about a mile from the group home and comes once or twice a week to clean.
Pearson asked Boone whether she had ever seen any alcohol in the refrigerator or in the freezer. “Never,” she said. “I’ve never seen alcoholic beverages ever in that place. I would have reported it to Michael right away.” She testified she had never seen drugs at the group home either. “I would have reported it to Michael. I was a juvenile delinquent, so I know the ropes. I know what to look for,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Pearson called two other teenaged boys, residents of Only Hope when Witness 1 was thrown out in April of last year but not when the alleged alcohol purchase took place on Dec. 16, 2016.

The first to testify said Witness 1 woke him up on Friday, April 1, a day that Only Hope was having an open house. "I didn't get up right away at the time he wanted me to," the witness said. "He came on me and started to get physical with me. Then he said he was going to kill me. He got pretty aggressive with me ... There was a lot of words back and forth."

The second group home resident testified that Witness 1 had said he had incriminating evidence against Absher and "was going to get the place shut down."

On cross examination, Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ingle asked the witness whether he knew for certain that the threat was untrue.

"In fact, if someone gave alcohol that might be a reason it would be shut down," Ingle said.

"Yes," the witness acknowledged.

Vickie Sanders, an Only Hope board member and volunteer, was the last defense witness before the trial broke for two days. She testified that she had known Absher since he was about 10 or 12 years old through First Baptist Church.

"I've always seen him at church," she said. "He's always been active. He taught my grandchildren in Sunday school."

Only Hope is "a home for youth that cannot stay in their home," she said. "It gives them a chance to go to school, make good grades and it teaches them something about the world."

Pearson asked Sanders how she got her nickname.

"I'm kind of like a mother figure," she said. "They want to ask me about girls and stuff like that. I call them my sugarbabies and they call me Sugarmama."

Sanders described Witness 1 as volatile and difficult.

"I tried to encourage him because he needed it," she said. The teenager "wouldn't take my encouragement many times. He would push it off ... He would pick at Michael every chance he got. He would pick at all the children at all hours of the night. It was constant constant turmoil when (the teenager) was there."

A trial that has been interrupted numerous times by objections, arguments over objections and lengthy sidebars with Judge Young, the prosecutor and defense was interrupted again Tuesday afternoon, apparently to resolve a scheduling question. At one point, Athena Brooks, the chief resident District Court judge for Henderson County, joined the sidebar, clad in her judicial robe.

After the last witness was dismissed, Judge Young announced that the trial would resume at 2 p.m. Friday. The defense will resume its case.