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Federal court OKs $430K settlement to defendants over sheriff’s 2016 “human trafficking” allegations during press conference

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No “human trafficking” charges ever filed; even obstruction of justice and obtaining property by false pretense charges later dropped

A couple who were publicly accused of human trafficking in 2016 have agreed to drop a federal defamation suit that they later lodged against Alamance County’s sheriff in return for a financial settlement of $430,000.

Aris Hines and Brandi Thomason have reportedly accepted this six figure sum in exchange for a pledge to call off the court action they filed in 2019 over the harsh and apparently unsubstantiated claims that they had incurred three years before from sheriff Terry Johnson and his one-time spokesman Randy Jones.

At the crux of this federal case are the claims that Johnson and Jones had originally aired during a news conference that they convened on May 17, 2016 to announce the couple’s arrest.

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At the time, the sheriff’s office had merely charged Hines and Thomason with the rather mundane offenses of obstruction of justice and obtaining property by false pretense for their alleged role in a scandal over an ineligible student athlete at Eastern High School.

According to the sheriff’s office, the couple had fudged student records to get a young athletic powerhouse from Nigeria enrolled at Eastern High School. The young man went on to distinguish himself on both the football field and the basketball court, until irregularities in his paperwork ended his career at Eastern – and forced the school to forfeit a string of basketball victories as well as an entire season of games on the gridiron.

In addition to their alleged parts in the enrollment debacle, Hines and Thomason were also accused of having deliberately misled and exploited the West African phenom in order to profit from his athletic prowess. In fact, Johnson had made several statements to that effect at the news conference. Among other things, he had accused the couple of keeping the young man in unwholesome environment with other youths they had likewise hoped to enroll in area schools. Johnson also speculated that this case could be part of a much broader pattern of similarly deceptive arrangements.

“It appears to be human trafficking,” the sheriff told the assembled reporters at one point. “This is just a drop in the bucket of what we have found out…and the investigation will probably be six months to a year because it covers a lot of territory.”

Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson during May 17, 2016 press conference where he alluded to suspects as having engaged in human trafficking.

Johnson went on to add that his deputies were hunting for a trio of young women whom Hines and Thomason had allegedly tried to enroll at schools in Alamance County using suspicious documents. The sheriff also recounted a phone call with a sheriff’s investigator in Robeson County, who was looking into the couple’s supposedly dodgy dealings with another 18 students in his jurisdiction.

According to federal court records, Johnson repeated many of these same allegations after the initial news conference took place on May 17. Yet, as the months wore on, very little actually came of his sensational claims about where his agency’s investigation was heading. In the end, there wasn’t even enough to substantiate the original charges against Thomason and Hines, which were eventually dismissed in July of 2018. Crucially, the much-discussed charges of human trafficking never emerged – as emphasized by the lawsuit that they ultimately filed in federal court.

Yet, the damage to the defendants was already done.

According to the lawsuit that Hines and Thomason initiated in May of 2019, the sheriff and his subordinates had tarnished the couple’s reputations, subjected them to emotional duress, and forced them to expend large sums of money on their legal defense.

“[The] defendants’ false and defamatory statements have defamed [the] plaintiffs and their families and damaged [the] plaintiff’s reputations such that [they] had to move outside of the state of North Carolina,” the lawsuit goes on to contend. “[The] defendants’ false and illegal arrest, seizure of [the] plaintiffs, and defamatory statements have interfered with [the] plaintiff’s income and has resulted in great financial damage…[and] as a direct and proximate result of [the] defendants’ malicious, intentional, and willful actions, [the] plaintiffs have suffered severe emotional distress, severe depression, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, humiliation, embarrassment, public ridicule, damage to their reputations, and other pecuniary and non-pecuniary losses.”

The couple’s lawsuit goes on to assert that the allegations which Hines and Thomason faced in 2016 had been predicated on false information. The suit argues that the sheriff’s office had “failed to investigate” or independently corroborate this information. It is especially critical of 10 unnamed deputies who reportedly took these claims at face value – who, through their “incompetence,” posed “a particular risk to the plaintiffs.”

The couple’s suit contends that these unsubstantiated tips ultimately gave rise to the “prejudicial, hateful, and downright untruthful statements” that Johnson and Jones had “intentionally and maliciously made to damage [the] plaintiffs.” With that in mind, Hines and Thomason accused the sheriff and this former spokesman of defamation, slander, and malicious prosecution as well as both the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress,  They also demanded a jury trial so they could present evidence of the defendants’ alleged misdeeds as well as the agonies they suffered as a result.

Over the next four years, the two sets of litigants made the necessary preparations for this proposed showdown in federal court. By the opening weeks of 2023, this trial seemed all but destined to occur – with the proceedings having even been docketed for the morning of August 21. In the meantime, however, there were also murmurs of a potential settlement – a prospect that ultimately came to pass less than a week ago. .

In January of this year, the two sides engaged in a round of mediation that initially seemed to produce some sort of compromise. At some point, the court was even notified of a pre-trial settlement – although the news proved to be a bit premature, and on February 12, the court formally posted a correction to “revoke” the “false report” of this settlement.

On July 28, representatives of each litigant returned to the conference table, and this time, the resolution they hashed out seemed to actually stick. Later that day, the court received an account of this powwow that declared the defendants would pony up $430,000 within 21 days in return for a promise from the plaintiffs that they would voluntarily dismiss their lawsuit within five days of receiving this payment.

The summary of this conference goes on to note that the litigants had “agreed to settle” all of their claims “rather than try the case.”

“All claims were settled for a total of $430,000.00,” the document adds, “[and] no defendant has admitted liability for any of the remaining claims.”

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