Opinion: A skeleton comes calling in a Cherokee Co. race for coroner

Don Ware and other Cherokee County sheriff's deputies with the arrested Christopher Stone in Cell No. 38  in 1997. Ware is at the far right in the photo.
Don Ware and other Cherokee County sheriff's deputies with the arrested Christopher Stone in Cell No. 38 in 1997. Ware is at the far right in the photo.

The trouble with locking skeletons in a closet is that they tend to escape at the most inconvenient times. Even after 23 years in the dark.

In early March, Don Ware Jr. resigned as chairman of the Cherokee County GOP in order to become one of three candidates in a Republican race for coroner.

It might seem like a natural fit. Ware owns a company that transports the dead to funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries. And a stint as party chairman certainly would give a fellow a leg up in the upcoming primary.

But then that skeleton slipped out.

In June 1997, Ware was a deputy sheriff with the rank of corporal, serving under Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison. He was supervising several other deputies – most of whom hadn’t been on the job a month – on the overnight shift.

Forty-year-old Christopher Stone, a beefy guy, was brought in on a DUI. An investigation would later describe him as “highly intoxicated” and “incoherent and unable to stand or walk without assistance.” He was placed on a mattress in Cell No. 38 and left alone for two hours or so.

At 1 a.m., his hands still handcuffed behind him, Stone was brought out for booking. He hadn’t sobered up enough to answer the deputies’ questions. Deputies picked him up so that he might be returned to Cell No. 38 – and Stone began to struggle.

Once inside the cell, Stone was laid out on the floor, face down. “The officer-to-offender ratio was seven-to-one,” an internal investigation would report. Ware stood on Stone’s neck as the man under his feet screamed. “You know what? I don’t care if you die, I’ll do the paperwork,” Ware said. That’s not an exact quote. Expletives were removed in the official report.

“Ware then bounces up and down on the back and neck of Stone,” the report continued. That’s right. “Bounces.” To the point that the prisoner lost control of his bowels. The deputies complained of the reek and donned rubber gloves.

Then Stone was bodily lifted out of Cell No. 38 and wrestled into a restraining chair. After which Ware dragged Stone – and the chair – by his head back into No. 38.

The deputies left. “Later on the tape, you can hear Ware and [another deputy] taunting Stone through the cell door. You can also hear what sounds like some type of spray can being discharged under the door of the cell,” the report said.

Stone was unable to move as Ware emptied a canister of pepper spray into Cell No. 38. And yes, the entire scene was recorded.

“Ware was not in need of self-defense, he was not overcoming resistance or an attempt at self-inflicted injury, nor was he preventing a crime in in progress,” an internal investigation concluded.

Ware, a seven-year veteran, was sacked. Others were, too, but they aren’t running for coroner. The U.S. Justice Department came calling – and Ware pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor. His sentence was a $1,000 fine, a year’s probation, 200 hours of community service – and a promise never to serve in law enforcement again. Not even as a mall cop.

The prosecutor, incidentally, was David Nahmias, who now sits on the Georgia Supreme Court.

That wasn’t the end of it. Stone filed a federal civil suit. Cherokee County and Sheriff Garrison were cut loose after paying $600,000 – presumably, in tax dollars.

If you live in Cherokee County, this might be the first time you’ve heard of this. News like this can get hushed up in a small community. And details of the civil lawsuit settlement were sealed with a non-disclosure agreement.

Rumors of the closeted skeleton began a year ago, when Ware ran for the GOP chairmanship in Cherokee. Tim Adderholdt, a Woodstock resident and communications technician, was among those who began looking for documentation. He initially hit a brick wall.

When Ware qualified to run for coroner, Adderholdt – a former member of the Cherokee GOP — began his search again. This time, he rescued the criminal case against Ware from the bowels of the Northern District court archives. Including the video – a VHS tape.

Adderholdt and a friend, Bill Parrish, split the copying charges that ran to just over $200. “It’s been investigating and asking questions and making FOIA requests and copies,” Adderholdt told me.

Much of their information has been distilled into a YouTube video, posted at donwareforcoroner.com. (Note to future candidates: Make sure you nail down your domain name before you announce your campaign.)

The two have also have filed a formal challenge to Ware’s candidacy with the Cherokee County Board of Election. State law bars the candidacy of those convicted of “any offense involving moral turpitude,” they point out. Adderholdt and Parrish also argue that Ware’s candidacy violates his long-ago promise to stay out of law enforcement – pointing to a coroner’s investigative powers. I will let the lawyers decide that one.

When the complaint will be taken up is up in the air, while the elections board ponders how to hold a hearing without breaking the current quarantine guidelines.

There are those who will say that a spate of extraordinarily poor decisions made 23 years ago shouldn’t dog a person forever. I don’t know what kind of man Ware is today – we spoke briefly on the phone, but he said he didn’t want to answer any questions until he had consulted his attorney.

I do know that redemption is a real thing. But I also know that the forgiveness clock doesn’t start ticking until the skeletons are out of the closet – and have been confronted. And if you’re a candidate for office, that’s something that needs to happen in public.

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