One night at the Moose Lodge
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
June 20, 2004
On Monday morning, four lawyers, one complainant and two defendants will appear before Justice Court Judge William Gunn to determine whether a simple assault trial will go forward that day or be delayed again.
The trial is a sub-plot to allegations of racial bigotry, fraud and favoritism at Key Field's 186th Air Refueling Wing. The whistle-blower was retired Col. Jody H. Bryant, a former member of the 186th and now a pilot for FedEx.
After the controversy broke, feelings ran high. In September 2003, Bryant had words at the Moose Lodge with two former members of the 186th, Leslie "Zero" Wilkes and Tommy Temple.
Bryant filed misdemeanor charges against both at the Meridian Police Department. Bryant said they pushed him, verbally assaulted him and threatened him with a weapon.
Recusals and delays
The case was initially set for trial in Meridian Municipal Court, where it experienced a series of delays. Municipal Judge Lester Williamson recused himself. City prosecutor Alfred Corey, who would have been the attorney representing Bryant's side, recused himself.
A "recusal" happens when a judge or attorney assigned to a case feels that he has a conflict of interest or may be perceived to have one and asks to be replaced.
The case was transferred to Lauderdale County Justice Court and assigned to Judge Gerald Wayne Thompson. The judge recused himself, and the case was reassigned to Judge William Gunn.
County attorney Justin Cobb who, like Corey, would have been the person representing Bryant's side, recused himself. Kemper County's county attorney, Martin "Buddy" Oden, was called in to replace him.
Bryant declines to say why he no longer wants Oden to speak for him, but has now retained Meridian attorney Bill Ready Jr. instead.
On Monday, Judge Gunn will hear Oden's motion to withdraw from the case. Ready's association with Bryant is recent, and he will be seeking a delay so he can get up to speed.
Attorneys for Wilkes and Temple oppose that, claiming there have already been too many delays. Dan Self Jr. represents Wilkes; Bob Bresnahan represents Temple.
They want to go to trial on Monday. And, unlike most Justice Court proceedings, this will be a real trial with witnesses and everything.
Meanwhile, a report of the investigation into allegations of wrong-doing at the 186th is nearing completion by a staff judge advocate for the Florida Air Guard in Jacksonville. Parts of it have been released to the Mississippi Guard, but nothing has been made public.
Bryant assisted in the investigation, as did retired Col. David Bertholf.
Bryant and Bertholf appeared on a morning talk show, on WMOX Radio, on May 27, 2003. During that broadcast, they made remarks to which some members of the 186th took exception.
Twelve of them filed a lawsuit alleging slander in Lauderdale County Circuit Court.
Bryant sought to have the case transferred to U.S. District Court in Jackson. He argued that, on the day of the broadcast, he was acting in the "course and scope of his employment." He asked the U.S. Attorney General's office to certify that statement. The AG's office declined.
U.S. District Judge Tom Lee sent the case back to Lauderdale County Circuit Court. Lee acknowledged that Bryant had been involved in the investigation, but added: 1) by the time Bryant appeared on WMOX, he had retired from the Air Guard; and 2) nobody in the military asked him to make a radio appearance.
All of this back-and-forth action in the lawsuit also applies to Bertholf. But, nobody has been able to find him to "serve him with process," or notify him he's being sued.
Attorneys for the 12 plaintiffs say the case could go to trial in Lauderdale County as early as November, but it sounds more like we'll still be writing about it this time next year.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or