WALLACE — A former Wallace police officer, who by all accounts was well-liked and admired within the community, was charged Wednesday by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation on 37 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.

The state investigation was launched in January at the request of Wallace Police Chief Jimmy Crayton, who analyzed and discovered three years worth of “irregularities” in the use of a town-issued fuel card by then officer Steven Ellis. The SBI is typically called in to investigate allegations of wrong-doing on the part of local law enforcement officers.

The Town of Wallace issues all police officers a fuel card that they can use at gas stations to fill up their patrol cars with gas, Crayton explained. Each officer has a unique personal identification number, and every time they fill up their vehicle they must enter the card, the PIN, and an odometer reading for their vehicle on the gas pump computer screen. The system is designed to track both fuel consumption and fuel efficiency.

At the end of each month, the town pays the gas bill and officials are given a spreadsheet detailing each purchase. In years past, the spreadsheet was on paper, but now it is in an online portal, Crayton said.

“The system is designed to be able to track things, but unfortunately a human still has to sit down and comb through all those bills.” Crayton said.

Since the department never went over budget in fuel purchases, Crayton, who has been police chief since October 2017, said he never paid attention to the details. He told the town council in January that he should have been paying more attention.

“I took responsibility for it and said that I should have caught it,” he said. “I never even looked at our fuel bills. We have a budget every year for what we spend on fuel, and we’ve never gone over budget on fuel purchases. So it was never an issue, and you trust your employees that they are doing the right thing.”

According to investigators, Ellis was not doing the right thing.

“When this thing came about, of course, I went back and pulled all of the fuel reports for all of the officers, and Ellis’ was the only one with any kind of irregularities. And there were a lot of irregularities.”

Crayton pulled out a spreadsheet of Ellis’ fuel charges on Thursday in his office. The spreadsheet is marked with numerous highlights detailing irregularities in the fuel purchases. Many purchases were made that exceeded 18.5 gallons, which is the maximum amount of gas that Ellis’ cruiser, a Dodge Charger, would hold.

“So if you’re purchasing 21 gallons, that’s a giant red flag that it’s not going into a Charger,” Crayton said.

At the time of his employment with the town, Ellis’ personal vehicle was a full-sized Chevrolet pickup with a 25-gallon tank, Crayton added.

In addition, Ellis’ fuel purchases were often made several days in a row, and sometimes more than one purchase was made in a single day.

“Most officers fill up their vehicles every three or four days,” Crayton said.

He also detailed charges that were made outside of town, ranging anywhere from neighboring towns to Winston-Salem and farther away areas like Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Ellis was born in New Jersey.

Officials are convinced that Ellis was not only filling up his own personal vehicle, but also the vehicles of acquaintances.

Crayton estimates that the purchases actually amount to $18-19,000, however for “clarity and ease of prosecution” the district attorney’s office is only pursuing charges for excessively large purchases and for purchases that were made outside of Wallace. Days when multiple purchases were made within town limits are not being considered for prosecution.

The SBI bundled purchases by each month over three years of Ellis’ time with the town, so 37 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses are represented by 37 months worth of illegal purchases.

Ellis is charged with a Class H felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 months per count. Crayton said he would be very surprised if Ellis is incarcerated because this is his first offense and he cooperated in the investigation.

“I can’t speak to exactly what the DA’s office is going to do,” Crayton said. “I do know that Ellis was cooperative in the investigation. He cooperated fully, and he took responsibility.”

District Attorney Ernie Lee confirmed that his office is pursuing prosecution and that he, along with Assistant DAs Lori Carroll and Jason McGuirt, met with SBI Special Agent Phillip Burlingame and others at his office in Kenansville to discuss the case. They found reasonable cause to continue the investigation, however Lee would not comment on the specifics of any allegations. Angie Grube, spokesperson for the SBI, also would not comment on the case since the investigation is ongoing. The Duplin Times also reached out to Ellis for comment, but he did not return phone calls.

SBI agents picked up Ellis on Tuesday and he appeared before a magistrate in Kenansville. He was never incarcerated and he was released on a $175,000 unsecured bond. If Ellis fails to appear when he is summoned to court, then he will be arrested and will have to pay the $175,000 bond.

A disappointed Crayton says he has not spoken to Ellis since he was charged by the SBI, but that he remembers him as being one of the stars of the Wallace Police Department during his time there. Ellis resigned his position with the town in March 2020, and went to work with the Rose Hill Police Department.

Rose Hill police officials could not be reached for comment.

“He was a fantastic officer, without a doubt,” he said. “When he left here, I begged him not to leave. His captain begged him not to leave. His sergeant begged him not to leave. ...Steven was one of a kind. When it came to community policing, there’s never been one better.”

“He was a rock star when he walked into that elementary school,” Crayton said. “The kids loved him, and rightly so.”

Crayton said it is a shame that his law enforcement career is likely over with these charges.

‘He got into law enforcement for very noble and honorable reasons. His girlfriend and child were killed by a drunk driver many years ago, and that’s what drove him to get into law enforcement. He was always passionate about kids and about DWIs. There was no doubt he led the department in charges for DWIs, but what he excelled at was being in the community and dealing with the community. That’s one of the reasons that this was so challenging for me. Steven and I had a very good relationship.”

“He was a member of a family and a very critical part of that family,” Crayton said. “But at the end of the day, it is what it is and it sucks. I could have easily turned a blind eye to this because nobody knew it but me. I was the only one that knew, but you can’t do that. I don’t care who you are. The public demands accountability for a law enforcement officer and they demand that police departments be transparent, and that’s what we’re trying to do in this situation.”

“The taxpayers deserve to know why $12,000 is missing,” Crayton added. “That’s half of a new patrol car. That’s new weapons for the entire department. That’s a new fingerprint system. There’s tons of things on a wish list that we could have used for this department. For a small department, twelve grand is a good chunk of money.”

“At the end of the day, right is right and wrong is wrong, and if we’re going to hold the public accountable, then we have to hold ourselves accountable, too.”

The Duplin Times may be reached at duplinnews@ncweeklies.com