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Officers: 4 Arkansas youths met with revolver

Wynne woman accused in case by KATIE METTLER THE WASHINGTON POST | August 17, 2019 at 9:19 a.m.
In this Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 booking photo, provide by the Cross County, Arkansas, Sheriff's Office is Jerri Kelly, the wife of an Arkansas jail administrator who has been arrested after officials say she pulled a gun on four black teenagers fundraising door-to-door for their high school football team. Authorities say Kelly is charged with aggravated assault, false imprisonment and endangering the welfare of a minor. (Cross County Sheriff's Office via AP)

At first, the high school football players thought the woman waving the gun was joking.

Then she started yelling and cursing, the teenagers told police, and she forced them to the ground.

The four boys, ages 15 and 16, had spent that Aug. 7 morning in their town of Wynne, going door-to-door to sell discount cards for their annual high school football team fundraiser, which took them to the home of a 46-year-old stranger named Jerri Kelly.

But before the teens even knocked on her door, Kelly emerged with a chrome-plated revolver, according to a police report.

She used an expletive as she told them to lie down, spread their legs and place their arms behind their back, the boys later told police. When they tried to explain they were fundraising for school -- not stealing -- she called them liars, they told police. When one boy tried to swat at a mosquito, Kelly threatened that if he didn't stop moving she would shoot, according to police reports.

"We was scared," one of the teens told police. "I thought she was going to shoot me in the head how she was acting."

Kelly has been charged with four counts each of aggravated assault and false imprisonment, both felonies, and four counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, which is a misdemeanor. The woman, who used to work in law enforcement, was arrested, booked and bonded out on Monday without getting her mugshot taken.

Cross County Sheriff David West said Kelly had a medical issue after she was fingerprinted Monday, but she returned Thursday and her mug shot was taken then. She also appeared in Wynne District Court that day, but her case was sent to Cross County Circuit Court because of the felony charges, West said.

Kelly's husband, Joe Kelly, was the jail administrator until Friday, when he resigned.

"Joe did nothing wrong, but with his wife and the way this blew up, he decided it was best," West said, referring to nationwide media attention that the incident has received.

Also, there were some allegations of preferential treatment since Jerri Kelly wasn't required to have a mug shot taken at the jail Monday.

Mug shots of people arrested are normally posted on the jail's website at crosscountysheriff.org/roster.php.

"There's nothing shady here," West said. "How this has blown to this proportion over her photo not being taken is beyond me."

The Wynne Progress apparently broke the story about the incident around 9 a.m. Tuesday, posting an article on its Facebook page.

"All this lady had to do was say no thank you and close the door, but instead she chose to pull a gun out and traumatize these boys," the Progress reported, citing a Facebook post by a football player's mother.

After a request from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Wynne Police Department sent out a news release Tuesday afternoon, and the newspaper posted a story on its website.

By 7 p.m. Tuesday, Memphis television station WMC Action News 5, reported new information -- the football players were black and Jerri Kelly was the jail administrator's wife.

Matt Campbell of bluehogreport.com added another angle Thursday: The Kellys rent their home from West.

West said he has owned the rental company since 2009, and the Kellys rent one of his houses. He said Joe Kelly was planning to buy the house from him.

West is a former Arkansas State Police officer who is serving his first term as sheriff.

"I've got a reputation for doing what's right, and that's what I want to keep," he said. "We've got a black eye right now, and I'm doing all I can to fix it. I don't know what other direction to go."

At Wynne High School, where the teens are students, administrators are re-evaluating how to handle student fundraising efforts moving forward, Wynne Public Schools Superintendent Carl Easley said.

In the Wynne neighborhood where the gun scare took place, some residents remain unsettled.

"They're just kids," Bill Winkler, who has lived in the area for 40 years, told WMC Action News 5. "You worry about your neighborhood, and you wonder who is this person."

Wynne police officers interviewed a half-dozen witnesses, all who said the teens had done nothing to provoke Kelly, according to her arrest affidavit.

In four separate statements, the boys -- whom authorities did not name because they are minors -- offered similar versions of how that morning began.

They left football practice, two of them dressed in their jerseys and two in street clothes, to set out selling cards, the boys said. They walked to get water, then started knocking on doors, where they took turns delivering their pitch and hanging back by the street. At one home, a black dog chased them, so they hopped into the back of a nearby pickup for shelter.

The dog owner emerged to apologize and assure them the dog was friendly, according to the teens' statements. They jumped out of the pickup, played with the pup and laughed over the situation as they continued along the block toward their next house, which is where they would meet a gray-haired woman with a gun, they told police.

When the teens approached her house, they did not know that Kelly had already reported them as "suspicious persons" to police. Jerri Kelly told police in a statement that she heard "yelling and screaming" and dogs barking outside her residence, then watched as four males walked down the middle of the street toward her neighbor's house.

"All males were African-American, and I know this residence to [be] white," Jerri Kelly said in her statement.

The woman told police that she saw them "horseplaying" in the driveway, "aggravating the dog that lived there" and walking around the carport area. When they turned toward her house, Jerri Kelly said she feared for her safety, so she grabbed her gun and called her husband to send over police.

By the time officers arrived about 8 minutes later, Jerri Kelly had the teens on the ground at gunpoint, reports said. She asked if they knew whose house they were at, demanded they show her their IDs and told them to keep their heads down, the boys later told authorities.

Once the officers arrived, Jerri Kelly walked to her carport and put her gun on the back of her vehicle, authorities said.

According to the police report, one of the responding officers immediately recognized the teens as students from Wynne High School, where he is the resource officer. He told them they could get up and stand by the patrol car. But when they began to walk away, Jerri Kelly called them back, according to the report.

She proceeded to lecture them, saying that though it might appear her actions were racially motivated, "it ain't about that," according to the arrest report. She told the boys they were acting "suspicious" and did not look like salesmen, the report said.

"Don't act like that. Be men about it and sell cards," she told them, according to the police report. "Be smart about it boys. Please. It's your life you're talking about. Don't be silly about it. All right. For me, will you do that."

Kelly then chastised one boy who she said wasn't listening to her, according to the arrest report.

"Yes ma'am," the boys responded.

An hour later, Jerri Kelly asked for the boys' contact information so she could buy them lunch to "put some closure on this," according to the arrest report. In the statement she gave police, she said she "felt remorse" after she learned that the four were teenagers simply trying to raise funds for school, but reiterated "they were not acting as such at the initial encounter."

Jerri Kelly could not immediately be reached for comment. It was not clear if she had an attorney representing her as of Thursday evening.

The school was notified immediately, and administrators called the teenagers' parents to explain what had happened.

"Of course the parents were upset," Easley said. "Anybody would be if that happened to their child."

The student body at Wynne High School is about 70% white and 28% black, Easley said. Before this incident, the school had never had issues with students selling the discount cards in their community.

The grandmother of one of the 16-year-old boys, who did not want to be identified, told Memphis News Channel 3 that her grandson was traumatized from the encounter.

"He said, 'Grandma, every time I close my eyes, I see that gun.'"

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 08/17/2019

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