A carpenter's level critiqued James Michael Lynch's every move as he worked. After each swing of his mallet, Lynch consulted the level, which rested on the sign's wooden frame. Only when a sign was perfectly straight did Lynch allow himself to move on to the next.
The sun wouldn't be up for another hour, but the street lights enabled him to see. By 7 a.m. Lynch had finished working. On one side of South Dillard Street, stood the massive Durham County Courthouse; on the other, 11 signs, posted in the public right-of-way, accused Sheriff Mike Andrews of conspiracy.
"I believe Sheriff Michael D. Andrews is nefarious! He lies to victims and conspires with others to cover up crimes!" the signs read.
Lynch walked the length of the street admiring his work, and then returned to his truck, which was parked on the sidewalk. He opened the door, but he didn't get in. Instead, he turned to face the courthouse parking deck before smiling and waving to the security camera on top of it.
"You can't tell me Andrews or one of his deputies ain't going to see that," Lynch said before getting into his truck and driving home.
Lynch's signs started appearing around Durham about four months ago as an attempt to dethrone Andrews, the incumbent, in the spring election. (Andrews won.) Lynch's beef with the sheriff's office started in September 2012. That's when Lynch noticed a safe he had hidden in an air duct in his home was missing. The safe contained a pinky ring, a gold chain, four car titles, a friend's P89 Ruger, loaded with 16 hollow-point rounds, and $15,000 in cash that Lynch says he had been saving for his parents.
Lynch suspected his neighbor stole the safe while cleaning his house, and called the sheriff's office to file a report.
Lynch became unhappy with the way his case was being handled almost immediately. But without probable cause linking Lynch's neighbor to the theft, the sheriff's office made no arrest. Agitated by the apparent lack of progress, Lynch became suspicious of the people handling his case.
So over the last year, Lynch has filed citizen's complaints against Andrews and five other members of the sheriff's office, alleging that they lied to him and conspired to cover up crimes
"I just got this feeling in my gut, and something didn't feel right," Lynch said. "My gut hasn't been wrong yet."
During the past three weeks, Andrews was unable to speak with the INDY regarding Lynch or his signs. Communicating through Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Paul Sherwin, Andrews cited meetings and vacation as the reasons why he was unable to talk to the press. Sherwin didn't respond to the INDY's most recent request to speak with the sheriff, which was sent on July 3.
The neighbor also declined to speak with the INDY.
After noticing what he deemed to be inconsistencies in what several members of the Sheriff's Office told him regarding the investigation, Lynch was convinced he was being lied to. He began documenting nearly every interaction he had with anyone involved in his case.
Almost two years after the investigation began, Lynch's case remains open, and his safe is still missing. But the return of his safe is no longer Lynch's top priority.
"That comes second," Lynch said. "I've got to get them first for what they've done. I've got to expose the corruption, and then I'll get my safe back."
But exposing corruption isn't cheap. Lynch, who became unemployed after his auto mechanic business burned down, estimates that he has spent more than $24,000 from a savings account in his crusade.
"I've spent every dime I have to fight these people, but I'm not going to give up," Lynch, 44, said. "If I have to be homeless, I'll be homeless."
Over the past few months, the Durham City Planning Department has fielded a number of complaints about Lynch's signs. However, Assistant Planning Director Patrick Young said Lynch has complied with the city's sign regulations, which fall under the Durham United Development Ordinance.
"This is certainly unusual and unprecedented in terms of number of signs and the duration of time they've been up, but he's not breaking the law," Young said.
Tell that to Durham County Criminal Magistrate Steven R. Storch, who was cited with illegally removing one of Lynch's signs in April. He is scheduled to appear in court on July 21.
Storch was cited after he allegedly boasted at a city council meeting that he had removed the sign. Sheriff's Deputy Ricky Buchanan, who at the time, was running against Andrews, reportedly overheard Storch and relayed the information to Lynch.
Lynch then reported Storch to Durham police.
"They charged me with a statute from 18-fucking-85," Storch said. "I did no wrong. I broke no law."
Storch said the statute is outdated; it originally prohibited people from tampering with signs ordering the return of loose livestock.
"I'm not a sheriff. I was just personally offended by the signs," Storch said. "They make the whole town look bad."
Lynch responded by posting several anti-Storch signs. Storch said he contemplated suing Lynch, but he decided not to after checking Lynch's assets, which are few.
Hundreds of pages of notes lie neatly in manila folders covering Lynch's kitchen table and counter. These folders contain what Lynch says is "criminal evidence," enough to send Andrews and several other current and former employees of the sheriff's office to jail.
Lynch said he believes his evidence proves that Andrews lied to him in an attempt to protect his colleagues, whom Lynch had already filed complaints against, and to cover up the theft of Lynch's safe.
Whether Lynch's "evidence" is conclusive is questionable, but its thoroughness is not. Fearing that nobody would believe him if it came down to his word against the sheriff's, Lynch recorded almost every phone call and in-person conversation he had with anyone connected to his case—more than four hours' worth.
"Thank God for a motherfucking recorded phone call," Lynch said.
Lynch says his friends have urged him to abandon his two-year fight against the sheriff's office.
"I've fought for a year and ten months, and I've gotten nowhere," Lynch said. "My friends tell me to stop, but I can't do that because I know I'm right. I will get my restitution. I'm confident I will."
But Lynch's savings account is almost exhausted. "Maybe, behind my back, somebody is looking into this," Lynch said. "There has got to be an investigation some time."
But until then Lynch said he will continue to put up signs and fight Andrews and the Sheriff's Office.
"At this point, I have no plan," Lynch said. "I take it day by day and hope for a miracle."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Taking the law in his hands"