Durham District Court Judge Richard Chaney once called the county's Truancy Court, an in-school program for troubled kids who chronically skip classes, "compassionate compulsion." But Chaney's compassion for his students has also raised questions about his conduct.
Over the past six years, Chaney has been investigated several times for allegedly having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls; some were enrolled in the truancy court and others appeared before Chaney in juvenile court, according to police and court documents.
While Chaney's advocacy for these at-risk girls may be genuine, in today's social climate—there's no shortage of news accounts of questionable conduct between congressmen and pages or teachers and students—the allegations deserve further examination.
As an Indy investigation reveals, Chaney, a 22-year-veteran of the bench, repeatedly used his power as a judge and a mentor to forge personal relationships with middle- and high-school girls. Moreover, the very authorities designed to protect the girls—school officials, police investigators and the state's highest law enforcement office, the attorney general—have all declined to prosecute Chaney or file charges. Court records related to the case have been sealed by law, and in one instance, a judge issued a gag order, which has been kept under wraps despite the Indy's request to view it.
Chaney, now retired, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Last year, the State Bureau of Investigation and Durham Police investigated a May 13 incident in which a 15-year-old girl, who had been in Chaney's juvenile court, called 9-1-1 from Chaney's Hope Valley home. A police document indicates that the Northern High School student, referred to as an "acquaintance," reported a "simple assault," but there are no further details available. According to the girl's mother, the girl had been staying with Chaney for several days.
Chaney is divorced and lives alone.
The girl's mother says she doesn't know how her daughter met Chaney. However, the girl appeared before Chaney in juvenile court two years earlier, when she was 13. She pleaded guilty to larceny and resisting an officer; Chaney sentenced her to 12 months' probation.
The girl's mother says Chaney was mentoring her daughter at the time of the 9-1-1 call, and that she allowed her to stay at Chaney's house because the family was living in a Durham motel.
"If it was cool with me and my daughter and him, nobody should have anything else to do with it," the mother said in an interview in her Greensboro apartment. The Indy chose not to name the family members to protect the girl's privacy.
All reports concerning a juvenile alleged to be abused or neglected are referred to the state's Division of Social Services, which can request that a judge sign an order to keep the child in non-secure, or foster care, custody. That happened in this case, according to the mother, who says the state removed her daughter from Chaney's care and took custody of her.
"People are making a big deal out of it because it's a color issue," the mother said. Chaney, 57, is white. The girl and her mother are black.
Asked if she believes there was any sexual contact between Chaney and her daughter, the mother said no, adding, "What the fuck do I look like letting my daughter have a sexual relationship with a grown-ass old man?"
An SBI investigator interviewed the girl after the 9-1-1 call. "He had my daughter in the questioning room for like three or four hours. I felt like he was railroading the man," the mother said.
However, Chaney was off the hook. Sources in the Durham County courthouse and Durham Public Schools said an SBI agent wanted to prosecute the case, but criminal charges were never filed. The Durham Police Department report lists the case status as "closed/cleared" and the case disposition as "prosecution declined."
Then on May 21, eight days after the 9-1-1 call, Judge Jack Klass, a retired judge from Davidson County, presided over a closed juvenile hearing, held in Durham. (By their request, retired judges can be on a "recall list" and are assigned to courts throughout the state.)
The hearing was held because the law prohibits the state from holding any child in non-secure custody for more than a week without such a proceeding. Wake County's Department of Social Services handled the case for the state to prevent a conflict of interest between Chaney and Durham attorneys, who might later appear before him in court.
Judge Klass didn't release the girl from state custody for several months, according to the mother. Since Klass issued a gag order, it's unclear why and under what circumstances the girl was released. And without reviewing the gag order, there is no way to determine if it has been enforced.
Standards for gag orders are quite strict. According to Amanda Martin, lawyer for the N.C. Press Association, a court should issue a gag order only as a last resort, when there is a clear threat to the fairness of a trial.
Around the same time as the May juvenile court hearing, Chaney loaned the girl's family money to move to Greensboro, according to her mother. He often helps the family financially, the mother said. "When my oldest daughter had kids, he bought her gifts. Christmas came and he brought all of us gifts. He took us out to eat."
When Chaney retired, his annual salary was $101,000. He receives $6,357 monthly from the state's judicial retirement plan, 43 percent of which goes to his ex-wife, according to divorce records. The mother of the girl is unemployed.
"I can't say nothing bad about this man. He ain't done nothing but helped us," she went on. "I guess you're just poor and black and you aren't supposed to have contact with a white man."
Although Chaney declined to be interviewed, he responded by e-mail to a telephone message from the Indy: "I served North Carolina honorably as a judge for 22 years, and my volunteer work with both children and adults, for which I have never sought recognition, goes back more than 30 years. I often went the extra mile to try to help others, and I have had a positive impact on many lives. I am confident that anyone who knows me well or has worked with me in volunteer activities will vouch for my character and integrity."
In the Truancy Court program, Durham judges go into public schools to meet one-on-one with predominantly poor, minority students who are chronically truant, with the hope of preventing the kids from entering the juvenile justice system. "It's a chance to have hands-on interaction with people you're trying to help and actually see them improve," Chaney told The Herald-Sun in May 2001.
The May 2007 incident reignited some school and courthouse officials' long-standing discomfort about the judge's behavior, according to interviews and court and police reports.
Chaney first volunteered for the program in 1999 and initially presided over the truancy program at Lowe's Grove Middle School. Yet, his conduct raised red flags, prompting school officials to express their concerns to the Durham Public Schools administration about Chaney's relationships with young girls.
"Judges usually sit on the opposite side of the table," said a Durham Public Schools employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was sitting on the same side of the table with his arm around a little Hispanic girl. The door was partially closed.
"We talked to the young girl and we got to it before something actually happened," the source said. "Things that happened outside the building, we had no control over."
School sources say Chaney overstepped his role as truancy judge and began tutoring a lot of girls. They say Chaney would access some girls' school files, write down their personal information, and then visit them at home. Some mothers became suspicious when Chaney called their daughters at home, sources say.
In response, Lowe's Grove administrators revoked Chaney's open access to the campus and prevented him from obtaining students' personal information.
However, Durham Public Schools administrators did not refer this case to the authorities, instead choosing to handle the investigation internally. It is unclear what, if any, additional action was taken. Ann Denlinger, former DPS system superintendent, declined to comment for this story. "This is not a topic I am willing to talk about," she said.
Ken Soo, attorney for Durham Public Schools, declined to speak extensively about the case, citing confidentiality. "Speaking hypothetically, if somebody had a relationship with a student that was questioned, lots of what might happen has to do with that student and the way that student was treated at school. To get into details would take me really close to those lines, and I'm not comfortable doing that."
Chaney also presided over the Truancy Court program at Githens Middle School, where suspicions also surfaced about his conduct. In January 2006, Githens Principal Emmett Tilley reported to the Durham County Sheriff's Office that he was concerned about Chaney's relationship with one girl—the same girl whom Chaney sentenced to probation in 2005 and who would later call police from Chaney's home in May 2007.
Will Oakley, who investigated child sex abuse cases for the Sheriff's Office, recorded Tilley's concerns in an incident report. "He [Tilley] advised that a student ... has been having a lot of unsupervised contact with Richard Chaney (Judge). He advised that Mr. Chaney brings [the student] to school every morning and picks her up every afternoon. He parks his car and carries her books to class or to her locker. He brings her to after-school activities and it has recently been brought to his attention that many school officials have concerns about the extent of their relationship. Tilley advised that he has become aware that two to three years ago [Chaney] was also having a similar situation with a black female middle school student at Lowe's Grove ... Mr. Tilley advised that the student data sheet shows Chaney as an emergency contact for [the student]."
The report included supporting statements from several Githens employees, including a counselor. Principal Tilley declined to comment for the story.
Oakley's report shows Chaney's response to school officials' suspicions: "Mr. Chaney has advised everyone at the school that he is tutoring [the student] and frequently spends several hours daily at his home alone helping her with her school work."
Oakley passed the principal's concerns to the district attorney at the time, Mike Nifong. Oakley said Nifong "requested through the Attorney General's office that the State Bureau of Investigation investigate it."
Current Durham District Attorney David Saacks confirmed that his office forwarded the case to the state attorney general's office. "The entire case has been transferred to them due to the obvious conflict of interest that our office would have in the likely event that we would have to appear before Judge Chaney again in some other proceeding here in the courthouse," Saacks wrote in an e-mail.
Like most sources interviewed for the story, Oakley and Saacks say they don't know how or if the 2006 case was resolved; it has been reopened in light of the 2007 allegations. "I didn't investigate; I gathered the preliminary information," Oakley says. "I don't know what they ever uncovered on that."
The Indy submitted a public records request to Noelle Talley, public information officer for the N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper's office and the SBI, asking for parts of the case file covered under public records law. Talley left a voice message stating, "We do not have the information you're looking for." She maintained the office had nothing on Chaney's case, even when confronted with the confirmation that the case was in fact transferred.
Chaney's attorney, Bill Cotter, says the matter has been closed, and declined to answer specific questions. "My understanding is that the SBI and the Durham Police Department did a thorough investigation and Jim Coman in the attorney general's office found no basis for criminal charges," Cotter said. "As far as I know the case is closed."
The Indy could not confirm Cotter's assertion. Coman's assistant referred questions to the public information officer.
Chaney was elected to five consecutive terms as District Court Judge. He chose not to run in 2006—in the midst of one investigation into his relationship with the girl who a year later would call police from his home. He retired in December 2006.
In early 2007, he served in Durham as an emergency judge—a retired judge who fills in at various courts when necessary—but just last month, he sent a letter to Gov. Mike Easley, withdrawing his name from the list of emergency judges.
The mother of the girl from the January 2006 and May 2007 incident reports says she believes Chaney's relationship with her daughter and the rest of the family offered him something he couldn't find at work.
"I thought he was having the time of his life, something he never had a chance to do in the courthouse.
"I guess he would've took up to any family if a family would treat him like our family was. When he got around us, he was just as black as we were. Black-eyed peas and collards, he would eat them up and love them," the mother said. "After all this blows over I'll call him and ask him, 'Where's my Christmas gift?'"