Talbot Co. sheriff sentenced to 5 years He took $73,000 of office's funds

September 17, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Talbot County Sheriff John J. Ellerbusch Jr., who for most of his adult life wore a badge and a gun in his pursuit of criminals, was sentenced to prison yesterday for spending more than $73,000 in department funds on such personal expenses as his mortgage, a trip to Mexico and a large-screen TV.

"If the sheriff of Talbot County doesn't know the difference between right and wrong, we're in serious trouble," said Circuit Judge J. Owen Wise moments before he sentenced Ellerbusch to five years in prison.

Judge Wise, who suspended all but one year of the jail term, also ordered Ellerbusch to pay $50,000 in restitution. In a condition of the sentence tailored to the unusual circumstances surrounding Ellerbusch's case, the judge prohibited the 37-year-old father of two from serving in any law enforcement capacity that required the taking of an oath without first getting the court's approval.

During a dramatic moment at yesterday's sentencing, Ellerbusch bowed his head and closed his eyes as Judge Wise read aloud the oath to uphold the law Ellerbusch had taken when he was first sworn in as sheriff in 1986.

After the sentencing, Ellerbusch remained in his seat as supporters patted him softly on the back. A few feet away, his ex-wife and his wife of 10 weeks stood next to each other and wept.

Meanwhile, a political and legal debate over who now has authority to run the Talbot County sheriff's office took new twists.

I= Acting Sheriff Edward W. Keyton, whom Ellerbusch hired on

Monday as his second-in-command to take over the department should Ellerbusch be suspended, vowed not to leave his office despite plans by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to remove him and appoint a temporary sheriff.

Mr. Keyton's appointment, which caught local officials by surprise, was seen by some as a scheme to keep Ellerbusch on the county payroll by rehiring him to the department if he was not sentenced to jail.

Mr. Keyton, a former St. Michaels police chief, said Maryland law allows him to remain acting sheriff until Ellerbusch exhausts his appeals process and is either officially removed from office or regains his position. By his conviction and sentencing, Ellerbusch is suspended from office without pay.

"I'm staying here and I will do my job," Mr. Keyton said.

But state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that Governor Schaefer has authority to appoint an acting sheriff. Because Ellerbusch has been convicted of a misdemeanor affecting his office, Mr. Curran said, the sheriff's position is vacant.

A number of Talbot County residents are vying for the appointment, including Talbot County Councilman Thomas G. Duncan, who announced after Ellerbusch's sentencing that he will give up his council seat to seek the sheriff's job.

On Monday, Judge Wise, a visiting judge from Caroline County, found Ellerbusch guilty of misconduct in office, a misdemeanor under Maryland law. In a last-minute plea agreement struck between defense lawyer Harry M. Walsh Jr. and Assistant State Prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely Jr., charges of theft and perjury were dropped.

In a voice at times trembling and soft, Ellerbusch yesterday apologized for using $73,055 in department funds between August 1988 and September 1992 for personal use.

"There's a cloud over this courthouse today," he said, "and it'll be over top my head for the rest of my life."

Before yesterday's sentencing, Ellerbusch told state investigators that he did not believe his use of the money was a criminal act. He said none of the funds came directly from the department's $323,000 budget provided by the county government.

He justified using the money by claiming he intended to repay it before he left office.

In 1990, as he was starting his second four-year term, Ellerbusch created the Talbot County Crime Prevention Fund to pay for drug education programs for public schools. The fund grew quickly when businessman John E. Dell contributed $58,000.

HTC Although much of Mr. Dell's money was deposited in the fund, Ellerbusch diverted $10,500 to his personal account. Prosecutors said he also misused license fees collected from veterans and civic clubs to legally operate slot machines.

Ellerbusch spent much of the money to cover construction, mortgage and utility bills on his home in Trappe. He told investigators he was financially weakened by his divorce, but he treated himself to such luxuries as a large-screen television and a trip to Mexico.

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