Probable cause found in case against Bell
Jefferson County Magistrate Mary Paul Rissler found probable cause for two of the three felony charges levied against former Jefferson County Commissioner Eric Bell during a preliminary hearing last Thursday.
Bell, 37, of Charles Town, had been charged with three counts including displaying obscene material to a minor, possession of child pornography and sexual abuse by a person of trust. Bell was charged after it was alleged engaged in inappropriate conduct with the minor son of a family friend.
Bell was represented by Paul Taylor. Special prosecutor Greg Jones, from Berkeley County, was assigned to the case due to Bell serving as a commissioner at the time of the alleged incident.
The prosecution first called the mother of the juvenile to the stand. She testified that she had known Bell for seven or eight years and considered him a family friend. The two of them, she said, also had some business partnerships at times.
When asked if she had asked Bell to be a mentor to her son, she testified that she had asked Bell to “keep an eye” on her son because she believed her son was misusing drugs and alcohol. He was, she said, struggling with facing that he was gay.
“I told Eric what was going on and knew that he had gone through that. He was gay and he was my friend,” she said.
Bell complied, having conversations with the juvenile as well as going on some kayaking trips.
The mother testified that she believed her son when he told her that he had sent inappropriate material to Bell via social media, but that Bell had not sent anything in return.
Taylor then inquired if she took efforts to control her son’s phone use, which she said she did. She also said it was correct to say the son circumvented her efforts by attempting to contact Bell.
When the juvenile, who was the prosecution’s second witness, testified, he indicated that he had fabricated a story to one of his friends that Bell had asked him to send masturbation videos via Snap Chat.
His alleged conversation with the friend led to the investigation of Bell.
The juvenile admitted that he did send three masturbation videos; however, he said he received no response from Bell.
The minor said on the second kayak trip, conversations would take a more sexual nature. When asked to expand, he said they had been “sexting … saying what we’d do if we were together.”
The minor said he had discussed his fantasies with Bell, who allegedly told him when he was 18, he’d help him fulfill them.
When cross examined by Taylor, the juvenile testified that he had not received any photo or video messages from Bell in return. He reiterated that he had lied to his friend about Bell’s request for videos saying, “I inflated the relationship, making it seem like they [videos] were wanted.”
The juvenile confirmed that he had secured a cell phone after his parents, at the suggestion of police, confiscated his. He then used the phone to contact Bell indicating they needed to “get their stories straight.”
Sgt. W.R. Garrett, the investigating officer, then took the stand indicating that the messages from the juvenile to Bell regarding “getting stories straight” were found in the phone’s data.
Garrett went into greater detail on the forensic examination of the mobile phones, but no nude photos of Bell were found.
During Garrett’s testimony, an audio recording of his initial meeting with Bell was shared with the court. In that audio recording, Bell admitted to sending several nude photos of his private area during an exchange one evening after he had been drinking.
“We sent pictures back and forth and talked a lot of trash, but that’s it,” Bell is heard saying on the recording. “Would anything ever come from it? No, he’s too young.”
No such photos were recovered off the minor’s phone.
The phone’s data dump also included Bell’s search history, which contained queries pertaining to the state’s age of consent laws and how to properly delete files on his specific Samsung model phone.
The defense called no witnesses at the hearing.
After closing arguments, Rissler found that the State had not met the burden of proof of probable cause on the charge of sexual abuse by a person of trust. She did find that probable cause had been reached with regard to the other two charges.
Jones indicated after the hearing that it will be up to the prosecution whether or not to move the case to the next grand jury session. He explained that the case remains active for one year from the date of preliminary findings.