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Public records on NC fair case seized by sheriff

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MICHAEL BIESECKER | October 29, 2013 10:50 PM EST | AP

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Wake County Sheriff's Department has seized public records from the state Labor Department in connection with a mishap at the North Carolina State Fair last week that left three people seriously injured.

Labor Department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said Tuesday that sheriff's investigators served the agency with a court order to turn over all files related to its safety inspections and investigation of the "Vortex" ride. Labor staff kept no copies of the records, she said.

The order signed by Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul G. Gessner was issued the day after The Associated Press filed a public records request for the Labor Department's files related to the Vortex. Those files are supposed to be open to public inspection under the state's public records law.

Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he sought the order as part of his investigation and that it had nothing to do with denying news media efforts to review the files.

"I'm going to keep those records because I'm working on this case," Harrison said. "If you think the press is more important than people's lives, then I'm sorry. We've got them in our custody. ... Get your court order and get them, if you can."

Harrison did not say how his investigation would be harmed if copies of the Labor Department's ride inspection files became public.

Ride operator Timothy Dwayne Tutterrow of Quitman, Ga., faces three counts of felony assault with a deadly weapon after the Vortex lurched into motion Thursday as people were getting off. Prosecutors allege Tutterrow tampered with the Vortex to bypass critical safety equipment following an earlier shutdown.

Tutterrow, jailed under a $225,000 bond, returned with investigators to the Raleigh fairgrounds Tuesday. Though the fair ended Sunday, the Vortex has been left in place while the criminal investigation continues.

Tutterrow's lawyer, Roger W. Smith Jr., said Monday that his client was devastated by the accident.

"Tim Tutterrow is a good man and he would never intentionally harm anyone," he said.

Harrison has said more criminal charges could be forthcoming.

State law governing access to government records clearly notes that "the use of a public record in connection with a criminal investigation or the gathering of criminal intelligence shall not affect its status as a public record."

Following a separate public records request filed by The Associated Press, the N.C. Department of Agriculture released copies of records Tuesday that include its contract with the company hired to provide amusements at the fair.

New York-based carnival operator Powers Great American Midways faced stiff penalties if a minimum number of thrill rides weren't in operational condition each day. Under the contract, the company was required to provide at least 28 rides classified under state rules as "spectacular" because they are the largest and most dynamic.

Powers mustered 29 for the fair. If at least 28 rides weren't operational, the company risked a $5,000 daily fine for each ride it was short.

State Fair Manager Wesley V. Wyatt said no fines were levied.

Powers enlisted the help of subcontractors to provide some of the rides, including the Vortex.

Tom Chambers, the chief of the ride inspection unit at the state Labor Department, said last week that the safety switch on the Vortex malfunctioned on Oct. 21, four days before the injuries occurred.

The switch was supposed to keep the ride from operating unless the safety restraints designed to hold the riders in their seats are closed. The ride was temporarily idled as workers replaced the switch. It reopened later the same night after being tested and inspected.

The state contract also includes no requirement that workers hired by Powers and its subcontractors undergo criminal background checks or drug tests.

Court records outlining the current charges against Tutterrow showed that he was arrested in Kentucky on a charge of possessing cocaine in 1997. He was arrested again in Georgia in 2002 on a felony charge of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Tutterrow pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years of probation under a program for first-time offenders that required him to undergo substance abuse counseling, according to records.

Wyatt said it is his understanding that Powers requires workers to submit to drug tests and criminal background checks as a condition of their employment, even though it is not required by the state.

The contract also required Powers to maintain at least $10 million in liability insurance, in the event of "bodily injury or death."

Company owner Les Powers declined requests for comment this week. He said he was too busy setting up for another carnival.


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