Guns, Catfishing and Subterfuge: Is This the Most Bonkers Sheriff’s Race in America?

·13 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Mellinger for Sheriff Facebook/West Virginia Regional Jail
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Mellinger for Sheriff Facebook/West Virginia Regional Jail

It was 2019, and a contentious, mudslinging election for Jackson County, West Virginia sheriff was underway. In the blue corner, a Jackson County deputy named Ross Mellinger. In the red corner, GOP contender Noel Braley, an Army veteran and retired cop who had served as a deputy in nearby Kanawha County for two decades. The Nov. 2020 election was still more than a year off.

That July, the FBI began looking into alleged civil rights violations by Mellinger. The investigation stemmed from a pair of civil suits filed against him: Mellinger stood accused of knocking out a suspect’s teeth with the butt of a shotgun, in one. In the second, he was accused of brutalizing a woman being evicted from her apartment, then tasing and concussing a male friend who was helping her move.

In both cases, Braley had referred the plaintiffs to a lawyer he knew. Although somewhat unseemly, the tangled web of interests did not constitute any illegality by Braley, according to the FBI. But a local police informant who lived in the next county over, Kevin Comer, hated Braley for some reason and would stop at nothing to ensure he didn’t get elected, according to the feds.

And that’s when things got even weirder.

Over the ensuing months, the FBI says, Comer carried out a surreal plot to sink Braley’s campaign, involving fictitious personas, nonexistent police brutality, lawsuits, and a diabolical double cross, trying to frame Braley for a crime he hadn’t even realized he was committing, investigators say.

The darkly Shakespearean tale is laid out in a newly unsealed FBI search warrant obtained by The Daily Beast, and for the first time reveals the stranger-than-fiction allegations.

For reasons unstated in the warrant, Comer had “a personal animosity” toward Braley.

“According to Comer, Braley is not qualified and/or corrupt, and should not be elected Sheriff of Jackson County, WV,” it says.

Comer had created a Facebook group “designed to harm Braley’s chances of being elected,” the warrant continues. On Oct. 9, 2019, Comer called Braley and warned him to abandon his campaign, according to the warrant. In the recorded call, Braley asked Comer why he was attacking him.

“Let me tell you the way out of this,” Comer told Braley. “Before more comes out… the way for you to get out of this is to drop out of the race,” adding, “Hang on, buckle your seat belt… hold on, cause it’s gonna get rough—watch and see.”

Braley ignored Comer’s threat, and continued his bid for Jackson County sheriff. That’s when Comer decided “catfishing” Braley was the way forward, according to the FBI. He created a phony Facebook profile under the name “JJ Williams,” kicking off an increasingly unhinged series of events.

“I never even heard of this guy before [he contacted me],” Braley told The Daily Beast on Saturday, still sounding upset about the way things went down. “It’s horrible, what he done to me. He tried to send me to prison.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Noel Braley</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">West Virginia Regional Jail</div>

Noel Braley

West Virginia Regional Jail

On March 10, 2020, Comer called Braley and introduced himself as Josh Williams.

“In the call, the fictitious Williams states his family is the victim of an unlawful use of force by Ross Mellinger,” the warrant says, noting that Comer recorded the conversation. “Williams states that he was pulled over for no reason by Mellinger, after which time his brother-in-law was arrested, and he was forced on his stomach and required to lay on the ground by Mellinger for no valid reason. Williams stated that the event was recorded by his wife, and that he wanted to sue Mellinger.”

Braley told “Williams” that he had received similar complaints from others, and he would be bringing all the allegations to the FBI. Comer, as the fictitious Williams, said he’d tell the FBI anything Braley wanted him to say, the warrant states, citing recordings reviewed by agents. Braley told Williams that lying to a federal agent was a crime, so he needed to tell the truth.

The idea behind the Williams plot, according to the feds, was to get Braley to relay a false report to the FBI, thus unwittingly committing a felony himself. The recordings themselves could also be used against Braley, tarnishing his reputation in the run-up to the election.

In a second call the same day, Comer, again posing as the nonexistent Williams, added various flourishes to his story. This time, he told Braley that Mellinger had terrorized him with a can of Mace while he was handcuffed on the ground and put his “foot on his head.” “Williams” also said Mellinger had rifled through his wife’s purse without probable cause, and did it all in front of their children, who were in the car.

“Braley explained to Williams that this was unacceptable and that the FBI does not fool around and that they (the FBI) ‘police the police,’” the warrant says.

Braley told Williams that he had already been in touch with the FBI about Mellinger and was planning to report everything Williams had told him.

“After discussing the false allegations made by Williams, Braley informed Williams that he did not want to have to shoot Mellinger before he (Braley) won the election and that he considered Mellinger a rogue cop,” the warrant continues. “Williams encouraged Braley to keep his gun handy considering what Mellinger… had done to him.”

The next day, Braley walked into the FBI office in Charleston. He informed agents about the two lawsuits Mellinger was facing, and relayed Williams’ made-up story. Braley gave them Williams’ phone number, and left the follow-up in the FBI’s hands.

When agents attempted to call Williams, the phone number didn’t work. They located multiple people named Josh Williams in the area, but “were unable to identify the Williams who was communicating with Braley,” according to the warrant.

But Comer, never breaking character as Williams, told Braley that he had in fact been contacted by the FBI. He said the agents wanted him to come into their office the next day, but that he didn’t have money for gas. Braley said he’d spot him the cash.

“Williams” followed up with Braley a couple of days later, telling him that he had provided the FBI with his wife’s cellphone video of Mellinger’s purported violence.

“Williams informed Braley the FBI did not say if Mellinger was going to jail but they did say he would probably lose his job,” says the warrant. “Williams further stated the FBI imaged the video and erased it from his wife’s phone so that it would not accidentally be posted on social media.”

Of course, none of this was true.

Comer continued the deception, calling Braley with updates on his fictitious interactions with the FBI. In one call, “Williams” told Braley that Mellinger and another deputy had shown up at his house and that Mellinger “may have had a gun in his hand.” When Braley told Williams that he should report this to authorities, Williams said he’d drive to the FBI office in Charleston if Braley would loan him $20 for gas. Braley said he’d loan him $100, which he could pay back after he reached a settlement with the county over his lawsuit.

On May 15, an FBI agent texted the number Braley had given them for Williams. This time, the message went through. Three days later, Comer texted back, as Williams, asking when he should call. The agent said to call the next day, May 19, after 4 p.m.

In the meantime, Comer called Braley, in character as Williams, and said he had met with the FBI and testified in front of a jury about Mellinger. He told Braley that he planned to embellish his story, making Mellinger seem completely unhinged, but Braley told him not to perjure himself, according to the warrant. Williams then asked Braley if he could borrow $500. Braley agreed, but said Williams “needed to understand this was not for his testimony.”

Josh Williams never called the FBI on May 19. Instead, Kevin Comer did.

“It was the first time Comer had tried to reach an FBI agent working this investigation,” states the warrant. “Comer informed the agent he had just recorded a conversation with Noel Braley where Braley encouraged Comer to make false statements to the FBI… Comer provided a copy of the recording the same day.”

On May 20, Comer sent a text message to the FBI agent that had been trying to reach “Williams,” saying that “another federal law enforcement officer had asked him to contact the agent.” But by now, the jig was up. When two FBI agents called Comer, he allegedly admitted that he had been “pretending to be an individual named Josh Williams, and had been recording conversations with Braley.”

Agents weren’t happy, according to the warrant. The FBI had “spent considerable resources following up on the false statements” Braley made, it says.

Amazingly, the FBI alleges this didn’t stop Comer. That same day, the warrant says, Comer called Braley, as Williams, and said the feds alerted him that Mellinger was “in trouble” and that he “knew what was going on.” In June, “Williams” again called Braley and said the FBI told him Mellinger would be indicted the following week.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Ross Mellinger</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Facebook/Ross Mellinger for Sheriff</div>

Ross Mellinger

Facebook/Ross Mellinger for Sheriff

Williams was scared of Mellinger, he told Braley, noting that he had a concealed carry permit. He’d also been laid off and was short on cash, Williams said. Braley offered Williams one of his guns, if he didn’t have one, and said he could give him a job as a roofer, if he needed one.

Over the following weeks, Williams began to act increasingly desperate in his interactions with Braley.

“I’m scared Noel this was supposed to be safe,” he said in a July 7 text message. “I don’t wanna go to jail… I’m fucked now.”

“I don’t see the FBI doing anything to you[,] you’re the victim of a crime,” Braley responded.

“They no [sic] I lied though,” Williams texted back. “I played it up like we talked. They said they knew we was talking to each other when I told them u and me dont [sic] talk.”

“It’s not illegal for you to talk to me I don’t know why they’re making a big deal out of it but they must not want to prosecute him right now,” Braley wrote.

“They said Mellinger didn’t do anything wrong and they knew me and you was talking and said this was all to get you elected sheriff,” Williams told Braley.

Williams said he was worried, to which Braley replied, “You called me out of the blue… I Neva [sic] encouraged anyway [sic] to be dishonest.”

When Williams then asked for the $500, Braley texted, “I can see right now that I’m being set up.”

“Who set u up,” Williams replied. “Im [sic] the one they want to put in jail now. I can’t go to jail noel [sic]. What about my kids.”

On July 9, Braley called the FBI and “wanted to know if he was in trouble,” the warrant states.

Two days later, “JJ Williams” began posting audio clips on Facebook of his phone calls with Braley.

“So all you guys wanted proof well here it is,” said the first post. “I told you guys Noel Braley is a joke and he wanted me to help him rig his election with a bogus lawsuit… I have over 4 hours of conversations with him for almost 5 months and him telling me how to make my story believable to his personal lawyer and the FBI so it will match the other stories where he and [the lawyer] sued the sheriff department… Im sorry if I hurt anyone but Im not going down for you Noel.”

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=148064016943531&id=100052197997697

In another, Williams posted a clip of Braley saying that he carries a gun “everywhere I go,” and if Mellinger ever tried to get physical with him, “I’d kill him.”

“I knew Noel was obsessed with his election but when he started talking about killing mellinger I knew this was a whole new level and he just wont stop talking about it its like hes got a sickness or something,” the caption read.

A clip of Braley offering Williams one of his guns reads, “Noel is so obsessed with Mellinger he try’s to give me a gun to harm Mellinger!”

Williams posted a portion of a call with Braley, in which Braley said he felt like he “let the lord down,” and that a “preacher buddy” of his insisted that he come clean to his wife, adding that “some secrets you’re better off taking to your grave.”

Although the clip lacks important context, and does not include Braley actually talking about sex with another woman, Williams wrote, “Noel was laughing about cheating on his wife and claims to be a christian.” Williams also warned that if he were to get shot, it was most likely Braley. The final one, posted on July 19, 2020, read, “how do I get a restraining order?

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=150606566689276&id=100052197997697

On July 23, 2020, Comer was questioned in person by two FBI agents. He allegedly told them that he had perpetrated the scheme against Braley “because he wanted to expose his character and he wanted people to know the real Braley, a total criminal,” the warrant states. The JJ Williams Facebook page was “him,” Comer said.

On Nov. 3, 2020, Mellinger was elected sheriff of Jackson County. He promptly found himself under fire for making disparaging comments on Facebook about a transgender woman competing in the Miss USA pageant. One of the civil suits against him was sent to mediation. The other is scheduled for trial in June.

Braley landed in even hotter water. Three weeks after losing the election, he was arrested after nearly hitting a group of teenage girls with his truck. He was charged with DUI, impersonating a police officer, battery on a law enforcement officer, having an uncased, loaded rifle in a vehicle, and leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage.

In August, Comer was indicted on federal charges of making false statements, and was released on $10,000 bond. Braley has not been charged with any crimes related to Comer’s alleged activities.

“He’s taking a chance going to prison for nothing,” Braley, who now owns a wildlife removal service, told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “What is he getting out of this? His sole issue for a year and a half was to upend this election… It tossed the election, I only lost by 700 votes. I can’t understand the guy. He’s really a dirty person. You don’t take off on a fight like that if you don’t get something in return.”

Mellinger was unable to be reached for this story.

Comer’s court-appointed lawyer, Rachel Elizabeth Zimarowski, did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, and he did not reply to a voicemail message left on his cellphone. His trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 28.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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