DA: No more River Falls arrests, just yet

Published 12:05 am Saturday, October 13, 2012

There won’t be any additional warrants coming from theft of River Falls town funds – as of right now, Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell said.

Merrell sat down with Star-News staff Friday to discuss the town’s mayor and her housemate and how more than $201,000 in town funds went missing during the last three years.

Mayor Mary Hixon pleaded guilty Thursday and admitted using town funds to pay an assortment of things, including $109,000 in salaries for three people who never worked for the town. One such person was Hixon’s housemate, Richard B. Moss.

Hixon was placed on probation for five years in consideration of her age upon her paying back the stolen money and testifying against any accomplices.

Moss, 47, was arrested Thursday on a grand jury indictment and charged for his alleged part in the scheme. He faces four counts of theft of property in the first degree and one count of theft of property in the second degree. He is now free on a $135,000 bond.

“I can say there are no more warrants presently outstanding in this case,” Merrell said Friday. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be when our investigation is over.”

Moss’ arrest came after a specially empanelled grand jury heard nearly eight hours of information from 13 witnesses Thursday. Among those was Hixon, who agreed to testify as part of her probation.

Merrell credited the Star-News for uncovering evidence that led to the arrests.

“I have to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “(The Star-News) broke this thing wide open when (a story) published about an illegal sale of the old town hall property from Mrs. Hixon to Moss.

“I said, ‘We need to look into that,’” he said of the transaction. “We waited until after the (Aug. 28 municipal) election, and we went into town hall, Hixon’s place of business and her home looking for evidence about the land transaction. What we found was a massive scheme to pilfer money from the town’s coffers. Were it not for that land transaction, and the story printed in the newspaper, none of this would have ever been uncovered.”

Merrell said he asked for assistance from the Opp Police Department, the attorney general’s office and the state ethics commission to sift through financial information from the last three years from more than 10 bank accounts and seized records to make the cases.

But one thing was never found – minutes from town council meetings, he said.

“There was nothing at the town hall, other than court records,” he said. “We found the vast majority of town business records, like checkbooks, at HCH Development, where Hixon worked. The land transaction information we found at her home, which is where we also found evidence the two lived together.”

That evidence indicated the two were nothing more than housemates, he said.

“From what we understand in talking with (Hixon), (Moss) and his children needed a place to live, and she took them in and helped him raise them as an act of compassion. That relationship flourished as such that it led to these charges.”

Moss’ other theft charges stem from using town funds to pay for electric bills at Moss’ business and rental home in River Falls and the more than $80,000 in salary for “work as a nighttime policeman,” as well as an undetermined amount of money for having the grass cut at Moss’ two properties.

Merrell said others, such as HCH Development employees, who received money from Hixon and are listed in the arrest affidavits, won’t face charges.

“Those people did legitimate work to earn that money,” he said. “They just didn’t work for the town of River Falls. Granted they should have questioned the checks, but they were just getting paid.”

Merrell said by entering a plea, Hixon admitted to her actions.

“She has admitted that her conduct was illegal,” he said. “She claims she did it for the benefit of others, but with that said, those making $50,000 or more are required to file a statement of economic interest each year. Richard Moss (who worked as the Coffee County Jail administrator) files an ethics statement.

“I don’t know many people who make $50,000 a year that legitimately need help,” he said.

Moss also pastors a church.

No one will face charges for the illegal sale of the town’s old town hall, as the statute of limitations on theft is three years.

So, how did something like this happen in River Falls, people may ask. Merrell said it’s a lesson for which others should take note.

“I think in this case, you had council members who are also neighbors and friends, and I think there was too much trust bestowed and authority given to one person – Mary Hixon,” he said.

“This is an important lesson,” he said. “Don’t let this happen in Gantt, Red Level, Lockhart, Heath, Sanford, Onycha, or any other similar community. Pay attention to what’s happening. The law applies to them the same as it does the Birmingham City Council.”

Merrell said he expects Moss’ trial to be held “relatively quickly – maybe within the next six months.”

But don’t think things are over in River Falls, Merrell said. Investigators continue to compile evidence in the case, he said, likening the process to a spider web.

“We don’t know how far it will reach until we work this to the end,” he said.