Code Compliance officer's accuser will be on 'Today' show

 A Martinez woman who says a Columbia County Code Compliance officer entered her home without permission is gaining national attention.

Erica Masters, who captured Jimmy Vowell on surveillance video as he walked through her front door July 2 while she slept, will explain what happened on NBC’s Today on Wednesday morning.

The story has appeared worldwide via numerous online news sites. After Vowell was fired Monday, Masters said she got calls from Today, Inside Edition and Good Morning America.

“I am surprised,” Masters said. “I never expected it to get this far. … I know media outlets love government corruption. I didn’t think this was one of those cases necessarily. This is teeny, tiny Columbia County and now the whole country knows about us.”

A Columbia County Sheriff’s Office investigation revealed no criminal intent, so Vowell wasn’t charged, Capt. Steve Morris said. District Attorney Ashley Wright concluded that there were no grounds for criminal charges, he said.

Vowell was fired because he violated county policy when he entered a home without permission and for lying to his supervisor, County Administrator Scott Johnson said Monday.

Vowell at first denied entering Masters’ home, where he was serving her with a notice for having overgrown grass, but he later admitted going inside after learning about the video.

Masters said she installed the four-camera surveillance system before being medically discharged from the Army for depression. She has been struggling to make ends meet as a model, dancer and actress while waiting for her disability to be approved. The cameras, she said, provided protection against potentially unsavory people who she could be around on the modeling jobs.

“Once (people) see the video, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘She just wants publicity,’” Masters said.

She said she woke just before noon July 2 to Vowell talking to her from her bedroom doorway. Vowell asked Masters to come outside and waited in her living room as she dressed.

He claimed he walked into the home only after calling out several times, and smelling a foul odor coming from the front door that swung open when he knocked, according to a Facebook message Vowell sent to The Columbia County News-Times Publisher Barry Paschal a few days after the incident.

“I had no idea who lived there or even if anyone did,” Vowell wrote in the message. “I had no idea if someone was hurt, dead or what. … From what I saw and (smelled), I reacted on instincts telling me something was not right in that house.”

The video shows Vowell knocking on the front door, moving around to a side door, then returning to the front door. The door appears to open when Vowell knocks, and he grabs the handle and closes the door and continues to knock. The video does not include audio.

Afterward, Masters tried to reach Vowell’s supervisor, then called 911. The dispatcher passed Masters’ contact information along to a Code Compliance supervisor, who contacted her.

Masters didn’t sound distressed while talking to the dispatcher, sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said.

Masters said she intends to seek civil action against the county because she believes the 911 dispatcher should have sent a deputy to her home. She also contends the county didn’t properly check Vowell’s background before hiring him.

Vowell, a former Rich­mond County sheriff’s sergeant, resigned in 2004 after he admitted taking a laptop computer that was scheduled to be destroyed from the evidence room, according to an article in The Augusta Chronicle.

“This is a Columbia County reaction,” Masters said. “I don’t think it ever should have gotten to that point. I don’t think they should have had to react to something negative like this.

“Having a theft record, then making house calls just isn’t a good combination in my opinion. I don’t think he should have been hired in the first place.”

 

Columbia County fires code officer
TRANSCRIPT OF ERICA MASTERS’ 911 CALL

Dispatcher: “Columbia County 911, what is your emergency?”

Masters: “First I had a question, but most likely I’m going to have to get a report made for this. Do the county code enforcement officers have the same right as a law enforcement officer to enter a property if they think someone’s safety is at risk?”

Dispatcher: “I’m not exactly sure, I believe so, I’m not sure. What exactly is going on?”

Masters: “I just had one of the county code enforcement officers show up at my house, basically to tell me that my grass is too high, which I know, because my lawnmower is broken.”

Dispatcher: “Mm-hmm.”

Masters: “Apparently he knocked on my door. He says that the door opened itself.”

Dispatcher: “Mm-hmm.”

Masters: “But I’ve got him on camera, and it looks more like he actually, like, tried the door handle and found that it was unlocked, and then he actually walked completely into my house, into my bedroom…”

Dispatcher: “Oh, OK.”

Masters: “…and actually wakes me up, just to tell me that I need to sign this notice telling me my grass is too high.”

Dispatcher: “OK. Hold on one moment; let me transfer you to a non-emergency line, OK?”

After a few technical difficulties transferring the call, the conversation resumes:

Dispatcher: “So, did you actually want to speak to someone over code enforcement to see? Or did you actually just want a deputy to come out there so you can do a report?”

Masters: “Um…”

Dispatcher: “It probably could be handled through their office. I’m not sure how you want to do it, go ahead.”

Masters: “I tried to call someone with code enforcement, like the manager’s office or whatever, and he’s not answering right now.”

Dispatcher requests Masters’ contact information. Then:

Dispatcher: “What I’ll do is I’ll see who I can get in contact with, and have someone call you back.”

Masters: “OK. Thank you.”

Dispatcher: “Bye.”

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