Deputy coroner arrested

Special
Charlena Graham is accused of taking gift cards worth about $400.

Investigators arrested Richmond County Deputy Coroner Charlena Graham on Wednesday afternoon on charges that she stole gift cards from the body of a 29-year-old woman who committed suicide on New Year's Eve.

Ms. Graham, 43, who had worked for the Richmond County Coroner's Office for about four years, was arrested at her place of work about 3:45 p.m., according to Sheriff Ronnie Strength. She has been charged with one felony count of theft by taking and fired from the coroner's office, officials said.

"I was aware of the investigation," Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said. "I knew it was going on, and I cooperated with it and we cleaned our house."

Police went to the Baymont Inn and Suites at 2905 Riverwest Drive on Dec. 31 in response to reports of gunshots, a Richmond County sheriff's report states. Deputies forced their way into the motel room to find a woman dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

A Glock handgun was in the woman's hand, and a handwritten note lay nearby, the report states.

Shortly after, all personal items from the victim were turned over to Ms. Graham, including five gift cards for Macy's, Target, Victoria's Secret and a local steak house, according to Sheriff Strength.

"Later it came to our attention from family members that some gift cards were possibly missing ..." Sheriff Strength said.

Sheriff's Lt. Jack Francisco said the total value of the cards was about $400.

"I'm surprised, but not shocked," he said of the incident.

Investigators have recovered evidence, including tapes of Ms. Graham using the gift cards at local stores, the sheriff said.

Sheriff Strength said the total amount for the cards does not factor into Ms. Graham's charge, because any theft by a government employee on the job is considered a felony.

Additional charges against Ms. Graham are pending, the sheriff said.

Ms. Graham formerly worked for the Augusta Police Department and became a Richmond County sheriff's deputy when the city and county police departments consolidated in 1996. She later was promoted to investigator.

Staff Writer Timothy Cox contributed to this article.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.