MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) -- Melissa Powell endured a harrowing assault during a robbery nearly a decade ago, and although her attacker went to prison, he did not pay a dime of the $4,685 in restitution.
Then the defendant, Joseph Scott Caples, came into some unexpected money -- $1,800 in stimulus funds authorized by Congress. A judge granted a request by the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office to seize the money. But the Mobile County Circuit Court clerk’s office got only $1,300 of it, which was split between Powell and the victim in another case. Powell got a little more than $700, but it is a fraction of what the defendant owes her.
“I think something’s better than nothing,” she said.
Powell is among the lucky few victims who have seen anything from the stimulus windfall enjoyed by Alabama prisoners. Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told FOX10 News earlier this week that her office got court orders against 340 inmates convicted in Mobile, yet it has managed to collect less than 9 percent of the $333,760.
During the 2013 robbery in Eight Miles, Caples and another man held up Powell, who was working as the store clerk at the time. Surveillance video shows Caples going behind the counter and beating her with the gun. He even tried to fire it, but it did not go off.
Caples eventually pleaded guilty, and a judge sentenced him to prison and ordered restitution to compensate Powell for the purse, money and jewelry that the defendant stole from her. She said she does not understand why prisoners got stimulus funds in the first place.
“This boy can’t even come up for parole until 2038,” she said. “So what does he need money for? He’s got a roof over his head. He’s fed every day. So what does a guy in prison need money for?”
Baldwin prosecutors hit obstacles, too
Baldwin County prosecutors also tried to seize stimulus funds for unpaid court costs and victim compensation. District Attorney Bob Wilters said his office ran into other obstacles. Two of the county’s circuit judges, he said, refused to grant requests seizing the stimulus money. He said they expressed concerns over whether it was proper to do so as part of the criminal case as opposed to a separate civil proceeding.
Wilters said the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals have issued conflicting rulings on that issue on cases from other parts of the state. He said the two Baldwin judges also ruled that it was not property to seize money from inmates in cases where sentencing orders directed them to begin paying restitution and court costs 30 to 90 says after their release from prison.
Two other Baldwin judges did grant the request of prosecutors to seize stimulus funds, but Wilters said he has encountered the same problem Rich has Mobile, with the Alabama Department of Corrections failing to hold the funds. He said his office got orders in at least 15 cases but received money in only one of them.
“Which, to me, makes no sense at all,” he told FOX10 News. “How in the heck can somebody who’s serving a life sentence – life without the possibility of parole – get a stimulus check. And what the heck are they supposed to stimulate with this stimulus check?”
The Department of Corrections has told FOX10 News that it froze stimulus funds in response to court orders but at some point released those holds if judges did not issue follow-up orders awarding the money.
Many other victims in Mobile County also have not gotten any of the stimulus money that went to the convicted criminals in their cases. Karen Cassidy, who lives in New Orleans and owns property in Mobile, said she fortunate the restitution in her case was minor in her case – $309 to fix a door that Craig O’Neil Pettaway kicked in during a burglary.
“If it were a substantial amount of money, it would be, you know, disappointing to hear that there was an opportunity, a potential opportunity that didn’t otherwise exist,” she said.
Burglar rode getaway bicycle
Cassidy recalled the burglary, which occurred on Easter Sunday in 2016. She said she had been camping and returned to the house she had bought four years earlier on Church Street downtown. For a time, she used that property – known as The Mardi Gras House – as a bed and breakfast.
Cassidy said she entered the house through the back door and noticed a bicycle. Then she heard a noise upstirs and saw the burglar come down the stains with a flat-screen TV. She said she told the man put down the television and leave; instead, he pulled out a knife and demanded money. She said she threw her purse at him and then ran out the front door.
A couple nearby called 911, and Cassidy made the burglary complaint.
“While I’m filing the report, I see him come out the back door with a television under one arm, and he gets on the bike and he rides away,” she said.
Police caught Pettaway quickly, which is why restitution in the case was limited to the damage to the door.
The loss was much for substantial for Mobile resident Alice Grayson, another victim who has not received compensation from stimulus funds that went to the man convicted in her case. A member of a band called The Redfield, she said she woke up one morning in 2017 to discover a trailer full of musical instruments and equipment had been stolen.
Grayson said it was a blow, especially items of sentimental value, such as the symbols that once had belonged to her father and the guitar her grandparents bought her just before passing away. She said her husband saw a stolen microphone for sale at the Guitar Center, and that eventually led to the arrest and conviction of Jamarcus Lee Brown.
But Grayson said she still has not replaced all of the thousands of dollars’ worth of instruments and equipment that police did not recover.
And Grayson has not received anything from Brown’s $1,400 stimulus payment that a judge ordered forfeited.
“The whole thing made me mad – I mean, absolutely just furious – because we’re musicians,” she said. “It’s not like we’re, you know, rolling in it.”