GREENSBORO – Lawrence Briscoe reaches into his faded blue bathrobe and pulls out a crumpled pack of Marlboros. He rummages around the top of a cluttered end table and uncovers a disposable lighter.
The Greene County police chief fires up a bent cigarette, laying the lighter on the worn arm of the only padded chair in his weather-beaten mobile home. He takes a drag and taps the ashes into an already overflowing ashtray. This is his first Saturday morning as an accused drug dealer.
"Does this place look like it belongs to a big-time drug dealer?" he asks. "Just look around. I haven't made one quarter off of drugs. I have never distributed or sold drugs – the only thing I'm guilty of is being stupid."
Unfortunately for Briscoe, the FBI is accusing him of much more than stupidity.
Last week, FBI agents arrested Briscoe and charged him with buying two pounds of marijuana and two ounces of cocaine from one of their operatives. The FBI says Briscoe's motive had nothing to do with his living conditions. They say he wanted $30,000 to finance a campaign to become Greene County's sheriff, a post most locals say he was obsessed with having.
Briscoe counters that he was trying to crack the biggest the biggest rural drug ring between here and Atlanta, and he accuses the FBI of using a convicted dealer as an informant. Briscoe says his only mistake was not being more careful to avoid a set-up.
The FBI's motive, Briscoe says, is to shoot down the rising star of a young black cop. Briscoe was the first black to be appointed a county police chief in Georgia, and he's still one of the youngest at 35.
As might be expected in a town of 3,000 people, Briscoe is the talk of Greensboro, the county seat. Many residents were downtown last Wednesday just before noon, and they witnessed a half-dozen FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents leading Briscoe from his courthouse office.
Some of those same residents were at the emergency County Commission meeting Thursday night, and they saw commissioners suspend Briscoe without pay. They watched as commissioners put Assistant Chief Buddy Short in charge of the eight-man department and gave Briscoe 10 days to formally respond to the FBI's charges.
On the porches of antebellum homes and the stoops of downtown shops, the conversations this week were laden with small-town understatement and humor. But not surprise.
All over town, it's the same story: a black man waiting at a downtown bus stop, a white woman going to the courthouse to pay some bills, a white man sitting at a table in Holcomb's Barbecue. None of them are surprised by Briscoe's arrest, and none of them will divulge their names – and all insist there are other local officials doing just what Briscoe is accused of doing.
"For some reason, people in Greene County aren't comfortable talking about the problems down there," says Ed Walker, the Athens-based FBI agent who led the month-long Briscoe investigation.
Greensboro Mayor Andrew Boswell knows why.
"They'll tell you in private and confidential, but they won't sign an affidavit and they won't swear to it," says Boswell, who's only been in office for a month. "I've had some people come to me, and they say they've seen something. And I say, "Why don't you make a complaint to the authorities?' And they say it's because they're scared the damn law enforcement is in on it."
Boswell won't say anything else – other than he isn't dealing drugs himself.
But someone tipped off the FBI, although Agent Walker won't say who. "The way we get most of our information is through referrals – someone comes in and we start looking into it," he says. "As a rule, we don't deal with drugs in those small quantities, but we looked at this case as a matter of corruption, because Mr. Briscoe is a local official."
Briscoe suggests his arrest was set up by the same corrupt officials who have the town running scared, although he won't name names, either.
"I was set up like a turkey," he says. Other than that, he says. "My lawyer told me not to give any details."
But Briscoe eagerly provides details of his life up till his arrest.
Born in Woodville, a Greene County town of 460 residents, he was a county cop with seven years' experience before commissioners appointed him chief in 1987. He's the father of a girl, 14, and a boy, 15. He and his wife recently adopted their niece, 6. It was well known around Greensboro that Briscoe – a high-school dropout who later got his GED – was strict about his children's schoolwork. Everyone knew his children couldn't play school sports unless they maintained a B average.
"The schools require a 70 average to participate in sports," he says. "I require an 80."
Briscoe also coached Little League and a men's and women's softball team. He often traveled with the high local high school's sport teams.
"He was a model citizen. I don't know what else he could have done to be more community-involved," recalls county commissioner Bobby Roper. But as police chief, "He was sort of up and down. At times, he was a motivator and was creative. At other times, he seemed to lose interest."
"He was certainly someone to be proud of," says William Breeden, principal of F.T. Corry Elementary School and past president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
Breeden was “surprised” by Briscoe’s arrest and ”hurt” by his accusation of racism. A black man himself who has achieved a high position, Breeden says race relations are “positive” in a town almost equally split between black and
white. He doesn’t want to see that go backward.
“We dare not let the Greene County community, and especially the whites, believe that one man’s actions are the model for all others who are of the same pigmentation,” he says. “There are too many strong people – both black and white – who want to move in the right direction.”
While Breeden still calls Briscoe “one of our native sons,” he saw the ambition in his eyes. "I think Briscoe had the fever," he says with a sigh, staring out the window of his office.
Many others in town say they knew Briscoe wanted to run for sheriff in 1992. They say he craved the more prestigious and independent office (elected instead of appointed), the bigger staff (22 compared to eight), and the greater responsibilities (in charge of the jail and dispatchers).
Briscoe downplays the reports characterizing him as "obsessed" with unseating three-term Sheriff Jimmy Finch. "People have come to me about running," he says.
The FBI affidavit says Briscoe told its operative that he had dealt drugs before, but "it had been a while since he had been 'doing' anything, and as a result was not making any money." The FBI says Briscoe was looking to raise $30,000 for his campaign.
"That's ridiculous," Briscoe says.
That's also a lot of money in Greene County. Briscoe's annual salary is $21,600. In his reelection bids, Finch says his self-imposed campaign spending limit has always been $2,500, "and depending on the competition, I don't always spend that much."
Briscoe cites the $30,000 figure as one sign that the FBI doesn't know what it's talking about. As the Saturday morning sunlight beams through his frayed drapes, Briscoe lights another Marlboro and laments, "If I had that kind of money, I'd make the repairs around the house I should be doing. I've had every opportunity to live like a king, but I couldn't live like a king clean."