During his 28-year law enforcement career, Jeff Palmer busted well over a thousand Mississippians for selling drugs, sending many to prison.

When he retired as a deputy on Oct. 1, Tishomingo County Sheriff Glenn Whitlock praised him with a plaque that read, “You have set an example to be followed in the future and cherished by those fortunate enough to have experienced for ourselves.”

But documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger paint a much different picture.

While working for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Palmer forged the names of fellow agents to obtain drug buy money and initiated cases in other agents’ names, documents allege.

He flunked a polygraph test that asked him about using drug buy money for “personal use.”

At the district attorney’s request, a judge here has dismissed more than 30 cases Palmer brought — and other cases could be in jeopardy, including those that put people behind bars or marked them as felons.

Motions filed by the district attorney’s office cite Palmer’s availability and health as reasons for dismissal. “On more than one occasion he conveyed he was not available because of his health,” said spokesman Paul Howell.

The 49-year-old Palmer, who currently works as a salesman at Barneys Police & Hunting Supplies in Tupelo, said he had open-heart surgery in 2013.

He said the dismissals weren’t “my decision. I retired seven months ago.”

He blamed the dismissals on local attorney John R. White, who represented many of the defendants who won dismissals.

Palmer said White was upset with him because he arrested White’s former business partner, Richard Brewer, in 2013 on marijuana charges, “and while he was out of jail, we arrested him on extortion.”

In the end, prosecutors dismissed the entire case against Brewer.

White explained that he, another man and Brewer owned a piece of land together at one point but that Brewer was never a business partner.

He said he represented Brewer, just like he would any client, and that Brewer paid him for his services.

“I don’t have anything against Palmer, other than against anyone I felt was lying — trying to put people in prison when they didn’t commit a crime,” he said. “To me, that’s a problem.”

Problems begin

In the 1980s, Palmer entered law enforcement and soon developed an expertise of making drug arrests.

When he joined the state Bureau of Narcotics in 1993, it was a dream come true. He was now working for an elite agency focused on bringing drug cases in his native north Mississippi.

Three years later, questions arose about a search warrant he executed on a suspected drug dealer in Alcorn County.

“After counting the money and providing a receipt to the person in possession at the time of seizure, you sealed the seized money in an evidence bag but failed to mark the bag for identification purposes,” wrote Col. Tom Blain, then-director of the Bureau of Narcotics.

Failing to mark such evidence violated the agency’s policies.

“Your offense is aggravated by the fact that when the funds were counted it was determined that there was a $1,000 difference between the amount recorded as seized by you and the amount counted by the Bureau fiscal officer,” Blain wrote. “The fact that you failed to properly mark the evidence bag for identification before turning it over to the case agent contributed to the inability of the internal affairs officer to determine whether there was a theft of $1,000 or if the money was miscounted upon seizure.”

He issued a written reprimand against Palmer.

“It is my hope that this reprimand will encourage you to fulfill your official duties more responsibly in the future,” Blain wrote. “Future incidents could result in more extreme disciplinary action.”

Despite the setback, Palmer rose through the ranks.

Twice, the bureau named him Agent of the Year. He became captain of the bureau’s Tupelo district.

But that came crashing down April 6, 2006, when then-Director Marshall Fisher suspended Palmer without pay, ordering him to turn over anything that belonged to the bureau.

Charge I accused Palmer of falsifying records by opening eight cases in the name of another agent “after being instructed not to open case files in the names of other agents.”

Charge II accused him of falsifying and forging 54 vouchers “for the purchase of information and evidence.” (Under the rules, two agents must sign each voucher as a safeguard for checking money out to make drug buys and pay informants.)

Palmer told The Clarion-Ledger the situation arose because two officers were out of the Tupelo district. Left short-handed, he said he had to get involved in the cases himself.

As captain, he didn’t have the authority to sign out drug buy money so he said he forged other officers’ signatures. He acknowledged it was a violation of policy but said “no money was taken.”

At the time, the bureau gave him a polygraph, and he showed “significant reaction” to the following questions:

“Did you ever use any buy money for personal use?”

“Did you ever use any buy money that you signed out for personal use?”

“Did you ever withhold any buy money from any CIs (confidential informants)?”

“Palmer failed his polygraph,” the report concluded.

In a conversation with The Clarion-Ledger, Palmer insisted he never knew the results of the polygraph test.

A day after his suspension, his lawyer, Tony Farese, faxed the bureau’s attorney his client’s resignation letter along with a note. “As you know, Captain Palmer denied any criminal conduct in this matter, and you have represented to me that Director Fisher has assured us there will be no criminal action arising out of this disciplinary matter,” Farese wrote.

In a 2014 letter, the bureau’s lead counsel wrote that the agency concluded there was “no money actually diverted by Palmer. … There was no definitive determination as to whether Palmer financially benefitted.”

Fisher said he could not comment because it involved personnel matters.

For the next several years, Palmer sold insurance, worked as a social worker and taught school.

But in 2010, he started back in law enforcement, becoming a narcotics officer for the Tishomingo County Sheriff’s Department.

Tishomingo County Sheriff Whitlock said he never saw any of the Narcotics Bureau’s allegations against Palmer, including that he forged other officers’ names on drug buy vouchers.

Asked if he had seen similar problems with Palmer there, the sheriff said Palmer “worked through the North Mississippi Narcotics Task Force. I never saw any of the paperwork.”

He said what he heard about the polygraph Palmer took was it was “inconclusive.”

He praised Palmer. “He took drug dealers off the street. He seemed to be doing a good job. All of a sudden the DA drops all these charges.”

Asked if there were problems with those cases, the sheriff responded no. “They’re all documented,” he said. “Something smells like a dead opossum.”

As a deputy, Palmer rose through the ranks until he became assistant chief deputy.

“I thought he walked on water,” recalled former fellow deputy Randy Cornelison. “He was a hell of a worker. He would bring 80 to 100 cases to the grand jury in a year when other guys were bringing only 10.”

But the more time that passed, the more questions Cornelison began to have.

He said Palmer shared how he sometimes got inside homes without warrants — placing fake 911 domestic disturbance calls and then following police inside.

He said Palmer also shared that he made up probable causes to stop cars.

Cornelison recalled finding what appeared to be oxycodone tablets inside a Tishomingo County home on Aug. 30, 2012.

When Palmer arrived, “I gave him all of the seized narcotics that I had found,” Cornelison wrote in his supplement report.

Working the next day on the arrest report, he realized he didn’t have the exact number of tablets seized.

He wrote that he contacted Palmer and asked him “to let me know of the final count so I could put an actual number in my arrest report. … The final count he gave me was six tablets. …

“I had not counted them prior to giving them to Jeff Palmer, but would have made an estimate that there were 10 to 14 tablets total.”

Weeks passed, and the more Cornelison thought about it, the more concerned he became. He said he realized he couldn’t testify he found only six tablets.

“I struggled, so I did a supplemental report and explained what happened,” he said.

Before this, he had been Deputy of the Quarter, a “golden boy, but once that supplemental report showed up, that was the end of me,” he said. “I went from being a good employee to being a piece of crap.”

These days, he works as an officer for the Belmont Police Department.

Palmer’s estranged wife, Leigh, agreed that her husband worked hard. “He had 10 times more cases than anybody else,” she said.

Law enforcement agencies loved her husband because of how many arrests he made and how many assets he seized through drug arrests, she said. “One deputy told me, ‘Jeff will do paperwork to seize anything. It doesn’t matter how old it is.’

Questionable cases

Pam Oliver recalled Palmer in 2013 arresting her daughter, Haley, now 20, and charging her with selling spice.

Her daughter had never been in trouble before, she said. “First, he told me he was confiscating her vehicle for selling drugs.”

That vehicle happened to be a Hummer.

“I got the impression he thought it was my daughter’s car,” Oliver said. “But it was in my name.”

Then Palmer switched gears to concern, she said, saying her daughter was young and he didn’t want to see these charges ruin her life. If Oliver would turn over the Hummer, the charges would go away, she quoted Palmer as saying.

She said she asked him if he was trying to help her daughter, why did he want the Hummer?

“He told me to just think about it and to decide if it was worth the charges going away,” she said.

She turned down Palmer’s offer and finally saw the evidence that purported to implicate her daughter.

On an audiotape, two females talk about picking up Adderall, and a male voice can be heard, too, but no one is identified. On two videos, someone besides her daughter appears to be selling marijuana. On another, an apparent confidential informant enters a store, where there are two females. It’s difficult to identity them and even more difficult to hear the conversation. The video ends abruptly.

Her daughter’s charges have finally been dismissed.

“It’s been a nightmare for two years,” Oliver said. “My daughter just sits and cries.”

Barbara Johnson did turn over her family’s car to Palmer so he would drop any potential charges against her grandson.

“It was a 2006 Buick Lucerne,” she said. “It was my husband’s last car.”

Life in ruins, case tossed

James Anthony Cooksey spent more than 16 years in prison for manslaughter — something the 49-year-old native said he was guilty of.

But he insists he is not guilty of selling drugs.

In June 2014, Palmer accused him of selling drugs, and Cooksey was hauled to jail.

As a result of those charges, he said he lost his job, his wife and his home. He now lives in a camper trailer. “They have ruint me,” he said.

He had a Nissan Altima, but he had to sell it, he said. “It cost me over $900 to get out of jail.”

Everyone knows of his arrest on a charge of selling drugs, and no one is willing to hire him, he said. “I sold my refrigerator today for $25.”

Two videos purport to show Cooksey selling drugs to a young woman — but no sale can be seen or heard on either video.

When the woman, working as a confidential informant, returned to the vehicle with Palmer, she said, “OK, we’ve got two Percocets, a Roxicodone and an oxycodone.” (All these different names contain the same narcotic painkiller, oxycodone.)

By the time the report was made, however, the number of pills had increased. Now Cooksey was accused of selling two Percocets, four Roxicontins and one oxycodone for $60.

A few paragraphs later in the same report, the number of Percocets dropped by one.

By the time the Tupelo Crime Lab received the evidence in 2014, the amount had fallen again, this time to five pills.

The lab’s conclusion? Only two tablets it tested were controlled substances — both containing oxycodone.

Last month, a judge threw out the case against Cooksey.

Until all of this happened, he had faith in the American justice system, he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I could prove my innocence. There are others who can’t.”

Pressured to confess?

Amanda Hicks, 37, had never been convicted of a felony until she purchased a box of Sudafed in 2010 (when the medicine could still be purchased over the counter in Mississippi without a prescription).

Supposedly tipped off by a clerk where she made the purchase, Palmer pulled Hicks over.

She said he repeatedly asked where the pills were going and she repeatedly answered to her house.

Palmer became angry and picked up a piece of lawn grass from her car, she said. “He said, ‘I told you I’d give you one more chance.’

She is quoted in her statement as saying, “Investigator Palmer found some marijuana seeds in my car, but they are not mine. … The dope in the car was not mine.”

She said the statement, which she refused to sign, is not true and pointed to the fact she has yet to see a test or report that proves there were any marijuana seeds or residue in her car.

At the advice of her attorney, she pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to make meth. “He said if I didn’t plead guilty, I would go to prison,” she said.

Under the plea agreement, she received a 15-year suspended sentence, plus probation.

When she later tested positive for marijuana, she wound up in drug court.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Drug court got me back on the right track.”

Now she hopes she can get her felony conviction dismissed because of Palmer’s actions, she said. “No telling how many people went to prison because of him.”

When The Clarion-Ledger tried to ask Palmer about allegations raised by his former employer, former co-workers, defendants and their families, he responded, “I’m not going to make any more comments about any of these matters.”

Bringing home drugs

Palmer and his wife, Leigh, married June 20, 2009 — more than three years after they first started dating.

She worked as a dental hygienist and was the couple’s major breadwinner when he was a teacher.

But in less than three years, she had four surgeries, three for her back and one for cancer. She was frequently in pain and depressed, she said.

After her husband began working as a deputy, he started bringing home prescription drugs, hoping the painkillers might enable her to go back to work, she said.

He explained that some had come from a drug drop-off program at the jail and others from old evidence, she said. “Sometimes he brought them home in evidence bags. He said he had dropped them into evidence bags.”

Other times, the drugs came in pill bottles with other people’s names on them, she said.

She also recalled him borrowing cash from drug buy money to pay bills.

Asked about his wife’s claims, Palmer called her “a liar. That’s just her being crazy and scornful.”

There is no debate about what happened next — she became addicted to painkillers, and her family put her in a detox center. “This is something I never thought would happen to me,” she said.

She has volunteered to take a polygraph — something authorities have not taken her up on.

The couple separated in September 2013, and Palmer filed for divorce in February 2014, accusing her of taking drugs. She responded in court papers that he condoned her drug use. You can also find attorneys for adoption in the Tri-Cities, if you have kids.

Their divorce trial is set for August, she said. “I believe all this happened for a reason. I have my life back.”

Contact Jerry Mitchell at jmitchell@jackson.gannett.com or (601) 961-7064. Follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.