One woman’s dogged determination peeled away at a business bound for bankruptcy. She’s faced death threats, computer spying and investigations into her online blog. WAAY 31 talked at length with the woman who uncovered law enforcement’s questionable connections to what some are calling a scam business.
She's a retired civil servant. A grandmother. A fighter.
Between the tiny towns of Eva and Falkville, we watched Glenda Lockhart scoop chicken feed from a tub. Lockhart feeds more than her chickens, though.
She also feeds her blog.
Lockhart says she took the name “Whistleblower” because she’s blowing the whistle for people who can’t.
"At the time that this happened, I just thought, you know, if this can happen to us -- we can be arrested because we need help with our son -- anybody can be arrested,” Lockhart told WAAY 31.
It all goes back to 2012.
The Lockharts called 9-1-1 for help with their adult son who suffered with a mental condition.
Over the years, they called for help before.
But, this time, there was a new sheriff, Ana Franklin.
"And when the deputies got out here, instead of going to our son's house and helping us with our son, they set up a command post, is what it appeared to me, in our home and arrested me and my husband,” she told us.
Charged with misdemeanor “Obstructing a Government Operation,” a judge ruled in favor of the Lockharts.
“We were acquitted,” Lockhart said. “And both of us received about a 2 1/2 page acquittal from the judge on a third degree misdemeanor. So, we felt really good about that."
Exonerated, Glenda’s eyes were wide open.
“So, it was during that time from that I started doing the research,” Lockhart explained. “And I was collecting the data. And I was sending it in to the state attorney general (Luther Strange) for over two years. And nothing was ever done. So, I just thought this is time for me to go to the U.S. Attorney General's office. And that's what I did."
Lockhart says she documented her quest for justice on her Morgan County Whistleblower blog.
"Performance Auto actually got me started on it and Steven Ziaja, the ALEA agent that's now facing 12 felony counts,” Lockhart told us. “He just lives right up the road from our home here. And I noticed a lot of interesting things going on with people coming into his property."
Already curious about her neighbor, Lockhart got wind Steven Ziaja had a business interest in Performance Auto & Title Mart.
“One of the sheriff's deputies that is a volunteer firefighter for Falkville told my grandson about a used car dealership that Steven Ziaja owned,” she said. “And I thought that was interesting being an ALEA agent. But, it even got more interesting when he mentioned Ana Franklin and Alyssa Franklin.”
Lockhart and her "Whistleblower" team dug deeper.
“So, we started watching the Title Marts,” she said. “And what we found was that Steven was working in the Title Marts when he was an ALEA agent and during normal duty hours. As was Blake Robinson, one of the sheriff's office employees. So, the more that we watched and the more that we learned, we found that there were just an unbelievable amount of people that appeared to be investing in the Title Marts.”
By the end, Lockhart connected four agents of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, at least two Morgan County sheriff’s office employees and the sheriff herself. All of the law officers were tied to the business.
Lockhart said the list of investors read like a “Who’s Who in Law Enforcement.”
"Sheriff Ana Franklin, ALEA agent Steven Ziaja, ALEA agent Jon Venegoni, ALEA agent (Mike) Reese and (Stanley) Ray because they're all public officials,” Lockhart rattle off. “As well as you have Bones Wilson (photo above) who is in the drug task force who invested money in the Title Marts. As did Blake Robinson. And those are the people Sheriff Franklin has so closely surrounded herself with."
Along Point Mallard Parkway in Priceville, Lockhart says all signs pointed to trouble.
Performance Auto & Title Mart is now in chapter 11 bankruptcy under the corporate name Priceville Partners, LLC.
“From there, as we were doing the blogs, we had people from the sheriff's office, people from the county sending us information."
Determined to build her case, Lockhart even went dumpster diving looking for evidence. A source tipped her off that Sheriff Franklin invested $150-thousand in taxpayer money into Performance Auto & Title Mart. Later, Lockhart got her hands on a copy of a cashier’s check to prove it.
I wasn't at all surprised.” Lockhart told WAAY 31. “Our sources told us that Sheriff Franklin had been taking money from the sheriff's office since 2013.”
Her mounting evidence was putting Lockhart on the radar. She sent her team’s findings to the Alabama Ethics Commission, the Alabama Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney General and the FBI.
In October of 2016, after convincing a judge to issue search warrants, the sheriff’s office raided Lockhart’s construction business in Falkville. The business is Straightline Drywall.
‘We were doing a lot of blogging in that time frame,” she explained. “And we had come up with a lot of information that I believe the sheriff's office didn't want out.”
Last month, Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson ruled Sheriff Ana Franklin’s office misled him when asking for those 2016 search warrants.
The judge scolded the sheriff’s office for threatening to put Lockhart’s grandson in jail and paying him to install key logger software on his grandmother’s computers.
"They paid him as a confidential informant,” Lockhart told us.
She says the people who wanted to stop her blogging used her grandson.
“I think he was brainwashed,” she said. “I think that they really had this kid believing that he was going to become a police officer, that he was working towards becoming a police officer with them."
The blogger is proud of how her grandson has grown from the ordeal.
“He's doing very well,” Lockhart said. “Blood is always thicker than water. And I think he learned a valuable lesson. When people put you up to do dirty deeds then you do them, there's a consequence. And I think that he's had to face those consequences and they've been tough. They've been really hard on our family and he knows that. And he's doing wonderful where he is now. And I expect him to continue doing well. I think he's going to do a lot better than they are."
Sheriff Franklin says she’s tired of being a target.
“It’s real easy for somebody to just make an allegation and then that’s the truth,” Sheriff Franklin told WAAY 31. “By the time it gets spread all over social media, by the time the media picks it up and does any questions on it. And there’s no way to defend yourself.”
As for Glenda Lockhart, she insists the law officers turned into law breakers.
“And I'm hoping that at some point, we'll see justice."
The Morgan County Whistleblower blogger says the law officers' chickens will come home to roost.
Sheriff Franklin has maintained she’s not able to comment specifically because of pending lawsuits and bankruptcy cases.
WAAY 31 emailed a list of questions for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency: What is the status of these Alabama Law Enforcement Agency agents? Does ALEA allow its agents to work other jobs while on duty? What has ALEA done to secure its computers to protect taxpayers' personal information? And what is ALEA's response to the agents' questionable connections to this business.
Their response: "ALEA does not comment on ongoing investigations."