Court upholds Sussex prosecutor’s suspension over prank

DOVER — A dangerous courthouse prank warranted the 30-day suspension of a veteran Sussex County prosecutor, the Supreme Court determined last week.

The court found that Deputy Attorney General Adam D. Gelof “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly created a potentially very dangerous situation” when he persuaded a bailiff to point a gun toward a prosecutor during back and forth joking at the Sussex County Courthouse on Feb. 4, 2015.

Mr. Gelof’s suspension begins on July 1. He previously was disciplined by the Delaware Department of Justice, including a demotion to an entry level position and drop in pay, along with a paid suspension that effectively barred him from practicing law.

The Sussex County Courthouse is located at 1 The Circle in Georgetown. (Submitted/Delaware Courts)

The Sussex County Courthouse is located at 1 The Circle in Georgetown. (Submitted/Delaware Courts)

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a report on March 23 which the Supreme Court upheld after oral arguments Wednesday. Justices Randy Holland, Karen Valihura and James Vaughn Jr. considered the matter.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, spokesman Carl Kanefsky said, “As detailed in the Supreme Court’s order, the Department of Justice took disciplinary action with respect to this incident when it occurred last year.”

The Supreme Court noted that “considerable resources” were used to address the issue, including meetings, conference calls and hearings; Sussex County Superior Court Deputy Court Administrator Karen Taylor spent more than 50 hours on the case herself and took suspended bailiff Delbert Garrison’s Chief of Security responsibilities for five months.

According to the Supreme Court Ms. Taylor kept performing her own administrative duties during that time and worked approximately 70 to 75 hours of uncompensated overtime.

Capitol Police spent 85 to 90 hours investigation, the order said, conducting 11 interviews, receiving courthouse surveillance video and briefing Deputy Attorney General Dennis Kelleher before a determination that no criminal charges would be filed.

“(Gelof’s) ‘practical joke’ caused actual harm to the Superior Court’s administration of justice by diverting the court’s resources to handle the aftermath of (his) misconduct,” the Supreme Court determined.

Also, Mr. Gelof’s “colleagues were burdened with (his) caseload upon his suspension,” the order stated.

The Supreme Court noted Mr. Gelof “had no prior disciplinary record after over 20 years of practice, mostly spent in public service” and noted character witnesses description of his “good character and excellent reputation.

“(Gelof) is highly regarded as a prosecutor and for his service in his community as the founder of a youth baseball program in Sussex County.”

Ongoing pranks

According to the Supreme Court’s order, “without any evidence of pre-planning or thought,” Mr. Gelof persuaded chief bailiff Mr. Garrison to enter an approximately 118-square foot witness room, point a black semi-automatic handgun at prosecutor John Donahue IV and state “Gelof says keep the eggs away from the files.”

Previously, Mr. Donahue had eaten a hard-boiled egg over files, touching on Mr. Gelof’s disdain of the smell that caused him to gag, the order stated.

“(Gelof) and Donahue have a close personal and professional relationship,” the order stated.

“That relationship included relying on each other for trial advice in difficult felony cases, friendship outside the workplace and periodically kidding with each other to relieve workplace stress.

“… On this day there was a sense (Gelof) was having a particularly bad day based upon the assigned work load and his colleagues viewed this as an opportunity to torture him.”

A Delaware State Police detective in the small room was not aware of the prank in progress, however, and perceived a threat for a split second before hearing laughter in the room as Mr. Garrison “backed out of the room and the door closed.”

The trooper was positioned behind a door and unable to identify the person with the weapon and “was unable to see the reaction of the majority of the persons in the room,” and did not hear the bailiff’s order regarding the eggs.

While he had no time to reach for his weapon or react during the brief sequence, the trooper was alarmed enough to notify Superior Court Deputy Court Administrator Karen Taylor via email the following morning.

“My concern is that had I been in a different position to draw my weapon it is quite possible I would have fired my weapon in light of the threat I perceived or had it been a second longer I may have decided to wrestle the gun from this person,” Detective King wrote. The detective’s first name was not included in court documents.

“My intent is to make someone aware because I feel that the action demonstrated extremely poor judgment with regards to the handling of a firearm in the courthouse.”

Setting it up

In a span of 40 seconds captured on courthouse video, a persistent Mr. Gelof persuaded an initially-reluctant Mr. Garrison to draw his gun on Mr. Donahue as a joke, according to the Supreme Court. At one point, according to papers, Mr. Gelof “opened his wallet offering Garrison $20.”

Before agreeing, according to papers, Mr. Garrison responded with “yeah that’s not going to happen” and “We’re not doing that, keep your money.” The bailiff walked away from the deputy attorney general, who followed him into his office, papers said.

Several other Department of Justice staff members were using the witness room that day with Mr. Gelof.

In later testimony, Mr. Garrison said his “automatic weapon had a loaded clip but was not loaded with a live round in the chamber,

“Garrison stated that without his finger on the trigger and without a round in the chamber he believed his conduct in the prank was fully safe.”

Afterward, according to documents, Mr. Garrison walked into a courtroom and gave Mr. Gelof a “thumbs up” in an exchange captured on courtroom video.

“At some point … (Gelof) learned partial details of what occurred and despite having made the request of Garrison did not immediately believe what had transpired,” papers said.
A witness testified that upon telling Mr. Gelof “dude, that wasn’t cool,” he sat down and “the expression on his face told me he had no idea what I was talking about.
“He really didn’t understand what had just happened.”

Investigation begins

As word of the incident moved up the Delaware Court’s chain of command, Mr. Garrison was relieved of his firearm and Capitol Police were asked to conduct a criminal investigation. Mr. Garrison was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 6 and escorted from the courthouse.

Mr. Gelof acknowledged that he “involved a bailiff in a practical joke” and was “professionally and personally embarrassed for all involved that my actions have resulted in the matter going this far,” the Supreme Court included in its order.

According to court papers, Mr. Gelof was handling 16 criminal case reviews at the time of the incident, moving between two courtrooms on “one of the most stressful days” for a Deputy Attorney General.

In the order, the Supreme Court noted Mr. Gelof “did not use stress as an excuse, only an explanation for his conduct.”

On Feb. 13, Mr. Gelof was told he was indefinitely suspended, and had his badge and keys removed before being escorted from the Department of Justice building.
Mr. Garrison was demoted from Chief of Security to Court Security I with a corresponding pay reduction, and returned to work in early March 2015. He appealed the employment decision, which was upheld by Court of Common Pleas Administrator Stephanie Fitzgerald by letter on June 4, 2015.

After the Department of Justice investigation determined no criminal charges were warranted, Mr. Gelof served a two-month paid suspension before approved to begin working again on April 27, 2015.

Mr. Gelof was demoted to an entry level position he last held 18 years ago and took a more than 20 percent pay cut. He was placed on probation for a year and not allowed to prosecute felony cases without the approval of Attorney General Matt Denn.

“(Gelof) was also put on a performance improvement plan and was subject to review periods,” the order stated. “(He) took full responsibility for what had occurred and accepted these consequences.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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