The mother of a Missouri man charged with statutory rape, as head of her small town’s governing board, has been leading an effort to oust the police chief who investigated the crime.
But Theresa Wilson points out that she’s not claiming her son is innocent and that there are other reasons — the town’s budget is strapped — to remove the chief.
The dispute over the chief has thrown tiny Ferrelview, Mo., just north of Kansas City, into turmoil.
For starters, the father of the 14-year-old girl in the rape case did not know that Wilson was the mother of the accused man, he told The Star — not until a recent morning when he pulled a flyer off his windshield. The flyer had been left on his and most everyone else’s cars overnight.
The anonymous flyer warned of a possible conflict of interest for Wilson — elected to the town’s board in April along with her husband, Russell Wilson — and the board’s actions to oust Police Chief Daniel Clayton.
The flyer showed photographs of Theresa Wilson’s son, Jeffrey Gabbard, being booked into jail, with the headline: “Is THIS why the Wilsons REALLY want to get rid of the police in Ferrelview?!?”
The father went to the next City Hall meeting Aug. 8 to speak of his concern and quickly found out just how raw the tensions are in his town over what has been a two-year fight over its police department and its chief.
Theresa Wilson tried calming the father’s fears as he started to speak.
“It’s unrelated,” she began, meaning to somehow explain that her desire to remove the chief has nothing to do with the night of Oct. 25, 2015, when the 14-year-old girl was reported missing. The next day, Chief Clayton found her inside another family’s home, and Gabbard was accused of rape.
Wilson hopes her son is innocent, but says she doesn’t know what happened that night. If her son is guilty, she said, he should “face the music.”
Rather, she told The Star, the chief is under fire because some in town think Clayton is heavy-handed. And, perhaps more importantly, Ferrelview is in financial distress, and a majority of the town’s board says it can no longer support a police department. The town’s future as an incorporated entity is even in peril.
But there wasn’t time to explain all that as the father continued to speak to the board Aug. 8.
“I want you guys to think about,” he said, “... if you were in my situation — which is, ‘This is my daughter…’ ”
Then board member Melvin Rhodes interrupted him.
“Well, my daughter,” Rhodes said, “wasn’t sneaking out in the middle of the night.”
The audience erupted in pandemonium. Ferrelview was boiling again.
Clayton has seemingly been under fire most of the two years he has served as Ferrelview’s police chief.
Anger has stirred over what some say has been his aggressive enforcement of traffic violations — to the point of harassment.
“This is why I’m on the board,” said Rhodes, who, like the Wilsons, won election onto the board in April. “To do whatever I can to get him off the police force.”
Others say Clayton has been firm, but fair, and has helped reduce crime.
That Theresa Wilson is participating in a process seeking to remove Clayton from duty “smacks of conflict of interest,” said Phil Gilliam, a board member who is supporting the chief.
“The way it looks, anyone outside looking in, is they’re railroading the police out of town,” Gilliam said. “The perfect storm that’s spiraled into Ferrelview.”
The board is meeting again at 6 p.m. Thursday to continue its debate over the police department and the chief.
Clayton, saying he did not want to speak while the board is considering his fate, declined to comment for this story.
Wilson said she recognizes that some might think the timing of her efforts against the police looks like retaliation over the rape accusation.
But she has long felt harassed by tickets, she said, as were many others. And her frustration over the town’s government function overall has been a concern she has fought sometimes bitterly, once declaring her complaints in a petition on the Change.org website.
As chairwoman of the board, one of her duties in the town’s charter was to be the board’s liaison to the police, but she said she passed that duty to Rhodes because of the pending case against her son.
When the shouting died down in the Aug. 8 meeting, Wilson tried to sympathize with the father still standing in the room.
“I’m very sorry for what happened to your daughter,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I cannot say my son did it. And I can’t say he didn’t do it.”
Wednesday, in an interview with The Star at City Hall, Wilson expressed regret at the anger that erupted at that meeting, saying, “I was shocked that Melvin (Rhodes) said what he said.”
She is not trying to influence her son’s prosecution, she said, nor does she think she could if she wanted to.
“As a mother, it breaks my heart,” she said. “I don’t condone criminal behavior. He’s got to face the music if he’s guilty of that. I hope he is innocent.”
The father, whom The Star is not naming to protect the identity of his daughter, is a defender of Clayton’s performance.
He went “above and beyond” that night in 2015, when he responded to what was at first a concern that the daughter was missing.
For some 12 hours, the father said, Clayton went in search of her, visiting homes, looking for particular cars. And when he found her, and the rape accusation was made, Clayton spent another six hours with the family at St. Luke’s North Hospital.
Months would pass, waiting for lab reports, DNA testing. A Platte County grand jury issued an indictment against Gabbard for second-degree statutory rape in August 2016. He was incarcerated for a probation violation on another charge later that fall and is now in the Platte County jail awaiting trial on the rape charge set for Oct. 16.
The town’s dispute with its police chief “is really alarming,” said the girl’s father, who thinks Clayton has been good for Ferrelview.
“This town was a hot mess,” he said.
It’s still a hot mess, which City Treasurer Mickey Vulgamott said is frustrating efforts that need to happen to preserve the town’s future.
“This is nasty,” she said. “It’s really nasty.”
Ferrelview, a town of some 450 people in a mix of homes, apartments and mobile homes, has long depended on traffic fines to support its public services, she said.
But limits placed on the revenue towns can generate on fines grew steeper after the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., prompted stiffer legislation in 2015.
Ferrelview can only generate 20 percent of its budget from fines, and that isn’t enough to support a police department and municipal court, Vulgamott said.
The town needs to contract with Platte County for police protection, she said, and pass a tax to support fire suppression costs that it is now paying out of its general fund.
The board has dissolved the town’s court and stripped away its small police force, except for Clayton, whose job is protected by Missouri statute.
The board has to have a two-third’s majority to oust Clayton, but with two of the five board members firmly supporting keeping the police chief, that supermajority is out of reach.
Many people in the town are accusing Vulgamott and Wilson of exaggerating the town’s financial straits, but the state has begun a performance audit, which Vulgamott expects will answer that debate.
“We’re at an impasse,” she said. “We’re constantly fighting over all this stuff and not getting down to figuring out how we’re going to survive. I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”
As Wilson and Vulgamott talked, Wilson pulled out printed photographs from past outdoor festivals — Octoberfests with families walking among hay bales and pumpkins, Easter celebrations with children on Easter egg hunts.
“The city was coming together,” Wilson said, looking at the pictures from five to seven years ago. “This is all gone. This is what I want Ferrelview to return to. (But) things have become so hateful and vicious.”