A sheriff accused of having state prisoners work at a stolen car "chop shop" and using them as his race-car pit crew resigned and pleaded guilty, becoming the third St. Helena Parish sheriff in a row convicted of federal charges.
Ronald "Gun" Ficklin pleaded guilty Monday to 17 counts about an hour before he was to go on trial. Prosecutors dropped four other counts as part of a plea agreement.
Ficklin's total maximum sentence could be 95 years in prison and $4.2 million in fines; the judge also could order him to repay money to victims. His sentencing had not been scheduled.
A statement filed with the plea agreement said Ficklin, the parish sheriff for nearly a decade, knew for three years that Barry Dawsey was running an illegal chop shop at B&D Auto in Greensburg but helped and profited from it rather than trying to shut it down.
Dawsey was caught in a stolen pickup truck containing Ficklin's badge, and he and a friend of the sheriff, convicted burglar Mitch Tidwell, both pleaded guilty to related charges. The two were expected to testify against Ficklin.
According to the statement filed with the plea agreement, Ficklin admitted putting state inmates housed in the St. Helena Parish Jail to work in Dawsey's shop.
After Louisiana Probation and Parole officers discovered the practice, Ficklin used the prisoners instead in his own shop and as the pit crew for his race car, which he dubbed The Bounty Hunter.
Ficklin also had his secretary sign an inspection report on a pickup truck that was built with stolen parts and then sold it to Greensburg Mayor Ken Carter, the statement said.
The sheriff sent a letter of resignation to Secretary of State Jay Dardenne shortly after his court appearance, defense attorney Frank Holthaus said.
Ficklin, former mayor of Greensburg, had been sheriff since 1998, when he was appointed to replace Chaney Phillips, who was sentenced to the maximum of eight years and a month for fraud and money laundering in his previous job as assessor in the largely rural parish just northeast of Baton Rouge.
Phillips had been elected sheriff in 1997 to succeed Eugene Holland, who got 16 months and was ordered to repay $27,000 after pleading guilty to having his office buy building materials for him, pay his utility bills and provide inmate labor for his personal use.
Ficklin's guilty plea included one count each of trafficking cars with altered motor vehicle identification numbers and of altering VINs, 14 counts of mail fraud and one of helping a convicted felon possess a firearm.