TIFFIN - For the second time in a year, former Seneca County Sheriff H. Weldin Neff returned to the defense table yesterday to face charges of wrongdoing involving an employee.
Mr. Neff is accused of allowing a friend to stalk former dispatcher Alice Dohner, who was described in court as someone who became distraught by more than a year of harassment by the sheriff.
“She couldn't sleep. She couldn't eat,” special prosecutor Tom Matuszak said during his opening statements. “She wouldn't go anywhere in Seneca County without having someone with her.”
But defense attorney Richard Kerger said the case involving Mr. Neff and his supporter, Dennis Smith, “was much ado about not very much,” largely because Ms. Dohner and the sheriff were known political enemies.
“The evidence will be that Alice Dohner hated Sheriff Neff,” Mr. Kerger said.
Mr. Neff, 71, and Mr. Smith, 53, both are charged with menacing by stalking, a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a possible six-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.
Their trial in Seneca County Common Pleas Court is expected to last a week.
The sheriff was acquitted in March on 10 felony charges in a separate trial. Those charges of theft in office and threatening a witness in a criminal action were filed as detectives were investigating the criminal case involving Ms. Dohner.
Mr. Matuszak told visiting Judge Judith Cross, who is hearing the case without a jury, that Mr. Smith stalked Ms. Dohner in 1996 and 1997, before and after Sheriff Neff took office in January, 1997.
Ms. Dohner left her dispatch job in April, 1998, and filed a $3 million federal lawsuit against the county for the alleged harassment. That matter is pending.
The prosecutor told the judge that Ms. Dohner will take the stand this week and describe how Mr. Smith allegedly followed her around town, approached her at the sheriff's office, and called her home.
Mr. Matuszak said the sheriff encouraged the acts and attempted to make Ms. Dohner fearful of Mr. Smith, who had access to the sheriff's office.
But Mr. Kerger described Ms. Dohner as someone who was difficult to work with and who lodged repeated complaints about mistreatment at work.
“Alice Dohner complained vigorously about everything that was done to her,” Mr. Kerger said.
He said any problems she had on the job were deeply rooted in the fact that her husband, Rick, had been the chief deputy for former Sheriff Larry Stephens. Mr. Neff defeated Mr. Stephens in a tight race in November, 1996.
Mr. Matuszak called six witnesses to the stand, mostly current and former sheriff's employees.
Cora Bour, who was an administrator to Sheriff Neff, said she often served as a sounding board for Ms. Dohner. In one instance, Ms. Bour said Ms. Dohner became fearful when she learned Mr. Smith had been instructed by the sheriff to pick up an employment application during her night shift, when she would be working alone.
“She said this was the last straw - I can't handle it,” Ms. Bour recalled. “I tried to calm her down but I knew she was really, really upset and knowing Alice, she wasn't going to let this rest.”
During cross-examination, Ms. Bour told Mr. Kerger that Ms. Dohner was someone who often generated problems among her co-workers by always attempting “to set the rules.”