The federal government has decided not to further prosecute Mark Hazelwood, the former president of Pilot Travel Centers, as well as two co-defendants.
After a trial that concluded three years ago, Hazelwood got 12 1/2 years and a $750,000 fine, while Scott Wombold received six years and a $75,000 fine and Heather Jones got 2 1/2 years for defrauding trucking firms of promised fuel rebates.
However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw the convictions out, saying Judge Curtis Collier should not have allowed explosive testimony of racist comments made at a Pilot sales party in 2012. The appeals court concluded that a recording played to the jury was so inflammatory that a fair trial was voided. The tape was made by a cooperating Pilot employee.
The government earlier announced it planned to retry the case.
The defense then asked that Judge Collier go off the case.
Prosecutors said on Tuesday, "The government makes this motion based on a combination of factors that include 1) the personal circumstances of certain government cooperators; 2) the decade-old age of the circumstances upon which the case is based combined with the challenge of presenting those facts and circumstances through cooperators who have completed their sentences, some of whom, it has been proffered to the government by defense counsel, have made statements since sentencing that would negatively affect the credibility of their testimony in a retrial and also suggest an inclination to withhold further assistance to the government; and 3) limited government resources."
The lengthy trial was held in Chattanooga with numerous witnesses appearing over months of testimony.
The name of Pilot board chairman Jimmy Haslam came up several times in the trial, but he was never charged. A defense attorney had indicated there would be more Haslam references in a retrial.
The dismissal motion also says, "The Sixth Circuit reversed Defendants Hazelwood’s, Wombold’s, and Jones’s convictions due to the erroneous admission of Government Exhibits 529, 530, and 531. United States v. Hazelwood, 979 F.3d 398, 415 (6th Cir. 2020). Contrary to the government’s position, the court of appeals declined to find harmless error, finding that the government’s case was “not ironclad” and the evidence was “not overwhelming” due to various defenses that, according to the panel, likely prompted the jury’s split verdict that included numerous acquittals. Id. (“There is also the split verdict as to all three defendants… [that] shows that the evidence was not overwhelming. Wombold was convicted on only one count of seven charged. Jones was acquitted of four counts of wire fraud yet convicted on the conspiracy count.”)
"The government has determined that a retrial in this case will require the testimony of a cooperator whose personal circumstances cause the government to conclude that it would be inappropriate to compel her testimony and, in any event, prevent the government from being confident in the reliability of that witness’ recollection of significant facts and circumstances. That situation in conjunction with the fact that the government’s case concerns facts and circumstances that occurred nearly a decade or more ago that can only be presented by overcoming the challenges posed by obtaining continued assistance from cooperators who have completed their sentences, some of whom reportedly have made statements since sentencing that would negatively impact the credibility of their testimony in a retrial, combined with the government’s experience with the challenges of the first trial, further combined with the government’s resource constraints, force the government’s conclusion that it now faces significant obstacles in proving its case against these defendants beyond a reasonable doubt in a retrial."
Of the witness mentioned, the motion says, "Information related to the personal circumstances of this cooperating witness is available to the Court under seal. See Doc. 965 (sealed). The government also notes that another significant cooperator has personal circumstances that cause the government concern in planning for that witness’ availability at retrial as well."
The motion concludes, "Thus, the government seeks leave of Court, pursuant to Rule 48(a), to dismiss the remaining charges against defendants Hazelwood, Wombold, and Jones in the Amended Superseding Indictment. The government seeks this leave in good faith, that is with no intention of engaging in a “prosecutorial harassment” scheme through a pattern of dismissal and recharging. In that vein, the government consents to dismissal with prejudice.
"Accordingly, the Court should grant the leave requested by the government pursuant to Rule 48(a) and dismiss the remaining charges against Defendants Hazelwood, Wombold, and Jones in the Amended Superseding Indictment. It is the government’s understanding that counsel for all defendants consent to the dismissal of the remaining charges in the indictment."
Hazelwood attorneys said, “Mark Hazelwood’s nightmare is now over. We believed in his innocence from day one. We are gratified that the Department of Justice agreed that dismissal was the only appropriate remedy. We look forward to seeing the next chapter of Mark’s life, surrounded by his wife Joanne and his loving family, and are honored to have been able to tell his whole story in full truth. Mark is innocent.”