Cruse's trial moved to Nelson

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By Linda Ireland

 Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the criminal case against former mayor Terry L. Cruse and former city clerk MaDonna Hornback agree that a change of venue is necessary for a fair trial. 

Last week, after hearing pros and cons of several locations, LaRue Circuit Judge Charles Simms III made his decision: The trial will take place in Nelson County.

His decision means the proceedings will remain within the 10th Judicial Circuit (LaRue, Hart and Nelson Counties).

Cruse, who was removed from office in May by Hodgenville City Council, is charged with nine counts of abuse of public trust, two counts of violating campaign laws during his 2010 run for sheriff, two counts of second-degree forgery and theft by unlawful taking.

Hornback is charged with 54 counts of abuse of public trust and theft by unlawful taking.

Most of the charges deal with alleged misuse of the city’s fleet fuel card and being reimbursed at a higher rate than the state allows for mileage.

Cruse and Hornback pleaded not guilty in LaRue Circuit Court. Cruse, who made an unsuccessful run for sheriff, has said the charges are politically motivated.

Jon Heck and F. Todd Lewis, the attorneys for Cruse and Hornback, hired a private investigator – a retired Kentucky State trooper – to interview “persons who credibly claim familiarity with the state of public opinion in (Hart and Nelson Counties) ….,” according to court records. After hearing the report, they requested the trial be moved to Jefferson or Bullitt County.

The investigator spoke with three people in Hart County who stated the area had been saturated with coverage of the case.

The investigator spoke also with four residents in New Haven who “expressed their concern as to whether Cruse and Hornback would be able to select a fair and impartial jury in Nelson County.”

The defense attorneys also complained that Michelle Sparks, who represented Hodgenville City Council during Cruse’s ouster, maintains her law office in Nelson County and gave an interview to a TV station concerning Cruse and Hornback’s criminal charges.

Several residents from Bardstown, however, thought the two could receive a fair trial in Nelson County.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Terry Geogehegan said the defendants created the problem of a needed change of venue.

“The whole reason we are where we are … the Court early in the case … directed both sides not to have any interviews with the press or not to generate publicity,” said Geogehegan. “It appears contrary to that, the defendant – one of the defendants – either elicited or certainly participated in an extensive interview with his wife with the Hardin County newspaper. So I don’t see how they can complain about publicity when they have in fact created the publicity at every chance ….”

Judge Simms, who grew up in the New Haven area, said his “gut feeling is that Nelson County is a great place to try this.”

He based his decision on population estimates from the last Census that showed 44,000 people reside in Nelson County – with 850 of those in New Haven (in the southern part of the county). The heaviest population – and the fastest growing segment - is in the northern part of the county.

Judge Simms wrote in his order: “This Court would certainly expect a New Haven resident to question whether Cruse and Hornback could receive a fair trial in Nelson County. As grounds, New Haven borders LaRue County, and it is closer to Hodgenville (the county seat of LaRue County) than it is to Bardstown (the county seat of Nelson County). As a result, many New Haven residents follow the LaRue County news while others travel to and from Hodgenville to eat and/or to shop. In addition, some people who have a New Haven mailing address actually reside in LaRue County.”

The accusations against Cruse and Hornback have been covered by The LaRue County Herald News, Hardin County’s News-Enterprise, and numerous television and radio stations. However, Judge Simms pointed out that the Nelson County newspaper, The Kentucky Standard, has not covered the case.

“The coverage is coming from Louisville,” the judge said during last week’s hearing. “We will have that problem no matter where we go.”

As far as Bullitt County is concerned, Judge Simms said he didn’t think Cruse would want to be tried there.

“Didn’t he get in trouble in Lebanon Junction,” asked Simms. I can’t imagine he’d want to go to Bullitt County and bring that up.”

Cruse was working as a deputy police chief in Lebanon Junction in 2001 when he was charged with a second drunken-driving offense in a four-year period. He eventually lost his job with the city.

The case will be transferred to Nelson Circuit Court on Oct. 1. The trial was set for Nov. 10.

The case will be reviewed Sept. 29 in LaRue Circuit Court.