An online petition to “suspend” Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth is being circulated on Facebook due to what the document claims is a “dereliction of duty” committed during the investigation into the death of 8-year-old Mackenzie Branham.
The petition on change.org, which is being shared on Facebook by Mackenzie’s father, Donald Branham, states: “The people of Fayette County, Ohio would like Sheriff Vernon P. Stanforth to be suspended and investigated for dereliction of duty, improper handling of evidence and failure to follow protocol concerning the investigation of the death of Mackenzie Taylor Branham.”
Mackenzie Branham was killed in a fire inside her Jeffersonville home April 27, 2006. Investigators say the fire was intentionally set, essentially making the investigation a homicide case.
As of Wednesday evening, the petition had been signed by over 150 individuals. It is unknown how many of these signatures are from local individuals. The petition will be presented to the Fayette County Commissioners once it has at least 200 signatures.
The petition also accuses Stanforth of failing to obtain witness statements and collect DNA evidence, improperly handling key evidence, and failing to properly investigate those who were at the home the night of the fatal fire. The petition says these alleged failures have “severely hindered the investigation and has allowed those responsible for Mackenzie’s death to avoid prosecution for nearly 12 years.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Stanforth responded to some of the accusations made against him and his office.
“I’ve talked to Donald (Branham), the prosecutor has talked to him….we’ve talked to him for the last 11 years to keep him informed,” Stanforth said. “He literally had unfettered access to the investigators, to this office and to me. I mean I’ve taken calls from him every day for most of the last 11 years until recently. But he began posting confidential information from the investigation that he demanded we share with him. We shared some things and he promptly went out and started posting them on social media. It started to compromise the investigation. And this is an ongoing criminal investigation. We’ve investigated this literally every day since it occurred. It is the priority investigation and we treated it as such.”
Mackenzie died in her upstairs corner bedroom during the early morning hours of April 27, 2006 when the fire swept through the two-story home at 7 E. Walnut St. Her mother, Mary Branham, and another resident escaped the home without injury. By the time firefighters from the Jefferson Township and Washington C.H. fire departments arrived and were able to search the upstairs, Mackenzie was dead.
Her father, Donald, has claimed for some time that the sheriff’s office botched the investigation by allowing key evidence to be destroyed. In June 2017, he told the Record-Herald that the clothing Mackenzie was wearing the night she died was destroyed Aug. 15, 2006 at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office at the behest of then Fayette County Coroner, Dr. Albert Gay, who is now deceased.
“We know there was evidence that never got to us,” Stanforth said Wednesday. “This initially was a State Fire Marshal’s Office investigation and because it was a death, it became a coroner’s office investigation. We sent the body to the coroner as we found the body without alteration. Fayette County Coroner Albert Gay took charge of the body and had control until it was sent to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. We never had the clothing. It was never in our possession and it was never offered to us as evidence. The Montgomery County Coroner and the Fayette County Coroner decided that the clothing had no evidentiary value after they looked at it and examined it. Subsequently, they apparently had it destroyed. We never had the opportunity to have that evidence.”
In June 2017, Mackenzie’s body was exhumed for more testing. At the time, Donald Branham said, “There’s more that they can find today with DNA testing than they could 10 years ago so they exhumed her body for more DNA testing. Hopefully there is something there that will help with the case.”
Stanforth confirmed that more testing was done after the body was exhumed and that the results are part of the ongoing investigation. He also defended the investigation as a thorough one.
“We’ve interviewed dozens of people,” he said. “When Phil Brown was the investigator before he died, he interviewed many people. Very few of these people, if any, have had enough information that would have us focus on a suspect or suspects. Many of them just told us about rumors they had heard and embellished it as their own knowledge. We have interviewed so many people here, we’ve gone to Florida to talk to those who were alleged to have some knowledge. Nothing came of it.”
Stanforth went on to say: “Every coroner we’ve had has been briefed and has looked at this case. We’ve had three coroners, two local prosecutors and a special prosecutor look at it from the Attorney General’s Office. We’ve had prosecutors from the Crimes Against Children unit look at it….it’s been presented to BCI (Bureau of Criminal Investigation) on two occasions. The initial case was presented to BCI and unfortunately that BCI investigator died suddenly. They had the case for probably two years and they reviewed it independently. They apparently found nothing more than we have. We even had an independent analytical investigative unit come in and review the case thoroughly with the charge that if there’s something we missed, let us know. After the death of Phil Brown, we hired a special investigator for our office and his only function was to investigate this case, and he spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours interviewing people and working on only this case. Nothing came out of it.”
Stanforth said he has great compassion for Donald Branham and his family.
“I understand his frustration with the length of the investigation,” Stanforth said. “No one can imagine exactly what he and his family are going through since they lost their little girl. But we have never stopped on this investigation.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica