Former Arkansas County sheriff’s deputy Charles David Chastain may have been law-abiding for most of his life and served honorably in the armed forces, but he still needs to go to prison for violating the public’s trust by asking informants to steal for him, a federal judge said Thursday.
In sentencing Chastain to 2½ years in federal prison, where parole isn’t available, U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes said Chastain’s criminal activity was “very serious. It undermines the law enforcement capacities of this country.”
Addressing a courtroom full of the former lawman’s supporters — including family, his pastor and other law enforcement officers — Holmes acknowledged Chastain’s virtues, as documented in about 30 letters written to the court. But, he said, one of the factors he must consider in deciding on a sentence is the deterrence of others who might think they can fall back on a lifetime of good deeds to escape the consequences of committing a crime.
This is especially true when the person committing the crime is a law enforcement officer, Holmes said, noting that if an officer who betrays the public trust doesn’t go to prison, it sends a message that “it’s not a very serious offense.”
Chastain, 48, of Stuttgart was convicted by a federal jury Feb. 12 of three charges — extortion under color of official right, attempted extortion under color of official right and receipt of a firearm with the intent to commit a felony. Jurors found that he pressured a confidential informant he supervised in late 2017 to steal an all-terrain vehicle for him and obtain stolen guns for him.
At the time, Chastain was working as an auxiliary sheriff’s deputy — an unpaid officer helping out the sheriff’s office and assigned to the Tri-County drug task force. He had previously been a full-time deputy and a state trooper.
Jurors in the two-day trial heard that on Nov. 29, 2017, the caretaker of a Clarendon duck club arrived to find the front gate busted open and an all-terrain vehicle — a 2014 Polaris Ranger 900 that had been purchased four years earlier for $25,000 — missing from its parking space under an awning.
While law enforcement officers, including Chastain, considered which of the usual suspects might be involved, one of those suspects called the FBI. The informant, Michael “Chase” Caldwell, told agents he stole the ATV at Chastain’s request but didn’t quite trust Chastain and wanted to make sure that he and his girlfriend, who regularly worked as informants for Chastain, wouldn’t be held responsible.
Caldwell also testified that he made some mechanical adjustments to the ATV in Chastain’s shop to disguise it, in exchange for protection on his other illegal activities. He also secretly recorded his conversations with Chastain and saved screenshots of text messages they exchanged.
The FBI then turned the informant into a double agent. When Caldwell told them that Chastain was pressuring him to steal some long guns, the agents provided their new informant with three impressive-looking long guns that he told Chastain about. Chastain was arrested minutes after he met with Caldwell in a Stuttgart parking lot Dec. 19, 2017, and handed over $300 cash for the guns.
Caldwell said Chastain had paid him $1,000 for the ATV, which Chastain kept hidden in his shop while officers in the area searched for it.
Chastain didn’t testify at the trial but told the judge Thursday morning from a courtroom lectern, “I messed up, your honor. I committed a crime, and I’m sorry.”
He also said he had made a new commitment to religion.
His wife of six years, schoolteacher Chastity Chastain, urged the judge to give her husband a break, saying that getting arrested “has been a pivotal turning point” for the man who returned from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, began using drugs to cope and “hit rock bottom.”
While defense attorneys Molly Sullivan and Blake Byrd of the federal public defender’s office asked the judge to impose a non-prison sentence, citing Chastain’s otherwise law-abiding life, his tours of combat in Iraq and duty in Panama and his emotional problems, Assistant U.S. Attorney Benecia Moore said a sentence in the 41- to 51-month penalty range recommended by federal sentencing guidelines was more appropriate.
Holmes made note of Chastain’s distinguished military record, including that he has a bronze star and a Purple Heart and said he recognized that the former lawman suffered from post-traumatic stress. But, he said, “I don’t think PTSD causes people to be dishonest.”
He said letters to the court made clear that when Chastain returned from Iraq in 2008, he was “not the same person” he had been before.
But, Holmes said, “a dirty cop is one of the worst things we can have. … It has a devastating impact on peoples’ confidence.”
“If the only factor were that he was not likely to commit another offense, he would not be going to prison,” Holmes said, “but there are other factors to consider.”
In addition to the 30-month sentence, Holmes ordered Chastain to serve a year of probation after his release. The judge said he would make recommendations to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to try to ensure that, as a former law enforcement officer, Chastain wouldn’t be housed alongside people he arrested.