BOONVILLE — A Green Ridge man accused of forgery while working for the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office has been found not guilty.
Ben Banner, 57, was charged with one count of felony forgery in July 2017. With Judge Keith Michael Bail presiding, a Cooper County jury found him not guilty after less than an hour of deliberation Thursday afternoon.
“I’m obviously pleased for Ben,” defense attorney Chris Spangler told the Democrat. “I think the jury came to the right decision and they came to it very quickly.”
Banner previously served as the Pettis County Deputy Coroner and for the sheriff’s office handling concealed carry weapon permits. After Banner was terminated in August 2016 by Pettis County Coroner Skip Smith, a deputy was put in charge of handling CCW permits. Irregularities were found, and Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Detective B.J. Edwards was asked to investigate.
As the CCW administrator for Pettis County, Banner handled all permit applications unless there was a conflict of interest. Banner was not allowed to process his own application, so Deputy Stephanie Bahner was asked to do so.
Banner allegedly forged Bahner’s signature on his February 2016 CCW permit renewal form. His 2013 application includes his signature and a witness signature from Bahner, whose name at the time was Stephanie Sinclair. His 2016 renewal form includes those same two signatures, but Bahner got married in 2013. The renewal signature used her maiden name, Sinclair, which she no longer used.
Bahner testified Thursday the 2013 signature was hers but said the 2016 signature was not, stating she would not have used her maiden name and she did not recognize the handwriting as her own.
During his own testimony, Banner said he did not sign Bahner’s name nor did he know who signed it. He claimed he asked Bahner to handle his 2016 application and said he walked her through the process since it was her first time using the new electronic system. Defense attorney Chris Spangler showed a copy of Pettis County electronic records that show deputy 630, which is Bahner, entered the information into the database.
Banner said he signed his name on an electronic pad and printed off a paper copy for records, which he filled out except the witness signature. Pettis County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Tony Farkas asked if they would find other Pettis County paper permits without a witness signature from Banner and Banner replied there were many permit applications that didn’t have a paper copy on file in Pettis County.
The defense focused on the fact a witness signature is no longer needed to obtain a CCW permit in Missouri. When state statute changed a few years ago, renewals changed from three years to five years and the system moved from paper copies to an electronic system. The Pettis County Sheriff’s Office still prints off paper copies for in-house recordkeeping.
Spangler asked Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond if state statute includes having a witness signature, which Bond replied “no,” after reading the statute provided by Spangler. Bond informed the court the paper copy used in his office is a statewide form provided by the Missouri Sheriff’s Association.
After the jury recessed for lunch, Spangler argued Bail should dismiss the forgery charge because Banner qualified for a CCW permit regardless of the witness signature since the updated statute does not require such a signature.
“If he signed your name or my name, that doesn’t matter because that isn’t under statute. He is qualified,” Spangler said. “... It doesn’t matter what the form says.”
State statute also requires the prosecution to prove the defendant forged something with the intent to defraud. Spangler argued no one was defrauded since a witness signature isn’t required, but Farkas argued the state of Missouri was defrauded.
Farkas said he agreed Banner qualified for a permit but that it did not negate the alleged forgery. During his closing statement, Farkas equated the situation to being preapproved for a loan but forging a witness signature — the individual would still be qualified for the loan but would have committed a crime in the process.
“I just felt like and our office felt like there was a pattern here of taking advantage of his position in his official capacity that we had to follow through and prosecute on,” Farkas told the Democrat. “I truly believe he created the document he used to get the concealed carry weapon permit or I wouldn’t have pursued the case. I do in the end understand why the jury did what they did.”
The irregularities found in 2017 included information indicating cash was missing or unaccounted for in the deposit records for the CCW program, court documents state. An independent audit showed the account was balanced and consistent with deposits in the months following Banner’s departure.
According to court documents, the audit showed $55,350 in cash and checks was taken by Banner as payment for CCW permits between January and August 2016, but only $32,425 was deposited into the sheriff’s office banking account. Detective Edwards found Banner only issued written receipts for a handful of the 182 permits issued or renewed in March 2016.
This resulted in a July 2017 charge of felony receiving stolen property for Banner, but that charge was dismissed by the court in August.
For privacy reasons, CCW permits are not required to be released under state law. Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Phillip Sawyer requested the CCW permit receipts and records but did not receive them from the sheriff’s office. Spangler argued he could not properly pursue the case without that evidence.
During a hearing June 21, Bail ordered Farkas to provide all previously ordered discovery within 20 days or the receiving stolen property charge would be dismissed. The sheriff’s office did not provide the information, so Spangler’s motion to dismiss the charge was sustained over the state’s objection during a July 19 hearing.
“There had been some objections and some discussions about whether those records were able to be made public or provided as part of discovery,” Sawyer told the Democrat after Thursday’s trial. “... Depending upon any statute of limitations objections, that charge could be refiled if those records were supplied if it was found in the statute of limitations, which I believe it still currently is.”