Pilot trial erupts over Hazelwood’s racist rant

Mark Hazelwood (left) and his attorney Rusty Hardin (right) are pictured after his arraignment.

Hazelwood trashed black people and the Cleveland Browns; Judge Collier will let feds play ‘vile, despicable’ tape

Yesterday, a long-simmering issue in the Pilot Flying J fraud trial exploded when Judge Collier revealed the contents of a sealed tape of former Pilot President Mark Hazelwood that prosecutors have argued jurors should hear. Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton, the lead prosecutor in the trial, had his previous requests to play the tape rejected by Collier, although no public reasons were given. The tape was recorded by former Pilot salesman Vincent Greco, who was working as an informant for the FBI.

It’s unclear what caused Collier to change his mind, but it might have been related to the risky defense strategy used by Hazelwood’s attorneys, Rusty Hardin and Andy Drumheller, out of Houston. Typically, prosecutors cannot use general character evidence to argue that a defendant was likely to have committed a crime. But if a defendant’s attorney opens the door to character evidence—if they voluntarily introduce evidence of their client’s good character in order to argue that he or she was unlikely to commit a crime, then the prosecution gets to respond in kind, with its own evidence of the defendant’s bad character. That’s what appears to have happened in this case.

Drumheller’s opening statement in defense of Hazelwood started down this road when he insisted that Hazelwood’s integrity, leadership values, and personal commitment to his company governed his decisions and would have prevented him from doing anything that risked damage to Pilot’s reputation. In recent weeks, Hardin’s cross-examining of witnesses on behalf of Hazelwood continued this strategy, which might have now backfired. Hardin repeatedly argued in his cross-examination of Brian Mosher, a Hazelwood lieutenant who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution, that Hazelwood was too skilled and savvy a businessman to ever engage in practices that had the potential to harm Pilot’s brand.

It seems that prosecutor Hamilton was finally able to convince Collier that he should have the right to contradict Hardin’s portrait of Hazelwood as a careful, scrupulous executive who never took any risks. When Collier, who is African-American, announced his decision to allow the playing of the tape, he described the “vile, despicable, inflammatory” contents and explained why the prosecution wanted to play it.

“Mr. Hazelwood’s utterances are beyond the pale,” Collier said. “Several subordinates of Mr. Hazelwood were present. Mr. Hazelwood was in a position of authority over them.” Hazelwood’s unhinged rants against black people, the Cleveland Browns, and the entire citizenry of Cleveland in front of numerous Pilot sales executives risked Pilot’s reputation. The prosecution is hoping that the tape proves Hazelwood was capable of being reckless with Pilot’s reputation and business, refuting one of Hardin and Drumheller’s main lines of defense.

“If it became known the president of Pilot engaged in vile, despicable, inflammatory racial epithets against African Americans, this could lead to boycotts and protests,” Collier said.

The revelations of Hazelwood’s conduct in front of other Pilot employees could throw the entire trial into chaos. Defense attorneys for the other three defendants—former VP Scott Wombold and regional account representatives Karen Mann and Heather Jones—indicated that they would file a motion for severance if the tape was played in court. Hamilton and U.S. Attorney David Lewen will get a chance to argue against separating the cases, and will have to decide if playing the tape is worth the risk of losing three of their defendants and having to retry them separately.  

After all the drama on Thursday, Collier paused the trial for a pre-planned break. The trial resumes on Jan. 10—and there’s a good chance we’ll get to hear the Hazelwood tape.

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.