Published by the Charleston Gazette

By Joe Severino

It began with an ex-Clay County deputy’s lewd remarks to a court clerk, escalated to groping and ended with an $825,000 settlement — equal to more than half the county’s current annual budget.

A federal sexual harassment and assault lawsuit filed against the former deputy and the offices of the county circuit clerk and sheriff depicts Michael Patrick Morris becoming steadily more aggressive starting in fall 2018 in pursuit of a clerk who spurned his relentless advances. In a response filing, Morris denied the suit’s claims.

“I will f- — you in the backseat of your truck,” Morris told the clerk, according to the 10-page complaint filed in June 2020.

“Let me see your [breasts],” the deputy said.

“What time will your husband be home?” he said. “I will come over tonight.”

In 2019, according to the suit, Morris got physical. He slapped Jill O’Brien’s buttocks, shoved his hand down the front of her shirt and threw a piece of chocolate there, vowing to retrieve it. He trailed her truck in a county cruiser in March, flashing the lights. After she pulled over, Morris walked to the driver’s side window and told her how “f---able” she was, according to the complaint.

He followed her on other occasions with the cruiser’s police strobes flashing, but she did not stop.

Neither did the deputy, according to the complaint. He blocked her “in her office, refusing to let her leave.” He seized a belt loop “and tried to put his hands down her pants.”

On July 9, 2019, Morris approached O’Brien’s desk, “called her a ‘bitch’ and then tried to touch her breasts under her clothing,” according to the complaint. On Aug. 5, 2019, he entered the circuit clerk’s office and told her to look at his phone.

“It was a picture of [Morris] in full uniform with his pants unzipped and his penis in hand,” the lawsuit reads.

When she advised she didn’t want to see the picture, Morris grabbed her by her pants and shoved his hand down the back. In a separate incident, he entered the clerk’s office, found O’Brien and grabbed her crotch.

O’Brien complained to her boss, Clay County Circuit Clerk Michael Asbury, in August 2019. She also spoke to the Chief Deputy Ryan Thomas, who replied, “There are always two sides to a story,” according to the suit.

Thomas warned Morris “that if the allegations were true, they needed to stop.”

The abuse halted while Morris attended the State Police Academy for mandatory officer training, the suit said. But in the spring, he returned. In April 2020, he kicked her chair in the clerk’s office, grabbed his crotch and told her “she needed it.”

Roughly a week later, O’Brien filed a petition for a personal safety order. After learning Clay County Magistrate Judge Jeffery Boggs had approved the order, Absury “stuck his finger in [O’Brien’s] face and threatened her if she ever filed a lawsuit against him,” according to the lawsuit. Asbury is named in the complaint.

Allen King, who took over as county sheriff in January, declined to comment. Former Sheriff Donald Triplett Jr., who led the agency during the time frame depicted in the lawsuit, resigned for personal reasons in May 2020. Former Sheriff Randy Holcomb, who temporarily took over for Triplett and is now chief deputy, did not return a request for comment. An employee at the clerk’s office said Asbury was out of the office last week and unavailable to comment.

Lawyers for Morris, Asbury and the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

King said Morris no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office. He did not elaborate.

On June 18, almost a year after the filing of the initial complaint, O’Brien and her lawyer filed a notice of their intent to introduce additional evidence against Morris involving another four women who would testify in court.

One would testify Morris repeatedly touched her breasts and tried to remove her bra, tried to touch her through her pants and once entered her home and forced himself on her. Another would testify that after she ignored his sexual advances, Morris “pinned her against a wall and twisted her hand behind her back. He then entered her place of business and pointed a gun in her face.”

Still another woman would testify Morris trailed her in a cruiser with his lights on. A fourth would say in court Morris told her to “deny, deny, deny” any sexual activities he had with her.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston dismissed the case 11 days after the filing of the notice because both sides had agreed to a settlement, signed Aug. 6.

O’Brien remains employed at the circuit clerk’s office.

“It takes bravery on the part of a woman in circumstances such as this to come forward and make these allegations, and Jill O’Brien did that,” said Charleston attorney Mark Atkinson, who represented O’Brien. “Hopefully her bravery will prevent this from happening to other women in the future.”