Before dawn on Thanksgiving morning, the police accused Johnny Ray Lynch of breaking into an internet cafe in East Durham.
But Lynch says he wasn’t breaking into the City of Gold. He says he was locked inside and trying to get out when he tripped the alarm. Officers entered the dark building and found him on top of a ceiling heating duct in the bathroom.
Two felony charges are bad enough, but Lynch also lost his job as a supervisor with the City of Durham’s street maintenance division.
He was a city employee for nearly 17 years. The day after his arrest, Lynch called his direct supervisor and told him what happened.
“He told me when I came back to work to let the [head] supervisor know,” Lynch said. “He said, ‘Keep me posted, but you good.’”
Lynch, 48, filed a grievance with the city that states he was wrongfully fired for breaking a law for “which I am not guilty of and haven’t been found guilty [of].”
He wants “to be rehired with full benefits, back pay, and an apology” from the street maintenance division’s director.
City spokeswoman Beverly Thompson told the INDY that she could not specifically comment about Lynch’s firing because it is a personnel matter.
But Thompson shared the city’s administrative leave policy that was used to determine Lynch’s employment status.
The policy states that if an employee is charged with any criminal offense—excluding traffic violations, serious performance issues, or is under investigation for “possible serious misconduct”—then the city can place the worker on administrative leave with pay for up to 10 days.
A second option allows the city to reassign an employee “until closure is brought regarding the allegations.”
Lynch’s supervisors and other city officials concluded that neither of those options were “appropriate due to the nature of the allegations” in accordance with the leave policy and so exercised a third option: the street maintenance supervisor could be suspended without pay or terminated.
On December 18, Lynch’s supervisors fired him for violating the city’s employee ethics code.
“The evidence against Mr. Lynch is compelling, [and] is in conflict with the statement provided by Mr. Lynch to divisional management and is representative of gross misconduct,” his direct supervisor stated in the termination letter.
But evidence of Lynch’s innocence is also compelling and casts doubt that he actually broke into the City of Gold.
It was near closing time on November 26 at The Pickleback bar in downtown Durham, where Lynch and several of his friends had been drinking.
“We left at closing,” Lynch says. “Then we stopped over at the sweepstakes [cafe] at Lakewood Shopping Center.”
Lynch enjoys sitting down at the electronic fishing tables, where patrons sit or stand, plunk money down for the chance to use a joystick, and “shoot” at electronic fish, monster crabs, dragons, and mermaids swirling across the animated, vividly-colored table surface.
“If you kill it, you get the money,” Lynch explains about the fish targets. “There is really no limit on how much you can win; $5,000, $8,000. I won $10,000 playing. Another time I won $14,000.”
Lynch says they found a heavy internet parlor crowd at Lakewood, so he and his friends headed to City of Gold, a black box of a room with three fishing tables. The red brick parlor with black-tinted windows is tucked inside of a strip mall just off of North Miami Boulevard.
“I rode with a buddy of mine,” he says. “I really [wasn’t] feeling good, so I went to the bathroom. I was sick from the drinking.”
Lynch says he was in the bathroom “a good little minute.”
“When I finished up, I stepped out. Everybody was gone,” he explains. “The place was locked up.”
“I mean, for real, for real?” he describes as his first thoughts upon stepping into an empty room suddenly gone dark, except for the glowing fish tables.
“I thought everyone had stepped outside to go smoke.”
“But I was wrong,” he says. “The door was locked. So I looked through the window to see if anyone was outside.”
He pressed his face against the blackened window and could barely see out. No one was outside, certainly not his friend, who left while he was in the bathroom.
He looked at his cell phone to call 911. The battery was dead.
Lynch says he started walking around looking for something—anything—to help him escape the City of Gold.
He peered at the dark ceiling before walking back into the bathroom, standing on the toilet, and pulling himself atop of the heating duct.
That’s when he heard voices outside and someone with keys opening the front door.
It was the police.
A City of Gold employee accompanied the officers and opened the door for them. The cops found Lynch still on the bathroom heating duct.
“They ordered me to come down,” Lynch says. “I was scared to death. I thought they were going to shoot me because they had their guns drawn.”
Lynch tried to explain his predicament to the cops. But the officers weren’t having it, especially after they noted damage to the front door and an ATM. They placed him under arrest. He was charged with one felony count each of breaking and entering, and possession of burglary tools.
Downtown, Lynch again explained what had happened to a sympathetic magistrate. Lynch’s past criminal history includes convictions for breaking into cars when he was 16, felony drug possession at 18, and when he was 20, trying to pawn a leaf blower owned by a Raleigh company where he worked at the time.
“The magistrate looked at my record and said it was pretty clean,” says Lynch, who was allowed to sign himself out of jail after he was given a $12,000 unsecured bond.
Despite his youthful indiscretions, the city thought enough of Lynch to offer him a job in 2004.
“Back then I was a road worker,” Lynch says.
“I was in the bathroom a good little minute. When I finished up, I stepped out. Everybody was gone. The place was locked up.”
He was first promoted as a crew chief, and then, in 2016, he was promoted to senior maintenance crew supervisor.
“I was a model employee,” he says. “I always had good evaluations.”
Lynch’s work with the city allowed him to buy a home in East Durham in 2012. He’s a single father raising a 16-year-old son and a two-year-old boy.
Soon after his arrest, Lynch started gathering evidence to prove his innocence and save his job.
Lynch is proud of his work. He participated in the orientation of new workers and says he can operate every piece of heavy machinery in the street maintenance division, including motor graders, excavators, backhoes, and front-end loaders. He’s a veritable Picasso in the art of paving streets, repairing roads, potholes, addressing pavement failures, and resurfacing gravel streets.
On December 10, Lynch obtained a sworn affidavit with a City of Gold letterhead from an employee who stated that Lynch was forgotten in the bathroom and set off the alarm when he attempted to leave.
“At approximately 2:30 a.m. we had closed the business and rushed out to head home,” the manager stated. “Doing so we neglected to check the store before leaving to make sure everyone was out. We were in a rush … because we had a long drive home to Goldsboro.
“Mr. Lynch did not break into the facility, he was locked in,” the manager added. “We will not be pursuing any criminal charges or restitution in this matter.”
Later, on February 1, Lynch submitted three more affidavits to his former supervisors, including one from a City of Gold manager.
“Mr. Lynch did not damage anything on the premises, and I am willing to testify at his upcoming court hearing,” the manager wrote.
Another affidavit indicates the door and ATM were damaged during a prior break-in.
As for the alleged burglary tools, a second affidavit on February 21 states that “the tool bag and items in question that were confiscated by the Durham Police Department … do in fact belong to the business center.”
Lynch says he participated in a virtual four-hour grievance hearing on February 8 that included one of his supervisors, an employee from street maintenance, and two other city workers from a different department.
“I told them the same thing in the Zoom meeting,” he says. “I got accidentally locked in the building.”
Mohann Saleh, the City of Gold co-owner, spoke on his behalf during the meeting.
“The whole point was him getting fired before he was found guilty,” Saleh told the INDY. “They fired him prematurely.”
Saleh said that rather than focusing on Lynch’s claim of innocence, the city employees—particularly his former supervisors—questioned him about his ownership of the business.
“And they kept attacking Johnny,” he added. “Johnny was telling the truth, but they didn’t like the truth.”
Lynch says his direct supervisor tried to make a mockery of the hearing.
“He was trying to talk like me, and saying my statement didn’t match up with the [arresting] officer’s statement,” Lynch says. “It wasn’t supposed to match up. I’m innocent.”
The city did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment regarding Saleh’s and Lynch’s characterization of the hearing.
Lynch is awaiting the city’s decision.
He went to court last week. His case has been continued until further notice due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, he remains proud of his work, offering the INDY pictures of him working on the city’s streets and roads.
“When I walked out of the hearing,” he says, “I told them it was an honor working with them.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the print edition to include additional details including Lynch’s cell phone battery being dead, and the front door and ATM being damaged from a previous break-in. Lynch was also discovered on top of a ceiling heating duct, not inside.
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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