“Where Is The Integrity?”
(By Ethan Van Sice)
Larry Gaston has kept a business license in Camden for over 35 years.
He’s captained the ovens, fryers, and grills as owner/manager of “Larry’s Drive-In”, (one of the area’s most iconic, longest-running restaurants still in operation) for 29 of those years.
Since 1992, when Gaston first purchased the local-favorite diner, he has been dishing out great food and great opportunities to thousands of employable people in and around Camden. Through him, several hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue dollars have been generated —along with some the best fried shrimp and catfish platters any of us have ever tasted.
However today, as he continues to log his own, long hours both catching and at times preparing our favorite meals by hand, Gaston can’t help but feel “less-than-appreciated” by some of Camden’s elected officials and police officers—many of whom still drink coffee and enjoy breakfast at Larry’s on a near-daily basis.
“I want the people in this town to know what has happened,” Larry writes in a letter to the Progressive Era, “If nothing is done about this, I will continue to write about the evidence that exists until justice is served.”
The evidence Gaston discloses in his 3-page account describes events that began in late Spring 2019 with a burglary Larry’s Drive In.
His letter summarizes in great detail both the nature of evidence that was handed over to authorities, and also the level of negligence those officers exhibited while handling it.
Gaston even describes being refused certain documents within his rights at the Circuit Clerk’s office, and the testifies a great deal of difficulty he’s had obtaining basic information and assistance from all levels of government, both local and at the state level, as a victim in a criminal case.
According to Gaston, a copy of this letter has also been sent to Camden Mayor Phil Creswell, among others with assumed interest.
“On Friday, April 12th, 2019, at 1:42 AM, Larry’s Drive-In was burglarized by two, former employees,” the letter begins, “The Camden Police Department came and conducted the investigation at this store looking at video evidence. They also went to other local businesses to collect video evidence: McGraw-Webb Chevrolet, Handman Hardware, Loftin’s Bait Shop, and Travis’ General Store. Phone records were subpoenaed, video was recorded, and suspects were questioned,” Gaston states.
Questioned, but never interrogated; Given the benefit of the doubt, de-briefed of critical details, and then released. No arrests have been made to this date, despite overwhelming video evidence that speaks to the identity of the suspect committing the act on camera.
“Once I reviewed my video, I knew exactly who came in my building” Gaston says, “when you see people every day, you know.”
One of the videos from the restaurant’s security footage was recovered by former Police Officer Matthew Kelly. It was taken in as evidence just 4 days after the break-in, and gave officers a lead that most in the profession would die for.
From multiple angles, the footage depicts clear, moving images of a masked subject entering through the restaurant’s back door.
The suspect did not have to “break-in”; they entered the building with a manager’s key.
The drive-in videos provided officers with highly conclusive evidence. Gaston would later do his own investigating of the footage, combing every last millisecond, frame by frame to eventually come up with a side-by-side, profile comparison of a former employee.
Everything from the burglary suspect’s height, gait, stride, weight, and build could be determined consistent with the former employee. Gaston says this employee quit their job at the restaurant a couple of weeks before the break-in occurred. An objective look at the similarities Gaston presented to authorities is more than convincing.
Gaston’s letter states that one Camden City Official gave his opinion that, “even a blind man could see through this…”
The suspect(s) under questioning were briefed on a few highly-critical pieces of evidence pertaining to the break-in. Knowledge of such evidence, under normal circumstances, could’ve been used by experienced investigators to incriminate a suspect who might be giving false testimonies, by exposing discrepancies in co-conspirator’s alibis, or in other words, “catching them in a lie.”
With the suspects in Gaston’s case, this sort of leverage was diminished right away by local police. This would make whatever options the State Investigators would have, very limited. Also limiting the ABI’s case would be a mysterious “disappearance” of the video evidence while in the hands of Camden Police Officers.
“There was damaging video evidence that was deleted or mysteriously disappeared from the computer located in the Camden Police Department,” Gaston’s letter continues, “…while reviewing the video evidence, we noticed the video taken from Loftin’s Bait Shop on the date of the burglary was deleted from 1 AM – 3 AM. Not only that, but also the video from Travis’ General Store during these hours was missing.”
Gaston went on to say this “missing footage” discovery was made while in the presence of Mayor Phil Creswell, Councilman Peter Allen, Chief Tyrone Dale, and Sergeant Casey McGraw.
During a City Council meeting held Tuesday, June 8,2021, Mayor Creswell said that he indeed he was aware the footage had mysteriously vanished from the PD’s bank of evidence, stating “there was some that disappeared somehow—how it disappeared, I have no idea.” Creswell then said he called Alabama State Bureau Investigators (SBI) to look into possible corruption within the Camden Police Department, but could not speak on what was discovered. “I never received any kind of formal reply,” Creswell said, encouraging reporters to seek further info from Police Chief, Tyrone Dale.
Dale has agreed to sit down with the Progressive Era at a later date.
Some of Gaston’s side of the story, as far as evidence goes, was further touched upon in his letter:
“Sunday, April 14th, two days after the burglary, one of (my) former employees texted the Wilcox Progressive Era a detailed message of exactly how the burglary took place, including how much money was taken, how much was taken out of the register in the dining room, the time it took place, etc..” The message was sent to the paper both inquiring of any information that the publication might have obtained, while graciously providing the above stated “tips”.
These were details that Gaston says could have only been known on that date by someone who was personally involved.
Gaston was not in town on the weekend the break-in occurred, and had not spoken to the press, or anyone about the little details he knew. “This person’s GPS location was deleted on her phone the day of 4/12/19,” Gaston said, “It was the only day deleted.”
Furthermore, Gaston’s letter stated that on Wednesday April 17th “Officer Kelly came up with a shoe size of 5.5 while investigating the video footage. That is the same shoe size that was expressed in the text sent to the Progressive Era on Sunday, April 14th—a full 3 days prior.”
After showing these texts to Chief Dale, Gaston requested that Officer Kelly be removed from the case under the suspect that some collusion had occurred. Assistant Chief Powell and Officer Casey McGraw were assigned to the case, and Officer Kelly would step down from his position at the Camden PD during later ensuing months, transferring his role shortly thereafter to the Pine Hill Police Department.
Gaston has been in contact with agents with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI), but has not had much luck moving the slow wheels of justice along in his favor. According to Gaston, a taped confession to the crime was given to ABI Agent Geisha by the presumed guilty party while under questioning, but to this day no arrests have been made.
Even with knowledge that an identified suspect has confessed to the crime, the City of Camden will not move to make an arrest, citing that the case is either no longer in their scope of jurisdiction, or “not enough evidence,” is available.
“This is my question to you, the taxpayers,” Gaston’s letter concludes, “If you were the mayor of a municipality and saw with your own eyes that evidence was deleted or missing from the PD’s computer, would you not want to know WHY it’s missing?”
“I’m in a public business and have been here for 39 years,” Gaston says, “We employ, and you, the customers, support 18 different families at this restaurant. We collect your tax dollars that pay city employees’ salaries. This business is an asset to this town, along with every other local business in the county. You have a right to know. I have tons of evidence I can tell you. If nothing is done about this, I will continue to expose it all until justice is served….”