A small town police chief charged during his successful run for county sheriff with raping two young girls nearly 20 years ago was sworn into office Monday.
“What I can tell you is you have put me here, and I will not disappoint,” Chris Abril told about 150 spectators who filled all the available seats and lined the walls of the courtroom where he was sworn in as Polk County sheriff. “We started today, and we’re ready to roll. … When you have a problem, I’ll be there for you.”
Abril was arrested in August as he campaigned against two-term GOP incumbent David Satterfield in this small county in the southern Appalachian foothills. The 45-year-old Democrat, who won the election by eight percentage points, turned down a plea bargain offered by prosecutors and said he preferred to fight the charges of statutory rape and sexual offense.
“My heart is clean,” Abril told The Associated Press on Monday.
The former police chief in the Polk County seat of Columbus, Abril took control of the county sheriff’s department at midnight Monday. He was sworn in shortly after dawn and worked a full day before attending a celebration at the tiny, one-room headquarters of the county’s Democratic party.
That preceded Abril’s formal swearing-in during the evening county commission meeting, when he took the oath of office with his wife and two sons at his side.
Abril’s next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4. If convicted, he will be removed from office. He was suspended from his job as police chief following his indictment.
Abril has said the charges were part of a politically motivated attack by GOP rivals after he challenged Satterfield in an effort to reform a sheriff’s department he described as “an upside-down organization.” Jeff Hunt, the county’s Republican district attorney, has denied the charges were connected to the election and has said they were brought by the office of the state attorney general, a Democrat.
Hunt said he learned of a single rape allegation against Abril from the State Bureau of Investigation last spring. After he started looking into the case, Hunt said, he soon found out about a second alleged accuser and then referred the case to state prosecutors.
Abril has said the girls, ages 10 and 11, were neighbors of his at the time of the alleged crimes, when he would have been in his late 20s.
A former district attorney has said he investigated one of the claims against Abril in the early 1990s, but did not feel there was anywhere near enough evidence to proceed with the case.
One of the accusers told Asheville TV station WLOS shortly after Abril’s arrest that he raped her when she was 11. The timing of the election “doesn’t take away from the fact that it actually happened,” said the woman, who did not appear on camera.
The case does not appear to have hurt the soft-spoken Abril’s popularity in Polk County, a community of about 19,000 about 80 miles west of Charlotte.
The charges are “all complete lies. Balderdash,” said Bubba Greene of Mill Spring, who worn an “Abril for Real” T-shirt to the swearing-in. Greene is owner of Hillbilly Promotions and publishes a newspaper called the “Hillbilly Reader.”
“I investigated it personally,” Green said. “It’s all a lie, end of story.”