The already odd GOP Senate primary in Mississippi just kicked it up a notch.
Sheriff's officials in Hinds County confirmed Thursday they were investigating a "bizarre" incident that left three supporters of tea party front-runner Chris McDaniel temporarily locked inside the county courthouse where ballots had been counted on election night.
Sheriff's spokesman Othor Cain said the department was trying to figure out how the three people gained access to the building after hours and ended up temporarily trapped inside around 2 a.m. -- long after election workers had put the ballots in a vault and gone home for the night.
"We've never experienced anything like this before," said Cain by phone. "We recognize that emotions are high in this race."
Later Thursday, the sheriff’s office closed the investigation and announced no charges would be filed.
Both campaigns seized on the incident as the latest down-and-dirty tactic in a primary that has upended Mississippi politics. Neither McDaniel nor longtime incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran cleared the 50% threshold Tuesday needed to avoid a runoff in three weeks.
"At some point, Republican voters in Mississippi need to say, 'Is Chris McDaniel who we want on the national stage embarrassing us?'" asked Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell. "How much further does it have to go?"
McDaniel supporters were arrested in connection with an incident last month when a blogger took a photo of Cochran's ailing wife in her nursing home. McDaniel has distanced himself from the blogger.
Supporters of McDaniel, whose come-from-behind surge has put the 76-year-old six-term senator in a fight for his political life, have accused Cochran's team of overreacting to both incidents in a desperate attempt to halt momentum for their candidate.
"Sadly, the Cochran campaign wants to make this campaign about anything other than the issues," said McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch. "Mississippians deserve better than this sort of distraction politics."
The sheriff's spokesman said the department does not believe any ballots were tampered with during what Cain called a "very, very bizarre" incident. Only the hallways and restrooms were accessible, he said, and the ballots remained in a vault in a locked circuit court office.
"We've got no reason to believe there was a breach in security in regard to the voting process," Cain said.
But sheriff's investigators appear to have more questions than answers, as the Magnolia state reels from its sudden thrust into the national spotlight.
The three first gained entrance to the building by someone they thought was a deputy, it was initially reported. But Cain said Thursday no sheriff personnel were on duty at the courthouse at that time.
"It's a total fabrication and misrepresentation of the truth to say a uniformed officer gave them access to the building after hours," he said.
By the time the sheriff arrived on the scene, the three were no longer in the building and the sheriff's investigators are not certain how they were able to release themselves.
The three include Janis Lane, the president of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, Scott Brewster and Rob Chambers, according to the sheriff's office.
The sheriff’s office announced later Thursday it had finished the investigation and had no plans to files charges.
“Based on our findings and subsequent conclusion, there is no reason to believe that the three individuals engaged in any criminal activity nor do we believe any laws were broken,” Cain said.
The investigation concluded the three entered through an employee-only side door that had been left propped open or was malfunctioning, and were not assisted by law enforcement personnel.
“Voters in Hinds County can rest assured that there wasn’t a breach of security as it relates to the integrity of the voting process,” Cain said.
And with that, the GOP primary race for Senate continued.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
2:16p.m.: The story was updated to include the sheriff's decision to not file charges in the case.