UPDATED 11/2/22 5:10 p.m.
Spartans stay in playoffs
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Saraland High School did not violate any Alabama High School Athletic Association rules related to the move of a star football player from Daphne and will be allowed to participate in the state playoffs beginning Friday, Saraland City Schools attorney Nash Campbell said Wednesday.
“The high school athletic association has notified the Saraland school system that they have found no violations of the AHSAA bylaws on the part of Saraland High School or the football program,” Campbell told the Call News.
“We have maintained that same opinion and we continue to stand on our belief that the staff and administration of Saraland High School had followed all of the procedures and at no time were in violation of the rules.”
“Don’t be late! Tournament time!” Spartans coach Jeff Kelly posted on Facebook following the ruling. Saraland hosts Wetumpka in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs Friday night.
Private investigator Eric Winberg said he was hired in August by Daphne resident John Quinnelly Sr. to investigate the Lacey family, which Quinnelly claimed had violated AHSAA rules by moving to Saraland while also maintaining a residence in Daphne.
A letter from Winberg to Quinnelly, dated Oct. 20, 2022, and entered as a court exhibit, identifies the family involved as the Lacey family and names Karle Lacey, the father of star Saraland quarterback K.J. Lacey.
The Saraland City Board of Education filed suit to have Quinnelly put under a temporary restraining order to stop him from spreading what it said was “false and defamatory” information about the family and Saraland High’s football program. Winberg Investigations LLC was also named in the TRO request.
Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Jay York denied the request for the temporary restraining order Tuesday and set another hearing on Nov. 21 on the grounds Quinnelly’s defense attorney, Tom O’Hara, was assigned the case Monday and needed more time to prepare.
Campbell said after the AHSAA’s ruling the Saraland City Schools would continue to pursue legal action against Quinnelly.
“Mr. Quinnelly has ignored the truth of the situation and, because of the problems he has caused in the matter, we have no intentions of dropping any of the legal actions that have been taken by the Saraland school system,” Campbell said.
The AHSAA’s ruling came hours after Winberg said in an affidavit dated Oct. 31 and released earlier Wednesday his investigation could not prove the Lacey family had violated any AHSAA rules because he was not aware Karle Lacey was operating a dog-breeding business from the Daphne residence while living in Saraland.
Winberg said his firm investigated the Lacey family from Aug. 8 to Oct. 18 which included video, photo and in-person surveillance of Karle Lacey coming and going from the Daphne residence and staying overnight on several occasions.
But Winberg said in his affidavit he was not aware of the dog-breeding business until just before he prepared his final report for Quinnelly.
“Accordingly, I concluded that Mr. Lacey may still be living at the Daphne residence during the time of my company’s investigation,” Winberg said in the affidavit. “Moreover, based on my understanding of Mr. Lacey’s business operation, my investigation efforts cannot conclude Mr. Lacey was ever at the Daphne residence during the surveillance period for anything other than legitimate business purposes.
“As the owner and operator of Winberg Investigations LLC, based on the information I and my company now have, I cannot confirm nor deny that the Lacey family have violated any AHSAA guidelines or regulations.”
In an Oct. 25 text message to attorney Elizabeth Citrin, who said she represents Karle Lacey and his wife Whitney Sheldon, Quinnelly said AHSAA assistant director Brandon Dean paid a surprise visit to Karle Lacey on Aug. 19 before the Saraland-Daphne game and told Lacey he could not spend the night at the Daphne residence. Quinnelly said Lacey denied he was spending the night there and was only running a dog-breeding business from the home.
Winberg said in his affidavit he did not expect the information he developed during the two-month investigation would be shared with any other organizations except the AHSAA.
If the AHSAA had ruled Saraland High violated the bona fide move rule, it could have forced the school to forfeit nine wins and removed it from the playoffs.
Spanish Fort High also reported the alleged violation to the AHSAA after receiving “unsolicited information” suggesting the bona fide move rule had been broken, according to the Baldwin County Public Schools.
In previous emails to the media and the AHSAA, Quinnelly questioned if the family, Saraland High and Spartans head football coach Jeff Kelly complied with the state’s rule regarding residence.
In an email sent to media outlets on Oct. 27, Quinnelly said Winberg Investigations LLC had conducted “a 48-day investigation into the illegal bona fide move of the Saraland quarterback.”
Under the AHSAA’s bona fide rule, if a player moves from one school to another, the previous residence must either be rented to someone else or totally vacated. Quinnelly alleged Karle Lacey was still residing at the Daphne residence.
“The (player’s) father is going to the house (in Daphne) every night and occasionally spending the night there,” O’Hara said. “That is a clear violation of the rules.”
The AHSAA’s bona fide move rule stipulates the following:
- If the change of school precedes the bona fide move on the part of the parents, the student is ineligible until the parents make a bona fide move.
- The household furniture of the family must be moved into an unoccupied house or apartment.
- All principal members of the family must reside in the new place of residence.
- The original residence should be closed, rented or disposed of and not used by the family.
- Nine months at the new residence will be required to make a move bona fide.
Winberg said surveillance of Karle Lacey’s home showed Lacey “coming and going on an almost daily basis” between Sept. 6 and Oct. 18 and staying overnight on several occasions. Winberg said furniture could be seen through the windows from the street and a utility search conducted on Oct. 20 confirmed the utilities were still turned on in Lacey’s name.
O’Hara told the media after York rejected the TRO that information developed by the private investigators hired by Quinnelly is factual.
“I think they (Saraland City Schools) brought a lot of problems on themselves because my client, under First Amendment rights, is telling the truth,” O’Hara said. “He filed a complaint with the Alabama (High School) Athletic Association and it’s obvious they didn’t follow up on that. Now that he’s brought public light on this, the Alabama (High School) Athletic Association is now reinvestigating. We hope they get to the bottom of this and get to the truth.
“That’s what we’re asking for. If they want to air this out in court, we welcome that. My client is saying that the rules should be fair and they should be applied evenly. That’s all he ever asked. If they properly investigate and if the truth comes out, all Mr. Quinnelly has said will be proven to be accurate.”
A letter from Winberg summarizing the results of his firm’s investigation said property records in Mobile and Baldwin counties indicated the Lacey family still owns the home in Daphne and court records showed Lacey and his wife filed for a legal separation in September 2019 and reconciled three months later.
O’Hara said Quinnelly was affected by a 2019 case in which a Daphne High player was ruled ineligible due to a violation of the bona fide move rule.
“In 2019, the high school in Daphne forfeited games and was held accountable under the bona fide move rule,” he said. “We would like to see the AHSAA apply it evenly and fairly to all schools.”
Daphne High forfeited a win over Spanish Fort in 2019 when the AHSAA ruled the Trojans used an ineligible player. Tasha Smith Quinnelly said then on social media her son, James Quinnelly, was the ineligible player, according to al.com.
An Oct. 26, 2022, letter from Citrin demanded Quinnelly cease and desist from his attacks on the Lacey family and said Quinnelly was a “father on a rampage.”
Citrin insisted the family complied with the bona fide move rule and criticized O’Hara for talking with the media after the hearing.
“After I sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mr. Quinnelly and Mr. Winberg to get them to stop recording, following and making surveillance against this young family, they’re all used as pawns of a father on a rampage,” Citrin said. “He’s doing this because of circumstances that happened to his son years back. We have children who are minority children and they are wreaking havoc on this family’s life. … You’re not supposed to be digging into the personal lives of a family and incorporating four minor children into your investigation.”
The Saraland City Schools’ TRO request said Quinnelly had “a disturbing obsession” with the family and was “continuing to make false and defamatory statements in public about the Plaintiff and its employees by spreading new malicious statements and republishing statements which were seemingly removed from Quinnelly’s social media pages.”
O’Hara said Quinnelly was not stalking the family.
“We put it in the hands of a licensed private investigator, so the accusations of stalking and harassment are absurd,” O’Hara said.
Campbell said Saraland City Schools was accused last summer of potentially violating ethics and bid laws.
“That’s what made everybody raise an eyebrow and that’s what started all of this in July,” Campbell said. “It just spiraled downhill and started involving other things, such as athletics. Luckily, we’ve made headway and certain things have been pulled off social media.”
The TRO request said Saraland’s school board asked Quinnelly in July to cease and desist libelous and defamatory comments, including allegations the Saraland system had violated competitive bid laws and Kelly and the school had violated the bona fide move rule.
Willie Gray and Arthur L. Mack contributed to this story.