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Private investigator says he can’t prove Saraland family violated rules

AHSAA ruling expected soon

By Jimmy Wigfield/Call News

The private investigator hired by a man who charged the family of a Saraland High School football player with breaking eligibility rules said in an affidavit on Oct. 31 he cannot definitively determine the family broke those rules by maintaining residences in two districts.

Investigator Eric Winberg said in the affidavit he was not aware Karle Lacey, the father of Spartans star quarterback K.J. Lacey, was operating a dog-breeding business from his home in Daphne while also living in Saraland.

Winberg said he was hired in August by John Quinnelly Sr., a Daphne resident who alleged the Lacey family violated the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s bona fide move rule.

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.

However, Winberg said in his affidavit he did not expect the information he developed during a two-month investigation would be shared with any other organizations except the AHSAA.

The AHSAA is expected to make a ruling on the case before the state playoffs open on Friday. If it rules the bona fide move rule was broken, the Spartans could be forced to forfeit nine wins and removed from the playoffs. Saraland is scheduled to host Wetumpka Friday night.

Winberg said his firm conducted an investigation of 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.

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.

In previous emails to the media and the AHSAA, Quinnelly questioned if the family, Saraland High School 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” and charged the AHSAA was covering for the school due to its high profile and playoff ramifications.

O’Hara said the AHSAA is investigating the case but executive director Alvin Briggs, who was in Saraland last week to attend the dedication of the school’s new soccer and track complex, has not confirmed nor denied it.

Saraland City Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Milner expressed confidence the school and its football program would be vindicated.

“Unlike other parties in this case, Saraland City Schools and its entities will be taking a proper course of action in utilizing the legal system to address our concerns,” Milner said. “We look forward to this coming to resolution and we’re confident in our position in this case.”

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 is 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 are still turned on in Lacey’s name.

Saraland City Schools attorney Nash Campbell said the allegations about an improper move are totally false.

“I can’t speak right now about the player eligibility accusations,” he said.

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

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 said she would talk to York about getting another temporary restraining order against Quinnelly and insisted the family complied with the bona fide move rule. She also 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.

“We were going to talk to the judge to work things out so we could legally keep them from doing this rampage against this family and instead (O’Hara) comes out here and talks about all of the facts about the family that has nothing to do with what’s going on. If there was a complaint with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, they have the parameters to investigate what’s going on. 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 were 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.

Arthur L. Mack/Call News contributed to this report.


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