By WILLIE GRAY
and JIMMY WIGFIELD
Saraland High School was cleared of wrongdoing in the move of its star quarterback from Daphne by a unanimous vote of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Central Board Thursday.
Saraland City Schools Board of Education attorney Nash Campbell said one central board member abstained at the end of the emergency two-hour meeting. The ruling allows the Spartans to continue in the Class 6A state playoffs.
Spanish Fort High School had turned in Saraland to the AHSAA last week and asked it to investigate whether the family of Spartans star quarterback K.J. Lacey had violated the bona fide move rule. AHSAA executive director Alvin Briggs ruled last week Saraland had not broken the rule.
However, the Baldwin County Public Schools appealed the ruling and the governing district board overturned Briggs’ decision, sending it to the central board for a final ruling. Lacey’s family was identified in court documents as the subject of the investigation.
“Naturally, we are pleased with the central board’s decision and their understanding of the situation at hand and supported their executive director’s initial and correct decision,” Campbell said. “We have maintained from the very beginning that no rules were broken and the player in question was completely qualified and eligible to play football at Saraland High School.”
The No. 4 Spartans visit No. 3 Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa Friday night in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs but Saraland City Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Milner said something even more important was at stake in the ruling.
“I’m proud of our high school principal (Brent Harrison), our school board attorney and all of our coaches who while this epic distraction was taking place over the last two weeks maintained a laser focus with our kids,” Milner said while driving back from the central board’s meeting Thursday. “I don’t know how the game will go but the good name of our high school is intact.”
Spartans coach Jeff Kelly said his players are ready to play football and avenge a 24-16 loss to the Patriots in last year’s quarterfinals.
“Our kids have had a great week of practice,” he said Thursday evening. “They are excited to make the trip for the challenge of playing Hillcrest. We went up there last year and didn’t get it done. They are a great team and are very well-coached but our guys seem ready to go.”
‘Somewhat flying blind’
Prior to the central board’s ruling, Campbell said he was incredulous Spanish Fort High turned in Saraland, although it would not have been affected by the decision, and because Saraland officials were not invited to district board’s hearing.
“I have never heard of a hearing involving the fate of anyone that did not involve the actual individual with something to lose,” Campbell said. “Saraland has already been denied one stage of due process and we are somewhat flying blind but we are not unprepared. To my knowledge, the AHSAA has never allowed another school to appeal a decision that does not involve that specific school. After reviewing their rules, that is not their intent.”
Spanish Fort High 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.
Milner said he was allowed to attend the central board’s meeting Thursday, although he couldn’t comment about the proceedings held in an executive session.
“We were permitted to present our side of the story and it led to a unanimous ruling,” he said. “Saraland High School and Saraland City Schools are appreciative of the fairness of the central board and how they seriously considered the situation. I am really glad now that our community, kids and parents can focus on cheering on 15- to 18-year-old boys who have done the right thing. I’m so proud of how our community has handled it.”
If the AHSAA had ruled Saraland violated the bona fide move rule, it could have forced the school to forfeit 10 wins and removed it from the playoffs.
The Lacey family was targeted by Daphne resident John Quinnelly Sr., who hired a private investigator last summer to conduct surveillance of the family. Quinnelly alleged the family was maintaining its original residence in Daphne while living in Saraland in violation of the AHSAA’s bona fide move rule.
Private investigator Eric Winberg, who said he was hired in August by Quinnelly to investigate the Lacey family, said in an affidavit on Oct. 31 he was unaware Karle Lacey, the father of K.J. Lacey, was operating a dog-breeding service out of the family’s home in Daphne while also living in Saraland.
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.
Winberg said his firm, at the behest of Quinnelly, investigated the Lacey family from Aug. 8 to Oct. 18, during which he conducted 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 he was not aware of the dog-breeding business until just before he prepared his final report for Quinnelly.
“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.”
Hours after Winberg’s affidavit was released on Nov. 2, Briggs cleared Saraland of wrongdoing.
Saraland files suit
Last week, 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’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 on Nov. 1 and set another hearing on Nov. 21 on the grounds Quinnelly’s defense attorney, Tom O’Hara, was assigned the case on Oct. 31 and needed more time to prepare.
Campbell said 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.
In previous emails to the media and the AHSAA, Quinnelly questioned if the Lacey family, Saraland High and Spartans 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.
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.
‘Father on a rampage’
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 attorney Elizabeth Citrin, who said she represents Karle Lacey and his wife Whitney Sheldon, 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.
“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.