Roles shift in DA office
A state prosecutor charged with driving impaired in June is no longer the district 25 attorney’s chief assistant. The DA says the assistant will continue prosecuting cases in Burke County.
Former Chief Assistant District Attorney Eric R. Bellas was charged with DWI on June 20 while attending a state district attorney’s conference at Sunset Beach. Bellas was riding his bicycle on Clubhouse Road when he got in an accident involving a guardrail that left him unconscious and his face scratched up, according to Sunset Beach police. Bellas tendered his resignation shortly after being released from jail and was put on administrative leave. District 25 Attorney Jay Gaither said he asked Bellas to remain on staff.
“I asked that he stay on as a prosecutor in Burke County,” Gaither said. “Eric is an excellent prosecutor. He has some of the finest trial lawyering skills in the western part of the state of North Carolina. He is regarded as one of the best trial lawyers there is…and he is a very valuable resource for the whole office.”
Bellas is not restricted to Burke County, but that is where he will be taking most of his cases, Gaither said. Before resigning from his duties as Gaither’s chief assistant, Bellas was the lead prosecutor in the Zahra Baker case. Earlier this month, Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to murdering Zahra and received a sentence of 15-18 years.
With Bellas out, Gaither made state attorney Clifton Smith his new chief assistant. Smith has been with District 25 for more than five years, carrying a regular case load that ranges from lower level felonies to murder cases, Gaither said.
Gaither said Smith’s role has been one of a senior prosecutor and aggressive trial attorney in his time with District 25.
“He has been a key advisor for me since he’s been here,” Gaither said. Smith’s case load has lessened since he took over as chief assistant, but Gaither said it will return to normal after his first quarter in the new position.
It's still unclear exactly what happened in Bellas’ bicycle incident on Clubhouse Road at Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach Police Chief Lisa Massey said responding officer B.T. Cully arrived on the scene to find Bellas was in a bicycle accident and apparently intoxicated. Bellas was the only person on the bicycle and appears to be the only person involved in the accident.
Cully wrote in his report's narrative that he was not able to determine the exact location of the incident because the bicycle was moved prior to his arrival on the scene. In addition, Cully wrote that Bellas was "uncooperative" when asked what happened. Bellas refused to take a breath test to determine his level of intoxication. Therefore, Cully arrested Bellas and charged him with driving while impaired on a bicycle.
Bellas was taken to the Brunswick Community Hospital because of facial injuries resulting from the bicycle accident. He was in the Brunswick County jail by 2 a.m. the next morning and released at 8:35 a.m.
Bellas had no bond amount listed, but was given a custody release into the care of Cynthia Bellas, his wife. A custody release is a court order declaring that a defendant may only be released into the care and supervision of a named responsible person, according to the N.C. Magistrates Association website said. The most common use of this release involves the parent of a juvenile defendant.