ATHENA - The Athena City Council has placed the city police officer charged with sex crimes on paid administrative leave.
The council's action came Friday evening. That morning, officer Mark Benton Ashcraft had pleaded not guilty to three counts of third-degree sexual abuse, one count of second-degree sexual abuse, one count of third-degree sodomy and one count of first-degree online sexual corruption of a child. The first three charges are misdemeanors and the others are felonies.
The council met for nearly an hour in executive session before voting to place Ashcraft on paid leave. Councilman Eric Pickard, the police commissioner, made the motion and Councilwoman Carol Speed gave the second. The council voted 3-0 for it.
Ashcraft makes about $4,100 a month as an Athena city police officer. He is married, and he and his wife have four children. The paid leave will mean the family will receive an income and health insurance benefits.
Additionally, Pickard moved to have the council direct Sam Tucker, city attorney, to proceed with due process for disciplinary action, if any, for Ashcraft. Councilwoman Lavern Mitchell seconded the motion, which the council also passed 3-0.
After the meeting, Mayor Chuck Vickery said the council's decision to place Ashcraft on paid leave was satisfying.
"We wanted to make the right decision for a variety of reasons," he said.
Ashcraft, 36, has been a police officer with the small town north of Pendleton since December 2007. Prior to that he was an officer for the city of Pilot Rock.
Oregon State Police arrested Ashcraft on Monday on suspicion of sex crimes and booked him at the Umatilla County Jail in Pendleton. On Wednesday, jail staff moved him to the Malheur County Jail in Vale for his protection. Thursday, a Umatilla County Grand Jury indicted Ashcraft on the charges. During the arraignment Friday morning, Circuit Court Judge Gary Thompson upped Ashcraft's bail to $62,500.
Vickery said he nor the council knew just what options were open to them in dealing with this situation, and that was the very reason the council needed the closed-door meeting.
"We never had this kind of thing - at least to my knowledge - in the city," Vickery said. "I think we wanted to make an informed decision."
Vickery also said Ashcraft's arrest was stunning to the small community. He said the people of Athena respected Ashcraft and even complimented him on his police work.
On a more personal note, Vickery said the vote for the paid leave alleviated a concern he had for how the family would survive while Ashcraft was in jail.