Frederick County Sheriff Charles “Chuck” Jenkins announced he is taking a leave of absence after pleading not guilty to federal machine gun conspiracy charges on Wednesday.

At his first court appearance in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Wednesday, Jenkins pleaded not guilty. The 66-year-old Republican, who was elected to his fifth term last fall, was ordered to surrender his firearms — including his service weapon — as a condition of his pretrial release.

“Out of respect for the men and women of this agency and not to interfere with the effective operations, I am going to take a leave of absence, effective end of business, Friday, April 14, through the end of this judicial process,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I have full confidence in the system, and I know that my innocence will prevail at the end of all this and that I will be found not guilty.”

Col. David Benjamin, a 37-year veteran who oversees the day-to-day operations of the agency, will lead the office, according to the announcement.

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Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater said in a statement that the sheriff made the right decision to take a leave of absence. It was her first public statement about Jenkins since his indictment last week.

“The charges against him are disturbing, and his decision to step aside pending the outcome of the process demonstrates he understands the seriousness of the situation,” said Fitzwater, a Democrat. “I sincerely hope that the legal process is swift, so our community can put this unfortunate situation behind us, and we can focus on the important work of rebuilding the public’s trust.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Wes Moore said the charges Jenkins is facing are serious, and that they expect law enforcement to be “thorough and fair” in the investigation.

“No one is above the law; we expect high standards from all public officials and trust that our institutions will work to both protect the rights of the accused and defend the interests of the citizens of Frederick County,” Carter Elliott IV said in a statement.

Jenkins was indicted last week. At the time the charges were announced, a spokesperson for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office said Jenkins would not put himself on administrative leave or otherwise step aside from his duties.

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Jenkins did not take questions from reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday, nor did his attorneys, Andy White and Andrea Smith.

Jenkins and Robert Krop, a local gun dealer, are accused of using sheriff’s department letterhead to obtain machine guns for “evaluation and demonstration” that they instead intended to rent out to customers, according to the indictment.

Krop’s business, the Machine Gun Nest, made over $100,000 from machine gun rentals between 2018 and 2019, and offered political support to Jenkins, the indictment said.

After the indictment was announced, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Todd Wivell told reporters Jenkins had been aware of and cooperating with the investigation for more than a year.

Federal authorities filed a similar case in December against a police chief in Iowa; they allege the Adair Police Department police chief acquired 13 machine guns for his gun store through false statements to the ATF that the weapons were being demonstrated for future potential purchase.

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A protester holds a sign outside of Winchester Hall in Frederick County at a rally where activists called on Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins to resign. (Cody Boteler)

A few days before Jenkins’ court appearance, the vice president of the Frederick County Council, Kavonté Duckett, said the sheriff should place himself on an administrative leave of absence.

“While the Council plays no role in the operation of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office beyond providing state mandated funding to the division, it is important that we hold all duly elected officials accountable. Any inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated in Frederick County regardless of elected office,” Duckett said in a written statement.

Kai Hagen, a former Democratic member of the Frederick County Council and vocal critic of Jenkins, called on the sheriff to take a leave of absence during the trial.

“I’m also, along with many others, a little surprised and critical of the fact that he kept it secret through the election,” Hagen said.

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Jenkins was first elected as sheriff in 2006 and was reelected in 2022, even as Frederick County has thrown its support behind Democratic candidates — such as Gov. Wes Moore, President Joe Biden and Fitzwater — for other positions since 2020.

In court Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise asked Chief Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner to order Jenkins to surrender his service weapon, and noted other high-profile law enforcement leaders who had been required to do so as well. He also noted the recent death of the indicted former aide to Gov. Larry Hogan, Roy McGrath, who Wise said “either took his own life or engaged in a firefight with the FBI” after fleeing prosecution.

White, one of Jenkins’ defense attorneys, said that Jenkins had never been in trouble during his 30-year law enforcement career and has faced death threats in the past.

But Gesner said surrendering firearms was a standard condition of pretrial release and she saw no reason to make an exception for Jenkins.

At a rally in Frederick on Wednesday night, about 50 people gathered and called on Jenkins to resign. Chants of “Chuck Chuck, now!” punctuated remarks from local activists and elected officials. Roberto Juarez, an organizer with RISE Coalition of Western Maryland, said the leave of absence is “a step in the right direction” but that he wants to see more pressure on Jenkins to step down.

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Del. Kris Fair, a Democrat who represents Frederick, said he was “honored” to stand with the protesters and called Jenkins “out of line and out of control.”

He stopped short, though, of calling on Jenkins to resign, saying it was up to the moral standards of every elected official to make that decision for themselves.

And in a statement read by a member of her staff, Democratic state Sen. Karen Lewis Young called the charges against Jenkins “extremely serious” and said the Maryland General Assembly should “establish a clear process for the removal or suspension of a sheriff.”

Some at the rally said they were disappointed that more elected officials have not come out and urged Jenkins to resign. Yewande Oladeinde, the president of Nigerians in Frederick, said that too many elected officials had been “silent.”

“And to be silent is to be complicit,” she said.

cody.boteler@thebaltimorebanner.com

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com