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I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

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In the flatland of Arkansas’s Mississippi delta rests a small town named Jericho. Just off the interstate and home to less than 200 people, motorists generally pass it by on I-55 without a moment’s notice. Unless you’re driving through town, that is.

“You can’t even buy a loaf of bread, but we’ve got seven police officers,” said former resident Larry Harris.

Some news broadcasts confirm only six but at either count, those police officers were well-known for their propensity to write tickets, to such an extent that many locals and passers-through called the town a blatant speed trap. Among other infringements, officers also routinely wrote tickets while well out of their jurisdiction and for actions which are not illegal. Larry Harris, quoted above, moved away from Jericho to escape law enforcement’s heavy hand there. Another resident stayed in Jericho but agreed that the police were prolific ticketers.

“They wrote me a ticket for going 58 mph in my driveway,” said Albert Beebe, a 75-year-old retiree.

On August 27, the issue came to a head. Local Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne was issued a traffic ticket and disputed it in court but failed to get it dismissed. He was ticketed again later that day and returned to court to dispute it. This time he let his unvarnished opinions fly in front of the judge and the attending police officers.

At some point, it developed into an argument between Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne and the police, all of whom attended the proceedings. The argument then turned into a scuffle and Payne was shot. That’s right, in the middle of a court in session, in full view of the presiding judge, a Jericho police officer drew a pistol and fired on the unarmed fire chief.

The bullet grazed another officer and struck Don Payne in the hip. He was transported to the Memphis Regional Medical Center and is currently in good condition.

Presiding judge Tonya Alexander voided all outstanding tickets issued by the Jericho police force for the month prior and, following the incident, resigned from her position. Police Chief Willie Frazier disbanded the force for the time being and the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office took over policing duties in the area. The identity of the officer who shot Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne has not been released and Payne is not speaking out on the issue. No charges have been filed against anyone, but Police Chief Willie Frazier and the former police department are now under investigation.

And not just for the shooting. It seems Jericho police had a funding problem. Despite writing unusually high numbers of tickets, which should have generated a lot of income for the town, one of the Jericho cruisers and one of its fire trucks were repossessed. (I have a feeling the loss of that fire truck may have had something to do with the fire chief’s growing displeasure with the police force.) To date, the police have issued no statements and provided no records indicating where the funds may have gone, not even to the sheriff’s office and investigators. Allegations point toward officers pocketing the money themselves. Police Chief Willie Frazier is also said to have used town vehicles for personal use, including repeatedly driving his squad car on 140-mile round-trip excursions to Atoka, Tennessee. The investigation is just getting started.

I believe, in Jericho, walls are about to come down.

You can read more in the AP article or listen to short reports from the regional news station here.

I tagged this as humorous – which it is – but at the same time I am completely disgusted by this reviling excuse for a police department. How many years have they defrauded the public? How many thousands have they illegally collected? And I cannot believe this whole set-up did not raise some eyebrows at county level long before now. Why wasn’t someone with authority asking questions? Just how many towns with a population under 200 can afford half a dozen police? One town I live near has a population of over 400, contains several businesses, and can afford two.

That impossible people-to-police ratio must have attracted attention. The Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office was very familiar with Jericho police, just eight miles away, and it was even reported that Jericho police often left their cruisers at the Sheriff’s Office overnight to avoid vandals. This wasn’t a podunk outpost in a far corner of the county; this was just off the interstate, eight miles down the road, and the officers drove right into the sheriff’s parking lot.

As in most cases, I’d say the corruption surfacing in Jericho is just part of a larger tangle of malfeasance. The real questions, I suppose, is how far the tangle reaches, what all it ensnares, and how many other towns – all across the country – live with one eerily like it on their own streets.

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