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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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As you probably heard, Michael Jackson died yesterday. The proclaimed “King of Pop” suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived. Flowers and memorials crowd the Hollywood Walk of Fame near his star and headlines around the world pay him tribute.

But why all the fuss? I liked Thriller, too, but let’s face it, Michael Jackson was a mess. The biggest surprise, for me, was that he didn’t die on an operating table getting yet another cosmetic surgery of some kind. For the last decade or so he’s looked like death warmed over and, I don’t care what his fans say, there was something inherently wrong with him.

I never wished him harm, and certainly never wished him dead, but I honestly don’t think it’s that great of a loss. He recorded some good songs and… Well that’s really all I can come up with on the “pro” side of things. As for the “con” side, well, that’s a little easier, isn’t it? He was so emotionally and psychologically unstable that he bleached his skin, had numerous cosmetic surgeries on his lips and face, and changed his nose more than a Mr. Potato Head toy. He was implicated in molestation cases, endangered his own son by dangling him over a balcony railing, and perhaps worst of all, married Lisa Marie Presley.

If not for his singing career, if he were just a “normal” man wandering the streets of say Topeka, Kansas, he would likely have been institutionalized. I’m sure a lot of people called him a freak, a pedophile, maybe even an abomination … but whatever your thoughts, it is clear that he had serious issues. And it was perhaps his very stardom that kept him from getting the medical treatment he needed. He was too accepted, too revered, his sometimes grotesque eccentricities too quickly disregarded. The news reported that Michael Jackson had recently passed a thorough physical in preparation for his planned tour, but when was the last time he passed a thorough rundown with an objective psychiatrist? When did he last speak with a psychologist or therapist who wasn’t star-struck or paid to not make waves? Never, I would venture. I don’t think he could have spoken truthfully to any decent medical professional in the last thirty years and not been hospitalized or committed.

And now he’s dead. His heart stopped. And, you know, it’s probably better for him that the CPR didn’t work, that the hospital couldn’t revive him. He’s been killing himself for years anyway. If anything, it’s probably overdue. But maybe wherever he ends up will finally satisfy him, comfort him, and he’ll find peace without screaming crowds and flashing cameras.

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Very few people haven’t heard of S. E. Hinton, a young adult genre author who makes the required reading list in most if not all English classrooms. She is famous for having penned the new-classic short novel The Outsiders as well as Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then This Is Now. All were written from the perspective of young adults and were/are very popular among that crowd.

Now that the history lesson is covered, I’ll get down to business. Hinton didn’t publish anything for many years after Taming the Star Runner and rumors circulated that she had essentially retired after her short but glorious run. (Dropping off the page for 16 years can do that.) Then in 2005 came the dark and wholly unexpected Hawke’s Harbor, the newest spine on my bookshelf.

I’ll make no bones about it, I loved S. E. Hinton and, as a child and young adult, read everything of her hand I could find. I scanned the pages of The Outsiders more times than I can remember and even voluntarily wrote an essay on the book in middle school. But then came Hawke’s Harbor, and I was unsure. I passed it by on Amazon and in the local bookstore, wary of her new work, suspicious that it would be yet another dreadful “comeback novel” and could never live up to my old favorites. But like nearly every book published, a few copies of it eventually wound up in the bookstore’s bargain bin. And I, desperate for new reading material (as usual), could not resist the temptation of a bargain.

My worries firmly in place, I began to read … and found out that I could not have been more wrong. Hawke’s Harbor is a gorgeous, touching story. It quickly found its way into my cubby of favorites on the bookshelf and slid its hooks deftly into my heart. But it is totally unlike her earlier works. Had I not known, her name would never have entered my mind on a list of possible authors. Perhaps the greatest shock was the inclusion of a vampire in the plot, which could not be more removed from what she wrote about in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This bit of supernatural did not sit well with many of her former fans but, in all honesty, it was so well wrought I didn’t mind. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised, and still a bit disappointed; and I seriously questioned whether or not I’d made a mistake picking this dark story from the bargain bin. Apparently this also threw a lot of other readers who were expecting another Tex or Rumble Fish. Because serious readers – we minority of dedicated, avid consumers of words, we Constant Readers – treasure our books like great friends, and treasure the authors of those books like loved ones. So when someone drops off the publishing map for a decade and a half and re-emerges with a totally different and unexpected voice, it can be very personal.

Think of it as if a loved one were in a bad accident and fell into a coma. And at first the doctors were very optimistic for a full recovery … but as the months and then years wore on, a darker prognosis appeared. And you resigned yourself to losing this loved one. You wanted the coma to break and for that person to open their eyes and be every bit the person they were before … but you understood the chances of that were infintesimal. Then one fine day that loved one stirred and opened their eyes. And the doctors cried, “Come quick!” And you rushed to their bedside with a great wild hope galloping through your veins … only to find that this loved one didn’t remember you. Or themselves. And watching them recover is like watching a stranger, and that it is somehow worse than losing them to a coma, or even to death. Because there they are, right there, you can reach out and touch them … but it isn’t the person you knew.

That probably sounds ridiculous. And of course not everyone is so effected, but many are. And it is so personal to them that it feels like a betrayal, willful or not. Authors who publish fairly regularly and whose voices change slowly over time have a much greater advantage. S. E. Hinton did most certainly not have that advantage and the reviews of this book prove it. So, just for the record, let me state that this is nothing like her earlier work … except that it is still a striking, moving story. Despite my misgivings, I loved it. It is hard to explain but the vampire thread did not discredit the story or the characters, who practically breathe and move on the page (and this from a reader who has avoided every other vampire story I have ever come across because I simply detest them). I loved it.

In closing, I offer a word of advice: If you pick this book up expecting it to be anything like her other books, you will be disappointed. Because Hinton has a new voice. It is still unerringly beautiful and wrenching but in a very different way. She has changed, as have we all.

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Crackers Beware

Terrorist profiling isn’t just for Middle Easterners anymore.

A young whitebread American professional was recently held by TSA agents in the St. Louis airport. Did he mistakenly leave a screwdrivier in his carry-on? A pocketknife in his suit pants? He did verbally threaten someone or carry prohibited substances? No. Nothing of the sort. He was detained, his possessions searched, and threatened with arrest because he had roughly $4700. In cash.

Maybe you’ve already heard about this. But probably not. The news broke at least four days ago but I didn’t catch a whiff of it until today. There was no mention of it on Good Morning America, our local news broadcast, or even my Rueters and AP news feeds. And you may be asking yourself why you should care in the first place; what’s the big deal? My reasons for mentioning it here are two-fold.

First: I don’t find $4700 to be an exorbitant sum to be in the hands of a young professional. He was polite, compliant, well-dressed, a United States citizen, had proper identification … and yet they detained him. Why?

Second: Not long before this young man was detained, a state-and-federal joint organization had distributed a confidential report to law enforcement officials across the state, a report which “depicted Christians, anti-abortionists, advocates for protecting our borders and supporters of certain political candidates as potential ‘threats’ to public safety,” according to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (the report, titled “The Modern Militia Movement,” can be read in full, as released, at the bottom of this post). Forgive me, but those delineations seem broad enough to condemn just about anyone.

The young man detained had the misfortune of falling into several of their “threatening” categories: being an aide to Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul, who was on the “certain political candidates” list; being the Director of Development in the politically-involved organization Campaign For Liberty; carrying “political paraphenalia” for both previous entities, in the form of fliers and bumper stickers; and possessing $4700 in cash. Trouble is, that report was supposed to be rescinded, its content disregarded. Though originally distributed as a sensitive “Law Enforcement Only” document, an unidentified officer leaked the report to the media on March 11 and the cat was out of the bag. The following public outcry led to apologies, public condemnations of the material, and supposed retractions of the report. And yet a young man who fell into several of the categories outlined in that report was detained, with no explanation except that the cash he carried somehow made him suspect.

I’m sure a lot of shady drug and/or terror-related deals go down between the St. Louis underworld (mafia, Al Qaeda, etc.) and a twenty-five year old Christian Republican who is well employed and politically active. Yes sir, I believe someone fitting that description proves a threat to our public safety. Sounds like a terrorist to me. Looks like one, too …

Yup, that’s the face of evil if I ever saw it.

His name is Steve Bierfeldt. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 2006 and then spent two years in Virginia working for a non-profit and an election campaign. Prior to the TSA intervention, he had been in St. Louis helping at a Campaign For Liberty convention where they had sold tickets and merchandise, with roughly $4700 in cash transactions. Yes, yes, I see a threatening pattern emerging … It is my belief, ladies and gentlemen, that his problems stemmed from being a conservative, working for another conservative, supporting a conservative organization touting the need for antiquities like Freedom and Liberty. Oh and he’s a Christian, too.

Tie him to the stake! Light the kindling!!

This sounds eerily like a witch-hunt. During questioning, he repeatedly asked the TSA agents if he were required by law to answer. It seems a legitimate question to me, especially if they are looking to peg me as a militant extremist of some sort, but none of them responded except with condescension, threats of arrest, “going downtown,” and confrontation with the DEA and/or FBI.

Witch! Witch!!

Bierfeldt recorded much of the interaction on his cell phone, part of which can be heard on the embedded video at the bottom of the post. And while he was eventually released, catching his plane without further hassle, I still find this story very compelling. The fact remains that he was singled out and held without good reason. It was, purportedly, because of the cash, but on no flight rules list or FAA regulation anywhere does it even hint that cash is an article to be carried in limited quantities, or that substantial quantities of it could make you suspect and a likely candidate for detention. (And what would be considered a “substantial” quantity? Where do they draw those lines?) Young Bierfeldt would have been arrested, or at least held for further questioning, if not for an apparent plain-clothes FBI agent who ordered his release. Without once checking his documents, asking him a single question, or even inspecting his possessions.

A government document advised that someone like Bierfeldt – a Christian, a Republican supporter, a political citizen – could be a threat to public safety and so he was pulled aside. I’ll be honest with you … this kind of stuff scares me. Our rights and liberties and freedoms have been so thoroughly stripped away that, truly, nothing remains but their memory. And this is only the beginning. Tighten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a long, hard ride.

A few parting thoughts and links…

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“I realize that there are people who will dismiss this kind of story as insignificant. They shouldn’t. This is very serious and should be treated as such. Anyone who knows anything at all about history knows that before a state or national government can persecute – and commit acts of violence against – a group of people, they must first marginalize the group from society’s mainstream and categorize it as dangerous. Rome did exactly that to Christians, as did Mao’s China; Hitler’s Germany did the same thing to Jews; Stalin’s Russia did the same thing to political dissenters, etc…
…This is very serious business! We are not talking about private opinions. We are talking about law enforcement agencies. And remember, most law enforcement agencies share these types of reports; therefore, how many other state police agencies have similar reports floating around?”

A quote from Chuck Baldwin’s article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

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“The show-me state made the news recently when the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state-federal law-enforcement partnership, released an inflammatory report alleging that libertarians, constitutionalists, supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and other people skeptical of powerful government should be considered as potential terrorists-in-the-making.”

A quote from the Examiner article Political activist detained by TSA for carrying cash.

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“We believe that freedom is an indivisible whole, and that it includes not only economic liberty but civil liberties and privacy rights as well…”

A quote from the Campaign For Liberty website.

You can also visit Steve Bierfeldt’s profile page and weblog on their site.

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