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Vandalized political signs, online smear campaigns, and more
PARAGOULD, Ark. – An ugly race for Greene County Sheriff is coming to a conclusion on Tuesday night.
The incumbent, Sheriff David Carter, is being challenged by the Marmaduke Police Chief Steve Franks. The ballot will have these names as choices but it is social media, of course, which has turned the innocent race for sheriff into a dividing subject for many in the community. More than a few have voiced their displeasure. Some have done so under their real names while others have chosen anonymous personas to get their message out, and not always in a respectful manner.
Former deputies speak out
Cody Oost is a former Greene County Sheriff’s Department deputy. He was close friends with Sheriff Carter during the first campaign and even campaigned for him. There are still photos of the two together on Facebook. But on October 10, 2018, Oost published a lengthy Facebook post detailing why he was no longer supporting Carter. Since, he has made it known he supports Franks for sheriff.
In his post, the former sergeant claims he was urged to make unlawful drug arrests by Chief Deputy Rick Mellow, the right hand of the sheriff. Oost claims when he wouldn’t, he was forced out of a job. He also claims the sheriff personally met with him and asked Oost to use his friendship with a district judge to influence judicial decisions.
“I kept repeating to him that the stops and arrests his other deputies were making were not valid stops, meaning the arrests would never stick,” Oost describes.
Oost even asserts that Carter claimed of the judge he would “take him out” if the judge did not “quit dismissing his arrests,” a message he wanted Oost to send to the judge. Oost said he was fearful and felt alone. He ultimately was forced out of his job and struggled to gain employment again. He is once again a police department officer. He declined to be interviewed but encouraged us to use his story he had written.
His story has been shared over 1,300 times. Most of the comments are in support. One individual, who says he was fired by the same Chief Deputy, agreed with the story and said the same thing happened to him.
Chief Deputy Mellow also handles contact with the press, including official department contact with NEA Report. In a conversation in October, Mellow attributed the online stories to disgruntled ex-employees and says they have no merit.
The identity of “Wes Price” is a mystery but his knowledge seems like that of an insider. Despite his anonymous identity, and sometimes less than serious content, the account has introduced much to the public which was not previously reported in the press. From his Facebook profile, “Wes” has posted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. He also routinely posts insulting content related to the performance of the sheriff and his staff.
One of the documents, which we reported on last month, is a letter from Second Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington. In it, Ellington requests an Arkansas State Police investigation into misconduct by Deputy Tommy Huffstetler. The letter mentions allegations that Huffstetler knew drugs didn’t belong to a suspect but arrested him for them anyway in an orchestrated bust with a dirty informant. While our earlier reporting indicated state police investigated this, we were incorrect.
State police never investigated the allegations against Huffstetler because, after multiple attempts to contact the sheriff, they reached him. Carter said an internal investigation indicated Huffstetler didn’t have criminal intent when he made the arrest but he did violate policy by using a bad confidential informant.
The sheriff has had a pro narcotics agenda since being elected because narcotics has been a problem in the area. The sheriff stated that his reputation and the departments reputation is on the line and he would not sacrifice them if he felt this was a criminal matter. If he thought this was a criminal matter, he would report it to the ASP (state police) and the PA (prosecuting attorney). – Sgt. Stuart G. Woodward
The sheriff’s word was all State Police needed to recommend ASP not investigate the matter. Curiously, the report makes mention that Carter felt the contact regarding this was political in nature and motivated by Sgt. Scott Pillow of ASP.
When the PA, Ellington, was notified, he told police he had heard of other rumors of misconduct by Huffstetler but nothing he could substantiate.
Huffstetler couldn’t stay out of trouble. On January 28, 2018, the Greene County deputy was having an argument with his girlfriend at the 2800-block of North 4th Street. A Paragould police report obtained by NEA Report through FOIA states police were dispatched after a 911 call from a third-party that afternoon over a “possible disturbance.”
PPD officers met with Huffstetler in the driveway. He said everything was okay and that he merely had an argument with his girlfriend. His girlfriend told police a far different version. She said Huffstetler pulled his gun from his waist, presumably his duty weapon, and placed it to her head. This is an allegation of felony aggravated assault on a family or household member. He was released from the scene and the female victim was advised of warrant procedures. The report states PPD contacted Detective Cody Oost and Sheriff David Carter to advise them of the incident.
In October, Mellow told NEA Report Huffstetler lost his job over this incident early this year.
The campaign slogan for both candidates reveals their approach. Carter’s signs say “Continuing the clean-up.” Franks’ say “Let’s start working together.” And while Carter disagrees, some assert that he is not working with other agencies within the county.
Aside from Franks, another similar assertion comes from Jason Wolfenbarger, a former GCSD deputy. On September 17, he wrote, in more words, that the sheriff didn’t work with other departments until election time.
Law enforcement agencies often notify other departments before engaging in planned activities in their jurisdiction. The feeling among some is that the Greene County sheriff doesn’t always do as such.
For example, an arrest detailed in the below Facebook post by Carter’s page states the GCSD executed a search warrant in Marmaduke. The post then states this was the third such warrant executed within the city by the sheriff’s team. No mention is made of Marmaduke PD being involved.
But the sheriff is within his rights to execute search warrants anywhere in the county. Although it might make some local department heads happier, he has no legal obligation to share the spotlight.
One detail many in local media have become familiar with is the inclination for Carter to take advantage of photo opportunities. While it might sometimes make sense, it often seems out of place and even staged. A Jonesboro Sun editor once refused to run a photo sent to this reporter by Carter’s office due to the obviousness of it being staged.
This recently backfired on Carter when he or someone close to him tipped off a television news photographer during the August arrest of a man as part of an investigation into a reported rape and assault. Capitalizing on the media attention in the case, Carter did interviews with a local television station at every turn of the investigation. He always asserted in his quotes that the crime had occurred.
When detectives found a suspect, cameras were staged in place to record Carter personally escorting the suspect into the jail. It would have been a heroic moment for Carter but for one problem: the suspect was innocent. Not only that, but he was not even questioned as of the time of the publicly shown arrest. This publicity stunt cost the innocent man his job, his apartment, and has caused significant harm to his family.
As for the wrongly identified suspect by the victim, this happened on a third day of questioning when detectives showed the woman four photos. The alleged victim’s mother said her daughter was pressured by investigators into providing answers until she had a mental breakdown. Memory issues and other psychological challenges are not uncommon for victim’s of a vicious crime. She gave bad information to authorities who made a bad arrest and ended up with proverbial egg on their face when they had to release him.
But the department never acknowledged their mistakes. Instead, something happened when the innocent man was released.
Although we have no explanation as to how, learning of the man’s innocence also led to Carter quickly declaring there was “no threat to the public.” This indicated the victim made a false report but there was never any evidence of dishonesty revealed to the public. A crime scene with torn clothing existed, Carter said. A rape kit has yet to be processed in Little Rock which could still reveal answers about this case. Memory issues are common in cases like this and sources indicate the case is still open within the department.
So, either the alleged victim staged an entire crime scene and put on the performance of a lifetime, for no known reason, or her assailant is still on the loose. We don’t know because the sheriff hasn’t spoken about it since learning of making a bad arrest.
Several have searched for answers. As seen in the below example, some say they’ve been banned from commenting on the sheriff’s Facebook page for even asking about it.
All of the aforementioned and much more make up this heated contest. As Tuesday, November 6 approaches, the tension in the county has reached a fever pitch. On Friday, Franks posted that his signs were being taken or torn down across the county.
A source who supports Carter said Sunday morning that over the weekend, his signs had also been vandalized.
Sources indicate the campaign has been strenuous and difficult for the sheriff and his staff. From uncorroborated smear efforts online to insulting memes being made, Carter has had to endure the worst part of the process. Yet, some legitimate complaints could be unfairly labeled “smear” and be dismissed, because of presentation.
Hopefully, when the votes are counted, the divide in the community can begin to heal.