Investigation was completed the night of the alleged crime – then hidden from the public
PARAGOULD, Ark. – There is now concrete evidence the Greene County sheriff and county attorney misled the public about the status of an investigation into a sheriff’s deputy for battery.
That evidence is the leaked investigative narrative. It was sent to NEA Report by a member of law enforcement angry at what they perceived as a dishonest response to our records request and the mishandling of the entire case.
The narrative reveals the investigating officer into the Dec. 4 incident in rural Greene County completed his investigation to the level of probable cause existing for an arrest to be made. It was completed within hours.
“I advised Lt. Lenderman with the visible injuries and the signs of a struggle inside the residence I felt like I had enough to charge both parties with domestic battery third degree” – Investigating officer assigned to the case, Sgt. Jimmy Huffstetler.
While the sheriff and the county attorney both cited that the investigation was still open, this narrative proves it was completed by the investigating officer that night. Both Sheriff Steve Franks and County Attorney Kimberly Dale violated the law and were misleading in their statements.
“As of now it is an open investigation, and as soon as we can I will release the report to you,” said Sheriff Franks at 6 PM on December 4, almost 18 hours after the assigned officer completed the investigation.
Franks initially denied the request entirely, and illegally, citing advice from County Attorney Dale. Dale had to be shown the Arkansas Attorney General’s opinion along with case law by NEA Report’s Stan Morris and following that, and a harsh email from the Jonesboro Sun editor Chris Wessel, Dale was compelled to release the heavily redacted file – nine minutes before the close of business the following day.
“The remaining information or redacted information is subject to A.C.A. Section 25-19-105(b)(6) exemption,” said County Attorney Kimberly Dale on Thursday, Dec. 5, shortly before 5 PM.
But now, proof exists that it wasn’t. The investigation, a misdemeanor third degree battery case, was completed on the scene.
“Everyone who knew about that last sentence in the report and did not respond with this document in the FOIA request is a criminal,” said W. Whitfield Hyman, Attorney at Law. “The statute and case law is clear.”
Other law enforcement, including those who leaked the narrative to us in disgust of the actions of the sheriff, say a third degree battery investigation never lasts more than a few hours. Two Greene County law enforcement veterans have called it a cover-up.
“The Paragould Police Department was forwarded the case for review and investigation,” Dale said on Monday. “If you have questions about whether it is still an open investigation, that is not up to me but the investigative agency.”
Dale offered no explanation as to what was left to investigate in a case where probable cause to charge with a crime had already been found.
The investigation was allegedly handed off to an officer with Paragould Police Department.. However, a city officer has no jurisdiction through PPD over events in rural Greene County. The PPD officer who is investigating will need to be deputized by the county sheriff to charge, meaning the sheriff still influences the case he has yet to allow charges in. Since he has already been presented with probable cause to charge a crime, it’s uncertain what the sheriff feels is needed beyond what already exists in the file. Franks did not respond to request for comment about this report.
“As you can imagine, there is an overriding interest to protect not only the victims but the accused on all cases which is the reason for the exception in the FOIA law,” Dale stated.
Her reason for violating open records law to deny our request is contradictory to the spirit of the law. As has been decided by many courts, anytime there is a debate or question about releasing public records, the government must release the records.
That includes when the county government decides they want to protect one of their own officers.
Sgt. Rockie Weber is currently on paid administrative leave from the sheriff’s department, Franks confirmed on Friday. The sheriff said he would be until “Paragould CID is done with the investigation.”
There is no timetable on how long an investigation into a minor misdemeanor could possibly take.
On September 13, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department fired Lt. Cody Oost for “insubordination,” in a case that has been shrouded in secrecy by the sheriff. Franks has offered no explanation for what led to the firing.
Then, on November 5, another GCSD lieutenant, Scott Pillow, found himself in hot water. It was with the FBI. Pillow allegedly tried to steal money from who he believed to be a drug dealer. The money belonged to federal authorities. Despite Arkansas State Police and the Greene County Sheriff’s Department never being able to catch Pillow, it apparently took the FBI one try. Pillow was fired the next day and remains a defendant in the federal criminal case.