By: Jessica McMaster
MARION, Kan. (Scripps News Kansas City) — In a town of fewer than 2,000 people, located next to a self-serve carwash, sits an old brick building filled with passionate journalists who run Marion County Record.
The local newspaper, which has served the community since 1869, sits across from the courthouse and is one block away from the sheriff’s office that assisted in a raid on the newspaper Friday.
Three days after the unprecedented search and seizure, the small-town newspaper is the busiest it’s ever been, according to Eric Meyer, who owns the paper.
“We would rather die than not get published,” Meyer said.
While staff worked to get its weekly publication sent out to the community, Meyer weaved in and out of rooms taking phone calls from reporters as far away as London, attorneys and various members of the community who called to express their support.
In between calls and interviews, Meyer, whose white hair serves as a reminder of his time spent serving the community through the written word, dressed in a plaid shirt and matching blue slacks, stepped outside for the occasional cigarette break before graciously sitting down for another interview.
The staff answered repeated phone calls as various reporters from across the state of Kansas and Missouri walked into the building, which had the front door propped open.
One by one, Meyer told the same story on repeat.
“I hope it’s worth it for the people who took the documents from us and the servers from us,” Meyer said. “I don’t know what they think they’re going to find.”
Scripps News Kansas City’s I-Team tried to find out what law enforcement was looking for by filing various KORA requests with the Marion Police Department, Marion County District Court and other agencies.
While Marion Police – led by Chief of Police Gideon Cody – initially pursued the investigation and executed the search warrant, a spokesperson for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said that, as of Monday afternoon, the KBI had become the “lead law enforcement agency investigating the incidents in Marion County.”
“As we transition, we will review prior steps taken and work to determine how best to proceed with the case,” KBI spokesperson Melissa Underwood said in an e-mail to Scripps News Kansas City. “Once our thorough investigation concludes, we will forward all investigative facts to the prosecutor for review.”
But, the judicial system is remaining silent.
While Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed the warrant, it’s not clear why.
The I-Team asked the court for the request for the search warrant form, which would support in detail why police sought a search warrant.
Marion County Record staff initially received the request for search warrant, which was a copy and paste of the warrant itself. Later, staff received the nine-page request for search warrant but was advised by their attorney not to release it due to the court stipulating it was for the newspaper only.
Meyer did tell the I-Team there were “half-truths” in the request for a warrant.
On the surface, press freedom advocates and attorneys alike say the warrant appears to be illegal.
The law requires law enforcement to subpoena materials from journalists, not raid their offices.
“That might be the tactics in Vladimir Putin’s land, but not necessarily the police training tactics in the United States,” Meyer said.
It all started with a tip the newspaper received about local restaurant operator Kari Newell’s driving record.
One of the reporters used a state website to verify the information.
“We decided it wasn’t worth pursuing,” Meyer said.
Nothing was published and Meyer contacted the police, who he said, didn’t say much in return.
“A week later, they showed up at our door and seized our computers,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the raid is an effort to silence the free press.
“Bullies will be bullies,” Meyer said. “This was an attempt to harass and bully us and it may have involved more than just the police chief and it may also have been an attempt to get information because we had also been investigating the chief.”
Details about the investigation into the chief are unable to be confirmed, which is why that story also hasn’t been published.
Cody did not return a request from the I-Team for an interview.
On Sunday, the I-Team revealed Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody retired from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department in April.
The I-Team confirmed Cody had a salary of $115,848 while in Kansas City.
According to a previous article by Marion County Record, Cody started his position in Marion at $60,000.
The list of seized items provided to the I-Team includes computers, servers and cell phones.
Newell, who operates a coffee shop in Marion where U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R – 2nd District, Kansas) was hosting a public forum with constituents, asked police chief Cody to remove two members of the Marion County Record who were present at the public meeting.
A spokesperson for Rep. LaTurner says their team had no involvement in the removal of the news crew.
Following LaTurner’s forum, the paper said it received a news tip regarding Newell’s past. The newspaper said it worked to verify the tip, but ultimately decided not to publish the tip. Instead, they notified police.
Moments after police raided the newspaper office, a second raid took place at Meyer’s home where he lived with his mom and co-publisher, Joan Meyer.
“How dare they go into the home of a 98-year-old woman who has devoted 50 years of her life to helping the community through this newspaper,” Meyer said. “Who is loved by many people, still was working with the paper and have her last day be one where someone has invaded her house, stared at her mercilessly, acted like she’s a common criminal.”
Joan Meyer died the next day, which Eric Meyer attributes to the stress caused by her home being raided by police.
A third home, belonging to Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel, 80, was also searched, according to the Record.
Cheri Bentz, Marion County Record newsroom manager, whose desk faces the front door said she was working payroll when a commanding voice from behind ordered her to go outside.
She said the raid occurred by police coming in through the back door.
“I had no idea they were in the building and I was surprised they came up behind my desk; it was a shock,” Bentz said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
Cody sent the I-Team a statement Sunday that in part said law enforcement can search the offices of journalists if it’s believed the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.
The criminal accusation in this case is identity theft. The I-Team also broke the first statement issued by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which said it had no involvement in seeking the warrant or executing the warrant.
However, the statement went on to say, “No one is above the law, whether a public official or a member of the media.”
Meyer said he and his team are not criminals for doing what journalists do every day in America, which is research tips from sources.
“Maybe they think they can go to a little weekly newspaper and get away with it,” Meyer said. “They didn’t count on the fact little weekly newspaper has a backbone. I’m not your typical little weekly newspaper. I spent 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal. I was a professor of journalism for 26 years. I’m not going to put up with crap.”