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Reporter files nearly $1 million suit over raid

Mayfield, Soyez, Hudlin among those sued in addition to city, county, Cody

Staff writer

A federal lawsuit seeking at least $950,000 in actual and punitive damages was filed Tuesday in connection with a police raid Aug. 11 on the Marion County Record newsroom.

The suit, filed by Record reporter Phyllis Zorn, states that the raid aggravated her previously controlled seizure disorder and left her suffering debilitating seizures and “extreme depression and anxiety.”

But the suit is about more than that, according to Zorn’s attorney, former federal district attorney Randall K. Rathbun, a partner in the Wichita firm Depew, Fillen, Rathbun, and McInteer.

“I’m a law-and-order kind of guy,” he told the Record after filing the suit. “When I see this kind of stuff going on, it drives me crazy.”

The suit names not only former Police Chief Gideon Cody, but also the City of Marion, Marion County, former Mayor David Mayfield, interim Police Chief Zach Hudlin, Sheriff Jeff Soyez, and sheriff’s detective Aaron Christner.

All are accused of being co-conspirators in violating both the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by helping plan, organize, conduct, or cover up a raid that unjustifiably forced Zorn to leave her workplace and seized her work computer and personal cell phone.

The raid wasn’t merely the result of one rogue officer acting under color of law to conduct a harassing, illegal search, Rathbun said.

Federal law requires any officer who participates in such a raid to take whatever steps he or she can to stop it, he said.

“Anyone who was at the scene that day had an independent duty on their own to stop the activity,” Rathbun said. “But it’s more deep-seated than that. When you look at who this chief was, when you look at (restaurant owner Kari) Newell and the city and what the city was trying to do to protect her, there’s something wrong there.”

The suit goes on to state that “the City of Marion, County of Marion, and Sheriff Soyez wholly failed to train their officers as to the protection guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unlawful search and seizure.

The 31-page, 7,345-word complaint was submitted Tuesday in U.S. District Court, seeking a hearing in Kansas City.

As many as three additional suits are expected to be filed in coming weeks by others affected by the raids. The death of newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer of cardiac stress a day after her home was raided will be a factor in at least one of those suits.

At the court’s discretion, one or more of the cases may be tried at the same time.

“The court has the ability to do that, and frankly it would make no sense to hear different trials on the same issue,” Rathbun said. “So they may be consolidated.”

Zorn’s suit alleges that Mayfield appointed Cody as police chief despite reports from Cody’s co-workers that Cody was “the absolute worst commander I ever experienced,” that “his ego would not allow him to listen to what anyone below his rank said,” and that he was a “toxic/ego-centric commander.”

The complaint recounts how sources had told the Record that Cody had run over a dead body at a crime scene and was about to be demoted from captain to sergeant by the Kansas City, Missouri, police department before coming to Marion.

The complaint also details allegations by co-workers that Cody, who was facing transfer to dispatch, would find “the skinniest and prettiest girl down there and f*ck her” to force reassignment.

According to Zorn’s lawsuit, Cody came to Marion at about half the salary he was making in Kansas City and became so enraged that the Record was looking into his background that he suggested to Zorn that he would invest in a rival newspaper she could start.

Zorn laughed off the suggestion, the suit states, then found herself and Record editor Eric Meyer evicted by Cody at restaurant owner Newell’s request from a public “meet and greet” Aug. 1 to which they had been invited by Congressman Jake LaTurner.

The following day, Zorn received from Marion resident Pam Maag a document indicating that Newell had been driving for years without a valid license.

After contacting the Kansas Department of Revenue to ask how to legally obtain the document, the suit states, Zorn used a public website operated by the department to verify that the document Maag had shared was legitimate.

The Record decided not to do a story but did alert Cody and Soyez to the situation. Neither of them responded to his offer of assistance in any investigation, according to the suit.

Brogan Jones, who was Marion’s city administrator at the time, notified Mayfield and said the city should not become involved.

Despite this, the lawsuit states, “Mayfield had a different plan to retaliate against those that sought to shine a light on criminal conduct in Marion.”

Both Mayfield and city council member Zach Collett notified Newell, and Mayfield “overruled the city administrator and authorized Chief Cody to begin an investigation into Newell and the Marion County Record,” the suit states.

The suit notes that Cody told Newell a Record reporter had stolen Newell’s identity and “engaged in this ‘prevarication’” even though he knew that Pam Maag — and not anyone at the Record — had provided a copy of a document about Newell’s past conviction from drunken driving to then-Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel.

After Newell falsely repeated Cody’s claims at a city council meeting, Cody stepped up his investigation and enlisted the aid of Soyez, who appointed Christner to assist.

“The sheriff was signing off on all of this,” Rathbun told the Record.

The lawsuit details how Soyez suggested searching not only the newspaper office but also the home of co-owners Eric and Joan Meyer and how he later appeared to encourage officers to seize computers even if the “preview search” a warrant allowed them to do did not find evidence of a crime.

Contacted Tuesday by the Record, the sheriff said he was reading the suit and would have no comment until after he had finished his reading. He later called back to say he would have no comment because the matter involved pending litigation.

While lamenting that he typically does not like to say “no comment,” Marion Mayor Mike Powers also declined to make a statement.

The suit alleges that Hudlin contacted the Department of Revenue but did not know who it was he had talked to and did not investigate further to determine that the department did not believe any law had been broken.

The suit also reports how Hudlin drew Cody’s attention to documents found in the Record newsroom, unrelated to the supposed claim of identity theft. The documents included information from confidential sources detailing allegations against Cody.

It goes on to report that, although body cam footage released afterward by the city shows such things as Cody relieving himself at a convenience store in between searches, video of him perusing the confidential file was not provided even though he can be heard on other video acknowledging that he was looking at it.

Kansas Bureau of Investigation has been looking into this matter and brought in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to check on allegations against law enforcement officers.

KBI still has not released that report, but Rathbun said Tuesday: “I certainly didn’t need the KBI investigation to make conclusions about who had violated the law in this case. It’s pretty damned plain.”

According to the suit, Cody communicated with Newell during his raids, referring to her as “honey” and telling her that the two of them couldn’t put any of their communication in writing.

Later, according to the suit, he urged her to destroy flirtatious text messages the two had exchanged because they might be deemed incriminating.

Asked why Zorn’s suit was filed more than five months after Gruver’s, Rathbun responded: “I believe I have an obligation to thoroughly investigate this case.”

Last modified Feb. 6, 2024

 

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