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Secretly seized data returned

After nearly a week of legal wrangling, evidence not initially listed among items seized in raids Aug. 11 on the Marion County Record office and the home of its owners finally was returned last week to Record attorney Bernie Rhodes.

Under terms of a court order agreed to by all parties and approved by Chief Judge Ben Sexton, the Record received a copy of 17 gigabytes of data downloaded from its computer network. A device that was used to copy the data was destroyed as were all copies of the data made by authorities.

Present for the return of the data and destruction of the data drive used by the sheriff’s office to obtain it were lawyers for the Record and the sheriff’s office. County Attorney Joel Ensey walked toward a room where a meeting was held with deputy Aaron Christner and Undersheriff Larry Starkey preparing to return the data, but turned around and headed back when he saw a Record reporter.

Ensey then turned around again and walked toward the meeting but did not enter. Instead he darted into a short hall leading to the jail, then into an office, then back up the hall toward Sheriff Jeff Soyez.

Also returned were all copies of photos taken at the newspaper office and the owners’ home along with a list of search terms that were used to gather the 17 gigabytes of data.

The terms were revealed to be “kari,” “newell,” “kansas,” “DOR,” “KDOR,” “PAM,” “MAAG,” “jones,” “brogan,” “ruth,” “herbel,” “suspended,” and “dui.”

The terms indicate that authorities likely were aware before the search that Pam Maag had supplied the Record a letter about restaurateur Kari Newell’s lack of a driver’s license.

In an email Aug. 4 to Marion City Administrator Brogan Jones, Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel stated that she had received from Maag the same letter, a copy of which Herbel attached to her email.

The Record also emailed Police Chief Gideon Cody and Sheriff Jeff Soyez that same day to say that it had received a copy of the letter from a source, later revealed to be Maag, but that, after verifying the letter’s legitimacy on a public website maintained by the state, the newspaper had no plans to do anything with it.

Record publisher Eric Meyer’s letter indicated that the newspaper’s source contended police had been ignoring Newell’s lack of a legal driver’s license.

“Because of the confidential nature of our source and privacy expectations of the individual targeted,” Meyer wrote, “I am not comfortable sharing additional information unless you inform me that you have cause to believe some crime or misbehavior might have occurred and additional information we might be able to provide could assist in any investigation.”

No one from law enforcement contacted the Record before conducting the raids a week later.

Four days before the raids, Newell was contacted by police and told, according to her, that she was the victim of a crime. Later that same day, she falsely claimed at a city council meeting that the Record had obtained the letter by impersonating her. That same evening, however, she told the Record’s publisher that she thought the letter had come from her estranged husband via former friend Maag.

Coordinated raids Aug. 11 on the newspaper office, the newspaper owners’ home, and Herbel’s home were deemed unjustified Aug. 16, and all evidence seized during them — including a total of seven computers and four cell phones — was ordered returned.

Notably absent from the list of search terms released last week was Cody’s name. Cody had been aware that a Record reporter who was not involved in the Newell situation but whose computer and cell phone were seized nonetheless had obtained anonymous tips, as yet unpublished, from former co-workers of Cody questioning his fitness to be Marion’s chief.

Why Herbel, who like the newspaper frequently has clashed with Mayor David Mayfield, was included in the Aug. 11 searches but Maag and Newell’s estranged husband were not remains unanswered. Even the two of them have questioned why their first contact with law enforcement did not come until the Kansas Bureau of Investigation interviewed them Aug. 24 and 25.

Although reporter Phyllis Zorn was named in a probable cause affidavit requesting a search warrant for identity theft and improper computer access, no raid was conducted at her home.

According to court documents, Mayfield was made aware of the letter about Newell on Aug. 4. He admits that he subsequently conferred with Cody before the Aug. 11 raids.

Last modified Sept. 7, 2023

 

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