AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1998

Taking Down The Sheriff   

Lots of readers were skeptical when Miss Jean and Ole Goodloe started running stories about corruption in the Sheriff's Department in their 7,125-circulation Alabama weekly. By the time it was all over, the sheriff was in federal prison.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

THE SILVER CHEVY S10 PICKUP BUMPS along a makeshift road across Goodloe Sutton's 400 acres in western Alabama. At the first pond Sutton parks and moves to the back of the truck. He slides thigh-high green waders over his ripped jeans and ties a blue bandanna around his forehead to mop up sweat from the heat of another 90-degree May day. He pulls on black rubber gloves and grabs a rubber tub to float across the water as he collects crawfish from the traps set around the edge of the water.

Josh Aldridge, who takes photos, sells ads and writes stories at Sutton's family-owned weekly newspaper, the Democrat-Reporter, hops out about the same time and grabs a shotgun from behind the front seat. Josh has graduated from high school and is about to go into the Marine Corps at the end of the summer.

His mission now is to watch for snakes as Goodloe Sutton wades into the knee-deep water to empty traps baited with catfish heads from a local processing plant.

``There's a snake right there," says Goodloe. Josh loads a shell, aims and fires. ``You got him," says Goodloe, picking up what's left of the foot-long snake half-stuck in the first crawfish trap. ``What kind of snake is that?" Josh asks. ``He's a cottonmouth," Goodloe replies. ``Let's hope we don't see another because we don't have any more shells."

One summer five or six years ago, Goodloe poured 100 pounds of crawfish into each of his two ponds and later planted rice there. He's never wanted for crawfish since. Three years ago he tried to sell some commercially, but they only brought him $35. Most times, he harvests the crawfish and throws them in a pot of boiling water to share with friends around Linden, Alabama. That's where he was born 59 years ago, grew up and still lives with his wife, Jean Sutton, 57, and their two sons, Goodloe Jr., 27, and William, 14. ``It doesn't take but an hour or two notice to have a crawfish party," he says. ``If it required too much work, I wouldn't do it."

``Ole Goodloe" and ``Miss Jean" is how a lot of folks in Linden (population 2,773) refer to the husband-wife newspaper team. He provides friends acres of crawfish; she bakes chocolate chip cookies for the sheriff's deputies at Christmas. He likes to hunt wild turkeys; she finds ironing relaxing. He drinks Michelob and Jack Daniels; she doesn't touch the stuff.

They've been a team for nearly 37 years, since they worked together at the Student Printz at the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1964 he brought her home to his daddy's newspaper over the Tombigbee River, across the terrifying Naheola bridge, which is shared by cars and trains from the local timber mills.

They never left. Now Goodloe is editor and publisher of the weekly his father, Robert Sutton Sr., bought in 1917. Goodloe was born only 100 feet or so from where the Democrat-Reporter sits today. Jean is managing editor. Every Monday for the second section and Tuesday for the first, they push up against a tight deadline for Thursday publication. Then the paper is mailed to some 7,125 paid subscribers throughout Marengo County, population 23,223.

Young staffers like Josh come and go. It's the Suttons who stay, having bought the paper from Goodloe's father in 1982. She writes the hard-hitting stories. He edits them. He thinks big and talks easily, always with a twinkle in his eye that leaves one feeling he might be pulling your leg. She takes care of the details. She pores over county public records, nailing down facts until the story is solid. He's prone to repeating stories, talking off the top of his head, sometimes murky about specifics. She carries a pocket-sized Sony tape recorder on most interviews and is dead-certain about who said what when. They usually agree on stories though, and neither hesitated a second before printing a story, as they do with all local arrests, when their son Goodloe Jr. was arrested last January on drunk driving charges. ``People should know by now, it's just how it is," says Jean. ``What credibility would we have if we didn't print his name?"

When talk turned earlier this year to the possibility of the Suttons winning a Pulitzer Prize after two admiring readers submitted their work, it was Goodloe who didn't mind the spotlight. He didn't exactly seek it out. But he didn't refuse calls from journalists around the country after the Associated Press told how the Democrat-Reporter's dogged probing prematurely ended the second term of Marengo County's six-foot-three, 230-pound sheriff, Roger W. Davis. The spotlight makes Jean uncomfortable, although she's too nice to be rude. She's more likely to run from the cameras, handing the credit to her husband, letting him speak first. In fact, she vows to quit if she's ever forced to take a byline.

bUT IT WAS JEAN SUTTON who first began digging back in 1992. In fact, she'd been a little suspicious of Roger Davis since 1990, when he came into the trailer-size office of the Democrat-Reporter to place a campaign ad for the $35,000-a-year-job. He was running for sheriff after spending more than 26 years as an Alabama state trooper. All of a sudden, says Jean, he started making derogatory remarks about the incumbent sheriff's wife. She thought his comments were crude and unnecessary, and they offended her. She found him puzzling since he could also be very pleasant. Neither Sutton voted for Davis, but they kept an open mind about him after he won the election and took office in January 1991.

At the outset Davis, now 57, did a couple of questionable things, such as turning juvenile records over to the media. Jean attributed it to inexperience. ``We kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt," she says. After all, his office was only 67 steps away, across the street from theirs.

During Davis' first year in office, Goodloe started getting tips about the sheriff from various people who worked for him. Most were of little substance and were quickly forgotten after Jean or Goodloe checked them out. Eventually, though, they got a lead that had some meat to it. A source told Goodloe that the sheriff had bought his daughter a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle for Christmas in 1991. He had paid $2,999 to the John Deere dealer in nearby Demopolis with a check drawn on the Sheriff's Department's bank account.

This was something Jean could check out. But she knew she had to be careful since she didn't want to get any of the sheriff's clerks in trouble. Some of the women in his office are her friends; they exchange Christmas gifts. So rather than entangle them, she talked to a friend at another sheriff's department, who told her what records are available and how books are typically kept.

But as the Suttons chased the story, Davis asked the dealer to write a check to the county; he in turn reimbursed the dealer out of his own money. The weekly published a story about the episode on May 5, 1994, although a strong sentiment existed in the town that it wasn't really news since the sheriff had repaid the money.

But that wasn't the first piece on Davis' improprieties that the Democrat-Reporter had published. As it pursued the story of the all-terrain vehicle, the state of Alabama sent an auditor to his department for a routine audit. As the auditor did his work, the Suttons got word that Davis was writing checks to the county to cover money missing from a fund used to pay informants and buy drugs during undercover investigations.

Jean attacked the records; her first story appeared on April 28, 1994. ``Sheriff repays drug cash," read the headline. The subhead: ``Davis got [county] commission checks in 1992, returns cash in 1994 audit." In all, Davis had reimbursed the county for more than $5,000 since the audit began on February 3.

One item that was particularly puzzling was a check for $700 written by Davis on March 21, 1994, that went into the county general fund. As of press time April 28, ``the repayment remains a mystery," the paper reported. ``The Democrat-Reporter plans a followup story on the $700 and welcomes an explanation from Sheriff Davis and the commission."

A week later, the paper got its answer. Davis had been charging the West Alabama Mental Health Center $50 each time a deputy transported mental patients for treatment in county cars. In nine checks from 1991 to 1993, the center paid Davis $700--the amount Davis reimbursed the county.

Three times Jean asked the sheriff why he personally had cashed the checks and what he had used the money for, but got no answer. The paper printed the text of a letter dated February 5, 1991, in which Davis asked that a check made out to the Sheriff's Department be written to Roger Davis instead. It also printed both sides of the checks. The following transcript of a taped interview appeared in the paper on May 5. D-R is Jean, who admits her heart beat twice as fast as usual as the confrontation with Davis began. But as the interview continued, righteous indignation calmed her down:

D-R: What did you do with the money you received from West Alabama Mental Health?

Davis: I have no comment.

D-R: You cashed the checks.

Davis: I have no comment.

D-R: What did you use the money for?

Davis: I have no comment because the audit is not over. I don't have an audit report on it yet.

D-R: Why did you pay back $700?

Davis: Douglas Coats [the state auditor] told me I had a payback of $700, and I paid it.

D-R: Why?

Davis: They are not through with the audit yet. We haven't had our exit conference yet. I have no comment for you. This is utterly ridiculous.

D-R: It's not ridiculous because you won't explain what happened to the county's money.

In its May 5 edition, the Suttons printed every disbursement made by the Sheriff's Drug Enforcement Fund in 1991, 1992, 1993 and part of 1994, trying to get Davis to explain the missing drug fund money. When Jean asked to see the ledger again, Davis' face turned red. He stared at Jean and then, in her presence, chewed out the clerk who had let her see it the first time.

You can look at records, but you can't copy anything in the future, Davis told her. ``I didn't realize I had the right to make copies," says Jean. ``He refused to let me ever make copies again."

BUT THIS SMALL RURAL COUNTY runs on politeness. Young and old address women as ``ma'am." No matter how much Davis disliked the Suttons and what they were writing about him, he never threw either out of his office. They called him Roger, and he addressed them by their first names.

That's the way it is in Linden, home of the Alabama Turkey Hunters' Hall of Fame. A town with only two stoplights is too small for territorial disputes. Everyone knows everyone else's name and the names of their dogs as well. The mayor, Kathryn Friday, taught Davis' daughter, as well as two of the five Linden city councilmen and one of the county commissioners. Bobby Bedsole, who coordinates an education program for inmates at the county jail, can't remember when he didn't know Davis. ``We mind each other's business," says Friday, the first woman to be asked to join the Rotary Club.

People talk, whether it's inside the Silver Shears hair parlor or at Papa's grocery store. Not long after the stories about the sheriff appeared, a bag boy at Papa's told Jean, referring to the Davis episode, ``You know, if I went into a store and took a can off the shelf and went outside with it and got caught, I couldn't run back in and put it back on the shelf and it would be all right. I'd be arrested and tossed in jail."

The analogy was not lost on many. But the truth was, when the Suttons started printing stories implying their sheriff may have used his office for personal gain, many people in Linden didn't believe it--and didn't want to believe it. Despite the seemingly incontrovertible nature of the evidence presented by the Democrat- Reporter, many were skeptical of the articles.

``When Goodloe first started printing those stories, I didn't much believe him," says Dan Allen, who runs a grain and feed and cowboy boot store in Demopolis, 15 miles from Linden. ``Because Goodloe will print just about anything. He'll retract it too."

``I didn't want to believe it," recalls Friday. ``I probably had doubts from the beginning about Goodloe's stories. Six months into it, though, I began to think there may be something to it. Goodloe had to be printing the truth. If it weren't true, there would have been a lawsuit." But not everyone felt that way. Davis told many who asked that the stories in the Democrat-Reporter were just politics, that the Suttons didn't like him, never had. ``The big thing was people kept saying, `They [the Suttons] just don't like Roger. They're riding him. They're trying to turn people against him,' " says Jesse Langley, the jail administrator under Davis.

The stories triggered a backlash. One of the elders at the Presbyterian church Sutton attends told him to lay off the sheriff. Sutton says he began losing about $1,000 a week in advertising. And hate mail poured in. ``Don't you have a heart? NO. You two have got to be demon possessed. Just remember this will all come back to you one day. Maybe in the form of Goodloe's alcoholism, Jean's unfaithfulness, or maybe little Goodloe's habit," came a letter signed ``definitaly [sic] not your friend." The Suttons turned the letters over to the FBI. bUT THE ARTICLES ABOUT DAVIS had no impact. ``I was so darn frustrated," says Goodloe.

And so on the evening of Thursday, July 21, 1994, Goodloe sat down at his computer and typed out a complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission. It began: ``We request an investigation be made of Marengo County Sheriff Roger W. Davis" and then listed specifics--such as the missing drug fund money--the Suttons wanted the attorney general to pursue. ``I signed it," says Goodloe. ``Then Jean signed it. By the next morning, we had 72 names. By the end of the week 300 people had signed it. This was the only thing I could think to do. We were at the end of our rope."

On January 10, 1995, Jean and Goodloe were asked to appear before the Ethics Commission. Eight days later, they found themselves sitting across from Davis and his attorney, Wylynn Gilmore Phillippi, as the Ethics Commission in Montgomery, two hours east of Linden, met in executive session. They chatted. They were, after all, from the same county. ``I got one of the best stories I ever did from Roger Davis that day," says Jean. ``Roger was making conversation and talking about a fellow Mason who had built an underground house and didn't eat things we all eat, like a good, juicy hamburger." She later called the man and wrote a feature story about him.

About a month later, after the Ethics Commission recommended further investigation, the attorney general stepped in. Goodloe forwarded the names of law enforcement officers who would testify in court if subpoenaed by the attorney general but refused to be quoted in the paper.

But then things ground to a halt. ``We have reviewed the case," wrote Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now a U.S. senator, ``and concur that there is cause to believe that ethical violations may have occurred. However, due to the three-year statute of limitations, as well as the nature of evidence before us, we have determined that no prosecutable violations exist."

The Suttons were furious. Davis had been reelected for a second term. Nothing, they feared, was going to change, ever.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

What they didn't know was that by the fall of 1995, both the Mobile office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and an investigator with the state attorney general's office had turned their attention toward Linden.

Assistant U.S. Attorney E.T. Rollison's mother subscribes to the Democrat-Reporter, and he'd been visiting her in 1994 when he saw the stories about the drug money missing from the Sheriff's Department. That caught his eye, and brought him and people from the DEA's office in Mobile in for a look at drugs in Marengo County. In the wake of a sting operation, more than 60 people were arrested on drug charges in May 1997, including two of Davis' deputies, who were accused of providing protection to drug kingpins. One of the deputies charged, Sonny Breckenridge, was the law enforcement officer who visited schools to warn of the dangers of drugs.

The Suttons' disclosures also attracted the interest of another important reader. Starting in late 1995, George Barrows, an investigator with the attorney general's office in Montgomery, began making the two-hour trip to the Linden area, staying in a Demopolis motel so often he feels they ought to give him a deed to the room.

``Goodloe and Miss Jean really got it out in the public knowledge that Roger Davis had used public funds for his personal gain," says Barrows. ``The state auditors basically told Davis to pay back the money or they will submit it to the attorney general. He paid it back and then that lost its jury appeal. But we decided we'd further investigate, that maybe there was more."

Barrows moved slowly. ``Just be patient," he told the Suttons. Initially Barrows was invisible in the community, but then he began dropping by the paper, hanging out at the courthouse, eating at the Dairy Queen. When he subpoenaed Davis' bank records, people began talking. It became clear the sheriff had been spending and saving more money than he had reported as taxable income. ``I started looking at where he might be getting it," says Barrows. ``There were allegations out there he was doing other things. Our main purpose was to remove him from that office."

Eventually Barrows hit pay dirt. As he scrutinized hundreds of bail bond records, he noticed that one company, Rhodes Bonding Co., was handling all the bonds in Marengo County. And so he moved, confronting the company's principals, Beverly and James Rhodes. Barrows let them know they weren't properly licensed and could be slapped with more than 100 misdemeanor charges for improperly issuing and signing bonds.

The investigator quickly determined that the sheriff and the Rhodes had an arrangement: Their firm would be the only approved bondsman for the county as long as Davis got 25 percent of the profits. This had been going on for about two years, says Barrows. Davis had pocketed between $20,000 and $30,000, according to court records.

In the winter of 1994, according to an FBI affidavit, Davis solicited a campaign contribution from the Rhodes. He asked them how much money they made and offered them a chance to make more. Davis used to drive to the Rhodes' fruit stand, gather up peaches and tomatoes in a bag and walk to the cash register, where one of the Rhodes would stuff money into the bag. Later, when the Rhodes moved, they sometimes would go to Davis' office to pay him, or he'd come to them to get the ``apples or peaches," as he referred to the largesse.

Last August 22, while a jury deliberated the fate of Davis' deputy, Sonny Breckenridge, the sheriff climbed into his unmarked black car. He knew he was under investigation; he even had asked Barrows if anything might happen before his daughter's wedding day. Yet he still made the 42-mile drive that day from Linden to Marion to collect $975 from the Rhodes. He told his secretary he was off to see an eye doctor and would be back in time for her to go to lunch. He never returned.

From the moment he left his office August 22, Davis was under every kind of surveillance that two state and one federal law enforcement agencies could muster. Land. Air. Video. Audio. After meeting with the Rhodes, he turned his car back toward Marengo County. Coming down off an overpass on State Road 5, Davis was stopped at a roadblock and arrested.

``He had a real sick look on his face," recalls Barrows. It took the agents about six hours to find the money: Davis had tucked it inside a compartment in his car between the windshield and the door frame.

Three years after the Democrat-Reporter's first story appeared, Davis was arrested, and only then did many folks in Linden and Demopolis believe the newspaper articles about him. As for the Suttons, they were just tired. They considered putting out a special edition, but it wasn't physically possible.

And even though all their efforts had paid off, it really wasn't a day for celebrating. ``It was sad to me," says Jean. ``It took that long, and so many people were hurt. We didn't hardly print half of what we knew about Roger Davis."

Jean spent part of the afternoon of the arrest comforting Davis' secretary, who was close to hysteria when she learned her boss had been arrested. ``I told her, `I'm not sorry for him, I'm sorry for you,' " says Jean. Goodloe fielded endless phone calls. Later that evening, around 9:10 p.m., Jean got a threatening call at the office. She immediately jotted down the words verbatim to turn over to the FBI: ``You better move that van or you'll be one blowed up bitch."

BY JANUARY, DAVIS HAD PLEADED guilty and had begun serving 27 months at a federal prison in Memphis on federal charges of extortion and state charges of bribery and tax evasion. ``I feel about this high," Davis told U.S. District Court Judge Charles Butler in Mobile, as he held up his right hand and spread his thumb and index fingers a half-inch apart last October 29.

Goodloe ran Davis' prison number, 067 85 003, on the front page last December. After a jury concluded he'd used his uniform to protect drug dealers, Breckenridge, 27, a deputy the Suttons had known and liked since he was a little boy, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The Suttons had had no clue that he had been involved in drugs.

``It frankly broke my heart when Sonny was arrested," says Jean. ``It's such a waste." Another Davis deputy, Robert Lewis Pickens, also arrested on drug charges, is now cooperating with federal agents.

Still, life goes on in Marengo County. In June, Jesse Langley, Davis' jailer, was elected sheriff. Some in Linden still hate the Suttons and believe Davis was set up. Others are downright appreciative, as dozens of letters show. Some of the mail from around the country asks the Suttons for help in rooting out corruption in other towns.

In July, the Suttons will receive a first place award for public service from the Alabama Press Association. But they didn't win the coveted Pulitzer. The day journalism's most prestigious prizes were announced, a Fox TV reporter out of Atlanta and her big satellite truck were at the Democrat-Reporter. So were a handful of other out-of-town journalists. When the phone was silent around the time it would have rung had they won, Fox reporter Alex Quade called the Pulitzer office in New York.

``Oh, I hate to be the one to break the bad news," she told Jean. ``You didn't win. But it's such a great honor to be in the top three." Since it was the Suttons' deadline day, and since they had no reason to doubt the reporter, they assumed she was right and printed a story saying that they'd been one of three finalists. A nearby paper, the twice-a-week Demopolis Times, found Jean had erred: The Democrat-Reporter hadn't been a finalist. The Times ran a banner story about the competition: ``Linden paper's Pulitzer claim false."

That didn't bother Goodloe too much. He called Simply Southern, the local florist, and asked them to get some grapes, microwave them until they wilted, and send them to Times Editor Danny Smith in a box usually used for long-stemmed roses, along with some greens. For $30, they created a bouquet of sour grapes.

In the end, it was God and not thoughts of a Pulitzer that kept the Suttons going, as Goodloe suggested in an editorial last November. He told of a 75-year-old man who called the Suttons at home, telling them he'd gotten down on his knees every night to pray for their safety. ``We are humbled in light of his thoughts and concerns for us," Goodloe wrote. ``We are grateful for all of the other people who may not have said anything but for whom he may have been speaking, though unknowingly. May God have all the glory."

Senior writer Alicia C. Shepard (lshepard@ erols.com) wrote about news organizations' corrections policies in AJR's June issue.