Marion County Record publishes in defiance of police raid — and gets seized property back

By: - August 17, 2023 11:28 am
Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer holding up a copy of the first newspaper printed after a police raid on the newspaper. Media are assembled around him.

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer holds a copy of the Wednesday paper, featuring the headline “SEIZED … but not silence,” during a news conference at the newspaper office. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

MARION — Marion County Record staff worked through the night to publish the paper’s weekly edition as scheduled Wednesday, days after police raided the newsroom and confiscated computers, cellphones and other items.

A single word screamed across the top of the paper in 200-point bold type — “SEIZED” — followed by a defiant statement: “… but not silenced.”

Authorities returned property taken by police during Friday’s raid but said they would continue to investigate whether a newspaper reporter had committed a crime by verifying information from a confidential source.

Eric Meyer, the owner and publisher of the newspaper, said it was important the newspaper prevail in this First Amendment fight.

“This just couldn’t stand,” Meyer said. “If it did, it would be the end of people ever being able to send anything anonymously to a newspaper. It would be the end of news organizations ever pursuing any sort of controversial story.”

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody and his officers executed a search warrant last week at the newspaper office, Meyer’s home and a councilwoman’s home. The action attracted international attention — and contributed to the death of Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, who spent her final hours in anguish over the raid. Funeral services are planned for Saturday.

Meyer said his mother would be pleased by the outpouring of support the newspaper has received in recent days. That includes 2,000 new subscriptions for a newspaper that previously had a circulation of about 4,000.

As distribution staff waited for bundles of newspapers to arrive Wednesday morning from the press in Hutchinson, they handled an unrelenting stream of phone calls from people interested in purchasing a subscription. The calls came from New Hampshire, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Texas, Vermont, Germany, Massachusetts, Illinois and Montana.

A man in a white T-shirt loading bundled copies of newspapers onto a dolly held by a woman in shorts and a red "Make America Great Again" T-shirt.
Jerry Ryan delivers Wednesday’s edition of the Marion County Record to distribution worker Bev Baldwin. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

One of the distribution workers, Bev Baldwin, was wearing a “Keep America Great” shirt in support of Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. She didn’t view the attack on her local paper as a partisan issue.

“It’s just something you don’t do,” Baldwin said. “Everybody was shocked.”

Meyer said he brought in extra help Tuesday night to get the paper ready to print. After police took away the computers, hard drives and server, staff cobbled together a machine from discarded computers. They needed to find a disc reader to access back-up files stored on DVDs.

After running a gauntlet of local and national media inquiries, Meyer tasked Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, and a staff photographer with “guarding the gates to keep everyone away from us, so we could get the paper done.”

Phyllis Zorn, a staff reporter, said she had heard of the term “all-nighter,” but she didn’t know it to be real before.

They finished the pages shortly after 5 a.m., and Meyer made it home at 7:30 a.m.

“If we hadn’t been able to figure out how to get computers together, Phyllis and I and everybody else would be handwriting notes out on Post-It notes and putting them on doors around the town, because we were going to publish one way or another,” Meyer said.

Last week’s raid appeared to be a response to information the newspaper received from a confidential source about a local restaurant operator’s driver’s license history, and Zorn’s efforts to verify the information by looking it up in a state database.

Magistrate judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant under the pretense that Cody, the police chief, had reason to believe a newspaper reporter committed identity theft and unlawful use of a computer. It wasn’t clear what evidence would support such a search warrant, or if Cody and Viar understood the significance of raiding a newsroom.

A woman in a white shirt and jeans speaking in a newspaper production facility, a table with a notebook and phone in front of her.
Katherine Jacobsen, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says she is unaware of any other instance in which police raided a newspaper office in the United States. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Katherine Jacobsen, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was monitoring the situation at the newspaper office Wednesday. She said she wasn’t aware of any other example of police raiding a newsroom in United States history.

“That’s why I’m here,” Jacobsen said.

Marion County attorney Joel Ensey said he had reviewed affidavits that support the search warrants and would ask the district court to release them.

“I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized,” Ensey said. “As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property.”

Ensey said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was reviewing the case and would submit findings to his office for a charging decision. He would then determine if there is sufficient evidence “to support a charge for any offense.”

A woman in a white shirt and a man in a blue shirt with a sheriff's logo on it stand outside a room where two people are hunched over a desk signing a form.
Marion County Record reporter Phyllis Zorn and Sheriff Jeff Soyez stand outside the evidence room where an undersheriff signs over newspaper property to a forensic expert. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

At the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, an undersheriff unloaded computer towers, a laptop, reporters’ personal cellphones, a router and other items from the storage locker where they were stored after the raid. The officer handed them over to a forensic expert who was working for the newspaper to examine the devices. The newspaper hoped to find out whether law enforcement had accessed or reviewed any of their records.

Meyer said KBI director Tony Mattivi deserves praise for behind-the-scenes efforts to return items taken from the newsroom.

“I believe this is something that’s all been worked out between our lawyer and him,” Meyer said.

At the newspaper office, a steady stream of concerned residents purchased newspapers and offered their support for the newspaper. Some brought flowers or donuts for staff.

A man in a green T-shirt and Navy baseball cap with his left arm against a car.
Dennis Calvert made the hour drive from Wichita to Marion so he could purchase a six-month subscription to the newspaper. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Dennis Calvert drove from Wichita to purchase a six-month subscription. A U.S. Navy veteran who served on a nuclear submarine in the 1970s, he said many people have died to protect the kind of rights that Marion police violated when they raided the newspaper office.

“What the PD did here, in my opinion, from what I know, they are ****ing out of line,” Calvert said. “They are totally off the ****ing board. They’ve lost their morals, man.”

“It just shoves a burr up my butt,” he added. “This is the kind of stuff, it shouldn’t be tolerated. In my opinion, right now, the police chief should be sitting over here in the jail.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.