Kansas newspaper that was raided by Marion police sues officials for attack on free press

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Marion County Record lawsuit says mayor, police chief and sheriff sought revenge for critical news coverage

TOPEKA — The Marion County Record has filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit against local authorities who planned and carried out the raid last year of the newspaper office and publishers’ home, accusing the “co-conspirators” of seeking revenge for unfavorable news coverage through falsified and invalid search warrants.

According to a 127-page complaint filed Monday, former Mayor David Mayfield ordered the takedown of the newspaper and a political rival after identifying journalists as “the real villains in America.”

The lawsuit claims defendants violated the First Amendment freedom of the press, the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches, and federal and state laws that protect journalists — and their sources — from police raids. The lawsuit doesn’t specify the damages being sought for those claims.

“The last thing we want is to bankrupt the city or county, but we have a duty to democracy and to countless news organizations and citizens nationwide to challenge such malicious and wanton violations of the First and Fourth Amendments and federal laws limiting newsroom searches,” said Marion County Record publisher and editor Eric Meyer. “If we prevail, we anticipate donating any punitive damages to community projects and causes supporting cherished traditions of freedom.”

Marion, a south-central Kansas town with a population of 1,900, is so small it doesn’t have a single traffic light.

Mayfield, former Marion police Chief Gideon Cody, acting police Chief Zach Hudlin, Marion County Sheriff Jeff Soyez and sheriff’s Detective Aaron Christner are defendants in the lawsuit, personally and in their official capacity. The city council and county commission also are defendants.

The newspaper provided notice in federal court documents that it intends to add claims to the lawsuit, including one for the wrongful death of Eric’s 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, who died 24 hours after police raided her home. The additional claims would seek damages in excess of $5 million for Eric Meyer, his mother’s estate, and the newspaper.

The federal lawsuit says Eric Meyer seeks justice “to deter the next crazed cop from threatening democracy the way Chief Cody did when he hauled away the newspaper’s computers and its reporters’ cell phones in an ill-fated attempt to silence the press.”

Mayfield, a former Kansas Highway Patrol trooper and Marion police chief who works part-time for the sheriff, wanted to punish Eric Meyer and Councilwoman Ruth Herbel for their criticism of his actions as mayor, according to the lawsuit. In editorials, Eric Meyer referred to Mayfield as a dictator, bully and liar. Mayfield had tried and failed to remove Herbel from the city council through a recall petition in January 2023.

Jami Mayfield, the mayor’s wife, wrote on her personal Facebook page that the recall petition was part of an effort to “silence” the newspaper for publishing “way more information than was necessary” about the mayor.

On July 25, just 17 days before the raid, David Mayfield wrote on his personal Facebook page: “The real villains in America aren’t Black people. They aren’t white people. They aren’t Asians. They aren’t Latinos. They aren’t women. They aren’t gays.”

“They are the radical ‘journalists,’ ‘teachers’ & ‘professors’ who do nothing but sow division between the American people,” David Mayfield wrote.

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.
 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)

In August, Herbel and newspaper reporter Phyllis Zorn received a tip that Kari Newell, who owns a coffee shop and upscale restaurant in Marion, had been driving for years on a suspended license because of a drunk-driving citation. Based on the information, Herbel questioned Newell’s request for a liquor license.

Zorn verified the information, which is a public record, through the Kansas Department of Revenue’s online driver’s license status check tool.

Eric Meyer decided not to publish a story about Newell, but he notified the police chief and sheriff that he was investigating a claim that local law enforcement had allowed Newell to drive without a license.

Mayfield, the lawsuit says, ordered Cody to investigate Herbel and the newspaper’s handling of Newell’s driving records. Cody met with Soyez, the sheriff, who agreed to join “their illicit plan to take down the Marion County Record,” the lawsuit says.

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Cody produced search warrant applications that included false statements about the public website Zorn had used, including a bogus claim that the search tool requires users to affirm they have authority to access confidential information. He also omitted facts about how a driving record is public and legal to obtain, and that he knew the newspaper was investigating his failure to stop Newell from driving.

If Cody had been truthful, the lawsuit says, he would have lacked probable cause to conduct a search.

Magistrate Judge Laura Viar reviewed the search warrant applications and authorized raids on the newsroom, the Meyer residence and Herbel’s residence to look for evidence of “identity theft.” But she invalidated the search warrants, the lawsuit argues, when she crossed out the designation for a notary and signed a statement that said Cody had sworn the applications “before me.” The lawsuit says Cody never appeared before her.

Police Chief Gideon Cody didn’t appear before Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who crossed out “Notary” on the applications for search warrants. This image of an application, with “before me” highlighted, appears in federal court documents. (Screen capture)

On Aug. 11, Cody led the raids on the newsroom and Meyer residence. The search warrants allowed for a “preview search,” using a program called osTriage, to determine whether a computer had been used in the supposed crime. Police started with Zorn’s computer, where the time-consuming search produced false positives.

A search for “Kansas,” for instance, produced an article about “the Haunted Hotel of Arkansas,” while a search for “DOR” produced an advertisement for a drive-in showing of the movie “Finding Dory.”

After an officer complained about how long the search was taking, Cody called Soyez and can be heard on police video saying: “Alright, we’ll just take them all.” Cody then turned to officers and said: “Let’s get the f*** out of here.”

They ignored the requirement in the search warrant to exclude devices not used in the so-called “identity theft,” seizing every computer in the newsroom, along with the file server and reporters’ personal smartphones.

Cody’s video that day captured him using the restroom at a gas station. But he turned it off in the newsroom while he looked through the contents of a file from reporter Deb Gruver’s desk that revealed confidential sources and their warnings about Cody’s behavior at his last job, with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department.

Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the Marion County Record, was defiant as police Chief Gideon Cody, seen the background, and other officers raided her home. She died the following day. (Police video screen capture from federal court filing)

Joan Meyer lashed out at the officers who entered the home where she lived with her son.

“I’m not dumb,” she told them. “I may be ninety-some years old, but I know what’s going on. And what’s going on is illegal as hell.”

Joan Meyer, who co-owned the newspaper with her son, repeatedly told officers the stress of ransacking her home was going to kill her, and “that’s going to be murder.” She was so traumatized by the raid she wouldn’t eat, drink or sleep. She died the next day from cardiac arrest.

“With the same spirit she showed in standing up to the seven bullies who spent hours raiding her home, we must now continue her fight for the most cherished of American traditions — freedom of expression and freedom from abuse by those acting under the color of law,” Eric Meyer said.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which is reviewing the circumstances surrounding the raid, has not yet cleared the journalists of wrongdoing. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation turned the case over after Kansas Reflector reported that KBI agents had been involved in investigating the journalists and knew police were planning to raid the newspaper office.

Reporters Zorn and Gruver, as well as office manager Cheri Bentz, have filed separate lawsuits over the raid.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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