The Editor vs. the Sheriff
Samantha Swindler’s investigations into the dealings of a local sheriff took her rural newspaper way beyond its usual comfort zone. With guns, drugs, money laundering and death threats, this is no bake sale story.
By Andrew Thurston; Above photo by Vivian Johnson
The University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues honored Samantha Swindler (’02) with the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.
They knew they’d rattled the sheriff after the theft, the so-called theft, of evidence from his office.
The Times-Tribune suspected Sheriff Lawrence Hodge of running drugs and guns—all seized in arrests—from the back of his barbershop. (Whitley County, Ky., is small, so the sheriff keeps a day job.) This wasn’t an allegation to throw on the newsstands without proof, so the paper filed a records request asking the sheriff to verify that the loot was secure in an evidence locker—and not hawked out to the highest bidder between flattops and buzz cuts. But the hot items were hot again. Stolen, apparently, just one business day after Hodge should’ve responded to the inquiry.
The Times-Tribune front page headline that followed was quietly suggestive: “Sheriff’s office broken into after open records request.” Hodge, it seemed, had something to hide.
The editor who faced down the Sheriff
Samantha Swindler (’02) penned that withering headline—the eight words that shot the sheriff. For someone who says she doesn’t even like writing, who never dreamed of authoring an award-winning investigative series, it’s quite an achievement.
When Swindler came to COM, it wasn’t to be a crusading journalist—“I didn’t want to be poor”—but a high-earning PR guru. After graduation, she wound up back in Texas, living with her parents and working at a Harley-Davidson store. Then, she says, “A newspaper reporter position opened up, and it was less of a commute, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
After finding journalism “way more interesting” than PR and rising through the ranks at the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress, Swindler took a chance on the 6,800-circulation Times-Tribune, accepting the editor’s job at the Whitley County daily in 2006: “I’d never been to Kentucky before,” she says. “I did not have expectations of specifically rooting out evil; I just wanted to run a newspaper in a small community, be a part of a community, and try to make a positive difference.”
But Whitley County had a little evil that needed rooting. In late 2008, Swindler’s sportswriter made a throwaway comment: the sheriff’s barbershop, he joked, doubled as a gun store. Intrigued, and spurred by reported audit irregularities at the sheriff’s office, Swindler put in a raft of open-records requests to verify Hodge’s inventories. Despite the Times-Tribune’s regularly packed police blotter, the evidence logs came back bare—entire months went by without any drugs or guns making it into the county’s locker.
With the help of a part-time local college student, Swindler sifted through thousands of handwritten arrest citations. It was, she says, “tedious and time-consuming,” but they spotted guns listed in citations that weren’t in the sheriff’s evidence logs. They filed another open-records request to track down 18 of them. In a matter of days, the sheriff’s office was “broken into.” The guns—along with drugs and paperwork—were gone.
In a series of front-page reports, the Times-Tribune revealed that the goods were gone long before the break-in, uncovering sordid details that would help indict Hodge on 21 felonies, including abusing the public trust, evidence tampering, and theft of public funds. He would later plead guilty to distributing drugs and extorting and laundering money. Other county notables were dragged down, too—the sheriff’s bookkeeper, a deputy, a businessman and an attorney all faced charges in cases sparked by the paper’s digging.
No ivory tower
For those who’ve never lived in a small town, it might be difficult to grasp what it means to take on the sheriff—or any other regional bigwig for that matter. One of the Times-Tribune’s reporters understood the consequences and decided not to take the assignment.
“You’re accountable every day; there is no ivory tower,” says Swindler. “I knew people were going to be talking about it and that they were going to be talking to me about it.”
If the community didn’t like the story, she’d soon know about it, whether she was at her desk or grocery shopping: “There’s just not a lot of that kind of reporting that goes on, so I didn’t know if people were going to run me out of town.”
There were also practical considerations in taking on an investigative series at a small circulation daily. “This is a 50-hour work week if all you do is cover bake sales and car accidents,” Swindler says. She’s not surprised that other rural papers skip in-depth probes; a 2011 federal study found that local media outlets were consistently failing to hold state and municipal leaders accountable. Professor Richard Lehr, an advisor to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, adds that it’s not always the fault of limited resources: “There are a lot of community newspaper veterans who don’t see that as their role; they’re not necessarily an advocate, partisan paper, but they steer away from controversy.”
Still, Swindler’s sense that the “good-old-boy coverage of local politics” lacks malice—why file an open-records request when the sheriff’s a buddy of 15 years?—was sorely tested in Whitley County.
She’d predicted that after the first headline on Hodge hit the stands, the rival weekly paper, “which had a chummy relationship” with the sheriff, would scoop her on every crime story. It went further, questioning Swindler’s motives and editorial judgment. Rumors soon swirled that she was trying to influence an election, was sleeping with the sheriff’s potential rival, and was a Yankee outsider who hated Hodge and the county. All were way off the mark. For starters, she’s a Texas gal.
Buying a gun (Not from the Barbershop)
Most in the community supported the investigation but warned Swindler to watch her back—and with good reason. The sheriff had some sinister forces on his side. As the investigation spiraled beyond shoddy paperwork, there was more to worry about than stinging headlines: the drug dealers out in the hollers who benefited from the sheriff’s largesse were not people to mess with. With threats flying, Swindler bought herself a gun.
“When you are reporting extensively on these types of people, it’s not totally out of the realm that you might get shot,” she says. “I kept [a gun] in my glove box. Realistically, would you have time to draw a gun and shoot somebody if they came up on you? Probably not, but it helped me sleep at night.”
Ultimately, she says, the risks were worth it. Hodge is facing jail time and there’s “a kind of optimism” in Whitley that wasn’t there before: “Everybody knew there was corruption; they just didn’t know exactly what it was.”
Swindler recently left Kentucky, taking a step-up role in Oregon as publisher of the Tillamook Headlight-Herald, but she still wants to achieve the same thing: making a small community a better place to live.
“It’s important; it’s like mission work,” Swindler says. “I look at small towns and I say, ‘What are the things about small towns that make people not want to live here? It’s poverty, lack of education or arts and entertainment. Well, let’s work on those things and make this community better.’”
She doesn’t expect to reproduce the fireworks of Whitley County, but she admits she’s already collecting information and sources for “five little projects.” Tillamook’s notables might be well advised to get their paperwork in good order; former sheriff Lawrence Hodge must certainly wish he had.
Editor’s note: As COMtalk was going to press, a federal judge sentenced Hodge to 15 and a half years in prison for extortion, distributing oxycodone and money laundering.