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The Editor vs the Sheriff

COM alum at center of story of guns, drugs, death threats

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Over the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, BU Today looks back at some of our favorite stories from the academic year. Each week we present stories about a special topic, from student clubs and sports to research and religion. This week we feature the best of alumni profiles, highlighting the accomplishments, contributions, and success stories of fellow Terriers.

They knew they’d rattled the sheriff after the theft, the so-called theft, of evidence from his office.

The Times-Tribune, in Corbin, Ky., suspected Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge of running drugs and guns—all seized in arrests—from the back of his barbershop. (The Kentucky county is small, so the sheriff keeps a day job.) As part of its investigation, the paper filed a records request asking the sheriff to verify that the items were 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 have 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.

Editor Samantha Swindler (COM’02) penned that headline—eight words that shot the sheriff. For someone who says she doesn’t even like to write, someone who never dreamed of writing an award-winning investigative series, what the paper exposed is quite an achievement.

Swindler did not come to the College of Communication to be a crusading journalist—“I didn’t want to be poor”—but a high-earning PR guru. After graduation, she wound up back home 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 Texas’ Jacksonville Daily Progress, Swindler took a chance and accepted the editor’s job on the 6,800-circulation Times-Tribune 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 out. In late 2008, Swindler’s sportswriter made a throwaway comment: the sheriff’s barbershop 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 evidence 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.

Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, Samantha Swindler, The Times Tribune, Tillamook Headlight-Herald

After an investigation by Swindler’s paper caught the notice of the feds, Sheriff Lawrence Hodge found himself in handcuffs. Photo courtesy of the Times-Tribune

In a series of front-page reports, the Times-Tribune revealed that the goods were gone long before the break-in and uncovered sordid details that would help indict Hodge on 21 felony charges, 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.

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. One of the Times-Tribune’s reporters was aware of 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,” she says, “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 workweek if all you do is cover bake sales and car accidents,” Swindler says. She doesn’t find it surprising 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. Former Boston Globe reporter Richard Lehr, a COM professor of journalism and an advisor to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at BU, says 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,” he says. “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” was not deliberately malicious—why file an open-records request when the sheriff is 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. But it went further, questioning her 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 (despite being from Texas) who hated Hodge and the county.

Most of the community supported the investigation, but warned Swindler to watch her back—and with good reason. 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 activities 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 of possibility 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 was sentenced to 15 and a half years last September for money laundering, extortion, and drug distribution and is currently at Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio. There’s “a kind of optimism” in Whitley now that wasn’t there before, says Swindler. “Everybody knew there was corruption; they just didn’t know exactly what it was.”

Swindler recently left Kentucky for Oregon to take the position of publisher of the Tillamook Headlight-Herald, but she still wants to work for the same thing: making a small community a better place to live.

“It’s important—it’s like mission work,” she 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 come across the kind of situation that caused fireworks in Whitley County, but says 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.

Swindler was a 2011 recipient of a COM Distinguished Alumni Award.

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

A version of this story originally appeared in the fall-winter 2011 edition of COMtalk. It ran on BU Today on February 21, 2012.

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