As hard as this may be to believe for some of you, I wanted to write about something other than the sheriff this week. Desperately. Anything but that … I’m actually buried in football stuff, trying to help finish up and proofread our Kickoff magazine that’s coming out in less than two weeks.
That always sparks fond memories, so my plan was to tell some story about a coach, player or game that readers might find interesting. Something light, to get away from the real world for a minute.
But nope, once again, I’ve been drawn into the fray with a Facebook event in which the paper was called out by Sheriff Alex Hodge, causing my phone to blow up with people asking what I thought. The truth is, I didn’t watch it until about 9 p.m. Thursday, after getting home from reading football pages.
There’s a lot to respond to, but I’ll just hit the highlights and fill in a couple of blanks.
First of all, the sheriff was right, in part, about how our feud began. Most people have a tendency to tell a story from the point of view that’s most favorable to themself, and that’s even more pronounced when the one talking is an embattled longtime politician.
He was right when he said that editor Sean Murphy came to the scene of the Lyon Ranch Road raid and yelled and threatened to weaponize the paper against the sheriff’s department over what was happening at Col. David and Mary Ellen Sennes’ property.
Yes, Hodge met with Jim about the incident and Murph was pulled off the story. We all admitted that Murph got emotional and that shouldn’t have happened. Murph admitted it, too. (But thank goodness his wife Michelle got cellphone video of the whole thing because that has been valuable evidence in the civil case against the sheriff and the Humane Society of the United States.)
Jim told the sheriff that I would be the one covering the story, and everybody seemed fine with that. The sheriff said no media was contacted, but that’s a little misleading. First of all, the sheriff and PR leader Allyson Knotts went on Facebook Live from the scene. By the time I arrived that afternoon, reporters from WDAM, WHLT and FOX23 were already there.
He and Allyson were also right when they said that I divulged to them that Murph is the godson of the Sennes. I just mentioned it as a curiosity … just like I mentioned that someone they arrested a few months earlier for selling heroin was a former employee of ours. It wasn’t unusual for me to share information like that, because I was on the JCSD “beat” and we had a friendly relationship.
We usually did that kind of small talk while waiting on a “perp walk” from the jail to justice court. During those walks, I always asked the suspects questions. Usually, they didn’t answer, but sometimes they did. If they said something defending themselves or taking responsibility, I printed it. There never was a problem with that. Allyson and the investigator(s) and the sheriff, if he was there, would usually have a chuckle about the perp’s response. I would say something like, “Well, sounds like y’all arrested another innocent one,” we’d all have a laugh and go on our way.
But for some reason, in this misdemeanor case, things were different. Mrs. Senne decided to talk, suggesting that SCAR members turned on her because she was planning to pay for the construction of an animal shelter in Ellisville, and they didn’t like that because it would take funding away from their organization. She also provided receipts to show the thousands of dollars she’d spent on pet food in recent months in an effort to counter the JCSD’s claims that the animals were starving.
We never, at any point, reported that the animals weren’t in deplorable condition. We reported two things that weren’t in the sheriff’s press release or press conference: We didn’t know what condition the animals were in when the Sennes got them and we had the amounts they spent on pet food along with photos of the receipts. Both are irrefutable facts.
We were doing standard reporting, trying to hear from both sides — as we always attempt to. Any official who is confident he’s doing things the right way welcomes that kind of scrutiny. They tried to make hay with the fact that I didn’t ask any questions in the press conference ... but Allyson knows that’s my m.o. Press conferences are theater. They’re for TV people to get soundbites, not to delve into the story. She knows that I never wanted to ask probing questions in front of other media outlets because I wanted to try to get some exclusive information, not share it with competitors.
I followed up with some questions a few days later. I sent an email then followed up with a text (see attached). Allyson declined to answer them. She ignored most of my requests pertaining to other incidents in the weeks after the raid, most of which likely would have been favorable to the JCSD. Finally, at a supervisors’ meeting in Ellisville some time in the fall, I told Allyson, “I give up. I’m not asking for any more information.” Alex chuckled and said, “Don’t give up.” I asked, “Is there a reason I shouldn’t?” … Nothing. We’ve been at an impasse ever since.
We could quibble with several things that were stated in Thursday’s Facebook Live presentation — which Hodge conducted while several members of his department were sweating it out at a standoff just over the Wayne County line in Strengthford.
But he told an outright lie when he said that the Sennes are “financial contributors to the Laurel Leader-Call.” Murph’s wedding was on their sprawling property. We had one office gathering there. Mrs. Senne purchased a couple of ads from us over the years … nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars the sheriff spent advertising with us. He was much more of a “financial contributor” to the paper than the Sennes.
That should prove that we’re in a righteous fight, unlike the sheriff, who is struggling to maintain power after getting stunned by the results of the election on Tuesday night. Instead of the 70 percent he told supporters he would get, 58 percent of the people cast their votes against him and his mission to control the county. Hodge is a gifted politician. People are seeing that now. They aren’t being fooled by the desperate attempts to explain and rationalize misdeeds now.
The most egregious thing about Hodge’s presentation is what he didn’t say. He didn’t mention that his reaction to our factual reporting was to go on Facebook and ask if the people thought the community deserved a “real hometown newspaper.” He threatened our livelihood. He sent out a press release reporting “possible bias” at the Leader-Call because of Murph’s connection to the Sennes. (Incidentally, we were the only media outlet that reported it.) But even that was disingenuous because we had already reported that fact ourselves. He was trying to pull the old trick of discrediting the source instead of the information.
Blame the voters. Blame the paper. Blame the judges. Blame the moon phases... but not one second of self-reflection or the consideration that maybe, just maybe, it’s him. That’s the kind of arrogance that needs a comeuppance.
Have you heard the expression, “He threw a rock then hid his hand”? That’s what Hodge did. He’s trying to wiggle his way back into his sheep’s clothing now. But only a handful in the herd — about 42 percent, to be specific — are being fooled.
Mark Thornton is editor-in-chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at