Truth demands help in Cherokee County — (The Joplin Globe)

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The Joplin Globe

Edgar Simpson

Published May 16, 2004 12:00 am

Lady Justice is staggering in Cherokee County, Kan.

The question is: Who will set her right? Those most responsible are Cherokee County Sheriff Bob Creech, a conflicted officeholder pursuing a college degree; District Coroner Adam Paoni; and county Attorney Joanna Derfelt, who has yet to step into an increasingly strange situation.

The fate of Jim Potts is not in question. He is dead. Husband, father, private investigator, former Joplin firefighter. Good guy or bad, struggling or not, nothing will bring him back.

While Potts’ fate in the mortal realm is settled, his death on a lonely road in the heartland of America and how it was handled by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department has raised deep and disturbing questions about truth, justice and the competency of law enforcement.

The Sheriff’s Department’s “investigation” is astonishing not in what it reveals but in what it does not. The department’s actions, both in the hours after Potts’ body was found Aug. 26, 2003, and since, are troubling for both what was done and what was not done.

When Lady Justice cries, who hears her call?

The evidence is increasingly mounting that the Sheriff’s Department has conducted an active campaign to ensure that Potts’ death continues to be treated as a suicide. I use those words – “active campaign” – carefully. What Kansas reporter Roger McKinney has uncovered and what the public record reveals is a systematic refusal to follow any information that may lead to a conclusion other than suicide in Potts’ death.

Since questions first arose, Cherokee County Undersheriff Gary Allen has rested his insistence on the accuracy of the suicide ruling on the supposition that Potts, contrary to what at least three people told McKinney, had no client and was not actively investigating the Galena Police Department.

This, Allen suggested, meant Potts came to the outskirts of Galena that morning for the sole purpose of committing suicide.

In a 2 1/2-page letter to me, Allen asked for intervention so that “inaccuracies” in the Potts stories could be corrected.

“In conversation with McKinney, I have repeatedly told him that any law enforcement agency deals with facts and evidence in the investigation of a crime, not rumors, but he has continued to print rumors on the death investigation of Potts, and not factual evidence.

“McKinney has reported in his articles that Potts was investigating the Galena Police Department and Chief Cameron Arthur but the investigation of the death of Potts has never determined that Potts was investigating either Arthur or the Galena Police Department. No individual or agency has been found or come forward to state that Potts was retained to investigate anyone or agency in the City of Galena.”

The fact is that Cherokee County Deputy Sean Putnam knew within two weeks after Potts’ death that Joplin lawyer Roger Johnson had hired him to look into an allegation of police brutality that involved the Galena Police Department and Arthur. This information never made it into the investigative record.

Further, Johnson questioned Putnam as to whether the Sheriff’s Department could conduct an impartial investigation. Johnson is the same attorney who represented former Cherokee County Treasurer Sharon Carpino in her lawsuit against the county in which she claimed that she was wrongfully arrested on drug charges.

Putnam, himself, was once a part-time Galena police officer, and Creech had attended a Galena City Commission meeting at Arthur’s request during the height of questions over Arthur’s tenure as chief.

When asked about Johnson’s recent confirmation, Allen switched positions. Now, Allen says, proof of Potts’ conducting an investigation involving Galena was not enough. “(We need) somebody to make us believe he had an investigative purpose in Cherokee County on the morning of his death,” Allen told Roger.

The conflicts, reversals and refusals to ask questions and gather information are just a small part of the problems in this case.

In a conversation with me, Allen said Potts’ wife, herself, led investigators down a path to suicide, telling Putnam that her husband was taking antidepressant medication and was worried about financial troubles.

Yet, Putnam’s first words to Potts’ wife, as suggested in the investigative records, was that her husband had committed suicide, indicating that a conclusion had been reached before talking to her.

Nothing was done to follow up on information provided by John Link. Assuming that the summary in the investigative reports of an interview with him is correct, Link saw Potts’ car pull to the side of the road:

“Link stated he was driving north on Highway 26 towards Galena. He thought he saw a vehicle moving south and then pull over to the side of the road. He then thought he saw movement in front of the headlights of the vehicle.

“He stopped to see if the driver of the vehicle needed help. He kind of pulled off the road and walked in front of the car that was parked. He saw a man lying in a pool of blood. He saw a car coming so he got back in the road to try to stop the car. The car would not stop …”

The significance of this is hard to overstate – based on the summary, Link could have seen Potts in the act of committing suicide. Did he? What exactly did he see?

Why weren’t standard gunpowder-residue tests performed? This is an especially important question since a Ferrotrace spray, according to the autopsy, was negative. Ferrotrace is meant to help determine whether someone recently held the metal handle of a gun. Though unreliable, when it showed negative, wouldn’t the next logical step be to test for actual gunpowder?

Why does the autopsy report say “decedent was found seated next to his vehicle” when all other information says he was found on his back? Why was no time of death documented?

Why wasn’t the gun tested? Why do the investigative reports make no mention of Potts’ computer or cell-phone records?

The list is endless.

It is possible that Potts’ did, indeed, awake in the predawn hours of Aug. 26 and point his car toward Galena, his binoculars beside him and his camera equipment in the trunk, with the sole intention of killing himself.

But being possible is a damn poor standard for those whose jobs it is to seek nothing – as Allen says – but “facts and evidence.”

Truth demands the light. Attempts to hide it, obscure it and misdirect it are often successful, but only for a while. Truth seems to have its own will, pushing against abusers, some well meaning, some not so much.

Justice, though often a handmaiden of truth, is different. Only the naive and fools believe justice is truly blind. Justice is a product of our system, imperfect, assailable by the winds of prejudice, politics, laziness or corruption.

In Cherokee County, Justice is wounded. Who will heal her?

Edgar Simpson is editor of The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to him, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, Mo. 64802.