Skip to main content

Anger at newspaper grows in early 2022

By June 27, 2024No Comments

         Second of a series

Sheriff Kevin Clardy stood on a chair at a county commissioners meeting in March 2022 as he read a statement about taking a drug test. (Staff photo.)

Sheriff Kevin Clardy stood on a chair at a county commissioners meeting in March 2022 as he read a statement about taking a drug test. (Staff photo.)

It’s not known if Capt. Alicia Manning came up with it on her own, or whether Board of County Commissioners chairman Jimmy Westbrook suggested it, but by the early part of 2022, Manning was molding a narrative claiming that Gazette reporter Chris Willingham was a serial pedophile.

In some cases, she took basic information that was widely known and then embellished it with false information to fit her narrative.

For example, convicted child molester Brad Porton was a singer, and Willingham was a musician, so she allegedly began claiming they were friends and had been in the same band together.

It was ridiculous on its face, but the officers she told didn’t know that. The band she was talking about, Succotash, did not include Porton but it did include the Associate District Judge, Ken Farley, who had known Willingham since he was a young child.

And as to any friendship between Porton and Willingham, that, too, appeared ridiculous. Manning apparently didn’t realize that Willingham covered Porton’s trial, and his byline was even on the stories where Porton’s victims, sitting only 20 feet or so from Willingham in the courtroom, told of all the terrible things Porton had done to them.

Manning also apparently didn’t realize that Porton and his mother filed a $1 million lawsuit against the newspaper, claiming defamation. It was soon dismissed.

The same was the case with Ian Highful, whom Manning claimed was a friend of Willingham’s. She assumed because Willingham was an owner of KKBI, where Highful had worked part-time, that they were close.

But Willingham rarely set foot in the radio station. His mother Gwen was the “managing trustee” of the station who oversaw its operations, not her son. Chris Willingham only walked in the station about once a month when he placed Hochatown Tourists on the counter, as he did at about 70 other businesses.

And the anonymous letter county commissioners later received, claiming that Highful and Willingham had a morning show together? Complete fiction.

Interestingly, the anonymous letter to commissioners was sent the same week that the newspaper also received one, warning that it needed to drop its lawsuit against sheriff’s officers or terrible things about Chris would be made public.

It was therefore an extortion letter.

Manning was spreading her false narrative about Willingham in the early part of 2022, and it began to take hold on social media a few months later, following a string of events that were embarrassing and/or controversial to the sheriff’s office – and which Willingham duly reported in this newspaper.

First came a report in January about an allegation that evidence had been altered in a sheriff’s office case.

Then, four inmates escaped from the county jail shortly after Sheriff Kevin Clardy had illegally appointed Larry Hendrix as temporary jail administrator. The newspaper pointed out that only the jail trust board could do that, and though Clardy was chairman of the five-member trust, he only votes in case of ties.

In February, former Miss McCurtain County Alyssa Walker-Donaldson, 24, disappeared at Hochatown.

By all accounts, it appeared the sheriff didn’t request the assistance of other law enforcement agencies to search, which would be routine in a missing persons case. A crowd of over 100 people gathered at Hochatown to help officers search, but there was only one sheriff’s deputy present, and no one appeared to know what was happening.

In the end, a private citizen located the submerged car where the woman’s body was found.

This incident had another important aspect: in a TV interview, Clardy exhibited some unusual behavior, and many residents and law officers alike believed he was on meth.

This would spark another high-visibility incident a month later.

Then in March, Bobby Barrick died after an unusual arrest at Eagletown where he was tased repeatedly after being handcuffed, then he flatlined, was revived by EMTs, and died a few days later at a Paris hospital.

Despite no one else covering the incident, Willingham realized the case had some similarities to the George Floyd case two years before which had led to a review of arrest procedures in most law enforcement agencies, but the deputy who tased Barrick was using his own taser and had received no training from the sheriff’s office in its use.

So the newspaper made many Open Record Act requests for records and body cam footage. The sheriff’s office refused them all and was clearly angered by the requests.

Also, on March 28 of that year, at a county commissioners’ meeting attended heavily by county law offices and friends of the sheriff, the sheriff took a urine drug test but refused to take a hair follicle drug test.

That situation was sparked by a proposal made by Westbrook. Bruce Willingham had been urging county commissioners to hold the sheriff accountable for some of his office’s actions, and Westbrook proposed that the sheriff would take a drug test if reporter Chris Willingham would. The reporter noted he was not a county employee and thought the request was ridiculous.

Bruce Willingham, who didn’t yet realize that the sheriff’s office and commissioners were specifically targeting his son, naively thought Westbrook simply wanted someone from this paper to take a drug test if the sheriff would.

So Willingham offered his own hair for a test.

“No, it has to be Chris,” said Westbrook. Two different recordings, including one made by this paper, later showed that “the plan,” as Alicia Manning called it, was to take Chris Willingham into custody and publicly humiliate him.

Just one small problem with the plan.

The newspaper later checked and learned that the officers had no arrest warrant for Willingham, nor had they sought one, so any arrest of him that day would have been illegal.

Why would they do that, other than the embarrassment? The Willinghams guessed that Manning wanted to quickly download the contents of his phone while he was in custody (since she seemed obsessed with getting his phone), then claim there had been a paperwork error or misunderstanding on the arrest warrant before releasing him.

A urine test only shows drugs for the past few days, while a hair follicle test shows drug presence for up to six months.

The sheriff passed the urine test, but vowed he would never take a drug test again.

(Next: A fake Facebook page)