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Marion County Record owner files federal lawsuit against several city, county officials

Raids: 'A weaponizing of the criminal justice system to settle personal scores'
Eric Meyer photo.png
Posted at 11:52 AM, Apr 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-01 13:25:47-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Marion police and the Marion County Sheriff raided Marion County Record and two homes in August, the newspaper's 98-year-old co-publisher told police, "If I die, you're going to be sued for murder."

Joan Meyer died less than 24 hours after she spoke those words.

On Monday, through his attorney, Eric Meyer, owner of Marion County Record, filed a federal lawsuit against several city and county officials who they say helped orchestrate the raids that he believes led to his mother's death.

"Lawsuits might have been avoided or mitigated if responsible local officials had demonstrated any contrition or if ethics bodies had not brushed aside concerns," Meyer said in a statement to KSHB 41's Jessica McMaster. "Many of those who perpetrated stormtrooper-style bullying with a needlessly huge contingent of armed officers remain in office or have been promoted. Even newly elected officials have refused to disavow the tactics used — tactics that failed to silence our newspaper but proved fatal to my 98-year-old mother."

LINK | Read the lawsuit

Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City, Missouri, based attorney with Lathrop GPM, filed the lawsuit claiming city and county officials violated the journalist's rights under the First Amendment, in addition to four other violations.

Listed as defendants in the civil suit are: The city of Marion, former Marion Mayor David Mayfield, former Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, acting Marion Police Chief Zach Hudlin, Marion County Sheriff Jeff Soyez, Marion County Detective Aaron Christner and the Board of County Commissioners of the County of Marion.

"During her last 24 hours on this planet, Joan kept asking her son, Eric, 'Where are all the good people who are supposed to stop this?' I’m proud to be one of the ‘good people,' for I intend to stop this from ever happening again by punishing the government officials who engaged in this horrific overreach and, in so doing, deter the next crazed cop from threatening democracy," Rhodes said in a statement to KSHB 41.

MORE | Complete KSHB 41 coverage of the Marion newspaper raid

Former Marion Mayor David Mayfield and his wife

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Former Marion, Kansas, Mayor David Mayfield

A notable accusation in the lawsuit is that former Mayor David Mayfield played a larger role in what the newspaper's attorney describes as a plot to silence Eric Meyer, owner of Marion County Record and Ruth Herbel, former vice mayor, both of whom were critical of Mayor Mayfield.

According to the lawsuit, Herbel accused the mayor of repeatedly violating the city charter, giving out unauthorized raises to favored city employees and holding illegal secret meetings.

Simultaneously, Meyer ran editorials in the Record where he referred to the Mayor as a "dictator" and a "bully" who “shows his disdain for the democratic process."

According to the lawsuit, the tension between Mayfield and Herbel and Meyer came to a head when Herbel and Meyer opposed an amendment brought forth by Mayfield in 2022.

According to the lawsuit, when voters struck down the amendment, Mayfield and his wife, Jami Mayfield filed a petition with the Marion County clerk to recall Herbel one month later.

Attached to the lawsuit is a screenshot from Mayfield's wife where she writes a Facebook post about silencing the Marion County Record and removing Herbel from her seat as vice mayor in February 2023.

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Jami Mayfield writes in part, "If anyone is interested in signing a petition to recall councilor Herbel and silence the MCR (Marion County Record) in the process let me know."

The recall effort failed.

The newspaper's attorney claims this "infuriated" David Mayfield.

In June of 2023, David Mayfield asked the Marion City Council to sign an acknowledgment that would give him discretion to remove any of the members of the council at will.

According to the lawsuit, this was in attempt to remove Herbel.

Herbel drew a line over the sentence and refused to sign that portion of the acknowledgment.

One month later, Mayfield published to Facebook in a post the lawsuit claims is about Eric Meyer and Ruth Herbel.

On July 25, Mayfield wrote, "The real villains in America aren't Black people. They aren't White people. They aren't Asians. They aren't Latinos. They aren't women. They aren't gays. They are the radical 'journalists,' 'teachers,' and 'professors' who do nothing but sow division between the American people."

The newspaper raids

Less than a month later, former Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody launched a raid on Marion County Record, the vice mayor's home and the home of Record owner Eric Meyer, who lived with his co-publisher and mom, 98-year-old Joan Meyer.

Both Herbel and Marion County Record received information that Kari Newell, a local business woman, was driving on a suspended license after Newell received a DUI several years earlier.

Herbel forwarded the information to the city administrator on Aug. 1.

According to the lawsuit, "Shortly thereafter, both Mayor Mayfield and Councilmember Zach Collett told Kari Newell that Herbel had learned of Newell’s DUI; both men falsely claimed that Herbel planned to use Newell’s DUI conviction to oppose Newell’s application for a catering license for her upscale restaurant Chef’s Plate, which was coming before the city council later that same day."

The KSHB I-Team previously reported Newell lashed out at Herbel and the Record during a city council meeting that day.

Newell publicly claimed the former vice mayor and the newspaper committed a crime against her by obtaining her driving information.

Newell previously told the I-Team the reason she thought the crime of identity theft was committed against her was because the former police chief, Gideon Cody, told her the newspaper staff fraudulently got her information from a state website.

In reality, the newspaper staff received Newell's driving history information from a former friend of Newell.

The newspaper staff confirmed the information through a state website that the public is allowed to access.

The lawsuit claims Mayfield told Newell the only way he could remove Herbel from the city council was if Herbel was convicted of a crime.

Newell previously confirmed this statement to the KSHB I-Team. Mayfield has refused the I-Team's requests for an interview.

According to the lawsuit, Mayfield directed Cody to begin an investigation into Herbel and the Marion County Record and that's when Cody contacted Newell claiming she was the victim of a crime.

Marion County Sheriff

The lawsuit claims the Marion County Sheriff also teamed up with then-Mayor Mayfield and former chief Cody.

According to the lawsuit, Soyez expressed "aminus" toward the Marion County Record, saying the newspaper should be more positive regarding the happenings in Marion.

County Detective Aaron Christner

Marion County Sheriff's Office Det. Aarron Christner drafted the search warrants Cody signed off on.

In an email obtained by the KSHB I-Team, Christner wrote to Cody, "I am not comfortable swearing to an affidavit I did not do the investigation on."

As the I-Team previously reported, Cody's signed affidavits were riddled with errors and false claims.

The affidavit claimed the Record reporter who accessed Newell's driving record used a website the reporter did not have the authority to use.

The KSHB I-Team previously learned the reporter used a different website. According to Kansas Department of Revenue, the reporter used a website that is public facing and can be accessed as long as the person searching for the records has the driver's information.

The lawsuit states, " If Christner had gone to the Kansas Driver’s License Status Check tool he would have known this statement was false."

"Det. Christner therefore either knew the information he stated in the affidavit, i.e., that someone has to provide a reason for accessing the records on the website, was false or he was grossly reckless in failing to perform even the most basic investigation, which would have revealed the falsity of his claims. Det. Christner also falsely stated that the only way Zorn could have accessed the Kansas Department of Revenue records was through 'either impersonating or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought,'" the lawsuit reads.

Magistrate Judge Laura Viar

Though she's not named as a defendant in the lawsuit because of judicial immunity, Magistrate Judge Laura Viar allowed the raids to take place by signing the three warrants.

The lawsuit states, "Judge Viar signed the search warrants for the newsroom of the Marion County Record, the Meyer home, and the Herbel home, based on the false statements of material facts contained in the affidavits. Had the affidavits been truthful—and had the affidavits included the material facts which were omitted from the affidavits—Judge Viar would not have signed the search warrants."

Viar, who was reprimanded by the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct and urged to be more thorough before signing warrants in the future, made further mistakes, according to the lawsuit.

The affidavits show Viar scratched off the word "notary" and signed the affidavits herself, attesting Cody subscribed and sworn the affidavits before her.

According to the lawsuit, Cody never appeared before the judge.

The lawsuit uses evidence from a KSHB I-Team report where Joel Ensey, the county attorney, told the I-Team his staff were the ones to deliver the warrants to Viar.

Because Cody was not present as indicated, the lawsuit claims Viar's signing of the warrants are invalid under state law.

The KSHB I-Team previously reported Kansas Bureau of Investigation called upon Colorado Bureau of Investigation to assist in the investigation regarding Marion.

Neither agency will comment.

In a statement to KSHB, the newspaper's attorney said, "As Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody stood in Joan’s home, she said to him: 'Boy, are you going to be in trouble.' My job is to make sure Joan’s promise is kept."

The lawsuit doesn't specify damages.

However, the newspaper has served notice of additional charges, which includes wrongful death, amounting in $10 million.

"The last thing we want is to bankrupt the city or county, but we have a duty to democracy and to countless news organizations and citizens nationwide to challenge such malicious and wanton violations of the First and Fourth Amendments and federal laws limiting newsroom searches," Meyer said in a statement. "If we prevail, we anticipate donating any punitive damages to community projects and causes supporting cherished traditions of freedom."

When police came into Joan Meyer's home, she told them to leave. Joan Meyer can be heard on police body camera footage sticking up for herself throughout the raid.

"With the same spirit she showed in standing up to the seven bullies who spent hours raiding her home, we must now continue her fight for the most cherished of American traditions — freedom of expression and freedom from abuse by those acting under the color of law," Meyer said.