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TODAY’S FOCUS: Kentucky Residents Reluctant to Speak About Indictments

March 30, 1986 GMT

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. (AP) _ Until a federal grand jury returned indictments for fraud and corruption against 16 prominent residents, including the county sheriff, there wasn’t much to talk about in Morgan County.

These days, local people are talking about the allegations of a scheme to smuggle cocaine into West Liberty’s tiny airstrip and a conspiracy to commit murder.

In front of strangers, however, tight-lipped silence rules.

Some say it’s because nothing’s proved yet in the federal indictments naming some of the richest, most powerful people in Morgan County. Others say people are intimidated and fear retaliation if they speak out.

″To take great liberties with a quote from Machiavelli, if you kick the prince you’d better make sure he’s down, because if he’s not he’ll get back up and slap the fire out of you,″ said County Attorney Ed C. Keeton Jr.

Until now, Morgan County’s most newsworthy event has been West Liberty’s annual fall sorghum festival, when a mule-powered mill grinds cane to make molasses and the streets are lined with booths displaying handicrafts and baked goods.

West Liberty, an eastern Kentucky farm town of 1,400 people, lies amid small burley tobacco farms in the Licking River valley 60 miles east of Lexington. It’s the seat of Morgan County, which encompasses 382 square miles and 12,400 residents.

The county’s bucolic calm was disturbed earlier this month by the indictments that marked the climax of a three-year federal and state investigation of public corruption, fraud and other crimes. The charges stemmed from a probe involving Kentucky and Virginia state police and the FBI, and hinged on undercover work by a Virginia state police special agent.

Charges cover a variety of offenses but the most startling allegations involved payoffs to protect cocaine flights to West Liberty’s tiny airstrip and conspiracy to commit murder for a fee of $10,000.

Besides Morgan County’s sheriff, those indicted included a former Kentucky state police commissioner, a former county judge and sheriff, a West Liberty coal operator and a well-known defense lawyer from south-central Kentucky.

″If you want to live here you better not talk about it,″ said a man glancing up from his coffee at a restaurant counter.

A woman in a drugstore smiled and shook her head when a reporter identified himself. She said only that the allegations were ″not the kind of thing you’d expect in a peaceful, quiet place like this.″

Sid Stewart, Morgan County’s judge-executive, said people hesitate because ″nobody really knows. If you ask people, you’ll probably get a few ‘I told you so’ and a few people who were surprised.″

Keeton attributed people’s reluctance to speak publicly to fear.

″In eastern Kentucky, in a lot of Appalachia, we live in almost a feudal society. We don’t have the power and wealth spread relatively evenly among the population, we have centers of power and wealth,″ he said.

Virginia authorities said they had heard allegations of criminal activities in Kentucky from a Virginian arrested in an investigation under Project Leviticus, an 8-year-old federal effort to investigate coal-related fraud in seven states.

U.S. Attorney Louis DeFalaise of Lexington told a news conference that the undercover agent, Houston E. McNeal, often was ″in great risk of his life.″

Posing as a drug distributor, McNeal allegedly made payoffs totaling at least $35,000 to Marion Campbell, 44, the former state police commissioner who was in charge of the agency’s special investigations for eastern Kentucky; Gene Allen, 52, who served three terms as Morgan County judge-executiv e and three as sheriff; Roger Benton, Morgan County’s current sheriff, and coal operator Titus Frederick, one indictment said.

McNeal was promised protection from arrest if he flew cocaine into West Liberty, the indictment said.

Also, Allen, Frederick and Gerald Griggs, a former Kentucky state trooper and deputy sheriff who has moved to North Carolina, were charged with conspiring to kill a fictitious Virginia resident for $10,000.

James Henry Noble, a district court judge for three eastern Kentucky counties, was indicted for allegedly agreeing to fix marijuana-possession and traffic citations in exchange for a $500 bribe from McNeal.

And Frederick, Noble and Lester Burns, a former state trooper and now a defense lawyer from Pulaski County in south-central Kentucky, were charged with conspiring to falsely report a car stolen and file a false insurance claim.

Burns and Bill Davis, a former Pulaski County doctor, allegedly conspired to obtain a fraudulent insurance settlement by faking a traffic accident in which McNeal would feign injury and Davis would verify it.

All 16 defendants are free on bail pending trials scheduled to start in May.

The week the indictments were returned, Allen bought an ad in the weekly Licking Valley Courier saying, ″No one is against dope any stronger than I am. ... I hope this investigation will alleviate this problem.″

Current state police Commissioner Morgan Elkins said his top aides had delivered messages to subordinates telling them not to let Campbell’s arrest affect morale. Campbell has been suspended with pay.

The Rev. Steve Bliffen, pastor of West Liberty Christian Church, afterward proclaimed from the pulpit: ″May the innocent stand and may the guilty fall.″

In an interview, Bliffen called McNeal a hero. ″He risked his life to fight crime and corruption in our community and we didn’t even know him.″