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Publisher Fights Corruption in Ala.

April 17, 1998

LINDEN, Ala. (AP) _ Only a street separates the offices of the Marengo County sheriff and the county’s weekly newspaper.

Through the window of The Democrat-Reporter, publisher Goodloe Sutton could watch Sheriff Roger Davis come and go, at times giving him a wave. But not everything was friendly between the two.

For almost four years, Sutton published story after story detailing apparent corruption by Davis and his department, drawing the wrath of local law enforcement officials.

But Sutton, who has run the rural weekly since 1964, and his star reporter _ his wife, Jean _ eventually prevailed.

The Suttons’ constant disclosures, noticed by a federal prosecutor, led to the arrest and conviction of Davis and two of his seven deputies, as well as the largest federal drug bust in southern Alabama.

During a week where the top prizes in journalism _ the Pulitzers _ were awarded for the 82nd year, Sutton said of his work: ``the greatest honor is what the people of this county think.″

Among Sutton’s reports was that Davis, a former state trooper who took office in 1991, used department funds to buy a truck for his daughter. Davis repaid the money, but claimed Sutton was telling lies.

Then Sutton forced Davis to repay $700 by reporting the sheriff had been cashing checks from a mental health center that were meant for the department. Davis couldn’t deny it because Sutton ran copies of every single check _ made payable to Davis _ across the front page of the newspaper.

Another story, supported by a copy of the department’s ledger blown up across the front page, led to an audit that forced Davis to repay $5,000 to the county.

Finally, people started to believe ``ol’ Goodloe,″ as many call him. But Marengo County is so small _ the population is less than 12,000 _ that very few people even today seem willing to stick up for him publicly out of fear of reprisals from those who support Davis.

Threats against the Suttons began after he started running the stories. Sutton said the sheriff ``started telling anyone who would listen that my oldest son was involved in drugs, my wife was having affairs and I was drunk all the time.″

One of Davis’ deputies, Wilmer ``Sonny″ Breckenridge _ Marengo County’s chief drug enforcement officer _ threatened to plant drugs in Sutton’s home, according to Sutton. The couple was randomly pulled over and harassed, as was their oldest son.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Sutton, his articles had caught the eye of Assistant U.S. Attorney E.T. Rolison, whose mother received the Democrat-Reporter and showed him what Sutton was reporting.

``Goodloe was taking a lot of heat for the things he was writing, and he was the only one hanging out on the deal,″ Rolison said. ``That’s when I started making some calls, saying this guy Goodloe Sutton was making a case for us.″

An undercover investigation was launched into the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department, but no one could tell Sutton.

``It was safer for Goodloe if he didn’t know there was an investigation,″ Rolison said. ``Besides, at the rate he was going, he was giving us an entire historical accounting each week in the paper.″

The investigation eventually spread into neighboring Perry County, where Breckenridge and Marengo Deputy Robert Pickens, both 27, were accused of protecting drug dealers.

Last May, Breckenridge and Pickens were arrested with 68 others in a drug raid.

Pickens eventually pleaded guilty and testified against Breckenridge in exchange for a lighter sentence. Breckenridge was sentenced to life in federal prison without the possibility of parole.

Davis, the sheriff, pleaded guilty last September to extortion and was sentenced to 27 months in prison. Last December, he pleaded guilty to state charges of failing to pay state income taxes and soliciting a bribe and received a second 27-month prison term.

``Once Roger Davis was arrested, I knew it was finally over,″ Sutton said. ``I was never scared, not one single minute, because I was doing the right thing.″

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