After three days without its elected sheriff, Franklin County has begun the coping process associated with a court case some say has damaged trust between the public, its officials and law enforcement.
And while it might take some time, community members seem confident the county can heal from the ordeal.
“Healing will occur with this thing. We’re not the only community to go through something like this,” Tony De La Torre, who serves on the Ottawa Recreation Commission board with former Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry, said. “I’ve been around here for over 40 years and during that time I’ve served 20 years in law enforcement. I’ve seen several issues that have come forth in the sheriff’s and police departments involving different members, and during that time the departments have been able to come together to heal along with the help of the entire community. Healing will occur.”
Prosecutors agreed Monday to allow Curry to enter a 12-month diversion program in exchange for the dismissal of his felony charge of interference with law enforcement and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct. The sheriff’s planned resignation, which stemmed from the civil and criminal cases against him, also went into effect Monday.
With Curry’s court situation more or less settled, De La Torre said, Franklin County now must focus on coming together and moving on from the situation. A big part of that process, he said, will involve the community’s next sheriff.
“It’s time to go forward with this,” De La Torre said. “[Curry] did make some mistakes, and I think that it’s up to him to deal with those mistakes. And it’s time for us as a community to go forward to [pick] a new sheriff — someone that can bring this community back together.”
Echoing De La Torre’s sentiments, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners issued a statement shortly after Curry’s Monday court hearing in which the diversion was announced. In the release, commissioners buttressed its commitment to and working relationship with area law enforcement.
Bob Dodson, owner of Dodson Aviation Inc., Ottawa, said that while he wasn’t shocked by the state’s agreement on Curry’s diversion, he thinks the judicial system operated unfairly in the case.
“I really wasn’t surprised by it,” Dodson said. “I think there’s justice for the average person, and there’s justice for lawyers and people within law enforcement. It seems they have a different type of justice from the average person. It just seems to be different and not in a good way. ... So much stuff was hidden and unavailable.”
Elbert Swank, Williamsburg, expressed similar concerns, though from a different perspective. Swank contended that the situation was manipulated and exploited by the “power structure” of Franklin County who wanted Curry, along with his alleged lover and former Franklin County Attorney Heather Jones, out of office because the powers-that-be could not control the two. Still, he said, Curry’s actions weren’t excusable.
“I think he shouldn’t be sheriff under the circumstances,” Swank said. “As far as trust is concerned with [law enforcement] — my trust wasn’t too high to begin with.”
As part of Monday’s court proceedings, Senior Judge John E. Sanders agreed to The Herald’s motion to unseal the petition to ouster filed by Stephen Hunting, Franklin County attorney, shortly after Curry’s Feb. 27 arrest. The newly opened document detailed, for the first time, the state’s long-secret allegations against Curry, namely that he tipped off Jones about a drug investigation targeting her, and later lied to investigators about his and Jones’ affair.
Some residents joined Curry’s and Jones’ attorneys in voicing their displeasure with the court’s decision to unseal the documents, claiming the information violated Jones’ privacy, especially since she has not been charged with a crime.
“[It’s] not our business what goes on in the personal aspect of his life,” Cheri Crooks McNeill wrote on a Facebook discussion on the case.
Others in the discussion, however, felt the public had a right to know the details of the case.
“We have a right to know exactly what they did,” Colleen Roth Adams wrote. “Hopefully it will stop others from thinking they can do whatever they want because they are a public official.”
While many still debate the merits of the case, its extensive media coverage and whether justice was served, some simply are ready to move forward.
“I agree with a lot of the comments that if it were anyone else more would have been done,” Amber Hennessey wrote. “But this is the way it went down. Time to move on and hope the next sheriff has the gall enough to whip the department into what it should be and hopefully gain the public trust back.”
Undersheriff Steve Lunger is expected to serve as acting sheriff until the Franklin County Republican Central Committee appoints a nominee to fill the vacated position. The nominee must then be approved by Brownback. The Republican group has slated a convention for 7 p.m. today at the Church of the Nazarene, Seventh and Elm streets, Ottawa, to determine the sheriff nominee.