By Whitney Wild, Sarah Moon and Holly Yan | CNN
After days of national controversy over the raid of a small town’s newspaper office and the publisher’s home, the items seized will be returned, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced Wednesday.
An attorney for the Marion County Record, Bernie Rhodes, told CNN the local prosecutor has agreed to withdraw a search warrant executed on the newspaper Friday and will return all seized items, answering demands of press freedom advocates who sharply condemned the police action.
The paper’s co-owner and publisher, Eric Meyer, has said he believes Friday’s raid in Marion – about 60 miles north of Wichita – was prompted by a story published Wednesday about a local business owner, Kari Newell. But authorities said they were investigating what they called “identity theft” in a search warrant.
Computers, cell phones and other materials were seized during the raid at the Marion County Record, Meyer confirmed to CNN.
Marion County prosecutor Joel Ensey released a statement explaining why he has asked for the seized items to be returned.
“On Monday, August 14, 2023, I reviewed in detail the warrant applications made Friday, August 11, 2023 to search various locations in Marion County including the office of the Marion County Record,” Ensey said.
“The affidavits, which I am asking the court to release, established probable cause to believe that an employee of the newspaper may have committed … Unlawful Acts Concerning Computers. Upon further review however, I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized,” the prosecutor said.
“As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation plans to continue its investigation “independently,” it said in the statement.
“We will work with the Marion County Record, or their representative, to coordinate the prompt return of all seized items,” KBI spokesperson Melissa Underwood wrote. “Once our investigation concludes we will present findings to the Marion County Attorney for review.”
Meyer’s mother – Marion County Record co-owner Joan Meyer – died Saturday, the day after police raided the home she shared with her son. Eric Meyer said he believes stress from the raid contributed to his mother’s death.
The story behind the story
Earlier this month, Meyer said he was at Kari’s Kitchen – a coffee shop operated by Newell – for a public meeting event with US Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Republican who represents the area.
Even though it was a public meet-and-greet event, Meyer said he and his reporter, Phyllis Zorn, were asked to leave.
“I was standing in line waiting to get a drink at the coffee shop where we were and the police chief came up to us and said you’ve been asked to leave by the coffee shop owner,” Meyer said. “She said we don’t want the media in here, so they threw us out.”
CNN has reached out to LaTurner’s office about the situation.
Meyer said Zorn then received a tip about Newell allegedly driving without a valid driver’s license after a traffic offense in 2008.
Newell confirmed to CNN that she had asked Meyer and his reporter to leave the event because she believes the newspaper “has a long-standing reputation for twisting and contorting comments within our community.”
“When they came into the establishment, I quietly and politely asked them to exit,” Newell said. “I didn’t feel that their constituents needed to be exposed to any risk of being misquoted.”
Newell said the Marion County Record unlawfully used her credentials to get information that was only available to law enforcement, private investigators and insurance agencies. “Not only did they have information that was illegal for them to obtain in the manner in which they did, but they sent it out as well,” she added.
The Marion County Record published the article “strictly out of malice and retribution for me asking him to exit my establishment,” she said.
Newell said she was out of state when she learned of Friday’s raid and told CNN she was “flabbergasted” and “didn’t know that was coming.”
‘Not in America’
Meyer said he drove down to the office where law enforcement officials seized a file server, a backup drive for a file server, Meyer’s computer and the computers of two other reporters.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, not in America,” Meyer said. “This was an atomic flyswatter. They wanted to swat us, and they tried to do so.”
Two reporters – Zorn and Deb Gruver – whose computers were seized also had their phones taken away, according to Meyer.
“As far as I can see, the entirety of law enforcement in Marion County was involved in this,” Meyer said.