Wednesday, January 14, 1998

Ex-task force chief’s drug, extortion case goes to jury

A federal jury deliberated into the night Tuesday but couldn't decide whether Roger Walls, former head of the 7th Judicial District drug task force, is guilty of conspiring to extort money and manufacture drugs.
    Deliberations will continue today.
    Testifying for hours Tuesday, Walls denied conspiring with former Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon to extort $5,500 from a Texas man or to take chemicals from the task force evidence locker to make methamphetamine.
    "We were a small, underfunded police agency that had to cover three counties, "Walls testified. "We made a tremendous number of cases each year."
    His attorney, Jack Lassiter, asked Walls point-blank, "Did you conspire with any of these people or anyone else to manufacture drugs? Have you ever unlawfully taken something from the evidence locker?"
    To each question, Walls' answer was a quiet "no, sir.'
    But on cross examination, Walls testified that he accompanied Harmon to Fort Worth and picked up Ernest Varnardo, drove him back to Arkansas and deposited him in the Grant County jail, but never arrested him.
    “I submit that if a person comes into your house, no matter how polite he is, takes you to another state, puts you in jail, that's an arrest," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling said in his closing argument. "Mr. Varnardo thought it was an arrest. I would submit that if it happened to you, you would think it was an arrest too."
    Stripling pointed out that while the charges Varnardo faced from a traffic stop the previous year were filed in Saline County, Varnardo was kept in the Grant County jail almost a month without ever going before a judge - even though a bench warrant was out for his arrest for failure to appear at a hearing.
    "Mr. Varnardo was taken to a jail in another city, was never brought before a judge, and after about a month he was released," Stripling said. "That's not the action of a law enforcement officer doing his job. That's the action of a man trying to put some pressure on someone."
    In the second charge, Walls is accused of taking chemicals seized from convicted criminal Jimmy Bumgardner and giving them to a methamphetamine maker named Ronnie Knight.
    Lassiter attacked the evidence in his closing argument asking jurors to consider whether they can believe the witnesses the federal prosecutors used to make the case. He summarized the drug case as "three convicted felons with a lot of time in the penitentiary."
    "I want you to think about whether you can believe anything these people say at all," Lassiter said.
    He contends that many of the prosecution's witnesses are looking to either shorten their prison time or get revenge on Walls, whom he said was merely a law enforcement officer doing his job.
    In his June trial, Harmon faced the same two charges among the 11 he was battling. He was convicted of the extortion charge but acquitted of conspiracy to manufacture drugs.

Copyright 1998, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.