Thursday, January 15, 1998
Convicted of extortion, former drug chief weeps
Smiling and confident during his trial, Roger Walls
became visibly shaken and upset Wednesday after a
federal jury found the former head of the 7th Judicial
District Drug Task Force guilty of conspiring to extort
thousands of dollars.
The same jury acquitted Walls of conspiring to
manufacture drugs, a charge alleging that Walls took
chemicals that were seized as evidence and provided
them to a methamphetamine dealer.
The jury deliberated about three hours Tuesday but
left without reaching a verdict and returned Wednesday
to deliberate about the same time before coming to a
After the jury left the courtroom, Walls, 48, said
he did not understand how he could be convicted when he
was innocent. He remained in tears in the courtroom for
a while, comforted by relatives.
Jack Lassiter, Walls' attorney, said he felt there
was not enough evidence for a conviction on either
charge and he would ask Chief U.S. District Judge
Stephen M. Reasoner to consider setting aside the
jury's verdict on the extortion charge.
The conspiracy to commit extortion charge falls
under the Hobbs Act, which governs interstate commerce,
and has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a
$250,000 fine. No sentencing date has been set, and
sentences are governed by the federal sentencing
Walls, who owns a motel in Sheridan, was indicted
in April on six charges as part of a larger indictment
naming seven other individuals, including former
Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon, in a conspiracy to
form a criminal enterprise in violation of the federal
Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
By the time of Walls' trial, all but two of the
charges against him had been dismissed.
The conspiracy to commit extortion charge alleged
that Harmon and Walls extorted about $5,000 from Ernest
Varnardo, a Fort Worth man facing drug charges in
Saline County after getting caught with illegal
narcotics during a traffic stop.
According to the indictment and testimony, Varnardo
originally was arrested Dec. 16, 1992. He was released
and then failed to appear for a court proceeding, which
he said he did not know about. A bench warrant was then
issued for his arrest.
But in April 1993, Walls and Harmon traveled to
Fort Worth, picked Varnardo up at his home, brought him
back to Arkansas and deposited him in the Grant County
jail. There were no extradition proceedings, and
Varnardo never appeared before a judge during his time
in jail. Also, Varnardo was housed in Grant County
although his charges were in Saline County.
Walls said in his testimony that while he picked up
Varnardo, brought him to Arkansas and put him in jail,
those actions did not constitute an arrest.
Varnardo made a payment to Harmon and was released,
still without ever having a court proceeding and with
an outstanding bench warrant on file.
During the summer of that same year, Varnardo made
an additional $2,500 payment to Harmon in a restaurant
parking lot. Harmon's ex-wife, Holly Duvall, testified
she accompanied Harmon to the meeting, as did
Varnardo's common-law wife, Joycelyn McCain.
At his trial in June, Harmon was convicted of five
of the 11 charges he faced, including a charge of
conspiring to extort money from Varnardo. Like Walls,
Harmon was acquitted of conspiring to manufacture
The drug charge alleged Walls and Harmon conspired
with a methamphetamine "cook" named Ronnie Joe Knight
to manufacture methamphetamine. The indictment accused
Harmon of making the arrangement and Walls of
delivering chemicals, including red phosphorus, iodine,
ephedrine and sulfuric acid, to Knight in exchange for
During Walls' trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan
Stripling presented evidence that the chemicals were
taken from a drug bust which led to the arrest of Jimmy
Bumgardner. Bumgardner is trying to have his
convictions on drug charges overturned on the basis
that the man who prosecuted him is a convicted felon,
The 7th Judicial District consists of Grant, Saline
and Hot Spring counties.
A board of six lawmen from the three-county
judicial district hired Walls in December 1990, largely
on the basis of his previous business experience.
Before joining the six-member task force, Walls
worked as a substance abuse treatment counselor at a
Camden hospital. The Beebe native also attended
Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, where he took
courses in business administration and psychology.
Copyright 1998, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights