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 decision.
    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 guidelines.
    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 methamphetamine.
    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 $2,500.
    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, Harmon.
    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.

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