Thursday, July 30, 1998

Harmon accomplice
gets 28-month term

LINDA FRIEDLIEB
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

Roger Walls, former head of the 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force, will spend 28 months behind bars for conspiring to extort money from a Texas man, a federal judge decided Wednesday.
    U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Reasoner also ordered Walls to pay $12,500 in restitution to Ernest Varnardo of Fort Worth and a $10,000 fine while serving two years of supervised release following his incarceration.
    But Walls' attorney, Jack Lassiter, said Wednesday that his client will appeal his January conviction on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence.
    Reasoner agreed to allow Walls, a 49-year-old Sheridan motel owner, to remain free on bond during the appeal. Reasoner noted that it was a very close case and that he had been unsure which way the jury would decide.
    The judge also said he will ask that Walls be freed on furlough periodically so he can see the doctors who treated his malignant melanoma, a form of cancer that is in remission but could recur.
    The conspiracy to commit extortion charge also ensnared former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon, who was convicted of that and four other felonies in June 1997. Harmon and Walls were charged with extorting more than $5,000 from Varnardo, who was facing drug charges in Saline County after getting caught with illegal narcotics in a traffic stop. The 7th Judicial District includes Grant, Saline and Hot Spring counties.
    "Mr. Walls was a person in a position where he was doing what he was told by Mr. [Dan] Harmon. But that was a pretty big mistake," Reasoner said. "I think it had to be pretty much obvious to everyone, at least generally, what Mr. Harmon was doing."
    Walls was silent during the sentencing proceedings but was backed by rows of friends and family members, some of whom shed tears. The judge also received letters attesting to Walls' good character, including one from Varnardo, who wrote that Walls was always courteous to him.
    Varnardo was originally arrested Dec. 16, 1992, and after he was released, he failed to appear for a court proceeding which he testified he did not know about. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
    In April 1993, Walls and Harmon traveled to Fort Worth, picked up Varnardo at his home, brought him back to Arkansas and placed him in the Grant County jail. Varnardo never appeared before a judge, either in Texas for extradition proceedings or in Arkansas on the bench warrant for drug charges. Varnardo was kept in the Grant County jail, though the charges he faced were in Saline County.
    When he testified at trial, Walls said that he did go with Harmon to pick up Varnardo, brought him back to Arkansas and put Varnardo in jail, but he said he never arrested him.
    Varnardo testified that he made a payment to Harmon and was released without ever seeing a judge or appearing in court while the bench warrant remained pending. Varnardo testified he made another payment to Harmon in a restaurant parking lot.
    Reasoner rejected Lassiter's argument that Walls should get a lesser sentence because he played a minor role in the conspiracy. The judge also rejected an argument by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling that the more stringent sentencing guideline for kidnapping should be used. The same argument was rejected in Harmon's case and is being argued on appeal before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
    Harmon and Walls were originally indicted together in April 1997 on 15 counts. Walls was charged with six felonies and Harmon with 11. Harmon was tried on all 11 charges and was convicted of five. Four of the charges against Walls were dropped before his trial, and he was acquitted of the fifth: conspiring with Harmon to manufacture methamphetamine.
    Harmon was ordered to spend 97 months behind bars for his five convictions, which included a charge that he used the prosecuting attorney's office as an illegal racket to obtain money and drugs. He was recently sentenced to an additional 37 months for four drug felonies related to an incident last year when he fled FBI agents and jumped into a man-made lake at his girlfriend's Conway apartment complex.

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