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Meth and murder in Madison County

By MICHAEL WHITELEY

This article was published October 19, 1997 at 8:52 p.m.

— From the first radio call two minutes before noon, panic was a partner in the investigation of Billie Jean Phillips' murder.

The instant suspect was Howard "Rusty" Cain Jr., the county's lead prosecutor, who had a longtime, on-again, off-again affair with Phillips. The ranking police official was Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, a close friend of the slain convenience store owner.

Over the next three years, a score of new suspects would emerge. Cain would spend $100,000 trying to clear himself. Baker would be shouldered out of the investigation, then have it handed back to him.

As prosecutors and investigators sorted through clues obscured by mistakes at the crime scene and the state forensics laboratory, a changing cast of law enforcement officials sardonically wondered who hadn't slept with Billie Phillips -- and who in this rural county lacked a motive to kill her.

Her 7-year-old son discovered her body late on the morning of Sept. 3, 1994, a Saturday. The report of an "unattended death" went out from the Madison County sheriff's office dispatcher at 11:58 a.m.

Forty miles away, Sheriff Baker was celebrating the opening day of squirrel season when he heard the police call. He radioed his office at 12:27 p.m. for the telephone number of Arkansas State Police criminal investigator Doug Fogley and made a frantic call to Fogley's home.

Interviews with investigators indicate the conversation went something like this:

"Billie Phillips is dead," Baker told Fogley.

"So?" asked Fogley, not recognizing the name of a woman he knew better as Billie Jean McKnight.

"Billie Phillips, g****** it!" Baker responded. "Rusty Cain's been f****** her. Rusty could be a g******** suspect. How do you keep the deputy prosecutor out of the crime scene?"

Baker's concerns proved prophetic.

Cain, along with Phillips' brother and one of her sisters, beat the sheriff's office to her house. Cain was the last of the three to arrive, and he got there at least 10 minutes before Deputy Danny Livermore entered Phillips' blood-spattered bedroom to find the body of the pretty, 35-year-old Alabam woman lying against a wall.

Phillips had a strong dose of methamphetamine in her bloodstream. Her skull had been fractured with her son's T-ball bat, which lay by the bed, splintered. She had been strangled.

"Definitely foul play," Livermore called back to the dispatcher at 12:53 p.m. Referring to Baker, he said, "Send MC-1."

During the next four hours, Baker and Fogley would allow Cain to repeatedly enter the crime scene. Throughout the afternoon, they would ignore what officers later insisted were bloodstains on Cain's tennis shoes.

They would fail to note that a vacuum cleaner normally kept behind the bedroom door was in the middle of the room and would overlook the fact that its bag was missing. They would miss a black case partially hidden beneath Phillips' antique dresser. They would fail to ask about the curiously unmade bed in the upstairs loft, or to note that someone had thrown the curtain up over the rod at the window, as if to make it a better lookout post.

In the words of one person who viewed a videotape of the crime scene made at 4:30 that afternoon, the bed appeared to have been "wallered in." It was a bed, Phillips' family said later, in which no one ever slept. Police would never raise questions about the mussed bed or take the bedclothes that might have provided some evidence of a killer.

Three years later, authorities have not identified Phillips' killer.

A week after the murder, Cain was fired for interfering in the investigation. After eighteen months, Cain's former boss, Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones of Fayetteville, assigned the case to a special prosecutor and an ex-FBI agent turned private detective. Now, Baker and the state police are back in charge.

The list of suspects has grown so long that attorneys and police involved in the complex investigation of drugs, sex and deaths uncomfortably joke that the murder produced "the suspect of the week."

Baker, sheriff since 1973, declines to discuss the case, which he says is one of only two unsolved murders in Madison County. He acknowledges that former Special Prosecutor John Everett and former investigator Jack Knox kept from him much of what they found during the 16 months they headed the investigation.

Under pressure from Baker, Everett and Knox resigned Aug. 7 from their unpaid positions. During a four-day legal fight over Knox's notes, the former FBI agent alleged that Jones had told him not to investigate allegations of corruption against a "local law enforcement official," and not to take his evidence to the FBI.

Jones returned control of the investigation to Baker and Fogley. Knox deleted references to confidential sources he said were afraid for their safety and gave Jones his notes on Sept. 29. Jones immediately took them to the FBI. A week later, Knox turned over his allegations and unabridged copies of his files to I.C. Smith, the special agent in charge of FBI operations in Arkansas.

Cain's attorney, John Lisle, had pushed for a year for an FBI investigation of the county's drug traffic and its ties to the murder. And Everett and Knox said problems with Baker reached the breaking point when they developed fresh leads involving drugs.

At the heart of the confrontation over drugs, investigators said, was Baker's reluctance to bring in a Madison County man for DNA testing, a man repeatedly identified as a methamphetamine dealer during Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviews.

"The case will be solved when Ralph Baker wants it solved," Knox said when he resigned.

Baker insists it will be. "No one investigating this wants it solved more than me," he said.

More than three years after she was murdered, Billie Jean Phillips' death has done more than confound and divide law officers.

It has sharpened long-standing concerns over drug traffic and law enforcement in the Northwest Arkansas county of 12,943. And it has spurred some of the county's most industrious methamphetamine dealers to claim openly that they can operate unchecked as long as they don't steal to support their habits.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has interviewed Northwest Arkansas lawmen and government officials, prison inmates, former and current Madison County drug dealers, and the friends and family of Billie Phillips -- more than 130 people in all. Most talked only reluctantly. Many asked that they not be identified. Almost to a person, they expressed a puzzling fear of Ralph Baker.

The newspaper reviewed dozens of court cases and other records, including documents detailing a past crime, a beating and more than 40 land transactions involving Baker.

It tracked the deaths of other Madison County people who died under mysterious circumstances.

What emerges is a tale of methamphetamine and murder in a place known to its residents as "Booger County."

The newspaper has learned:

Phillips paid off the drug debts of her brother, Robert McKnight. One man from whom McKnight bought, Steve Hathorn, beat him over a debt from drugs and building materials a year after Phillips died. But McKnight told investigators the incident had happened in the weeks before Phillips' death. Everett and Knox asked that Hathorn be required to undergo DNA testing, a request they say brought their feud with Baker to a head. Hathorn was finally tested Sept. 22, more than six weeks after Everett and Knox were off the case.

One former drug dealer, early considered a suspect in the Phillips murder, says he was involved in plans with Hathorn, Dennis Cordes, Rory Allen Gregory and Joe Benton Head to build a methamphetamine lab in a cave neighboring Phillips' house.

Cordes and a private investigator who helped him escape from the Washington County jail were later convicted of building the biggest methcathinone lab in U.S. history. Gregory has been convicted of attempting to manufacture methampetamine, Head of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Federal agents are now seeking to interview Cordes.

Cain worked as both a private attorney and a public official in a fatal automobile accident involving Phillips, with whom he began a long-running affair in the early 1980s.

Baker, 59, who shares Arkansas' longest tenure with Monroe County Sheriff Larry Morris, sometimes carries in his personal vehicle drugs seized as evidence. As a teen-ager, his daughter, Patricia Baker, and a friend, Sandra Harp, found some of them in the glove compartment of the sheriff's pickup on March 6, 1977. High on two joints of unusually potent marijuana, they had a wreck. Baker removed the drugs from his truck after the accident. No criminal charges were filed, despite Baker's acknowledgment that his daughter had perjured herself giving pretrial testimony in a civil suit he later filed.

Contrary to accepted practice among state and local police agencies, Baker maintains no inventory of drugs or other evidence seized by his office and keeps no log of the drugs he destroys. He also does not obtain court orders for the destruction of drugs, creating what other police officials say is the potential for theft. Baker dismissed that concern during a three-hour interview in June. "It don't happen here," he said.

Baker and his wife, sometimes in partnership with other family members, have bought or traded for at least 2,300 acres in Madison, Washington and Franklin counties. They have paid out about $484,250, including one $200,000 purchase. In that time, Baker has taken only one mortgage, for $8,000. Otherwise, he has paid cash.

Baker, who earns $31,000 a year as Madison County's sheriff and tax collector, declines to talk about his land deals. He ended the June interview when the subject came up. In the past two weeks, he has not returned the newspaper's telephone calls.

Baker owns at least 1,450 acres, according to tax records. He also owns a Chevrolet Corvette and a Honda Acura, two Harley Davidson motorcycles, five trucks and 19 cows. The 1991 black Corvette bears the license plate Booger1.

The father of a drug dealer in Madison County says he gave Baker two envelopes containing a total of $1,200 in hopes of easing his son's punishment after a 1986 arrest.

The former Madison County oil man, F.M. Minor, said he later negotiated through a Fayetteville attorney to pay another $10,000 to the Madison County Drug Eradication Fund to ensure that his son, Marshall Craig Minor, would not be sent to jail as a habitual felon. With at least four prior convictions involving drugs and violence, Minor got four years' unsupervised probation after the 1995 seizure of drugs and drug paraphernalia from his Madison County farm.

Between 1993 and August 1997, Baker and three of his deputies have withdrawn $24,950 from the Drug Eradication Fund for undocumented expenses. Madison County Clerk Wes Fowler said as far as he knew such money went only for the payment of confidential informants.

Drug dealers who acknowledge being paid by either Baker's agency or the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for help with Madison County drug busts say they never received payments of more than $100, and then no more often than a few times a year.

Indeed, Baker's internal records show that Baker and Chief Deputy Steve Treat paid a total of $835 to drug informants between 1993 and September 1997 in amounts ranging from $25 to $125. No other deputies were listed on copies of receipts provided by Baker in response to an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request.

The state last audited the drug fund in 1996. An itemization in the auditor's working papers shows $4,511.93 was paid to confidential informants between July 14, 1995, and Oct. 23, 1996. Baker's receipts for the same period show $260 in payments.

Among the Northwest Arkansas law enforcement community, Baker has both detractors and defenders. The former won't speak for attribution. Terry Jones, the prosecuting attorney for Madison and Washington counties, is among the latter. He says he has personally investigated allegations involving Baker and the county's drug dealing and found no basis for them.

Fayetteville Police Chief Richard Watson and Steve Lowery, an agent in the Fayetteville office of the DEA, are motorcycle-riding buddies of Baker and among his closest friends. Both say he is above reproach.

Fogley is one of the sheriff's most emphatic supporters. "I've worked with Ralph Baker 21 years. ... I've never seen Ralph do anything that even started to be illegal," he said. "I'd go in any front door in the country with Ralph Baker."

USERS AND THE LAW: DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ON THE DRUG TRADE

As a teen-ager, Sandra Harp said, she and Baker's daughter moved freely through the sheriff's office and the jail. In an interview this summer, she said Baker asked her not to talk about the drugs she and Patricia used from his truck before their 1977 accident.

During a lawsuit filed by Baker and his daughter against the driver of the other vehicle, Rodney Nelson, Harp testified that the sheriff's glove compartment contained marijuana, pills and white powder she believed to be cocaine in bags marked "Property of Madison County."

Although Baker's daughter denied it, Harp said the two girls and Judy Maggard, Harp's sister, had smoked two joints and got "higher than I usually get off just pot. I mean just smoking a couple of joints."

In his own testimony, Baker acknowledged that his daughter had lied during her deposition when she denied ever smoking marijuana.

A jury rejected claims Patricia Baker and Nelson each made that the other had crossed the center line on Arkansas 23 a mile north of Huntsville near Withrow Springs State Park.

Baker said in the June interview that he had probably put the drugs into his truck to drive to the state Crime Laboratory in Little Rock for testing. Of Harp's insistence that he admonished her to keep silent, he said: "That's bull****."

Harp's relationship with the sheriff followed her into adulthood.

The convicted thief and drug dealer, now 34, said she refused when Baker asked her to set up his former son-in-law in a drug deal during a 1994 custody fight over Baker's granddaughter. Baker acknowledged that his former son-in-law may have been on a list of suspects he sought Harp's help catching. But Harp said she then ran afoul of the sheriff when she stole $80,000 from a home in the community of Hilltop.

She was already on probation for stolen-property and drug convictions in Benton County when she, former husband Roger Dale Harp and another couple broke into John Trudot's house Oct. 1, 1995. Trudot was in the hospital at the time.

Harp was sentenced on May 14, 1996, to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to burglary, theft of property and possession of drug paraphernalia.

She says the paraphernalia charge was incidental. The evidence was discovered when deputies picked her up for the burglary.

"I was dealing drugs over there for years and years and years ... and was never busted for drugs in Madison County," Harp said during a July interview at the Arkansas Department of Correction Tucker Unit, about a month before she was released on parole.

A young Huntsville man whose criminal record includes multiple convictions for stealing shares Harp's perception of how things work.

He said he doesn't worry about the criminal consequences of a crystal methamphetamine -- or "crank" -- habit that costs $4,800 to $6,000 a week. He usually makes the money back on drug sales, he said, and worries more about being killed by a supplier than about getting arrested by the sheriff.

He said that he once asked Baker to sell him drugs from the evidence closet. Instead, he said, the sheriff recruited him as an informant and handed him $50 from his wallet.

"Homebodies don't get in much trouble unless you're kicking down doors," the man said. "Then Ralph will put his foot down."

During interviews, Baker said he aggressively investigates allegations of drug dealing and denied that his county has a methamphetamine problem.

"Since I've been sheriff, we hadn't hardly got any meth at all," he said in June.

But Baker later solicited the Democrat-Gazette's help.

In August, during a conversation on the courthouse steps that included Madison County Treasurer Jerry Bolinger, Baker offered a reporter and an editor money in exchange for information on Madison County methamphetamine labs. "I don't know how much you boys make writing stories, but we pay pretty well," Baker said. "That goes for both of you."

And in the Sept. 4 edition of The Madison County Record, Baker posed with a gram-sized mound of sugar substitute and told the newspaper: "There is a certain circle of people using the drug."

BARE KNUCKLES, A DEFERRED SENTENCE AND QUESTIONS ABOUT AN ELECTION

Ralph Francis Baker was born Sept. 1, 1938, near the town of St. Paul, once a bustling banking, railroad and timber center in southern Madison County. He was one of three children of William McKinley Baker, a former vaudeville musician, and Evangeline Verruchi, the 1927 queen of the Tontitown Grape Festival.

Bill Baker had traveled with the Weaver Brothers, making a national name for himself on the steel guitar. Vaudeville's death sent him back to Arkansas in 1930, but not away from his music. He worked the regional circuit and opened a store and cafe amid the rolling hills along Arkansas 23. There he sold ice cream, ammunition and bait, and served up cheeseburgers and fries.

In 1977, he killed himself with a shotgun at the family store, which burned down soon after his death. Fogley, the state police investigator and a close friend, blames the Fourth of July fire on misdirected Roman candles.

Bill Baker's legacy to his only son was 6.23 acres of mountains and trees near the north end of the canopied highway that University of Arkansas fans know as the Pig Trail.

Ralph Baker would say little about his family or his early days in St. Paul, but friends say he grew up with two passions -- hunting and fighting. Baker's penchant for bare knuckles on the back roads won him the title the "Bull of St. Paul."

He married Noreta Mae Burrell, a St. Paul girl, in March 1956. He listed his age as 18, hers as 16.

The marriage apparently didn't settle him down. In fact, Baker was an outlaw before he was a sheriff.

A 1958 envelope that once held the details of two felonies still sits in the vault of the old courthouse in neighboring Washington County. It is empty. But an enterprising deputy circuit clerk found a docket sheet detailing the case of State of Arkansas vs. Ralph Baker and Eugene Masterson.

Baker pleaded no contest to burglary and grand larceny charges on April 2, 1958, and drew two years in the Arkansas Penitentiary. The judge deferred the sentence pending good behavior, and Baker never went to prison. Masterson, meanwhile, escaped from jail and was later arrested in Oklahoma, according to Washington County officials.

Fort Smith lawyer Matthew Horan once investigated the case in connection with a client he was defending. He tracked it back to a break-in at a south Fayetteville auto shop.

Baker declined to discuss the case, referring all questions to the empty court file.

"I confessed to nothing," he said.

Baker was driving a lumber truck and working as a bouncer at the Red Fox Lounge in Springdale when former Sheriff Fred Crumbley made him a deputy in 1971.

A year later, with Crumbley retiring, Baker won office as part of a slate of political newcomers, defeating Republican Johnny Reed 2,844-2,681.

It was a curious election, with allegations of widespread voter fraud. The ensuing court fight reached the Arkansas Supreme Court twice before Republicans accepted the ruling of Circuit Judge W.H. Enfield that there were not enough illegal votes to change the results.

Enfield discarded 79 absentee votes that Democratic campaign worker and then-state Rep. Steve Smith had gathered from the residents of the Meadowview Nursing Home. But Enfield rejected claims by Republican attorney Erwin L. Davis that Baker and first-term Treasurer Bolinger had gotten votes from Oklahomans and the dead.

Enfield also rejected a five-page "friend of the court" brief filed by William Jefferson Clinton, a young University of Arkansas law professor. Clinton argued that Smith was within the law when he circulated absentee ballots around the nursing home and then mailed them back to the courthouse.

Testimony showed that, in one precinct, 140 people signed in to vote, and 155 cast ballots. As the votes were being counted, Republican poll watcher Dorothy Hoskins swore in an affidavit, a Huntsville man conducted a dollar-a-chance gun raffle and a drunk wandered in and out of the room.

Another poll watcher, Derice Davis, signed an affidavit saying that Baker spent most of election day on the porch outside the Hilburn precinct. There, Davis said, one man arrived drunk, signed his ballot, and handed it to a Democratic judge to fill out.

In all, Enfield tossed out 150 votes, and Democrats admitted to 19 defective ballots.

Enfield, now retired in Benton County, said the election challenge was significant "only from the fact that Clinton ended up as governor and as president. That's after the fact. At the time, it didn't seem all that much of a case to me."

But Enfield did say the trial helped illustrate that Madison County is a "different world."

He said the most memorable testimony came from a man who said that Bolinger, who still serves as county treasurer, personally delivered forms to voters allowing Bolinger to take their ballots back the courthouse.

The man "had a brother out of his mind or a total drunk all the time," Enfield said. "The lawyer asked about his brother and whether he signed one too. He asked how come [his brother] couldn't go into town to vote, and the man responded, `Well, I tell you, friend, he were loud and drunker than hell.'"

TWO LAWSUITS, HINTS OF THE HIGH LIFE AND THE SHERIFF

Baker became sheriff Jan. 1, 1973. In the 12 elections since, he has been opposed only five times. He has won each contested race by a 2-1 margin or better.

He has also been sued twice.

On June 13, 1987, Baker and former Huntsville Police Chief Ed Sharp arrested a 19-year-old retarded Rogers man on allegations he had stolen two baseball cards during the annual "Hawgfest" on the town square.

The man, Joey Bingham, began kicking the patrol car before the two officers forced him into the car and drove him back to the sheriff's office, Baker testified in a subsequent civil lawsuit. There, Baker handcuffed Bingham to a prisoner's retaining ring in the lobby.

Bingham's attorneys alleged that Baker and Sharp then began hitting and kicking Bingham, who the attorneys said had a speech impediment and the mind of an 11-year-old.

The incident lasted 26 minutes.

With Bingham protesting that the baseball cards were his, Sharp tore up the citation he had written. Bingham's parents picked him up and drove him to the emergency room at St. Mary's Hospital in Rogers. There, Dr. Tanya Claytor noted that Bingham's left ear was swollen, bruised and scraped. The back of his head and his ribs were tender. The tops of both his feet had red semicircular marks, which Claytor attributed to boot heels.

Baker and Sharp adamantly denied the beating, and Baker told jurors he was unaware that Bingham was retarded.

"I realized that Joey Bingham had a speech problem at the time," Baker testified. "That's all I realized, and that he was a very small man."

Jurors cleared Sharp but ordered Baker to pay Bingham $100,320. The check was issued June 19, 1989, by a Michigan-based police insurance risk pool. With interest, it came to $125,829.76.

With Bingham's lawyer, Jim Rose III of Fayetteville, pressing hard, the two-day trial provided the first public glimpse of Baker's growing financial holdings. Baker testified that he earned a little less than $20,000 as sheriff, and that he owned 648 acres of forest and farm land in Madison and Franklin counties and a share of a lake lot in Missouri.

Baker now declines to discuss the Bingham case. But a friend and fellow law enforcement officer said Baker lost the case because of his choice of clothing. A Harley enthusiast given to wearing biker gear, Baker wore tan pants, a black shirt and gold chains to the federal courthouse.

Sharp, who now works for the U.S. Marshals Service in Fayetteville, also declined to talk about the case.

"I'm not going to give you the time of day," Sharp said. "I'm retired, I'm alive, and I plan to stay that way."

A bachelor party for a federal drug agent led to another allegation of brutality. Gary Wayne Johnson, a worker at a Wesley broom handle factory, sued Baker, Chief Deputy Steve Treat and former Deputy Steve Corkern, who is now Huntsville's police chief.

Johnson said they beat him up after he intervened in a squabble between Baker and a female employee at Fayetteville's Bottoms Up Club on March 4, 1993.

Johnson alleged that Baker, the two officers and an unidentified woman in biker's leather entered the club with guns and a "party ball" -- a plastic sphere of beer in a box that serves as a portable keg.

Baker argued with a female employee on behalf of the unidentified woman, Johnson said.

"Why don't you cool down? That's no way for a sheriff to be acting," Johnson said he told Baker.

Johnson said Corkern invited him outside, then grabbed him at the front door of the club. He said Baker hit him in the face, and that he was then pushed back inside the club, where Treat hit him in the face. Management broke up the fight. Johnson went to the hospital. No arrests were made.

One of Baker's fellow party-goers said recently that Johnson started the incident by attacking Corkern, and that Baker hadn't yet arrived.

But, in pretrial testimony, club owner Jeannie Ward cited three separate incidents involving Baker that night. She said Baker and other police there to celebrate the marriage of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Lance King got so rowdy she was forced to close the club.

Johnson dropped his lawsuit 12 days before it was to go to trial, saying his family couldn't stand the stress.

Rose, who represented Johnson, told the court he was "personally disappointed" with Johnson's decision. "We do not believe our case is less viable than we thought all along," Rose wrote the court on Aug. 4, 1993. "We are more convinced than ever that we have a lawsuit against all three defendants."

DRUG PROSECUTIONS, COURTHOUSE DOINGS AND THE MADISON COUNTY RUMOR MILL

An analysis of the state's circuit court computer files shows 69 cases involving drug charges were filed in Madison County between 1993 and last May. Fifty-eight reached disposition, yielding 51 convictions -- an average of about 10 per year.

One of those involved Craig Minor. It wasn't his first conviction.

On May 16, 1986, Baker and Treat arrested Minor and Jerry Samuelson with 75 marijuana plants in the back of their pickup. That came soon after Minor and Samuelson had taken one of Baker's informants into the woods and pulled four of his teeth with pliers.

Covered with blood, Frank Eytchenson made his way to a local veterinarian's house and then to the hospital. He moved to Florida shortly after, according to law enforcement officials. They haven't seen him since.

Neither has Minor. "I don't know where that boy is," he said. "But he ain't eating corn on the cob."

Minor and Samuelson got probation on the marijuana charge, but were sentenced to five years in prison on a first-degree battery conviction. As the case developed, Minor's father, Illinois oil well driller F.M. Minor, says he twice left envelopes with money on Baker's desk.

"I was police commissioner here for four years," he said last month in Olney, Ill. "I kind of found out how you do things."

He said one envelope contained $200, the other $1,000. Minor said Baker took the cash without question but that the two never discussed its purpose.

"I took all the serial numbers off 10 hundred-dollar bills," Minor said. "... But my lawyer told me I couldn't prove I'd given them to him."

The stakes had escalated by 1994, when Craig Minor and his wife, Dianne M. O'Delle, were arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia on their Madison County farm.

F.M. Minor said he called Baker to negotiate and was told things had changed, because Craig was classified as a habitual felon under Arkansas law.

"He said, 'F.M., he's in serious trouble, and they're going to try him as an habitual. And you'll never live long enough to see him out of the pen again,'" Minor remembers. "He said, 'He'll get 20 years for it.'"

Minor, who said he is speaking now because Craig, 44, is dying of cancer and living away from Madison County, said he asked Baker to make a deal.

"He said, 'Well, I really like your attorney. Any deals that's made will have to be made through your attorney,'" Minor said.

Minor hadn't yet hired an attorney, but he knew whom Baker meant. Fayetteville lawyer Terry Harper had handled some of his son's previous run-ins with the law. He called Harper, and Harper called Baker.

Harper first told Minor that he would have to pay Baker and the DEA $15,000 to keep his son out of prison. When Minor balked, the up-front demand was reduced to $10,000. Craig and his wife could pay out the remaining $5,000 at $200 a month.

Craig and his wife were sentenced to four years unsupervised probation -- despite Craig's lengthy criminal record.

Madison County records show the money was paid to the county's Drug Eradication Fund, $7,500 credited to Craig, $2,500 to his wife.

Harper told F.M. Minor that the payment distribution was intended to divert attention from Craig's good fortune, according to Minor's tape recordings of their conversations.

Harper told Minor that an important part of the deal was to ensure Craig did not have to report to a probation officer and undergo periodic drug testing. The two men agreed that could land him back in prison.

"The main worry about that is if they jerk him in there once a month, and he takes a hot piss test, and comes up ... they can revoke him and I don't want them to have to do that," Harper told Minor.

"What we're probably going to end up doing is allotting about 10 of it over on Craig and five on her just to make it look like we're doing it for both of them instead of just trying to buy Craig out," Harper told Minor.

"They're doing Craig and me and you and everybody one hell of a favor here," Harper reminded Minor. "I hope he appreciates it and takes advantage of it."

Harper says he doesn't remember the details of the case. But he said such deals weren't unusual among attorneys, police and prosecutors in Northwest Arkansas. He said that Baker had not contacted him until F.M. Minor asked him to get involved, and that all of the dealings with Baker and deputy prosecutor Billy Allred were aboveboard.

Nevertheless, F.M. Minor said, the case felt like a setup.

"I firmly believe that it was cut and dried, and they knew what was going to happen before it ever happened," he said.

Dealings at the courthouse have always provided plentiful fuel for Madison County's rumor mill, which went into overdrive when Diana Criss quit her 12-year job as an Arkansas Revenue Department cashier Aug. 26, 1996. Revenue Commissioner Tim Leathers said Criss submitted a "routine resignation" while she was under investigation by Baker for issuing phony driver's licenses and license plate stickers.

It came as no surprise to local drug dealers or to the family of Billie Jean Phillips.

"I sold to her. I never bought from her," said one convicted drug dealer, adding that Criss provided a valuable service for the county's outlaws, who didn't have insurance. "She'd get us stickers for your license plates. She'd trade those for drugs. ... We'd put them on our tags, and we'd just hope we wouldn't get stopped."

Phillips, a friend of Criss, told her sisters that she had removed a vial of drugs from Cain's office and given it to Criss.

Criss has declined requests for interviews. Speaking through a local drug user, she said Baker told her not to talk to the Democrat-Gazette a few days after reporters first questioned him about the investigation.

Baker said he doesn't know much about the case, because the state was handling it. But Leathers said Baker was in charge.

"We know the sheriff was doing an investigation," Leathers said. "It became a moot point when the employee resigned."

Allred, who replaced Cain as deputy prosecuting attorney, said he was unaware of drug allegations in the Criss case until after she resigned. Absent proof of the drug allegations, he said, there were insufficient grounds to bring criminal charges.

But the dealer who claimed to have traded drugs for bogus documents says the case typifies the way business is done in Booger County: "It's a very crooked county, yeah. I've lived there all my life. It's kind of scary."

FROM MOONSHINE TO CRANK, THE UNDERSIDE OF MADISON COUNTY

No one knows when Madison County got the dubious nickname Booger County. Residents mostly blame the label on their snobbish neighbors in Washington County to the west.

"I've never seen anything in writing. All I have is hearsay," said Joy Russell, the county's leading historian. "A lot of people call it that, but I don't know the origin."

Despite his license plate, the sheriff doesn't know either.

"Whether it's what you pick from your nose or what your grandmother told you came out of the woods," Baker said, "people don't seem to mind it."

Historians put Madison County's official age at 161. It split from Washington County and became a separate entity in 1836, the year Arkansas attained statehood and Huntsville became the county seat. Residents say it was a haven for bank robbers and other outlaws in the 1920s.

Six of every 10 of its adults have graduated high school. About 8 percent have graduated from college. The average family earns $24,776 a year, according to the 1990 Census.

One in every five Madison County residents lives below the poverty level. But the statistics may deceive. Some of the county's income always has come from illegal substances.

For much of the 20th century, the hill folk operated a thriving moonshine trade. Washington County Sheriff Kenneth McKee, who once was the area's only state trooper, said Madison County was a moonshine capital, distributing its top-quality white lightning through the Ozarks and into Oklahoma.

In the 1960s and 1970s, second-generation moonshiners switched crops and blanketed the county's deep woods with a particularly hearty breed of marijuana. By the late 1980s, they had turned toward the big money that methamphetamine could bring.

Crystal meth, known as "crank," is imported from California and Mexico. But it is also cooked around the knobby hills of Madison and Newton counties, say the people who sell it. With a handful of household chemicals and some ingredients used in hog feed, dealers can produce a drug that sells for $1,600 to $2,000 an ounce.

For one drug dealer who operates within a mile of downtown Huntsville, that means raising and spending as much as $6,000 a week. He talked about how he does it one day last summer.

He is in his mid-20s. His hair is graying. It is late morning, and he already has finished his seventh Budweiser while talking with reporters. But crank is his intoxicant of choice. He knows he will sell enough this week to support his habit and pick up a little sex with a neighbor woman along the way.

He started smoking marijuana at 10 and moved to harder drugs three years later. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade.

He isn't afraid of being arrested by the sheriff. He says Baker has told him the rules. But he expects to die by September. He peeks out the window at each passing car.

"You know you're talking to a dead man," he says. "One guy held a shotgun in my face for over an hour last week. He said I f****** owed him money, and I didn't. He thought I did. He said I'd be dead by September anyway."

The drug dealer is still alive in October, and he says he has no choice but to continue to deal crank from his family home. Although he has been committed for drug and psychiatric treatment, he says there's no way out from the crank.

"All I do all day is sit around this house and wait for them to come," he says. "Any minute, somebody could pull up here and come for me. I'm ready for them when they come, though. I've got a pistol back there, and -- if somebody comes for me -- I'm ready."

He isn't married. But live-in girlfriends aren't hard to find. They usually leave him when he uses their share of the crank. He just moves on to the next woman willing to trade sex for drugs.

In Huntsville's drug community, sex is just another form of currency.

He explains:

"This girl down the street here. If I got an ounce right now, I'd probably do half of it right away and put the rest up until this afternoon. Then I'd go on and after supper I'd probably halve it again and do a quarter. With what's left, I'd cut off one little corner and save it and then do the rest of that."

The remaining corner of the day's score buys sex -- with a little return on the investment -- about 9 p.m.

"I'd go down and say, 'Hey, look at what I've got. But it's going to cost you.' She'll say, 'OK.' What's left is about $10 worth, and I'll give it to her. But she'll have to give me half of it back."

He smiles at a 1996 FBI map of drug labs seized in Arkansas. It shows two methcathinone lab busts in Benton County. The DEA has identified one of them as the largest in U.S. history. It shows seven labs busted in Washington County and one in Franklin, Crawford and Carroll Counties. There are no busts in Madison County.

The drug dealer says the map doesn't surprise him.

"Ralph don't put up with any bull****. Ralph don't care if you use drugs. He's told me, 'If you want to mess up your mind, that's your fault.'

"But when you start breaking down doors, then Ralph gets mad," the dealer adds. "He doesn't like that."

Information for this article was contributed by staff writer Jeffrey Wood.

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