MORRILTON Morrilton Mayor Stewart Nelson appointed a new police chief Jan. 14 amid opposition, and Nelson's truck was vandalized a few days later.
Nelson said he believes the two are related.
“I’m not mad; I’m hurt. I’m concerned about my wife’s safety and my own,” he said.
Nelson said he asked the Arkansas State Police to investigate. At first, the agency said it would assist in the investigation; Tuesday afternoon, the decision was reversed.
“We’re just going to handle it internally,” he said.
Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said Tuesday morning that the criminal investigation division “has agreed to offer investigative assistance” to the Morrilton Police Department.
“We also have asked for a letter from the mayor asking him to address specifically what his needs are,” Sadler said.
“Typically, we do not handle misdemeanor cases. Whatever we do will be in an assisting capacity. They will take the lead,” Sadler said.
However, Sadler sent an email about 12:20 p.m. Tuesday that reversed the decision.
He said the original statement was based on not having information from the mayor.
“The Arkansas State Police has advised the mayor this morning that pursuant to protocol of the Arkansas State Police Criminal Investigation Division, the allegation does not appear to rise to a felony offense.
“Unless the local police
department can find evidence of something other than a vandalism report which may rise to a felony offense, the State Police will not be assisting in this matter,” Sadler said.
“It’s very apparent it’s not a felony.”
Nelson’s 7-month-old Ford F-150 truck was sitting in his driveway when the vehicle was spray-painted with words that looked like, “It hint over,” which he said meant, “It ain’t over.”
“The statement on the side of the truck is the statement that one of our aldermen made at the meeting. Do I think the alderman did it? No, I do not,” Nelson said. “I think some people were juiced up. I hope they got their vendetta out.”
Nelson appointed Sonny Stover of Oppelo as police chief at the Jan. 14 City Council meeting. Stover, 39, is a former Morrilton police officer and was serving as chief deputy of the Conway County Sheriff’s Office.
Aldermen voted 5-3 to override Nelson’s appointment, one vote short of the two-thirds majority that state law requires to
override a mayoral appointment.
Some aldermen said they wanted to see the job go to Lt. Curtis Russell, who had been in charge of the Morrilton department’s patrol division for several months.
Former Police Chief Norbert Gunderman Jr. was elected in November as Conway County tax collector, although he didn’t resign as chief until the end of the year.
Nelson said he went to a meeting in Little Rock on Friday but did not drive his truck. He said his wife discovered the vandalism and sent him a photo of the damage.
“My problem is, while I think it’s probably nothing more than an individual frustrated at the event, in this day and age, one has to be a little bit more cautious when you’re in a permanent position,” Nelson said.
“I called Mr. Stover and said, ‘What do we need to do?’” Nelson said.
Stover, who was not yet the chief, said he first contacted the Morrilton Police Department.
“I called our investigator first and had him go down there, and we made the initial report,” Stover said.
“I had him to contact the Arkansas State Police and get them involved because [the mayor] is an elected official of Morrilton, and so there is no question, … an outside agency looks at the incident,” Stover said.
Stover said he believes his
appointment and the vandalism are connected, and “that was another reason to have the State Police investigate it,” he said.
When he was contacted Tuesday, his first day in office, Stover had just been made aware that the State Police would not be investigating.
“I just had that same conversation — found out they’re not going to do anything,” Stover said, adding that he was somewhat surprised.
“We’re still going to investigate. We’re not going to drop it. We’re going to continue the investigation within the department,” he said.
Stove said he doesn’t believe the vandalism is from any other applicant for his position but from “somebody disgruntled over the decision.”
“I hate that it came to that,” Stover said. “I hate that someone would stoop to that level just because they didn’t get their way.”
Nelson said, “I believe most of the officers accept the fact that they have a new chief.”
Stover said many of the officers have contacted him to offer their support.
Nelson said although some of the 22 police officers wanted Russell to be the chief, “some wanted the Plumerville chief [applicant Bill Hartman] in; some were real happy I got someone else.”
Although some officers and aldermen have said promotions should be made from inside the department, “I personally think the top spot ought to be from outside to bring in new ideas,” Nelson said.
Although vandalism cases can be hard to solve, “There was some physical evidence taken,” Stover said, adding that he didn’t want to elaborate.
Nelson said the spray-painting incident wasn’t the first time his property has been vandalized.
He said that in 1995, when he was elected mayor the first time, two of his truck tires were slashed after a disagreement about a trash hauler.
Nelson served 12 years as mayor before being defeated. He was re-elected in 2010 and started serving in January 2011.
“I hope this is the end and the frustration is finished, and we can move the city forward,” Nelson said.
“This is not a reflection of the community, just one or two people.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.