Crime activity escalates to new record

Monday, November 24, 2003
Meth lab #26 seized -- Investigator Ralph Gordon of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office photographs evidence of a methamphetamine lab seized in a shed on property near the White River West of Eureka Springs Wednesday afternoon. The lab, though small, was used to make meth but apparently abandoned. The Criminal Investigation Division took fingerprint samples at the site, and the investigation is continuing. CCN / Ken O'Toole

With more than five weeks remaining in the year, Carroll County's criminal court cases have already exceeded record numbers set earlier.

That could be good news ---- that area law enforcement is proving to be more successful in investigating and solving crimes.

But it could be bad news ---- brought about by a growing population base, which simply brings about an increase in the raw numbers of crimes, compounded by continued growth of clandestine methamphetamine labs, and a fraud against consumers.

Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers reports the number of meth-related crimes, domestic assaults, child molestation, and forgery and hot check charges all show an increase in the past year.

In more recent weeks, there also appears to be an increase in cocaine-related crime, something that has been relatively rare in the past decade.

"It seems to be becoming a street drug," Rogers said Wednesday as he speculated on the reasons behind the increased workload for his office.

As of Wednesday morning, there were officially 237 criminal cases filed in Carroll County in 2003, with 48 in the Western District and 189 in the Eastern District. By mid-day Thursday, a total of 197 cases had been filed this year in the eastern district

The previous county-wide record was 230, set in 1998, and matched again the following year. Curiously, the county's judicial districts varied by only one case in those two years, with 170 in the Eastern District and 60 in the Western District in 1998, and 171 in the Eastern District and 59 in the Western District in 1999.

For the year 2002, the number of cases dropped to 175 county-wide, partly due to former Prosecutor John Casteel's decision to forego filing of charges in many cases after losing his race for a third term to Rogers.

But a difference of 62 cases in one year cannot be attributed just to political courtesy.

"We've got more drug cases than we've ever had," said Rogers, adding that he believes the county needs a drug court, and that he plans to investigate state funding for one.

Carroll County's 19th Judicial District East is one of only a few judicial districts not to receive drug court funding from the state.

Circuit Judge Alan D. Epley has communicated with 19th Judicial District West about the possibility of transferring first offense drug cases to Benton County, since judges of the combined 19th Judicial District share jurisdiction.

But institution of a drug court in Carroll County will also require more money from the state for probation officers, Rogers said. A standard practice in drug courts is weekly drug testing.

Improved law enforcement accounts for some of the increase in criminal cases, Rogers said, praising all police departments in the county, and singling out the Criminal Investigation Division of the sheriff's office and improved cooperation with the Arkansas State Police. "They are responsible for the numbers increase," Rogers said.

An increase in domestic violence may, in part, go hand-in-hand with the meth epidemic, which Rogers believes is greater in Carroll County, on a per capita basis, than in the I-540 corridor of Benton and Washington counties.

The domestic incidents, he said, "are not just misdemeanors, slaps. There is some very, very serious domestic violence," he said.

Noteworthy, he said, are two recent cases, In Eureka Springs a man is charged with attempted murder after allegedly "hog-tying" his wife and lightly running the edge of a knife across her throat. In Green Forest, another man is accused of creating a pipe bomb in a plan to blow up his home with his wife and children inside.

While the public perceives that much of the increase in domestic violence can be attributed to the different culture of the growing Hispanic community, Rogers points out that in those two cases the defendants are Anglos. "It's both Anglos and Hispanics," he said.

Rogers suspects that drug and alcohol abuse may be an underlying problem in many abuse cases, noting that one defendant in a child rape case is trying to use his meth use as a defense, saying he would not have done the act had he not been on the drug.

Rogers said he has always suspected there is more cocaine use in Carroll County than has come to light. It is harder to get law enforcement into the cocaine community, he said, as the drug has traditionally been more popular in upper economic circles.

"I was public defender for 13 years," Rogers said, "and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of cocaine-related cases we had. Now it seems to be becoming more of a street drug."

An uptick, however light, is also apparent in the number of federal criminal cases coming out of Carroll County. In the past two months, two men were sentenced in federal weapons and meth cases, and a woman is facing federal counterfeiting charges.

There is also some difference in the type of crime in the Eastern and Western Districts. In the Western District, crimes tend to be forgery and crimes against property. In the more rural areas of the county, breaking and entering and burglaries are on the increase, which Rogers says is tied to the meth problem.

Additionally, demographics may account for some of the difference between the two districts. Eureka Springs, coupled with the high retirement population around Beaver Lake and at Holiday Island, is an older population.

The average age is younger in Berryville and Green Forest, and the vast majority of crimes are committed by persons under the age of 35.

The increase in crime might also be cyclical, Rogers said. "When the economy slows, social problems go up," he said.

That theory could account for the slight spikes in the number of criminal cases in 1986, and a four-year span between 1990 and 1993.

But fundamentally, Rogers believes the county is growing in ways that could not be foreseen four or five years ago. "We are catching it from two directions," he said, citing the population growth along U.S. 65 between Harrison and Branson, Mo., to the east, and the I-540/U.S. 71 corridor to the west.

Also, he said, while Carroll County is a relatively small county population-wise, there are more people in the county in summer, on up to Christmas, and "more population brings more crime, just in raw numbers."

In the future, more population growth is expected along U.S. 412 through southern Carroll County as that highway is four-laned from the Oklahoma panhandle to central Tennessee, and Madison County Water Authority brings in water lines to the area. And Rogers fully expects to someday, perhaps not in his lifetime, see a new road to Rogers, replacing the current U.S 62.

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