Crime and punishment: Local court cases make headlines in 2019

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

By Scott Loftis

Crime and punishment dominated headlines in Carroll County for much of 2019, with several notable cases being closed and several more pending at the beginning of 2020.

No local case drew more attention than that of Belynda Goff, the Green Forest woman who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1994 murder of her husband, Stephen.

Before her original trial, Goff rejected an offer from prosecutors that would have required her to plead guilty to first-degree in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence.

Instead, a Carroll County jury found Goff guilty of first-degree murder in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison. After the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a re-sentencing hearing because the original trial judge had improper contact with jurors during their deliberations, a second jury in 1998 again sentenced Goff to life in prison.

Goff’s case eventually drew the attention of The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization based in New York that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people, primarily through the use of DNA testing. Attorneys with The Innocence Project began representing Goff in 2014, and their efforts proved successful on June 26, 2019, when Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson ordered a new sentence for Goff: 393 months in prison, with 120 months suspended. He also ordered that Goff be given credit for the 273 months she had already served in state prison — making her a free woman for the first time in more than 22 years.

While Jackson’s re-sentencing order does not set aside Goff’s conviction, it notes his belief that a new trial would likely result in an acquittal, based on the facts that physical evidence in the case has been lost and at least two witnesses who could have provided potentially exculpatory testimony were not called to testify at Goff’s original trial.

Goff was released from the Carroll County Detention Center, where she had been held for the past few months to attend court proceedings, on June 27. While the Goff case was the most noteworthy to be resolved in 2019, it wasn’t the only case that reached a conclusion.

In April, Neal Scott Hagler of Berryville pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and other charges in connection with a vehicle accident that resulted in the death of Destiny Mock of Eagle Rock, Mo., in June 2018. In a deal with prosecutors, Hagler was sentenced to one year in the Carroll County Detention Center, with credit for 181 days he had already served, and 15 years’ probation. Hagler was released on Oct. 27.

In May, a federal judge sentenced Rodney Minner, owner of the Rowdy Beaver and the Rowdy Beaver Den & Tavern in Eureka Springs, to three years in federal prison and ordered him to pay more than $1 million in restitution after Minner pleaded guilty to a single count of failure to pay federal payroll taxes. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped the remaining 34 counts against Minner. Minner is serving his sentence at a medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., with a release date of Jan. 6, 2022.

In July, Jackson signed off on a document stating that no charges will be filed against Heath Wayne Owens, a Charleston man who had been arrested in April in connection with the June 2017 shooting death of his wife at a Eureka Springs rental cabin. Owens told deputies at the scene that his wife had committed suicide, but investigators reopened the case after lab results indicated there was gunshot residue on Owens’ hands and clothing immediately after the incident, according to an affidavit from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. Carroll County Prosecutor Tony Rogers has declined to comment on the case.

Ongoing cases

While those cases reached a final resolution in 2019, several other notable cases are still pending in Carroll County Circuit Court.

A Eureka Springs man, Joseph Linker, was arrested in May after his former live-in girlfriend told police that he held her against her will and raped her multiple times earlier that month at their apartment. Linker was released on a $50,000 bond but was arrested again in July after allegedly violating a no-contact order. After a hearing in late August, Special Circuit Judge Gary Arnold reinstated Linker’s original bond and he was released from the county jail later that day. The no-contact order was dismissed on Nov. 1, at the request of the alleged victim. Charges including rape and kidnapping are still pending against Linker, who pleaded not guilty at an arraignment hearing in July. As of Thursday, no date had been scheduled for Linker’s next court appearance.

In August, a standoff at a residence in Green Forest ended with the arrest of Dennis Lee Whitaker, who is accused of threatening a mass shooting at the Carroll County Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville.

According to an affidavit from the sheriff’s office, a county dispatcher received a tip that “Whitaker had stated he was planning to bring a gun to the circuit court house in Berryville and kill the people inside as well as himself to make a statement.”

Whitaker was arraigned in Carroll County Circuit Court on Oct. 25, pleading not guilty to a single felony count of terroristic threatening. He is being held on $250,000 bond and is scheduled to appear before Jackson for a pretrial hearing at 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 3, in Berryville.

Earlier in August, Lance Joseph Parker of Green Forest was arrested after he allegedly made threats against Jackson. During a telephone conversation with parole and probation officer Suzanne Villines, Parker allegedly said “that he knew where Judge Jackson lives and where his family lives. He stated he was going to get even with Judge Jackson,” according to a CCSO affidavit.

Ramsey set bond for Parker at $100,000 cash-only and ordered him to have no contact with Jackson or his family. Arnold was assigned to preside over the case as a special judge. Parker is charged with a single count of threatening a judicial official, a felony.

He underwent a court-ordered examination in October to determine his fitness to proceed. The clinical psychologist who examined Parker determined that he suffers from a delusional disorder. The psychologist reported that Parker does not lack the capacity to understand the proceedings against but does lack the capacity to assist effectively in his own defense.

Little Rock attorney Jason Barrett has been appointed as a special prosecutor in Parker’s case. Monica Lopez, records intake supervisor in the Arkansas State Hospital’s forensics department, wrote a Dec. 11 letter to Barrett advising him of the psychologist’s opinion “that the defendant was not fit to proceed,” and inquiring about the disposition of Parker’s case.

No response from Barrett was included in court documents available online, and he could not be reached for contact Thursday.

Officers with the Tri-City Response Team surrounded a residence on the Eureka Springs Historic Loop for several hours on Sept. 25, resulting in three arrests. Sebastian Octavia Valentino was booked into the Carroll County Detention Center on a charge of first-degree battery and John Callahan and Marilyn Sloas were booked on felony charges of hindering apprehension or prosecution and tampering with physical evidence.

The arrests stem from the alleged stabbing of David Sjoberg on Sept. 25, at the Iron Horse Stables on Highway 62 between Berryville and Eureka Springs.

Formal charges were later filed against Valentino and Callahan, and charges are expected to be filed against Sloas.

Valentino, who already faced multiple charges from three previous incidents in 2019, pleaded not guilty during an arraignment hearing before Jackson on Nov. 18. Jackson denied a request to reduce Valentino’s bond from $500,000, which was ordered by Carroll County District Judge Dale Ramsey on Sept. 30. Valentino remains in custody in the Carroll County Detention Center in Berryville. His next court appearance is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 6, in Berryville.

Callahan was released from jail on a $10,000 bond on Oct. 4. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment hearing Dec. 9 in Carroll County Circuit Court, and is scheduled to appear before Jackson for a pretrial hearing at 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 13, in Eureka Springs.

On Nov. 2, a Eureka Springs man was arrested on multiple charges including aggravated robbery and second-degree battery stemming from an alleged attack on a local street musician. Kenny Alan Doke is accused of attacking and robbing Zamarath “Zam” Thoth on Oct. 24.

Doke appeared on Nov. 4 before Ramsey, who set bond at $150,000. At Doke’s arraignment hearing on Dec. 4, Jackson reduced Doke’s bond to $25,000 and ordered Doke to have no contact with Thoth. Doke was later released on bond from the county jail. His next court appearance is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 13, in Carroll County Circuit Court in Eureka Springs.

Unsolved homicides

While the most recent cases progress through the court system, law enforcement agencies are still investigating a pair of unsolved homicides that occurred in Carroll County in 2018.

Sheriff’s deputies responding to check on an open door at a residence on County Road 116 near Berryville in February 2018 discovered the body of 37-year-old Christopher Alvard. The sheriff’s office requested that the Arkansas State Police investigate Alvard’s death, and special agents from the ASP’s Criminal Investigation Division have been assigned to the case, the CCSO said in a news release at the time. In response to an email inquiry on Thursday, ASP spokesman Bill Sadler said only: “The investigation remains in an active status.”

Also unsolved is the case of an individual whose body was found on Christmas Day 2018 in Osage Creek. A CCSO press release said the cause of death was “multiple small caliber gunshot wounds to the head.” Although the press release described the victim as a male, his name and age have never been released by authorities.

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