Attacks on the Press

Third Employee of Kansas Newspaper Sues Over Police Raid That Sparked Firestorm

Marion County Record office
Outside of the Marion County Record Office, March 1, 2024. Photo courtesy of Eric Meyer.

By The Associated Press

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — An office manager at a weekly newspaper in Kansas is the latest employee to sue over a police raid last year that sparked a firestorm.

Cheri Bentz alleges in the suit filed Friday in federal court that she was unlawfully detained and interrogated, and had her cellphone seized.

Two other employees, reporter Phyllis Zorn and former reporter Deb Gruver, sued previously over the Aug. 11 raid of the Marion County Record’s newsroom. Police also searched the home of Publisher Eric Meyer that day, seizing equipment and personal cellphones.

Then-Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who is among the defendants in the suit, said he was investigating whether the newspaper committed identity theft or other crimes in accessing a local restaurant owner’s state driving record. Cody later resigned following the release of body camera video of the raid showing an officer searching the desk of a reporter investigating the chief’s past.

Cody did not immediately respond to a text message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The raid put Marion, a town of about 1,900 residents about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, at the center of a national debate over press freedom. Legal experts said it likely violated state or federal law. Meyer’s 98-year-old-mother, who lived with him, died the day after the raid, and he attributes her death to stress caused by it.

Bentz alleges in the suit that she was preparing to run the payroll when Cody and other officers entered the building with a search warrant that “unconstitutionally targeted the Record and its staff” over their newsgathering.

In the months leading up to the raid, the paper had been trying to find out more about why Cody left the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. It meant a big pay cut: The Kansas City police paid him nearly $116,000 a year, while the Marion job paid $60,000 annually.

The suit said Bentz was shocked, asking “Here? What kind of search warrant?” The suit described the raid as “unprecedented” and “retaliatory.”

At one point, she explained to Cody that she was the office manager and not directly involved in reporting. “Honestly,” she said in response to one question, “I have no idea because what they do — I have no idea.”

The suit also said the paper had “drawn the ire” of the town’s then-mayor, who is another defendant.

“Bentz was caught in the crossfire of this retaliation and was harmed by it,” the suit said, noting she reduced her workload because of the “significant emotional toll of the raid.”