Page 2 of 5
- PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
- The culture of Mississippi County is about as southern as Missouri gets, right down to an annual dogwood festival.
Cory Hutcheson is still popular in Mississippi County, even after his arrest.
Shaped like an arrowhead, the county is a puzzle of low-lying farmland surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. South of St. Louis by about 150 miles, it butts up against the southwestern edge of Kentucky, hovering less than five miles north of the Tennessee border. The culture tracks south, as does the local accent, a softened pronunciation that makes "I" sound like "ah."
And while the population is small and getting smaller — last year's U.S. Census estimates had the county sliding below 14,000 people — the land is vast. The sheriff's office has more than 400 square miles to cover. Residents say that's left them vulnerable to all kinds of crime, as hard drugs take an ever-stronger hold.
It was little surprise that Hutcheson's message resonated with local voters.
"It's a farming county," says Scott Peters, 48, who farms near the tiny town of Bertrand. "It's about our only industry here. Thieves can cost you a lot of money in a hurry."
Addicts creep down gravel roads at night to steal diesel fuel and expensive machinery. Over the past decade, they've begun scaling the irrigation systems that stretch like giant, metallic skeletons over wheat fields, climbing up to the controls and cutting away hundreds, even thousands, of feet of copper wire that they can sell for a dollar or two a pound to scrap metal dealers.
Peters says it costs about $5,000 to replace the ruined controls and potentially thousands more if they hit him at the wrong time and a crop dies.
"I've got to live here, and I'd like to see something done about it," he says.
He's not just talking about stealing. He's got kids, and it worries him to see heroin, meth and crack seeping into communities where beer and marijuana used to be as bad as it got.
"I'm not trying to run down our previous sheriff," he says, "but I really wonder what they were doing."
You'll hear versions of this across the county, particularly in Hutcheson's hometown of East Prairie. A block off Main Street at the Prairie Queen diner, employees Brittany Woodard, 26, and June Wheatley, 56, are both supporters of Hutcheson. They were sick of the old sheriff, whom Wheatley calls "haughty." Hutcheson was making a noticeable difference when it came to drugs — maybe too much of a difference, Woodard says.
"I really think he stepped on somebody's toes, and they didn't like it," she says.
Wheatley asks Woodard if she thinks the sheriff was set up.
"I do," Woodard says.
You'll hear versions of this, too. Supporters suspect there's a conspiracy behind the charges. The campaign was so nasty, it only makes sense that the old sheriff wanted revenge, they reason. Or it could be the work of a high-powered drug dealer who was pissed to see a crusader like Hutcheson cutting into his profits.
For this theory to work, this puppet master would need enough juice to force the FBI, Missouri State Highway Patrol and state Attorney General Josh Hawley to collude on a plot to take down the sheriff of a county where two-story buildings stand out. The scheme would need to include a pair of elderly hairdressers and their customers, probably doctors, a state prosecutor to handle the criminal case and untold others.
Improbable as all that might seem, Hutcheson's supporters have put their faith in him, and the alternative — that he's no better than the people he's been locking up — is troubling to contemplate.
"Everybody wants him to be innocent," Wheatley says.
- PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
- Drugs are a major problem in the Bootheel, where residents say they're trying to hold on to a way of life.
Not everybody wants him to be innocent. In fact, there are many people in Mississippi County and beyond who are pretty sure he is guilty.
Over at Joyce's Beauty Shop, 77-year-old Bonnie Woods is back to work after a three-day hospital stay that authorities say was the result of a violent confrontation with Hutcheson. The salon belongs to her younger sister, 75-year-old Joyce Baltrusaitis, who is also working during a recent visit. Their attorney has told them not to talk to any reporters about what happened, Baltrusaitis says.
"I wish I could, honey," she says, reaching out to pat a reporter's hand. "I wish I could tell my story."
Hutcheson loyalists will describe the two aging beauticians as cagier than they seem, downright vicious whenever an employee quits. Aside from farming and a handful of trucking companies, the thriving business in East Prairie seems to be beauty salons. There are at least three within walking distance of Joyce's, but her shop is the mother ship, the place where many young stylists get their start. Baltrusaitis has been in the business 57 years, 31 in the little brick building that now has a picture of Marilyn Monroe in the window.
"We're nice ladies," she insists. "We're not going to assault anyone."
Woods, mindful of the lawyer's advice, interrupts: "That's enough."
"I'm too loving," Baltrusaitis continues, tears forming in her eyes, "and then I get a broken heart."
Hutcheson's sister-in-law, Kasey Hall, was one of the stylists who worked at Joyce's. The trouble began when she quit to start a competing salon on the other end of downtown. The elderly sisters claimed she stole something — it's not clear what from court records, and they declined to discuss the incident in detail. But they apparently refused to hand over her last paycheck until the item was returned.
Unlike many of the towns in Mississippi County, East Prairie has its own police department, one presumably capable of tackling any law enforcement issues at a beauty salon. But Hutcheson showed up in uniform on March 24 to get his sister-in-law's money, authorities say.
The scene quickly turned physical, according to a state trooper's account. Hutcheson is accused of handcuffing Woods' arm when the septuagenarian refused to give up the check, cinching the cuff so tightly she bled. When she still did not give him the check, he allegedly went for her other arm.
The salon showdown was described in an April 4 probable cause statement filed by Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper T.S. Craig, who investigated the case against Hutcheson and handed over the results to the Attorney General's Office.
"Sheriff Hutcheson grabbed Woods' right arm near the bicep, causing a contusion that resulted in significant bruising," Craig wrote. "Sheriff Hutcheson grabbed Hall's paycheck from Woods' right hand, unhandcuffed her, and abruptly left."
The shocking confrontation caused Woods to have a heart attack shortly after Hutcheson walked out, authorities say. A customer drove her to a local doctor, but it was closing time, so Woods' nephew took her to another office in neighboring Scott County. Realizing she was having a heart attack, staff there had her rushed to Cape Girardeau, where she underwent an angiogram and an angioplasty.
Hutcheson continued on his way, depositing Hall's $428 check into her account. Authorities say he also filed a probable cause statement that same day with the county prosecutor, seeking kidnapping and assault charges against Woods. Instead of the sheriff roughing up Woods, supposedly she'd roughed up the sheriff's sister-in-law.
Trooper Craig wasn't buying it.
"Sheriff Hutcheson alleged Hall was assaulted and held against her will by two elderly females when she went to pick up her final pay check from them," Trooper Craig wrote. "I conducted interviews with multiple witnesses regarding the incident that occurred the morning of March 24, 2017. The witnesses indicated Hall was not assaulted or held against her will."
Hall declined comment when contacted by the RFT, but she posted a defense on Facebook. The 23-year-old doesn't mention anything about being kidnapped by a pair of senior citizens, but, she writes, "things did get ugly with words & them grabbing & pushing me physically..."
No one "wrestled an older lady and arrested her in her beauty shop," Hall adds. "Also, I'm sure said elderly women would not be strong enough being almost 80 years old to put up a big enough fight for an officer to have to struggle with."
Among the dozens of comments on the post is one from Hutcheson.
"They're upset to be losing their top earners and are doing the only thing they can... lying & smearing," he writes. "But I don't know why they brought me into their drama."