The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Jackhammered, A Life of Adventure:
A better example of the need for two parties occurred in Conway County. I played a key role in a political drama that was stranger than fiction, a fiasco that nearly cost me my life. A fellow attorney in Searcy, Cecil Tedder, who later became a circuit judge, laughingly said I should have received the “Order of the Purple Navel,” for what happened to me in Conway County.
Marlin Hawkins became sheriff of Conway County, Arkansas in 1951, and before that he had held other county offices. He was a classic county-level politician. The people in his home county revered him, but elsewhere he received mixed reviews. Shortly before his death in 1995, he published an autobiography entitled, How I Stole Elections. My father and I are in his book: Daddy for the work he and Marlin did during the Great Depression to recruit young men for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and I for the fiasco.
In the mid-1960s, Marlin Hawkins had a running feud with Gene Wirges, the publisher of a local newspaper in Conway County. That dustup produced a number of allegations, one of which was that Marlin Hawkins, as sheriff, was engaged in an unlawful scheme to skim money from traffic ticket collections. A number of taxpayers filed suit contending that the sheriff wrongfully converted to his own use substantial sums of money collected and received as fines and costs. After years of litigation a judge ruled in favor of the taxpayers and ordered the sheriff to pay a judgment of $10,082.
Winthrop Rockefeller was governor of Arkansas at the time and that was an unfortunate development for Sheriff Hawkins.
The governor’s lawyers, at the urging of Wirges, found a law saying that a sheriff was disqualified to hold office if he owed such a judgment to the people. In their opinion, the office of sheriff was, eo instante, vacant upon entry of the judgment. Having reached that conclusion, the lawyers opined that Governor Rockefeller had the duty to appoint a successor to fill the vacancy. Governor Rockefeller needed no coaxing. He and Marlin Hawkins had been at odds for years. The problem was to find someone with enough courage to take an appointment that would surely infuriate the citizens of Conway County.
It took some searching, but eventually an eighty-three-year-old gentleman, Mr. Ralph Childers, agreed to take the appointment. The paperwork was quickly prepared, and by the time Childers took the oath of office in Little Rock, news of his appointment had already reached Conway County. The governor received reports that Marlin’s supporters were gathering around the county courthouse in Morrilton. Some were armed, and they were saying to anyone who would listen that they were not going to let Ralph Childers serve as sheriff of Conway County. They intended to block any attempt by him to enter the courthouse office of Sheriff Hawkins. Mr. Childers was willing to go to Conway County, but everyone agreed he needed an escort to help him navigate his way through hostile crowds and make comments to the press explaining why he was sheriff and Marlin Hawkins was not.
The governor’s lawyers nominated me to accompany the new sheriff.
Mr. Childers and I boarded a small single engine Bonanza at Central Flying Service in Little Rock shortly after lunch. After a short flight, we landed on a grass airfield just west of Morrilton. There Gene Wirges met us and drove us to his newspaper office. He told us the streets around the courthouse were full of irate Hawkins supporters, but he said a few people who supported our cause were in the crowd. The director of the Arkansas State Police called me at the newspaper office and warned me that we were walking into a hornet’s nest. He urged us to use extreme caution. Mr. Childers, Gene Wirges, and I debated the situation, trying to decide whether we should go to the courthouse to finish what Governor Rockefeller had started. It would be risky, but it was the right thing to do. The governor was dedicated to clean government and Sheriff Hawkins was the poster-boy for county level corruption. We decided to go.
By the time we got to the courthouse there were well over five hundred Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles, and shotguns and making no effort to conceal the weapons. Many others were sitting in their cars and trucks, armed and ready. Two state police troopers escorted us into the courthouse where a deputy sheriff told us that Sheriff Hawkins was out of town and he did not have a key to the office. He said, “If you want to get in you will just have to wait for the sheriff to return.” That was an obvious put-off so we said we would just take a seat on a bench in the hall and wait for Marlin Hawkins to return, or for someone to open the door and let us in.
Meanwhile, the Hawkins supporters were circulating inflammatory stories to keep their people fired up. One of the stories was that Gene Wirges and the state police, operating under the authority of the governor, intended to go to Marlin’s home and take the keys to the office from his wife, by force if necessary. To make matters worse, Hawkins, who was in Little Rock, gave an interview to the press alleging that the governor was using gestapo tactics at the courthouse and at his residence.
The mayor of Morrilton, Thomas Hickey, got so upset that he came to the courthouse with a shotgun and pistols holstered on his hip. He demanded that the state police allow his city police officers to enter the building so that they could stop any attempt we might make to take over the sheriff’s office. The state police relented because they had no legal right to keep the local authorities out of the courthouse. Once they were in the building the mayor stationed an inexperienced rookie, Gene Price, to stand in front of the door to the sheriff’s office and—unbeknownst to me—told Price to use his sawed-off shotgun to shoot anyone who tried to enter the sheriff’s office. By then some of the sheriff’s deputies were also in the building. The atmosphere had reached boiling point.
Steve Barnes, who later became Arkansas’s most revered TV news reporter, was at the time a cub reporter for Channel 11, KTHV-TV, in Little Rock. He was in Morrilton to cover the story and somehow managed to get inside the courthouse. Mr. Childers and I had been sitting on the bench waiting for half an hour. It was nearing the end of the day and Barnes was running out of time to get a story on the evening news. He asked me if Mr. Childers and I would allow him to film a short video of us in front of the door leading into the sheriff’s office.
I saw no harm in that so we agreed and Mr. Childers and I started down the hall toward the sheriff’s office. Steve followed with his camera up and ready to roll. As we got close to the office the rookie officer, Gene Price, jumped out of the shadows and stuck his shotgun in my stomach, saying, “Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.” Thank God I had just finished a four-year tour as a special agent of the FBI, otherwise I might have fainted dead away.
The rookie cop was shaking and his voice was squeaky and shrill. His jittery eyes, only a foot or so from mine, told the story. He was the one with the gun, but he was scared to death. As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger and I did not like the odds.
At that life-and-death moment, a state trooper stepped up beside me and told Price to calm down. The trooper took hold of the barrel of the shotgun and slowly lifted it straight up as he gently continued his effort to soothe Price. I held my breath as the muzzle started its life-long journey upward. It passed my chest, then my Adam’s apple, then my mouth, and finally it passed directly between my eyes. My mind was abuzz and I cannot remember what I was thinking—I only remember that it was a prayer.
Once the muzzle of the shotgun was up and out of the way, the confrontation with Price was over, but it was immediately apparent that we should abandon the attempt to install a new sheriff, at least for the moment. I told the state police and Steve Barnes that Sheriff Childers and I were going to Little Rock where I would appeal to the attorney general to seek a writ of quo warranto, a legal proceeding that forces an ousted official—Marlin Hawkins in this case—to show by what warrant he continues to serve.
Mr. Childers and I went outside and stood on the courthouse steps where I gave an impromptu interview to others in the media. As we were speaking, a fight broke out. A Hawkins supporter attacked a Rockefeller supporter and bloodied his nose as they rolled down the courthouse steps. I told the media that I would be at the attorney general’s office first thing the next day. Sheriff Childers and I got into a state police car and headed for Little Rock. The crisis was over, at least for the day, and I was lucky to be alive.
The next day, I confronted Attorney General Joe Purcell, a Democrat, and urged him to seek a writ of quo warranto. He grinned, and said nothing. He knew, and I learned later, that Marlin Hawkins and several friends had paid the judgment that morning by tendering a certified check for $10,082 to the county treasurer.
Thus ended the fiasco for which my friend, Cecil Tedder, awarded me the fictitious Order of the Purple Navel.