It’s a testament to how many wholly fallible human beings don a judge’s robe and manage to do things right day after day that the allegations against former Cross County District Court Judge O. Joseph Boeckmann Jr. of Wynne rippled through the state, national and even international news when the story broke last November.
The case laid out in pieces by investigators with the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is anybody’s definition of damning, drawing on often graphic interviews with young men who came to Boeckmann’s court, hard evidence in the form of checks Boeckmann paid to some of those young men and others, and a trove of over 4,600 digital photos recovered from Boeckmann’s computer, ranging from the suggestive to the pornographic. Investigators with the JDDC say it adds up to an abuse of judiciary power that’s almost unthinkable: that Boeckmann used his position on the bench to procure both fetishistic photos and sexual and sadomasochistic partners, preying on poor and vulnerable defendants who couldn’t afford to pay their fines.
Just as disturbing was the fact that as the case unfolded, investigators with the JDDC began hearing from men who had dealings with Boeckmann when he was a deputy prosecutor in the area, including allegations that he was secretly asking for sexual favors in exchange for prosecutorial leniency as far back as the late 1970s. Some of those who claim they turned down Boeckmann’s offers as young men still sit in prison today.
Boeckmann, who stepped down from the bench May 9, hasn’t been charged with any crime. Through his attorney and in JDDC filings, he has repeatedly denied the allegations made against him. In Cross County, however, people say rumors of what was allegedly going on swirled for years, which raises the obvious question of why it took so long for it all to come to light.
‘Tell me about the boys’
Just how rarely an Arkansas judge gets into truly hot water is probably best revealed by the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission’s miniscule staff, which consists of executive director David Sachar, deputy executive director Emily White, one investigator, the occasional “undercover” (dispatched to sit in on and report back from far-flung courtrooms where judges have been accused of bizarre behavior or sniping disrespectfully at defendants or attorneys), an occasional law clerk and a fiscal officer who writes the checks. Though they’ve made some big cases in recent years, the JDDC is pretty much the definition of a bureaucratic backwater, and a normally becalmed one at that. Still, as Sachar says, unlike other states where judicial discipline is either neutered or a tool for political witch-hunting, the JDDC in Arkansas is an independent, nonpartisan agency, free to follow the truth where it takes it — or at least as far as its budget will stretch.
Joe Boeckmann’s latest troubles were not his first brush with the JDDC. On the bench as a part-time district court judge in the First Judicial District since January 2009, Boeckmann — part of one of the old-line German families that go back to the beginning of Wynne, with business interests including farming, rental property and a law practice — had received a letter of admonishment in March 2011 relating to incidents in which his employees and associates, when pulled over by the Wynne Police Department, had phoned Boeckmann while being detained and put the police officer on the line with the judge. In another incident, the JDDC letter of admonishment claims: “You also helped return stolen goods that were taken by one of your family’s part-time employees. This led to a sitting judge handling stolen property, albeit in an effort to turn the property over to authorities.” The letter concluded by saying that the public admonishment was adequate discipline, but warning that further discipline might occur if the violations were repeated.
Boeckmann once again landed on the JDDC radar in September 2014, when an investigator with the Arkansas Department of Human Services filed a complaint with the JDDC, alleging that Boeckmann had reduced a $50,000 cash bond against a woman who had been charged in Cross County with six felony counts, including three counts of theft of property and three counts of abuse of an endangered or impaired person, to an “own recognizance” bond that allowed the defendant to get out of jail immediately with no bond required. The defendant, the JDDC later noted in its statement of allegations against Boeckmann, was the sister of a former sexual partner of Boeckmann, as well as the mother of Boeckmann’s niece, and was employed by Boeckmann’s sister, who is the manager of Wynne Elder Care LLC, a nursing care company to which Joesph Boeckmann was, according to the JDDC, “a financial contributor … regularly writing checks in excess of several thousand dollars each year.” The JDDC also said that Boeckmann served on numerous occasions as the officiating judge in cases involving his family members, including two cases involving his nephew. Yes, the business, personal and familial kudzu can get a little tangled in a small town like Wynne.
Beginning in October 2014, JDDC Deputy Executive Director Emily White started looking into the case, first bringing it for approval by one of the JDDC investigation panels. Almost immediately, she began hearing troubling rumors about Boeckmann.
Eventually, still believing she was investigating a conflict of interest case in spite of the rumors, White worked her way around to interviewing Boeckmann’s court staff. Appreciating how difficult it can be for a judge’s staff to talk about their boss, White had saved them for last. It was only when she interviewed the clerk who had been in the court the longest, a woman whose employment predated Boeckmann’s time on the bench, that the case broke open. In the middle of questioning, there was a pause. Then the clerk asked, “Do you know about the boys?”
“I would say the course of the investigation shifted a bit,” White said. “I said, ‘Tell me. Tell me about the boys … .’ They actually had lists. They’d been keeping very good notes for quite some time. They said to me, ‘There’s something odd, we think, because he’ll grant community service to young men between the ages of 18 to 35 approximately, where a woman will come before him on the same charge and get slammed with the maximum fine.’ “
Once the clerk started talking, other court staff followed. “Their first red flag, to their credit, was him giving his number [to defendants] across the bench,” White said. “That’s how it started with me, really. They said, ‘He hands his number to them over the bench. His cell phone number.’ “
As detailed in the JDDC statement of allegations against Boeckmann, the judge often awarded “substitutionary sentences” to male defendants, who were told they would be able to have their fines waived by performing community service picking up cans. The standard practice, according to White and Sachar, was for Boeckmann to have some of the male defendants who appeared before Boeckmann on minor charges like traffic violations to wait until after court, at which time Boeckmann would give them a piece of paper with details of when and where they were to report with bags of aluminum cans they had collected as part of community service. The address was sometimes that of Boeckmann’s private residence in Wynne.
After they arrived at the location, Boeckmann would allegedly stand nearby and take photographs of them from behind, instructing the young men to bend over as if picking up a can and telling them how deep to bend and sometimes telling them to spread their legs wider apart. According to the JDDC, Boeckmann allegedly told them the photos would be used to document that they had performed the requirements of their community service. In the trove of thousands of digital photos obtained from Boeckmann’s private computer and handed over to the JDDC by an agency Sachar refused to name on the record, there are hundreds of photos of young men bent over, picking up cans.
One of those who was allegedly photographed by Boeckmann was Little Rock resident Richard Milliman, who appears anonymously in the JDDC’s amended statement of allegations against Boeckmann only as “Victim No. 4 (R.M.)” Formerly a resident of Memphis, Milliman — who has since become part of a group of several men who have filed a civil lawsuit against Boeckmann through Little Rock attorney Gary Green — was returning to Tennessee after visiting a friend in Heber Springs on July 28, 2014, when he was stopped in Cross County for speeding. Initially told he could go after a check of his license, Milliman put his car in gear and started to pull away only to have the officer pull him over again after a short distance and write him a ticket for expired tags. After forgetting about the ticket and missing his original court date, Milliman, then 21, eventually appeared before Boeckmann in early November 2014.
“What you would see in a movie where there’s an old Southern judge? That was exactly the same vibe I got,” Milliman said. “The judge was very stern. He seemed really rough. Really abrasive. He even told me at one point when he was questioning me, he said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t believe you, but I’m going to give you an opportunity.’ “
Milliman said the opportunity was the same given to another young man appearing before Boeckmann that day: Stay after court to receive information on completing community service rather than pay a fine. Milliman was given a piece of paper with a phone number and an address, and told to collect two bags of aluminum cans for charity. When he arrived at the address he’d been given, he said, it turned out to be Boeckmann’s private residence.
“I thought it was going to be a building, and it ended up being a house,” Milliman said. “That was a red flag. Then, right when I pulled up, the garage door was open and here comes the judge walking out. I was like, OK. I guess it is what it is.”
Milliman said he got out and followed the judge inside. When he walked in, he said, there was a bottle of liquor on the counter. Milliman said Boeckmann repeatedly offered him drinks while having several himself. While chatting with him, Milliman said, Boeckmann “kept saying, several times, ‘Aren’t you glad that you didn’t have to pay the $500 for this fine?’ As we’re talking in the kitchen, he said, ‘Let me get a picture of you outside so I can have it for the charity. Hold up the bag of cans.’ I did that, once again thinking nothing of it.”
Once they were outside, Milliman said, Boeckmann asked him to put a can on the ground and bend over as if he were picking it up. “I didn’t think anything of it. What got me nervous was he was taking the picture from behind,” he said. “Then he asked me to bend lower and spread my legs further apart. … It’s a pretty awkward situation. As we’re walking back into the kitchen, he said once again, ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to pay the $500?’ “
Once back inside, Milliman claims, Boeckmann asked him whether he had any tattoos. When he said he did, Milliman said, Boeckmann asked to see them. After he displayed the tattoos on his arms, Milliman said, Boeckman asked if he had any others, and asked to see the ones on his chest.
“Once again, I’m apprehensive about it, but once again, it’s a judge, so I showed him,” he said. “Then he asked if he could take pictures, and I told him I didn’t feel comfortable with that because of my job.”
Milliman said that Boeckmann started talking about himself, saying he had a friend who lives in France with whom he had a yearlong wager.
“This year,” Milliman said Boeckmann told him, “the bet is to see who can get the most amount of people in pictures to be in [Michelangelo’s] statue of David pose. He didn’t come out and say ‘naked.’ He said ‘statue of David pose.’ There was an amount of money that was offered, which was $300. Once again, trying to mediate the situation, I said, unfortunately I can’t because of work.” After Milliman suggested he might mention the offer to an artist friend who might want to pose, he said Boeckman told him, “I don’t know your friend. I know you, and I trust you.”
After approximately 45 to 50 minutes, Milliman said, Boeckmann had him sign a form, then asked Milliman to write him a letter thanking him for the opportunity to do community service. “Once I did that,” Milliman said, “he would wipe [my record] clean. He said, “Feel free to give me a call any time if you ever get in a bind in the area, or if you just want to stop by and hang out.’ “
After leaving, Milliman told only close friends about the incident. He said he didn’t come forward because his mother lives in Memphis and, “I don’t know how far this judge’s reach goes.” Then, back in October 2015, one of his friends who had heard the story contacted him after seeing a report about the allegations against Boeckmann on the news. The next day, he called Little Rock’s KATV, Channel 7 and appeared in an anonymous interview. Since then, he said he has been interviewed by both state and federal investigators, including the FBI.
He decided to speak to the Arkansas Times, he said, in the hope that it would help other victims come forward. Even though Boeckmann has stepped down from the bench, Milliman said the incident rattled him enough that it was part of the reason he moved to Little Rock, and bought a new car. Even now, when he drives to Tennessee on business or to visit his mother, he said he’s still uneasy when he passes through the Delta.
Once the information about the questionable community service sentences came out, Sachar and White realized they were onto something much bigger than a simple conflict of interest. Early on, Sachar said, they were able to use the JDDC’s subpoena power to get access to Boeckmann’s bank account records, and then were able to cross-reference checks paid out to the names of defendants who appeared in court. “We pulled docket sheets and were able to show, let’s say, Guy A through J appear in court … then A through J start getting checks from the judge. Then A through J wound up with community service and dismissal of a marijuana charge, over officer’s objections.” White and Sachar said the phrase “over officer’s objections” cropped up repeatedly in court records, with Boeckmann dismissing or reducing charges so often that arresting officers felt compelled to speak out about it.
Wynne Police Department Chief Jeff Sanders, while initially reluctant to comment for this article, said that dismissed charges in Boeckmann’s court became “just the normal routine.”
“It was frustrating,” Sanders said. “Our officers would get down. They’d say, why should we do anything if he’s not going to do anything? I’ve been down that road before when I was on the streets. It was frustrating.”
Sachar and White said they eventually ended up identifying 30 to 35 young men who had appeared before Boeckmann and later received payments from checking accounts associated with Boeckmann or his businesses. “We probably had 50 we were looking at, just from how curious the documentation looks,” Sachar said, adding that they still don’t know exactly what most of the payments were for.
From August 2015 to when the first public statement of allegations against Boeckmann was released in November, White pretty much lived in Wynne, beating the bushes for leads. “At some point,” Sachar said, “the people in Wynne started referring to ‘the blonde investigator who is out there all the time.’ She was out there so much. She was in the jail. She was meeting with people. They knew we were investigating.”
As someone who grew up in tiny Poyen (Grant County), White said she understood the small town mentality and what she was up against. “I knew that it was going to be difficult for the victims to tell me the truth. But I came from a small town. So I thought, if anyone can convince these guys to tell me the truth, I would think it would be me. I kind of had a mother bear mentality, for lack of a better word. I’m here to help you, not to hurt you. I really believe my years as a sexual assault prosecutor here in Little Rock helped with that.”
When the photographs from Boeckmann’s computer came in, Sachar said, it was a “game changer.” As described in letters from the JDDC to Boeckmann’s attorney, the 4,600-plus photos — which Sachar would only say were provided legally from Boeckmann’s computer via “a cooperative effort with another agency” — include photos “showing acts of masturbation [and] naked young men bent over a desk or bar,” as well as pictures described by the JDDC as “numerous photos of naked young men from behind bending over after an apparent paddling.”
As seen in JDDC filings, one of over a dozen alleged victims who came forward is a young man identified in documentation only as J.M. He told White that after being arrested, Boeckmann told him that they could “handle this outside of the courtroom.” Upon arriving at a prearranged meeting with Boeckmann, J.M. told White, Boeckmann drove him to the Cross County Courthouse at night, took him inside a courtroom there, and order him to strip.
“J.M. went down to his underwear,” JDDC filings in the case say, “and Boeckmann said, ‘underwear too.’ J.M. removed his underwear and was completely frightened. He was told to put his hands behind his back and then was handcuffed. J.M. heard a few snaps of the camera and then was told to bend over. The pictures were taken from the rear.” Sachar and White have since identified dozens of young men from the photos, though others remain unknown.
“[The photos] were depressing,” Sachar said. “They were a step up from dungeon pictures. You could see guys with horrified looks on their faces about what they’re being made to do. You can see some guys who are obviously intoxicated or high just to get to the point where they can do this. Some are smiling. Some are indifferent. But it looked like a collection of someone who was a deviant. We spent a week looking at that and it hurt my brain. … There were several of them [White] went to, and when she showed them [the photos], they didn’t know those pictures had been kept. They would either break down and cry, or have the usual reaction that you can expect, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do now? Those pictures are out there.'”
White said that getting some of the victims to talk was a process of building a relationship of trust with them. Slowly, a pattern emerged. Those for whom things went further than picking up cans were often local, often repeat criminal offenders whose credibility might be questioned, often too poor to pay their fines. While Sachar and White said they never found a case where Boeckmann had allegedly threatened a stiffer penalty to those who didn’t cooperate, young men who appeared before him most often, and who owed the most fines, were those who often allegedly accepted an arrangement to pose for photos or more.
“Some of these guys, it took them a long time to talk to us,” Sachar said. “Others had drug problems and wouldn’t talk to us because they were strung out. Others were in rehab, and when they got out, they told us, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth now that I’m square.’ “
“We talked to a lot of wives,” White said, “I talked to many wives who would tell me, even sometimes before their husbands would tell me the truth. They would say, ‘Look, I don’t know the details, but I know that my husband will get a phone call, he’ll say, “I’m leaving, I’m going over to Joe’s.” He’ll come back in an hour or two hours, and he’s got $1,000 cash in his pocket and he doesn’t touch me for a month. I know something’s wrong.’ It ruined their marriages.”
‘God is God’
On Nov. 17, 2015, the JDDC publicly released its allegations on how Boeckmann violated several sections of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Boeckmann was suspended with pay, and a special state prosecutor was named to look into the case. JDDC executive director Sachar took the unusual step of holding a press conference to discuss the allegation, banking on the fact that publicity would bring other alleged victims out of the woodwork.
One of those who started talking was Early Muhammad, who has since been interviewed by the JDDC. An inmate at the Tucker Unit maximum security penitentiary, Muhammad said he was sitting in his cell watching television in the fall of 2015 when a familiar face came on the screen: Joseph Boeckmann, who had been the prosecutor on the case that sent him to prison for life. In a recent interview with Arkansas Times, Muhammad claimed that in 1979, after being arrested for aggravated robbery in Wynne, he was being held at the Cross County Jail when a deputy came to his cell and told him that the prosecutor in his case wanted to speak with him. Muhammad said that he was taken to a small conference room, where Boeckmann was waiting. Once inside, Muhammad said, the deputy who had brought him there stepped out and shut the door. After asking him a few preliminary questions, including whether he’d ever been to prison, Muhammad said Boeckmann told him, “You know that I can help you out and you won’t have to go to prison.” After that, Muhammad said, Boeckmann came around the table and sat beside him, then began asking him about homosexual experiences.
“He put his hand on the inside of my leg,” Muhammad said. “He said, ‘Well, I can help you. All you’ve got to do is cooperate with me.’ At that time, I pushed his hand away from me and got up from the table and stood up by the door.”
Muhammad said he asked to be taken back to his cell. He didn’t tell anybody, he said, because he didn’t know whom he could trust. “I’m going to be blunt with you,” Muhammad said. “So many things happen to people in jail. By being a black person in that county alleging something that a prosecutor — a powerful person — had did, I didn’t feel safe. Really I didn’t have anyone I could count on to trust.”
Muhammad was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, with 15 years suspended. He was out on parole by 1984, when he was picked up for another aggravated robbery in Wynne. Taken back to the Cross County Jail, Muhammad said he was summoned to the same conference room again. Once again, he said, Boeckmann was waiting inside. Muhammad said Boeckmann again talked about homosexuality, then came around the table and tried to touch him.
“I pushed him back,” Muhammad said. “He told me again, ‘You remember I’m the prosecutor. I can help you or I can hurt you.’ He said, ‘No one will know.’ Then he started asking me different things. … Stuff that’s really embarrassing to even discuss, even at my age. It’s embarrassing.”
Muhammad said he rebuffed Boeckmann. Later, without offering a plea deal, Boeckmann took the case to trial before what Muhammad said was an all-white jury. “He told the jury that he wouldn’t ask them to give me nothing else but life in prison,” Muhammad said. “He was like a vicious attack dog.”
Found guilty and painted as a continuing danger to the community, Early Muhammad was sentenced to life. He’s been locked up since 1984 and — unless there’s a drastic change in his case — will likely die in Tucker Max. “He made sure that, by him being the prosecuting attorney, [I received] life in prison,” Muhammad said. “I killed no one. I hurt no one. No weapons or nothing was found. I had an all-white jury. There wasn’t no justice for me.”
Muhammad, a devout Muslim and member of the Nation of Islam, said that even knowing he’d spend the next 32 years in prison, he wouldn’t change the way things allegedly went at the Cross County Jail in 1984. “God is God,” Muhammad said, and He will eventually “situate” everything. What does eat at Muhammad, however, is his guilt at not coming forward back then.
“I feel like I’m responsible for what he did to those other young guys,” he said. “The reason I say that is because I didn’t speak out. I didn’t have no one to turn to, I didn’t have no one to trust. But I still carry that burden like I was actually the person who was doing it to those kids. That’s a burden I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I feel like I should have spoke out to somebody. Maybe we wouldn’t be going through this right now.”
As a former prosecutor, White said she would normally be very skeptical of anything told to her by an inmate serving life without parole. The Boeckmann case, however, is different. Muhammad is not, White said, the only case they have uncovered where a young man was locked up for a long stretch after allegedly rebuffing Boeckmann when he was a prosecutor.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys through this process,” she said. “But [Muhammad] was one who, immediately when I hung up with him, I thought, I believe every word that came out of his mouth. I did. I believed every word that comes out of his mouth.”
First Judicial Circuit Prosecuting Attorney Fletcher Long, who has been in his position since 1993, hired Boeckmann twice as a fill-in deputy prosecutor and knows him personally. He said he never received a single complaint against Boeckmann as a prosecutor and said he never heard even a rumor about sexual improprieties involving Boeckmann.
“Joe is a good person. Whatever his problems with this conduct otherwise, he has been widely known as a good person,” Long said.
Asked whether he believes the allegations against Boeckmann, Long would only say, “I neither believe or disbelieve them. I believe we’ll find out.”
Order in the court
By early May, as the case hurried toward an October JDDC trial, Sachar and White were shipping almost daily rafts of new allegations to Boeckmann’s attorney, including graphic descriptions of the photos they intended to introduce as evidence and a list of 55 witnesses they planned to call, including police officers, investigators, Cross County political figures, Boeckmann employees and family members, and over a dozen former defendants who had appeared before Boeckmann in court. On May 9, Boeckmann submitted a letter of resignation to the JDDC, saying that he would never again seek employment “as a local, county or state employee or public servant in the state of Arkansas.”
The Arkansas Times reached out to Boeckmann’s attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, who said his client would have no comment on the case. Rosenzweig did say that Boeckmann “decided to resign from the judgeship not as any concession that anything happened, but that it didn’t make any sense from a stress, financial or any other standpoint to go through a hearing with regard to an office that he was going to vacate anyway.” Rosenzweig noted that Boeckmann was not running for re-election, “so why go through a hearing in the fall when the only issue is continuation in an office in which his term was expiring two months later? It didn’t make any logical sense to do that, particularly at his age, which was 70, approximately.”
In Wynne, where things can get so tangled with regard to a powerful person like Joseph Boeckmann Jr., it’s still hard to find people willing to talk about him, pro or con, even though his time on the bench is done. Walking the streets, you get a lot of “no comment” from people, after they chuckle at the thought of being asked for their opinion by a reporter from way yonder.
Shelba Ward has been a Wynne resident all her life, and was shopping in a thrift store downtown on a recent Friday. Ward, 75, said she has known Boeckmann since they were both young, and has hired him a few times as an attorney. She said many in town knew what was allegedly going on in Boeckmann’s court, but didn’t come forward.
“Everybody in this town knew,” she said. “They knew what he was. Everybody here knew. I can’t tell you why they didn’t [come forward]. It’s just like a lot of other things: They know it and keep it quiet. They’d rather not get into it.”
Over at the Cross County Special Workshop, an agency that helps developmentally challenged residents find work and develop job skills, Executive Director Donell Hill, who lives in nearby Cherry Valley, said that the Arkansas Delta has long been a place where political corruption reigns and is presided over by powerful families that he likened to the Mafia. Hill said he believes Boeckmann’s “brand name” helped him get by for years, despite persistent rumors around town about goings on in his court.
“I have clients who went before him who said that in court it was like a TV show,” Hill said. “Judge Joe Brown, Judge Judy. He’d talk to them like a dog, degrading them and stuff like that. I said man, how’d he get by with that?”
The case, Hill said, is one of the worst he’s ever seen, but he knew it would eventually come to light. It was a long time coming, however. “The best thing to ever happen to the court system in Wynne is that Boeckmann is no longer on the bench,” Hill said. “He was a danger to society and he was controlling. People were fully aware of it, and nobody said [anything]. I’m a minister, and I call right right and wrong wrong, and there’s no right way to do wrong. There are people right here in Wynne, Arkansas, who were afraid to come out.”
At City Hall, Wynne Mayor Bob Stacy said while there have long been suspicions about Boeckmann’s behavior, they were just rumors that didn’t rise to the level of being reported or investigated. “There’s been suspicions about maybe people he had acquaintance [with] or who worked with him getting special treatment or that kind of stuff, but nothing toward the sexual kind of behavior,” Stacy said. “I’ve not heard of that or witnessed that.” Though some are sure to suggest that there was a broad cover-up of Boeckmann’s alleged behavior in Wynne (something Sachar and White both said they found no evidence to support), Stacy said it was simply a case of unsubstantiated rumors. “As with all levels of politics, there’s levels of protections built in,” he said. “You can’t address every rumor that comes down the pike and have drastic reactions to it.”
Stacy said the press coverage of the case has been embarrassing. Around town, he said, many people know Boeckmann, his family and the alleged victims. “We’re sad for the family, and sad for him, sad for the victims and sad for the town,” he said. “It’s not the kind of publicity you want and not the way we try to carry ourselves around here. In small towns, everybody is related to everybody, so you just don’t have the big public outcry. Their family has been around here for years and has been prominent. You just really kinda hate to talk about it, really. It’s sad to talk about.”
One silver lining for Wynne has been that fines collected in Boeckmann’s former court have skyrocketed since he was suspended from the bench last November. Stacy said in April, for instance, the amount of fines collected was literally double what it had been in April 2015. “We’d already collected two-thirds of [the amount] we had anticipated collecting this year,” Stacy said. “Our projections had been lowered because we’d been in a downward trend. We collected twice as much in the same four-month period as last year.”
Judge Mike Smith, who was elected in March to fill the Cross County seat vacated by Boeckmann, was appointed by the state Supreme Court to take the bench early. On the bench less than a week when we spoke with him, Smith’s first full, four-year term will begin in January. A former Wynne Police Department investigator who also has a law degree, Smith said he decided to run for the office before the allegations against Boeckmann came out. While he said it would be improper to speak about any pending investigation in the Boeckmann case, he said that he and the judge who had formerly been assigned to cover the court quickly took steps to provide public accountability, including installing an audio-visual camera system in the courtroom.
“All proceedings in the courtroom are now taped, so there’s no question of what was said by either a judge or a participant,” Smith said. “We have an absolute record of it that’s archived. We can go back. It opens up transparency to the system. All of our actions are subject to review, which they should be. We’re public servants.”
Any person who is a party to a case will have access to the recordings, Smith said, and they will also likely be available via the state Freedom of Information Act, except in cases involving juveniles. Smith said he’s talking to the Wynne Police Department and the Cross County Sheriff’s Office about expanding the system to include cameras to record suspect interviews and allow for video appearances. Asked whether the recording system is a direct response to the allegations against Boeckmann, Smith said: “I will say that it will be a preventive measure to make sure there’s no further allegations of anything going on in court. … A lot of things would not have happened, possibly, if they’d had cameras before.”
Smith says he believes recording public hearings and trials to be a “wonderful idea” and should be expanded to courtrooms far beyond Cross County. “I think the courts ought to be held to a high standard,” he said. “We are servants of the public, and I think the public has a right to know what goes on in the courtroom. It’s a wonderful protection for both the court personnel and the litigant.”
As for the JDDC, neither White nor Sachar would comment about whether Boeckmann’s alleged behavior warrants criminal charges. A section of their amended complaint against Boeckmann, released in January 2016, cites several criminal statutes, including felony abuse of public trust, sexual assault in the third degree, forced labor and coercion, and Sachar said he and White will continue to investigate the case to assist agencies still working on the matter. In addition to the civil suit filed against Boeckmann and the ongoing work of Jack McQuary, special criminal prosecutor in the case, Sachar suggests there may be other legal entanglements for Boeckmann as the case unfolds. “I wonder how the IRS will take it if he was paying people for deviant acts, but writing them off as a business expense?” Sachar said. “I have a hard time believing that he was writing them out of his business account and not calling them business expenses. … If the feds aren’t handling that angle, we will at some point refer to the IRS. So we still have some work putting this to bed. We believe we have a responsibility to make sure that if there’s any other agency out there that needs to know, we can do that.”
Special Prosecutor McQuary declined to be interviewed, saying he couldn’t comment on a pending investigation.
Asked whether the case makes her think differently about justice and the idea that Arkansans can get an impartial day in court no matter where they live, White said she’s an optimist who believes that the vast majority of the judges in the state do the right thing. Boeckmann, she said, was an exception to the rule.
“I don’t want any citizen of this state, much less [someone in] Cross County, to go into court ever again and be fearful of what sits across the bench from them and what wears the robe,” she said. “I don’t want that. If any good came out of this case, it’s that it exemplifies that. The citizens of Cross County are much better off with him off the bench. And if there’s any other judge across this state doing something similar that I don’t know about yet, the citizens of that county are going to be much better off when that person is off the bench. I hope it gives them some hope.”
Tom Coulter provided additional reporting.