A memorial for Joan Meyer outside the Marion County Record office, in Marion, Kan., on Aug. 21. A co-owner of the newspaper and the mother of its editor, she died a day after the police raided the offices and their home. Chase Castor/The Washington Post

MARION, Kan. — The phone conversation between the journalist and the town’s newly hired police chief quickly turned contentious.

Tipsters had been telling Deb Gruver that Gideon Cody left the police department in Kansas City, Mo., under a cloud, supposedly threatened with demotion. So now she was asking him difficult questions on behalf of the weekly Marion County Record about the career change that had brought him to this prairie community of 1,900 people.

The chief bristled.

“If you’re going to be writing bad things about me,” they both recall him telling the reporter, “I might just not take the job.”

He also advised Gruver that he had hired a lawyer.

Cody later said he had been on guard during the conversation, having been warned by longtime residents that the Record could be overly aggressive in its reporting.


“If you live in Marion, you understand,” he told The Washington Post. “If you don’t live in Marion, you don’t understand.”

Gruver wouldn’t publish any of her reporting on Cody for months to come. But their confrontation in April marked an escalation in long-running tensions between a group of local journalists and the officials and community members they cover that would boil over through the summer.

The small-town intrigue might have stayed in a small town, though, had Cody not initiated a dramatic step earlier this month. Responding to a local businesswoman’s allegation that the paper had illegally accessed her driving record, Cody obtained search warrants from a magistrate judge and led half a dozen officers on an Aug. 11 raid of the Record’s offices and the home of its editor and publisher – seizing computers, servers, cellphones, and other files.

The raid was so unusual, and so alarming in its implications for the news media, that it quickly exploded into an international story. Press advocacy organizations universally condemned the raid as a breach of state and federal laws that protect the media from government intrusion. Within days, a caravan of TV news trucks was rumbling through Marion’s business district, a modest collection of low-slung brick buildings.

The emotional response to the raid was heightened by the sudden death of the editor’s 98-year-old mother, who had railed furiously at the officers sorting through her belongings at their home and collapsed a day later. The Record blamed her death on her agitation over the raid.

“Get out of my house!” Joan Meyer had shouted at Cody from behind her walker before calling him an expletive, home surveillance video revealed. “Don’t you touch any of that stuff!”


Yet parsing the events that led to the search – and understanding its larger implications for a free press in the United States – comes down to untangling the complex interrelationships and tortured history of a small group of people coexisting in a single small town.

At the center of everything were a business owner, a police chief, and a newspaper.

Almost everyone knows everyone else in Marion, a town formed at the end of a railroad spur in 1860 in the rich Flint Hills grazing lands an hour’s drive northeast of Wichita.

“A lot of us have chosen to live in a small town because that’s what we want,” said Zach Collett, 34, a Marion City Council member and manager at a security company who helped lead the efforts to hire a new police chief. “We want to be able to go to the grocery store and see people that we know there. And driving down the street and knowing dang near everybody you pass by.”

It’s the town where Eric Meyer, 70, grew up in a family of dedicated journalists – his late father, Bill Meyer, a Record staffer from 1948 onward, and his mother, Joan, a copy editor and longtime columnist, who bought the paper in 1998. It’s the town to which Eric Meyer chose to return to take over the family business during the pandemic after a long career as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and a journalism professor at the University of Illinois.

In many ways, the Marion County Record has been an astonishing success. While local newspapers have been shuttering by the hundreds every year – victims of changing readership habits and plunging ad sales – Meyer’s paper boasted 4,000 print and digital subscribers before the raid, an impressive number in a county of only 12,000 residents.


Yet Bill Meyer’s tradition of aggressive reporting could rub some the wrong way – and Eric Meyer, in the view of some community members, took it up an unwelcome notch.

“People think things are emphasized [by the paper] from a certain perspective,” said Aleen Ratzlaff, a professor of communications at Tabor College in neighboring Hillsboro. “When there is an issue, they’re pretty aggressive about finding some news.”

One controversy occurred in June 2020, before Eric Meyer took over as editor when the Record reported on the death of a teenager who was hit by a grain truck while riding his bike. The story ran with a photo of the boy’s cloth-draped body, sparking objections, according to one resident. Last November, the Record’s story about another teenager’s death in an ATV accident included a description of the victim’s body that struck some readers as too graphic.

The town’s mayor, David Mayfield, has frequently feuded with the paper and often criticizes it on Facebook. In one post, he accused Meyer of telling an “outright lie” in a fiery Record editorial complaining that the council had held improper “secret sessions” to discuss allegations that led to the costly decision to fire a just-hired city administrator. As he often does, Meyer responded in Mayfield’s comments thread. (“What I’m really happy about is that the only thing you disputed in the long editorial was a relatively minor point.”) Some in Marion find Meyer’s editorials mean-spirited, especially for a town where everyone’s going to have to run into each other again.

Restaurateur Kari Newell developed a particular distaste for the Record – “It’s like Geraldo meets the National Enquirer,” she said – after a series of articles that she believed cast an unfair spotlight on a fellow businesswoman, the owner of a Marion day spa.

Some Record stories raised questions about whether the spa’s signage was legal. But the article Newell objected to most was the one that mentioned the spa owner in connection with someone else’s scandal.


Marion County Record editor Eric Meyer, left and a Record reporter, Deb Gruver, at an Aug. 21, Marion City Council meeting. Chase Castor/The Washington Post

The Record reported that the fired city administrator had been accused of misconduct after showing a woman’s provocative old modeling shots to another city official. The story included the identity of the woman in the photos: the day spa owner. It was an unnecessary detail, Newell told The Post.

“Her past was irrelevant to her business,” Newell protested.

Meyer defended the paper’s coverage of the spa. Its signage had been the subject of multiple city hearings, he said, and he believes it was important to clarify for readers that the photo being circulated by the fired official was of a local businessperson.

“We don’t want to make everything negative about the city of Marion,” he said. “It would be nice if the city of Marion did something positive for once. We would love to write about the city doing something nice.”

Newell found a chance to express her feelings about the Record. On Aug. 1, a gathering attended by the district’s congressman, Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner, was held at her coffee shop, Kari’s Kitchen.

With several county commissioners present, it should have counted as an open meeting, the Record journalists believed – but when Meyer walked in with one of his reporters, Phyllis Zorn, Newell asked Cody, the police chief, to tell them to leave.


The journalists agreed to leave but wrote about the confrontation later, drawing an apology from LaTurner’s staff.

Deb Gruver’s reporting on Chief Cody never generated a story last spring – her tipsters wouldn’t go on the record, Meyer later said. But her interaction with Cody seemed to be a flash point.

“His answer [to Gruver’s questions about Kansas City] wasn’t that it wasn’t true,” Meyer said in an interview. “It was basically that, ‘If you print that, I will sue you.'”

Cody, 54, officially assumed his post in June. Shortly thereafter, he ordered his deputies to stop sending daily police activity logs to the Record.

Crime is infrequent in Marion, but the Record had consistently published these weekly reports – detailing every minor traffic accident police responded to, every report of wandering cattle – for decades. Cody told The Post that his review led him to believe these disclosures could violate privacy laws. In response, the paper began publishing a pointed notice where the reports had formerly appeared: “Chief Gideon Cody has ceased providing a weekly report of police activities.”

This month, after the national spotlight cast its glare on Marion, Cody acknowledged in an interview that he had been facing discipline and demotion when he ended his 24-year career with the Kansas City department, resigning from his role as captain in April to take a job paying barely half as much as a small-town chief. The Kansas City Star reported that he had been accused of berating a female officer with insulting comments. (Cody denied he made sexist comments.)


But Cody told The Post that his feelings about the Record and its inquiries into his time in Kansas City had no bearing on the actions he took toward it in August.

The Record, meanwhile, was investigating another community member: Kari Newell.

A couple of Marion residents – including Newell’s estranged husband – had circulated a screenshot of a page from a state database showing that the restaurateur had 15 years ago lost her driver’s license following a drunken-driving conviction. According to the people who shared it, the document landed in the hands of a Marion councilwoman, who declined to comment. A police affidavit later alleged that the councilwoman intended to use the document to challenge Newell’s attempt to renew a liquor license for the restaurant she operates in the town’s Historic Elgin Hotel, Chef’s Plate at Parlour 1886.

It also ended up with Zorn, one of the Record reporters.

Unsure whether the screenshot was legitimate, Zorn made a preliminary attempt to confirm Newell’s driving record. She went to the website for the Kansas Revenue Department and searched Newell’s name, plugging in certain personal information gleaned from the screenshot – Newell’s date of birth and driver’s license number – so she could access Newell’s record.

“It would have been irresponsible to just take the word of someone out there,” Zorn later told The Post.


Once again, the Record decided against publishing a story – just as it had taken a pass on the murky accusations about Cody last spring. Meyer said he was uneasy with how the newspaper’s original tipster had obtained Newell’s record. Instead, he said, he privately let the police chief know that he had received some information about Newell that the original sources may have accessed illicitly. He said he also volunteered to the chief his suspicion that Newell had been driving without a license.

At an Aug. 7 city council meeting, the tension among Cody, Newell, and the Record exploded into public view.

During a hearing about her liquor license application, Newell furiously alleged to the room that the Record had illegally obtained her driving record.

The paper quoted her saying after the meeting that people all around Marion were high-fiving her for “finally standing up to the Record.”

Cody quickly took up the issue – but not in the way Meyer hoped. Three days later, the chief’s name and signature appeared on applications for warrants to search the Record’s office and the homes of Meyer, the councilwoman, and another person who allegedly shared the Newell document. Cody argued in an affidavit viewed later by The Post that the Record could not have gotten Newell’s records without “either impersonating [Newell] or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought.”

A volunteer serves as a receptionist for the Marion County Record at its office in Marion, Kan., while a reporter works on a story on Aug. 21. Chase Castor./The Washington Post

The alleged crimes: are unlawful use of a computer and identity theft – the latter charge a felony.


At 9:05 a.m. Friday, Aug. 11, Magistrate Judge Laura E. Viar approved Cody’s requests to search the Record, Meyer’s home, and the council woman’s – setting in motion the raid that would make headlines around the world.

By day’s end, the story of how police swarmed the Record’s brick storefront offices and Meyer’s nearby home – walking off with computers, servers, and a backup hard drive; injuring Gruver’s finger by yanking a phone out of her hands; even seizing Joan Meyer’s Alexa smart speaker – was major news in Kansas and drawing attention beyond the state.

“Police stage ‘chilling’ raid on Marion County newspaper” was the headline of a story by the nonprofit Kansas Reflector that same afternoon.

“Chilling” was Meyer’s word. The editor fretted to the growing crowd of journalists covering the saga that the Record would struggle to put out its next issue without its equipment – but he also crystallized the larger threat posed by the raid.

“It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Meyer told the Reflector in the hours after the raid, as well as “a chilling effect on people giving us information.”

In New York and Washington, word of a police raid on a small Midwestern newspaper caught the immediate attention of a cluster of organizations devoted to asserting First Amendment rights and promoting the safety of journalists around the globe. Over the years, these groups have stood up for reporters detained by police while covering stories or pressured by prosecutors to reveal their sources, they’ve gone to court to challenge government officials over access to public records, and they’ve raised concerns about an overt strain of antipathy toward the media increasingly displayed by some politicians and public officials since the dawn of the Trump era.


Yet an actual raid by police represented a kind of government intrusion on media operations that none could remember seeing in this country. Federal law generally protects journalists from search warrants or raids, requiring law enforcement investigating a crime that reporters may have information about to use subpoenas or voluntary cooperation instead.

“I think everyone realized how much of an existential threat this was,” said Gabe Rottman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The group spent the next two days marshaling the support of 35 news outlets – including The Post, New York Times, and CNN – to sign a letter to Cody condemning the raid as “significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive” and potentially illegal.

“We wanted to articulate just how extraordinary and significant this was,” Rottman explained, “not just in Marion but for all of the news media.”

The Reporters Committee also found a Kansas City lawyer, Bernard Rhodes, to represent the Record. A Washington-based official with another group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, flew to Kansas to monitor the situation and assist the Record in its efforts to regroup. A company started selling “Kansas Needs Reporters” T-shirts and encouraging donations to journalism nonprofits in the name of the Record.

But it was an interview that Meyer gave to a Brooklyn-based journalist barely 24 hours after the raid that helped the story go viral nationally.

Meyer revealed to freelance writer Marisa Kabas the until-then secret fact that the Record had been investigating Cody’s career in Kansas City and implied a possible connection to the raid.


“The allegations [about Cody] – including the identities of who made the allegations – were on one of the computers that got seized,” he told Kabas. “I may be paranoid that this has anything to do with it, but when people come and seize your computer, you tend to be a little paranoid.”

This detail from Kabas’s scoop was highlighted and shared by some of the most prominent media figures on X, formerly known as Twitter. Some of them asserted – more strongly than Meyer seemed to delicately imply – that Cody’s raid may have been triggered by the paper’s investigation of him.

Was it? Cody largely avoided media questions in the immediate aftermath of the raid. He issued a short statement that weekend about his inability to comment on an active criminal investigation, adding, “I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.”

In an interview with The Post a week later, though, he firmly denied that he was motivated to investigate the Record because of its probe of him.

“I have no vendetta against them,” he said.

He insisted that he had simply investigated an alleged crime at a citizen’s behest. “How am I supposed to look the other way when I have a victim who says, ‘Are you going to do anything about this?'” he said. And he noted that he had no unilateral power to launch the raid, which he said was approved by a county attorney and a local judge.


“There’s no way someone can conduct a search warrant on their own without going through our series of checks and balances,” Cody said.

Judge Viar, whose decision to approve the search warrant has been criticized by press advocates, has declined to comment.

Cody added that he doubted the raid would have attracted attention if the target had not been a newspaper. “If they were any other Joe Citizen, no one would think twice,” he said. “But because they’re journalists, I am being attacked everywhere.”

Eric Meyer, editor of the Marion County Record, works at his desk at the newspaper’s office, in Marion, Kan., on Aug. 21. Chase Castor/The Washington Post

Newell was also stunned to find herself the focus of national attention.

Sitting in Kari’s Kitchen with her eldest daughter a week after the police raids, she showed a reporter more than 500 angry Facebook messages, some of them threatening her or accusing her of killing Joan Meyer. Negative reviews of her two restaurants have poured in from strangers who never patronized them. She and her daughter had to cancel more than 100 fake online reservations for that night.

“I had high reviews across the board,” she said through tears. “And I worked very hard to get there.”


As for the Record, the newspaper took no small measure of relief and vindication when Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey announced five days after the raid that he would withdraw Cody’s warrant and return the seized items to Meyer and his staff.

The announcement seemed to amount to an admission that the now-infamous raid had been a mistake. Ensey said in a statement that there had been “insufficient evidence” to justify a raid on the searched locations or to connect the sought-after items with an alleged crime.

The sworn affidavits that Cody filed in his effort to secure his search warrants had presented the Record as an imperfect martyr for the First Amendment.

The documents noted that the database Zorn tapped into while investigating Newell’s driving history is based on records deemed confidential under state law. Outsiders can access it, but only for a limited number of permissible reasons, the affidavit said – such as being a licensed private detective, a statistical researcher who will not disclose individual data, or a person looking up her own data.

Later, though, a spokesperson for the state agency that maintains the database contradicted the affidavit in part, telling the Associated Press it’s legal for a reporter or anyone else to check the status of another person’s license.

“Even if it was illegal for us to do that,” Meyer told The Post, “the police response was like bringing the SWAT team out for jaywalking.”


After the raid, the Record received more than 4,300 new requests for subscriptions, many from far-flung boosters eager to show their support, its editor said. Volunteers showed up at the office to help answer the stream of phone calls. Meyer spent several days toggling between making plans for his mother’s memorial service and sitting for high-profile interviews with the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and NPR – while also scrambling to put out the first post-raid issue of the Marion County Record.

The banner headline: “SEIZED . . . but not silenced.”

The Record continued its work as usual – or perhaps a little emboldened.

Gruver finally began publishing the reporting she had gathered about Cody’s Kansas City tenure last spring, including blistering, subjective, and highly personal criticism attributed to sources who remained anonymous.

It was the kind of reporting that previously gave the Record ethical hesitations – but that it now was going ahead with because “other news organizations have begun publishing similar accounts from unnamed sources,” she wrote. Cody, the paper wrote, declined to comment.

As Meyer welcomed a Post reporter to the Record’s office a week after the raid, another visitor walked in, using a wooden cane for support. Sporting cowboy boots and a red Donald Trump ball cap, the man eagerly shook Meyer’s hand.

“Don’t stop!” he urged the editor. “Keep going!”

On the sidewalk out front, a spontaneous memorial had popped up, surrounded by flowers. In the middle sat a framed photo of Joan Meyer.

Farhi and Andrade reported from Washington.

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