IRONTON, Mo. — Deputies began emptying the Iron County Jail of its 19 inmates before lunch Friday.
The county’s sheriff and two of his deputies had just been arrested. That left the jail short-staffed — and the county’s part-time coroner in charge.
So there on Friday afternoon next to the town square stood Coroner Tim Harbison in a crisp white business shirt. He had stepped away from his job as a regional bank manager to take over the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s temporary,” Harbison told a reporter. “It’s a small town. The key is service to the community.”
Iron County is southwest of Farmington, in Missouri’s lead belt. It is home to Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, parts of the Mark Twain National Forest, and nearly 10,000 residents.
And on Thursday, Iron County Sheriff Jeff Burkett, halfway through his first four-year term, was charged in neighboring Washington County with several crimes, including “criminal street gang activity.” Prosecutors allege that Burkett and two of his deputies used their law enforcement powers to try to help a fourth man, Donald Rickie Gaston, as he attempted to take his daughter from her mother last month.
The sheriff is charged with, among other crimes, falsely reporting to 911 dispatchers that the child’s mother had kidnapped the girl and that she was in danger. The sheriff and his two deputies also are accused of using “pings” from the mother’s cellphone to try to track her whereabouts.
One of the charges filed against the sheriff is that he, the two deputies and Gaston were part of a “criminal street gang,” because they were organized to commit the crimes.
Gabe Crocker, Burkett’s attorney, said the small-town politicians in Iron County were hellbent on taking the sheriff down. “These charges are 100% politically motivated,” Crocker said. “It’s simply another chapter in the long-term effort to remove the outsider sheriff.”
Harbison, a civilian, was thrown into the job in the Sheriff’s Office without notice; state law dictates that the county coroner step in when the sheriff is incapacitated. He said he thinks it will be largely administrative. His other jobs in town are as banker and funeral home director.
But the trouble has left Iron County with three deputies for 550 square miles. A few Missouri Highway Patrol troopers were helping patrol on Friday. Transferring the inmates to Potosi, 30 miles away in Washington County, is designed to help relieve some of the strain on the office.
“Taking care of a jail is one of the biggest headaches of a sheriff’s department,” Washington County Sheriff Zach Jacobsen said. “This will give them a chance to breathe.”
The charge of being part of a criminal street gang activity is a rarity, he added. “I’ve been in this business 20 years and I’ve never heard of it,” he said.
‘Sheriff Burkett battled back’
The Missouri State Highway Patrol arrested all four men on Thursday. The patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control conducted the investigation. The men charged are:
• The sheriff, Burkett, 46, who lives in Des Arc, Missouri, in Iron County. Among the four felony and four misdemeanor charges, the patrol said his crimes included obtaining criminal history record information under false pretense and making a false report.
• Iron County Deputy Matthew Cozad, 39, who lives in Bixby, Missouri, in Iron County. Prosecutors allege that Cozad asked dispatchers to check for other vehicles the woman had registered in her name, and asked that area law enforcement agencies detain her if they stopped her for any reason.
• Iron County Deputy Major Chase Bresnahan, 31, who lives in Centerville, Missouri, in Reynolds County. Part of what prosecutors accused him of doing is contacting a wireless phone company to get information on the woman’s phone location.
• Donald Rickie Gaston, 62, who lives in Caledonia, Missouri, in Washington County. The patrol said Gaston’s crimes included second-degree stalking and attempted parental kidnapping.
Burkett earned a salary of $63,000 as sheriff, according to January county commission minutes. Before he was sheriff, Burkett worked as a deputy.
Gaston was not in law enforcement but is known around town as a big property owner. Gaston and Burkett were friends.
Charging documents allege the case began on Feb. 8 when Gaston and the mother of his child got into a quarrel.
A 4-minute audio recording from the 911 dispatch center and a cellphone video picked up details of the quarrel between Gaston and the woman. They were fighting over a $50 bottle of liquor, police said, and Gaston was agitated and cursing. A female voice is heard on the recording, yelling, “Touch her again and I swear to god I’ll call the ... cops.” The video ends with Gaston saying that someone punched him in the face.
Two days later, on Feb. 10, Burkett called 911 dispatch and asked for a cellphone “ping,” saying he was trying to check “the well being” of someone, documents say. He said the woman had fled the county with a child and a court order said the father should have been notified. While on the phone with dispatch, Burkett said he was Gaston, charges say.
Later, Cozad asked dispatchers to put a “stop and hold” on the woman.
After 11 p.m. that night, a Jefferson County police sergeant told dispatchers he found the woman and her child and they were fine. When Burkett heard that the Jefferson County officer didn’t arrest the woman, Burkett replied by saying, “Well they’re gonna have another issue because Gaston is on his way there.”
Burkett’s mugshot Thursday, taken at the Washington County jail in Potosi, shows him with an oxygen line leading to his nose and wrapped behind his ears.
“Jeff’s had some hard times with COVID,” said Iron County’s presiding commissioner, Jim Scaggs. “He’s lucky to be alive.”
Last year, the sheriff was hospitalized for nearly four months, part of that time spent on a ventilator because of COVID, the Sheriff’s Office said. While he was sick, the county filed suit to remove him from office, but the case was dropped.
“Sheriff Burkett battled back,” the Iron County Sheriff’s Department said on Facebook, “and the frivolous coup attempt failed ... It is no secret that Sheriff Burkett is an outsider to many of the current elected officials.”
Removing inmates from cells
Last week, a few days after patrol investigators interviewed Burkett, he checked himself into the hospital. The Iron County Sheriff’s Department told people on Facebook that Burkett was hospitalized March 10 for complications from COVID-19.
“Sheriff Burkett is awake and alert, however, his symptoms are quite severe,” the post said.
Later that day, the office updated its message to say that Burkett was heading home for rest.
Word of Burkett’s arrest spread quickly Thursday at the biannual Missouri Sheriffs Association conference in Osage Beach.
“The fact that we arrested one of our own sent shockwaves through the conference,” Jacobsen, the Washington County sheriff, said from the conference. “We have over 100 sheriffs here.”
Back at the sheriff’s office, jail supervisor Beth Ethridge bristled as the inmates were removed from their cells. She said the county doesn’t think it’s safe to keep the inmates there without enough deputies to guard them.
Ethridge was working at a gas station when the sheriff recruited her last November to work as a jailer. Her 22-year-old daughter, Macie Yount, was in home healthcare when Burkett convinced her to work for him as his assistant.
“This is bogus,” Yount said of the charges against him. “They want to see him as the bad guy. The charges, they think he’s Mafia and he’s definitely not.”
Ethridge scoffed at the charge of “criminal street gang activity.”
“We have three streets,” Ethridge joked.
Scaggs, the presiding commissioner, said he was surprised when Burkett was snared in the criminal case. And even though Burkett’s attorney and said the commission was trying to drive the sheriff out, Scaggs said it’s not true.
“I feel sorry for those people, I really do, despite what the attorney has said, you know?” Scaggs said. “Everybody should know I don’t have the power.”
As he sat in the refurbished 1860 courthouse Friday, proud of the woodwork and artwork, Scaggs said Iron County is a tight-knit community and sometimes draws media attention for the wrong reasons.
“Normally it’s floods and tornadoes,” he said.
“This,” Scaggs said of the sheriff’s crisis, “is not who we are.”
Burkett was being held Friday on $500,000 cash bail at the Jefferson County Jail. Gaston and the two deputies are each held in lieu of $400,000 cash bail.
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