Paper Tigers

updated 09/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1998 01:00AM

From where they sat in the tiny newsroom of The Democrat-Reporter in rural Linden, Ala., Goodloe and Jean Sutton sensed there was something wrong about Roger Davis. Not only did the sheriff of Alabama's rural Marengo County (pop. 25,000) sell jewelry out of the trunk of his police car but he seemed to enjoy throwing his weight around. "Davis thought being sheriff made him all-powerful," says Jean. "He was impressed with himself."

But the Suttons were not, so when they learned that Davis had skimmed money from the county, they featured the story in their family-owned weekly newspaper. Ignoring threats and boycotts by the sheriff's cronies for more than three years, the couple kept on writing until Davis and two of his deputies had earned jail terms and the modest, six-employee paper had earned Pulitzer Prize consideration and a wall full of journalism trophies. "To take on the sheriff, the most powerful political leader in a rural county, is beyond gutsy," says Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, who investigated the crooked sheriff.

Sheriff Davis, now 57, started dipping into the county till in 1991, a year after the retired Alabama state trooper was elected to his $35,000-a-year post. First he used public money to buy his teenage daughter a $3,000 all-terrain vehicle for Christmas, only later returning to the dealer to pay with his own money. Davis funneled county dollars into his account for several years, then extorted more than $20,000 from bail bondsmen who had been operating illegally without the required financial reserves. He wasn't subtle about it. "If he could control you by fear, he'd do it," says Goodloe. "Or if he could do you a favor, he'd expect you to repay him. And he charmed people too."

Operating on a tip in early 1994, Jean Sutton first dug into the county financial records and discovered that $9,000 in public funds delivered to Davis had never made it to the office account. The Suttons ran the story as front-page news, eliciting a denial from the sheriff. "He told people he was a good Christian," says Jean. "When they asked why he didn't sue us for libel, he'd say, 'I prayed over it, and it wasn't the right thing to do.' "

Although Davis (who declined PEOPLE'S request for an interview) dodged those first editorial bullets, battle lines were drawn. Many of his supporters canceled their subscriptions to The Democrat-Reporter, cutting its circulation 20 percent from 7,500 to 6,000, and some local businesses pulled their advertisements. "As far as I know, he did a good job sheriffing while he was in office," says retired store owner Gaines Williamson, who once backed the sheriff. "Everybody knew him. We'd chitchat over a couple of coffee." Some Davis partisans felt so strongly they even phoned the Suttons, threatening to blow up the family van. "Remember," one letter assured them, "your day will come."

For Goodloe, 59, the chance to take down a crooked sheriff was worth the tension. The youngest of three kids born to publisher Robert Sutton, who bought The Democrat-Reporter in 1917, and his wife, Lorie, Goodloe first set type at the family newspaper when he was 12. He met aspiring writer Jean Rodgers, daughter of Will and Mary, while studying journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi, and the couple married after graduating in 1964.

Moving home to Linden, Sutton succeeded his father as editor and publisher of The Democrat-Reporter and installed Jean, now 57, as chief reporter. The couple—who have two sons, Goodloe Jr., 27, who works for the state Republican Party, and William, 14, a high school freshman—gained a reputation as uncompromising journalists. "Goodloe can sell a paper, that's for sure," says cement-company foreman Jerry Stewart. "There's a lot of controversy, which makes for interesting reading."

The Democrat-Reporter became even more interesting in May 1997, when two sheriff's deputies were arrested by federal and state agents for conspiring to protect drug dealers—one, Sonny Breckenridge, who was sentenced to life without parole, had been appointed by Davis to lead the county's drug enforcement unit. Meanwhile, with the Suttons' articles pointing the way, the state and federal authorities began closing in on the sheriff. By August of last year, Davis too was behind bars, caught in a joint state and FBI sting while squeezing a $975 payoff from an illegal bondsman. Two months later, he pleaded guilty to federal extortion charges; he was assessed $30,000 in fines and restitution. "I would like to apologize to my family, my friends and my church and to the people of Marengo County," the sheriff said en route to prison, where he'll serve 27 months. "I'm sorry."

Although their circulation has yet to rebound fully, the Suttons vow to continue in Marengo County whether their future holds trophies or threats. "We're just humble scribes," says Goodloe, who is also running to represent the region in Alabama's House of Representatives. "And we have the best turkey hunting, the best deer hunting and the best-looking women in the country. Why would anybody want to go anywhere else?"

Peter Ames Carlin
Grace Lim in Linden

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