It sounds like something out of a novel, but Adam Suffridge and Samantha Swindler, two young journalists actually did it: They took down the untouchable sheriff of Whitley County, Ky., using their pens that led to the sheriff's indictment on extortion, distributing drugs and money laundering and plenty along with death threats aimed their way.
Swindler, then the 27-year-old managing editor of the Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., in Whitley County, and the then-20-year-old Suffridge, a native Whitley County resident whose only journalism experience was working on his high school newspaper, were reporting on the county's drug trade when their investigation led them to Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge.
There were grumblings that Hodge was corrupt, but those who knew of Hodge's misdeeds in Whitley County, an area with a population of some 35,000 residents in southern Kentucky along the Tennessee border, were afraid to speak out, according to Todd Tremaine, a special agent with the Bureau of Alchol, Tobacco and Firearms.
He was very insulated, Tremaine said of Hodge in a 60 Minutes segment titled Cleaning Up Whitley County that aired last night. There was a lot of fear of what Lawrence might do if they cooperated with the federal agents or state police.
In turned out that fear was justified, as an undercover officer recorded Hodge saying he was going to kill Suffridge over his reporting.
He said, I'm going to effin' kill him, Suffridge recalled on 60 Minutes. And the informants, like, 'You're just mad.' And he goes, No, you don't understand, I'm going to kill him. I've already been by his house. I know where he lives.
The death threat stemmed from an interview Suffridge and Swindler conducted with Hodge, when the sheriff lied that the ATF seized guns during a May 2004 raid of retired Whitley County social worker Rick Benson.
It turned out it was Hodge's office that seized the guns, which Benson was not allowed to possess because he was convicted previously of drugs and weapons charges.
The ATF never took the guns, Suffridge told 60 Minutes. They never even opened a case in this situation. And once we had that, I mean you got a heck of a story.
Shortly after the interview, the sheriff's department was broken into and drugs, guns and evidence were stolen. 60 Minutes said an office was trashed but there was no sign of forced entry.
That was my 'we got you' moment, Swindler said. I knew that he had staged it. I knew it.
It was just made to look like a burglary so they could explain for why the drugs and guns had been missing. And they had been missing for several years, Tremaine said.
The guns had been given to political cronies of Hodge's or he sold and traded the guns for Oxycodone to fuel his prescription drug addiction, the ATF special agent said.
There were constant threats against Swindler and Suffrage, but they persevered with their reporting.
Eventually, Hodge was charged and pleaded guilty to extortion, distributing drugs and money laundering and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
More than a dozen of Hodge's associates were also convicted due to the Times-Tribune's reporting.
And even though the reporting led to Hodge's being voted out of office, the sheriff still wanted to get even. Two thugs connected to Hodge drove to Suffridge's house around May 2010 after Hodge was indicted.
The passenger in the vehicle gets out, approaches me without saying a word, puts his hand a little bit into his waistband and I just quickly pulled my pistol, Suffridge said.
The gesture caused the two men to scram.
Suffridge says he doesn't take satisfaction in Hodge's demise.
You know a lot of people thought I'd be jumping for joy and ... all elated there that the sheriff got arrested. And it's really not, he said. It's terrible that this happened. I hate to see for my community. I hate to see that plastered all over the place. You know, Whitley County, synonymous now with a corrupt sheriff. I don't like that. I think-- I think the real story should be that a bunch of people here came together and, you know, cleaned it up.