UNTOLD STORY: Kari Newell and the Marion County Record
MARION, Kan. (KAKE) - "Go f**k yourself to death, you incompetent c**t.."
A harsh voice emits from an old iPhone Kari Newell holds in her hands. It's one of dozens, if not hundreds, of voicemails attacking her. There are so many they've filled up her phone's memory. She says she doesn't clear them out in order to prevent anyone from leaving her new hate-filled recordings.
"I mean, that was a death threat," says KAKE News reporter Pilar Pedraza, sitting across the table from Newell who shrugged.
"I've gotten several of those. I've been told to kill myself," she says. "(They've) told me that they hope my house burns down with my children in it."
Villain or Pawn?
Some say Marion restaurateur and caterer Kari Newell has reaped what she sowed. But others say she's just a pawn in someone else's battle.
After weeks of avoiding the TV news cameras, Newell agreed to an interview for the first time with a local reporter. She shared her story, in her own words with KAKE News Investigator Pilar Pedraza.
Newell told Pedraza she owns the mistakes she made in the days surrounding the now infamous police raid of the Marion County Record.
"It's really hard for me to wrap my brain around how I became the villain in this," Newell said.
She's sitting in the empty dining room of her cafe, Kari's Kitchen. The KAKE News team spent several hours with her there last week to hear her story.
"How did this all start for you?" asks Pedraza.
"Essentially it started with the phone call stating that the police believed that my mail had been stolen and that I was the victim of a crime."
She says the call was from Marion's new Chief of Police, Gideon Cody.
In the affidavit used to get the search warrant for the raid, Cody wrote, "I received the emails, I saw that it contained a screenshot with a DOR record addressed to the victim, Kari Newell. I then contacted Kari, she stated she did not know how someone was able to access her mail and she gave no one permission to obtain, access or open her private mail."
That record or letter was from the State of Kansas listing what Newell needed to do to get her license back after finally paying off all her fines and fees from a DUI she'd gotten in her twenties.
Newell says after checking, she told the chief she still had the letter so it wasn't stolen from her mailbox.
"He said, 'Well, let me get back in touch with you. Let me look and see where this... how they... how they would have gotten a copy of it.' When he called me back is when he let me know that they had accessed that through the Kansas Department of Revenue records site," Newell says.
The affidavit provides a similar accounting with Cody writing, "My investigation revealed the letter was not stolen from her mailbox, rather it was downloaded directly from the Department of Revenue."
"I was dismayed. I was shocked," Newell says about her reaction to the news. "I kind of freaked out from it."
The City Council Meeting
She says she was already slated to appear at the city council meeting that night, on a premise approval for a catering license. While she says she didn't think the DUI was going to be a big problem, she was worried about what might happen that night.
"Like okay, no way is something from my 20s going to be an issue now. There was no reason for it to be. It was a non-felony, non-injury, non-accident diversion, several years ago. So I wasn't overly worried about that," she says. But, "I felt that maybe somebody that was an elected official was potentially abusing their power to dig up dirt from people's pasts for reasons that are ill-intended. So of course I was bothered by that."
When Vice-Mayor Ruth Herbel raised concerns about her liquor license application during the meeting, Newell says she felt personally attacked.
"When she did question the validity of the information," Newell says, "when it came time for me to speak during public open forum. I let her have it."
In the recording of the meeting available on YouTube, you can hear Newell speaking, though not see her, for almost three minutes, beginning at the 29 minute mark.
"It was brought to my attention today that my privileged, personal information, that was illegally obtained by a local reporter, was shared with council member, Ruth Herbel," Newell began.
She later added, speaking directly to Herbel, "I'm very disappointed that as a representative of our community, in your elected position, that you would behave so negligently and maliciously. And I really hope that your team members here today take note of exactly how vile your behavior is."
Herbel and others interrupted at one point to ask where Newell came by this knowledge. She responded that she wasn't going to tell them because lawyers were going to be involved.
"I just wanted to make you aware that what she did was negligent, reckless, unnecessary," Newell finished. "And it was a violation of my personal privacy."
It's a move she now regrets.
"I understand my part in it," she says. "I understand how bad it looks that I went to the city council meeting and I ripped Ruth a good one. But I felt I had been my privacy had been invaded for... for no good reason."
But, she adds, she never expected what happened next - the police raids of the newspaper's office, co-owner Joan Meyer's home and councilwoman Ruth Herbel's home.
"I was out of state when it happened. I didn't know until a coworker from the hotel messaged me and said, 'What in the world was going on at the newspaper today?'" Newell explains.
She says she immediately called Chief Cody to find out. He was still in the middle of the raid at the time, according to reports from the Record about body cam footage it had obtained.
The paper's surveillance video of the raid quickly exploded into an international story, framed within the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protections.
A day after that raid, the Record's co-owner and the publisher's 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, died. Her family says the coroner's report shows stress from the raid as a contributing factor in her death. The Record reports the body cam video shows Joan Meyer telling officers, "You know, if I have a heart attack and die, it's all your fault....If I die, you're going to be sued for murder."
"When you heard she had passed away, what was your first reaction?" Pedraza asks.
"Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. I can't imagine if it was my loved one that they spent their last day on this planet feeling the things she felt," Newell says. "Whether it was caused by the raid is completely irrelevant. It's the fact that she spent her last day here, irregardless (sic), feeling that thing she felt, that's sad."
After her DUI, her verbal attack on Councilwoman Herbel, her name as the victim on the affidavits used to get the search warrants, and then Joan Meyer's death, many following the story of the raids began to see Newell as a villain.
Some took action to punish her.
"False reviews, tons of them. prank phone calls, fake reservations, getting letters in the mail that are hateful," Newell lists.
Voice mails like these:
"I hope the newspaper sues you into bankruptcy and you have nothing left. See, this is the problem we have with you elite, privileged (garbled). You break the law and then you use your so called connections to escape being accountable. You're nothing but a spoiled brat."
"You killed that old lady. You f***ing c**t. You killed that old lady."
"You murdering son of a b****c. You did it. I can't believe it. You did it. Yeah, you are the best. We congratulate you. You killed that 98-year-old woman to protect you and your business because nobody comes between you and your money."
"We all know about you. We all know who you are. We will be at your place. We will be standing outside of your place. We will be showing that you cannot stomp... on stomp on people rights."
"What the hell is wrong with you, woman? What the f**k... I mean, excuse my French, what the copulation are you doing? This is America. We're allowed to get your records. There is public access you stupid, stupid, stupid woman."
"Go f**k yourself to death, you incompetent c**t.."
"They're all pretty equally explicit," Newell says.
"I mean, that was a death threat," Pedraza comments.
"I've gotten several of those. I've been told to kill myself ... (They've) told me that they hope my house burns down with my children in it."
She says from the reporters who would gather on her front lawn in wait for her to the cruelties spewed at her online and on her phone, the weeks since August 11th have been unlike anything she's dealt with before.
The stress of it all, she says, has taken a toll on her health.
"The first month was really emotional put me in a really dark place," she says quietly.
It's also hurt her businesses, both Kari's Kitchen, the cafe she's sitting in, and Chef's Plate, her restaurant across the street, as well as her catering operations.
"I've lost about 60% of my business," Newell says.
"How do you handle that?" Pedraza asks.
"Lots of tears. Lots of anxiety."
KAKE News' crew spent more than three hours with Newell and saw only three customers in that entire time. Though Newell did say it was the first day of expanded winter hours at the cafe.
"Affecting me is one thing," she says. "Affecting my livelihood, the livelihood of my staff, the livelihood of the hotel owner? That's a whole different ballgame. That's where it's almost infuriating to me."
And it all happened, she says, ,because of a nasty divorce and a spiteful soon to be ex-husband.
"Your divorce played a role in all of this?" Pedraza asks.
"Yes," Newell nods. "My soon to be ex husband had received word that I was working to get my license back."
Newell had spent the last year trying to put her life back together after a decade long marriage with Ryan Newell had fallen apart.
She believes he was hoping she'd get pulled over driving while revoked because of a single DUI she'd gotten in 2008.
She says she got stuck in the same chaos of suspended and revoked driver's license laws KAKE News Investigates has been reporting on for the last five years...
"It's a really bad system to maneuver through," she says. "Because when you can't pay the fines that they assess, then they assess more fines and more court fees."
While lawmakers have expanded eligibility for things like restricted licenses since KAKE began it's reports, those expansions have specifically excluded DUIs.
"I was a broke single mom, I didn't have the resources. So you're just stuck," Newell says.
Who gets the blame?
She now has her license back, as of August 8th. But Newell says she's angry Ryan and the woman who's admitted to passing the letter to the paper aren't paying for the chain of events they kicked off.
"The two people that stirred the pot aren't licking the spoon," she says. "But it's being crammed down my throat and it's being crammed at the paper and it's being crammed at the police department."
As for the police chief who first called her, KAKE News asked if she blames him for pushing this investigation and carrying out the raid?
"Blame is such a strong word," she answers. "Do I feel to some degree that I was used to an aspect? Yes, I do."
Marion County Record publisher, Eric Meyer, agreed.
"I have always thought that Kari was sort of a pawn and all of this," Meyer said in an interview the afternoon after Newell sat down with Pedraza. "She was talked to and whipped up in a frenzy."
Meyer says he's not sure he'd call her a friend at this point but he is concerned about the public response she's gotten.
"I don't think it's fair that her restaurant is suffering because of this," he said. "The food that she serves has nothing to do with any of the rest of this. And, as I've said a number of times, particularly in a small town, if you've got a disagreement with somebody, you don't take it out on their business because there's only so many businesses in a small town."
Marion: Stronger Together
Which is why he's supporting the Marion - Stronger Together push in town, despite some personal misgivings and the opposition of his entire staff.
"My concern about the Stronger Together is: we're all supposed to just fall in line and do what... do what the powers that be or whatever else want us to do? That I don't agree with," Meyer said. "But, yes, we are stronger together if we all understand that we all have something to share, something to contribute."
Newell says, though she dislikes the paper because of some of its editorial decisions, she carries no personal ill-will against its publisher, Eric Meyer.
"He's been very gracious in speaking with me. He's been very kind. He's not been rough with me. He's not been... he's been nothing but transparent," she says. "And I would love the opportunity to sit down and have more discussions with him."
Her ultimate hope for speaking out?
"Healing - for everybody, like in our community, mostly. And then I will finally be freed from the last bit of attachments I have to that chapter of my life. So I can move on," she says.
The Chief & The Investigation
The day after we completed this interview, Newell revealed the chief had asked her to delete text messages between them after rumors began that they were romantically involved. She says there's no truth to those rumors, but she deleted the texts anyway - then immediately regretted it.
KAKE News has tried multiple times to speak with Chief Cody for this story and others. This time we did see him in person, but he declined to answer our questions. He told Pedraza off camera that he didn't trust KAKE not to cherry pick what he had to say to promote its own agenda.
A couple days later, the City of Marion suspended him. And, Monday, he resigned effective immediately.
The KBI investigation into the raid and the events surrounding it continues.