A county prosecutor in Kansas is now saying that there was "insufficient evidence" to support the warrant for a police raid on a small-town newspaper's office and publisher's home last week and that all items seized will be returned, the Washington Examiner reported.
The August 11 raid on the Marion County Record had resulted in the seizure of computers, phones, and other equipment, and prompted a backlash of sharp criticism over the apparent violation of First Amendment-protected press freedoms.
Concurrent with the raid on the newspaper's office targeted the home of publisher and co-owner Eric Meyer that resulted in the seizure of his cellphone, home computer, and internet router, and, according to Meyer, caused his 98-year-old live-in mother to collapse and die the next day from the stress of the incident.
NBC News reported Wednesday that Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said in a statement that a warrant for the Friday raid on the newspaper had been issued on the belief that an "employee of the newspaper may have committed" a computer-based crime that necessitated the seizure of certain items as part of an investigation.
"Upon further review, however, I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized," Ensey said. "As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property."
Bernie Rhodes, an attorney representing the newspaper, told NBC News, "Yes, I can confirm the county attorney has withdrawn the search warrant and the items seized are being released. My forensic expert is en route to Marion to retrieve them."
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has now taken over the matter from local authorities and said in a statement, "At present time this investigation remains open, however, we have determined in collaboration with the Marion County Attorney, that the investigation will proceed independently, and without review or examination of any of the evidence seized on Friday, Aug. 11."
"We will work with the Marion County Record, or their representative, to coordinate the prompt return of all seized items. Once our investigation concludes we will present findings to the Marion County Attorney for review," the KBI added.
Both the Examiner and NBC News linked the police raid of the Marion County Record to complaints made by local restauranteur Kari Newell at a recent city council meeting that the newspaper had used illegal measures to obtain non-public information about a DUI arrest she had in 2008.
According to CNN, Newell's complaint about the newspaper may be related to an incident earlier in the month when Meyer and one of his reporters, Phyllis Zorn, appeared at Newell's coffee shop for a public meeting with local U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-KS) but were asked to leave the establishment by Newell due to her dislike of how the newspaper reported events and its "long-standing reputation for twisting and contorting comments within our community."
Shortly after that incident, Meyer claimed to have received a tip that Newell had been driving without a license following the 2008 DUI incident and investigated, but Newell asserts that the paper used unlawful means, including her own credentials, to gather information that is not typically available to the general public and that the article it published was done "strictly out of malice and retribution for me asking him to exit my establishment."
In an interview with CNN, Meyer said that he had learned that the seized equipment was already in the process of being returned but would first be sent to Kansas City for an independent forensic analysis by an expert hired by the newspaper's attorney in order to ensure "that nothing was done to them."
As for the death of his elderly mother, which Meyer directly attributes to the stress of the police raid on his home, he said, "One nice thing … is the outpouring of public support and the support from news organizations and journalistic organization afterward would almost vindicate her. I think she would feel good about that."
He also made note of a silver lining in the aftermath of the raid that temporarily shut down his newspaper which has been in operation for 150 years -- the addition of roughly 2,000 news subscribers in just a matter of days that will help the paper emerge from the episode stronger than before.