Sheriff Cory Hutcheson Vowed to Clean Up His Rural Missouri County. Now He's the One Facing Prison

Sheriff Cory Hutcheson's exploits were chronicled on the sheriff's Facebook page, where he posed with piles of seized drugs and cash.
Sheriff Cory Hutcheson's exploits were chronicled on the sheriff's Facebook page, where he posed with piles of seized drugs and cash. MISSISSIPPI COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE FACEBOOK PAGE

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Former Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore, shown in a TV interview after a jail staff walkout, says Hutcheson 'terminated himself' from the detention center. - KFVS 12
Former Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore, shown in a TV interview after a jail staff walkout, says Hutcheson 'terminated himself' from the detention center.

The lawsuit made news statewide and was featured on The Daily Beast, under the headline "Lawsuit: Pregnant Missouri Prisoner Was Chained Up Until She Miscarried." But back home in Mississippi County, people were worried about drugs, not the fate of jailed addicts. In February, Hutcheson announced he was going to take on his longtime boss, Sheriff Keith Moore.

Moore, running as a Democrat, was hoping for his fourth four-year term. At first glance, the county is a stronghold for Democrats. The local party places the majority of county officials, and some Dems even ran unopposed in 2016. But county voters tend to veer far right of the national party's progressive politics. George Bush stomped John Kerry here. Obama lost big twice, and Trump's dominance — he beat Clinton by more than 40 percentage points — was almost laughable in a county that ostensibly bleeds blue.

And Hutcheson styled himself as a changing of the guard. The Trump supporter ran as a straight-up Republican, promising a new way of doing things. While Moore relied on the old system of handshakes and name recognition, Hutcheson tapped social media and outspent his opponent nearly tenfold. Along the way, he painted the old sheriff as ineffective and hopelessly slow to respond, stopping just short of the "low-energy" barbs Trump used to kneecap Jeb Bush during the Republican primary.

The race was close. Like Hutcheson, Moore had grown up in East Prairie, and he has lived in Mississippi County all his life. The ugly campaign left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he says he's moved on after his defeat. He says he had nothing to do with the current allegations against Hutcheson, and the idea he is seeking revenge is ridiculous.

"It's got nothing to do with politics," he says. "It's right and wrong."

The former sheriff sees this latest scramble as confirmation of what he's known for the past several years.

"This boy cares for nobody but himself," Moore says.

Barrel-chested with a bodybuilder's biceps, Moore worked for 24 years in the sheriff's office, the last twelve as the man in charge. He first hired Hutcheson as a part-time jailer and later made him jail administrator. In news articles, Moore publicly praised investigations by his young charge, but says now that he eventually recognized Hutcheson's ambition outstripped his morals.

He wasn't the only one growing suspicious.

FBI agents visited the sheriff's office in 2014 and took Hutcheson's computer, Moore says. The former sheriff says he is not sure how the investigation began, but he soon learned they suspected the deputy was illegally tracking cell phones, including one belonging to Moore. Court documents signed by Attorney General Hawley accuse Hutcheson of using a technique called "pinging," which uses a phone's GPS to determine its location. The then-deputy was allegedly keeping tabs on Moore, five state troopers and Judge David Dolan.

Police sometimes need to ping cell phones in a hurry to find a kidnapped child or head off a crisis, such as a bombing, and the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for them to do so without warrants. But authorities say this was not one of those emergency situations. Hutcheson allegedly still bypassed the warrant process. He is accused of slipping into the computer interface of a call service used by the sheriff's office and filing false affidavits to persuade the service to turn over off-limits GPS coordinates that told him the location of the phones — and by extension, the phones' owners.

It is not clear why Hutcheson would want to know the locations. A highway patrol corporal who picked up the investigation from the FBI gave no explanation in court filings of the former deputy's possible motives. Judge Dolan refuses to discuss the case.

Moore says he confronted Hutcheson, but he still is not sure of his reasons.

"We had us a sit-down on it," he says. "His little explanation was more or less he just wanted to know where we were."

The downtown of Charleston, the county seat of Mississippi County, is a quiet place most days. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
The downtown of Charleston, the county seat of Mississippi County, is a quiet place most days.

The accusation that Hutcheson was willing to lie on official documents troubles some defense attorneys who represented some of the people he was so eager to publicly shame as criminals and scumbags. Even dating back to his days in the jail, Hutcheson would conduct drug raids around the county, backing up his aggressive pursuits with a flurry of search warrants.

Attorney Amanda Altman, a former public defender in Mississippi County who continues to handle cases there as a private defense attorney based in Cape Girardeau, says she has been wary of Hutcheson for years because one client after another reported questionable tactics. The latest charges only heighten her suspicions that his paperwork was sketchy.

"How many people have been falsely accused?" she asks. "How many people are incarcerated because he lied to build cases against them?"

Moore says the rapid pace of the search warrants Hutcheson has filed since taking office seems reckless at best. Drug cases can take months to investigate, including repeated undercover buys to make sure they don't incriminate the wrong person, he says. But Hutcheson seemed driven not by the pace of the case but the desire to have something new for the local news each week, he says. Moore sarcastically describes his former underling as having the "fastest fingers I've ever seen" when it comes to typing up a search warrant application.

"Now those fingers have come back to burn everybody," he says.

For all his suspicions, the former sheriff says he never had enough to fire Hutcheson. Even the 2014 investigation did not offer grounds for termination, because no charges were filed at the time, he says. The FBI's visit, however, had put him on guard. One of Hutcheson's specialties was surveillance, and his co-workers began to suspect he had bugged the office and was recording them with tiny body cams, even during casual conversations.

But Hutcheson had his own allies inside the sheriff's office. That became clear in the spring of 2016 when six jail staffers abruptly walked out one day, leaving more than a hundred inmates behind in the detention center. In follow-up news reports, the staffers alleged Moore was undercutting their boss, Hutcheson, who had recently announced his intention to run for sheriff. The jail had become unsafe, so they walked out, they claimed. Moore says he had no warning and deputies had to scramble to cover a potentially dangerous situation.

Within days, Hutcheson was out of a job. Exactly what happened is up for debate. Hutcheson has claimed he never walked out, and that the sheriff fired him anyway. Moore says Hutcheson did walk out, putting deputies, inmates and the community in danger.

"That's not a grocery store — you can't just walk out," the former sheriff says. "He terminated himself."

In a way, he says, it was a relief not to have Hutcheson slinking around the jail, although it was hard to shake the feeling they were still being recorded. Moore says he and his remaining team were cleaning out the jail administrator's office when they found a tiny camera that he claims was still linked to Hutcheson's home computer, even after he was gone.

"We were being watched," Moore says.

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