LOVE COUNTY, Okla. — It was just coffee shop talk, a good many people here insist. You get any 10 or 15 common folk talking about the drug dealers, you'd hear much the same. Worse, even. Who doesn't think all drug dealers need to feel the hot end of a curling iron?
No one would really do that, of course, but even good citizens can't help fantasizing. So how could anyone believe the sheriff truly meant to kidnap and torture that fellow from North Texas? Sure, Wesley talked about doing just that, and his words were on tape, some quite precise about the curling iron, but that simply wasn't Wesley. Wesley was good family, common folk. He'd be scared to death to do that. He just wasn't that courageous.
Others, however, see matters differently. Although no kidnaping or torture ever took place, the FBI, a grand jury and the United States attorney's office in North Texas have concluded that Love County Sheriff Wesley Liddell Jr. indeed was serious. Federal authorities on May 18 arrested Liddell, 47, and his son-in-law, Marietta, Okla., policeman Roger Ray Hilton, 27, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap and transport in interstate commerce for the purpose of "ransom or reward or otherwise." After several hearings and one postponement, the two law officers' trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in a Sherman, Tex., federal courtroom.
It is fair to say this circumstance greatly disturbs the 7,469 citizens in this rural south Oklahoma county, which hugs the Red River border with Texas some 80 miles north of Dallas. To express support and raise $24,000 in defense funds for Liddell and Hilton, they've held a Country-Western jamboree, an ice cream social, a $50-a-plate benefit dinner, an auction and two rallies. They've sold T-shirts and bumper stickers--"I Support Wesley and Roger"--and caravaned to every hearing, packing the small Sherman courtroom with emotional spectators. They've written angry, incredulous letters and called the news media.
"Every day we hear how the Bush Administration is waging a war on drugs," the Bank of Love County's president, Ron Bond, took to observing. "They can get our sheriff on conspiracy, why can't they get the drug dealers on conspiracy? They're prosecuting a good, decent man and letting go the hardened drug dealers."
The sentiments weren't unanimous, however. Here and there, a few contrary voices were heard. What if Wesley really meant to use that curling iron, a few began wondering. How do we know that fellow across the river really was a drug dealer? Should Love County look like it was endorsing kidnap and torture?
Soon enough, folks in Love County weren't just arguing with the federal authorities. They were arguing among themselves. A cause once considered obvious now appeared more complex.
"There are two paradoxes here," observed Willis Choate, editor of the local Marietta Monitor and formerly mayor for 12 years. "How do you justify the money and time the feds have spent on this while they let the drugs go unbridled? On the other hand, how do you explain a strongly anti-crime community getting into a situation where it's defending people who might have broken the law?"
To understand current events in Love County, it's helpful to consider the region's history. This was mainly Indian territory--Choctaws and Chickasaws--until the post office and the Santa Fe railroad arrived in 1887, followed soon after by cattlemen and cotton traders. Some of the first settlers, a few possibly chased into Oklahoma by the Texas Rangers, possessed more independence and pioneering spirit than appreciation for the finer points of the law. Bill Washington, the cattle king of Mud Creek, gave his cowboy crews bonuses for gathering unbranded cattle, and when fences came to the open range, he tended to sink his posts at will, on whatever land he desired. He printed his own paper money and minted pewter coins, as did Judge Overton (Sobe) Love, whose family the county was named after.
The cattle barons and cotton mills now are long gone, victims of the Depression and the Dust Bowl drought, but the descendants of the families who first settled here in the 1880s remain, if in a considerably less affluent state than their forebears. Some still raise cattle and farm--peanuts, mainly--but most jobs now are low-wage positions at factories such as Marietta Sportswear and the Little Brownie Cookie Shop. What has lingered longer than the prosperity is the sense of independence, and suspicion of outsiders, a category that in some quarters includes people who've been here 20 years or more.