The great Arkansas railway mystery

Twelve years ago, two teenagers were murdered on a rural railroad track. Right-wing conspiracy theorists who blamed then-Gov. Bill Clinton for the killings have now lost a $600,000 libel suit in the case.

Topics: Drugs, Bill Clinton,

Wild rumors have swirled through Arkansas for the past 12 years about the mysterious deaths of two teenagers, 17-year-old Kevin Ives and 16-year-old Don Henry, on the railroad tracks in rural Saline County in 1987.

Initially, the boys’ deaths were said to be due to a marijuana-induced sleep. Later, a grand jury overturned that finding, and out-of-state pathologists determined that the deaths were in fact homicides.

At that point, controversial film producer Patrick Matrisciana entered the scene. Matrisciana, from Hemet, Calif., is best-known for his 1994 conspiratorial “documentary” “The Clinton Chronicles,” a mail-order film that’s an underground bestseller on the Clinton-hating extreme right.

Matrisciana’s resulting 1996 film on the railroad mystery, “Obstruction of Justice: The Mena Connection,” alleged that the teenagers were killed after they accidentally witnessed a clandestine drug deal in which top state officials were involved.

The film asserted that the boys’ bodies were laid on the tracks so a train would run over them and destroy evidence. It further alleged that two veteran sheriff’s deputies, Jay Campbell and Kirk Lane, were the boys’ murderers, and that the crimes were covered up with the help of state and federal prosecutors and — naturally — then-Gov. Bill Clinton.

But last week, an Arkansas jury ruled that Matrisciana’s film had demonstrated “reckless disregard for the truth” and had libeled deputies Campbell and Lane. The jury awarded the two sheriff’s officers nearly $600,000 in damages.

In so doing, the jury rejected Matrisciana’s contention throughout the trial that he could not be held responsible for any libel because he gave full editorial control over the film to Linda Ives, the mother of one of the boys, and Jean Duffy, a former Saline County deputy prosecutor.

The unsolved mystery of the train deaths has attracted national media interest over the years, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. In 1996, the Journal’s Micah Morrison wrote “The Lonely Crusade of Linda Ives,” an article flowing with conspiracy theories.

“It adds some credibility to a story when something as widely known as the Wall Street Journal prints the story,” noted Jay Campbell, one of the deputies vindicated by the libel ruling.

The conservative Arkansas Democrat-Gazette heavily criticized the Journal at the time for its inability to decipher fiction from truth. “There is apparently no old story, discredited piece of gossip or wild rumor that the Journal won’t take seriously so long as its subject is Arkansas,” the paper editorialized.

(The Journal’s Morrison did not return calls for this story.)

Meanwhile, the recent libel trial brought out some new evidence about who may have been behind the boys’ deaths, including indications that they may indeed have been killed for witnessing a drug deal of some sort.

Testimony during the trial revealed that former Saline County prosecuting attorney Dan Harmon had been the target of at least one investigation into drug trafficking at the time of the boys’ deaths.

Harmon, who since has been imprisoned on federal drug and racketeering charges, was a private lawyer in 1987, and he became something of a media celebrity when he took a keen interest in the mystery.

He eventually was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the case and was in charge of presenting evidence to a grand jury.

Sheriff’s deputies Campbell and Lane, meanwhile, were narcotics officers looking into the allegations about Harmon.

They contend that when Harmon learned about their investigation of him, he named them as suspects in the train deaths solely to taint their credibility and hinder their probe.

During the libel trial, Linda Ives acknowledged that Harmon called her the day before Campbell and Lane were to appear before the grand jury investigating the boys’ deaths and told her that “the killers” would be appearing before the grand jury the next day.

Ives says she trusted Harmon at the time, but has since come to suspect he is among those who may have been involved in the boys’ deaths and the ensuing cover-up.

Harmon denies any wrongdoing in the case.

However, an investigator named John Brown testified in the libel trial that he took a handwritten statement in May 1993 from Sharline Wilson, who had once dated Harmon, naming Harmon and two other men as having beaten and stabbed the boys to death, before laying their bodies across the railroad tracks. One of the men Wilson named later was himself killed, and she has since retracted her statement.

Wilson too was convicted of a drug offense (when Harmon was county prosecutor, no less), and she is now serving a 30-year prison sentence. Investigator Brown says Wilson initially confessed to having been present when the boys were killed, and that she “lightly” stabbed one of them while the others involved in the drug deal cheered her on.

Despite all of this, the libel proceedings did not seem to dampen Matrisciana’s enthusiasm to make money from his discredited documentary. During the trial, the producer appeared on local radio talk shows to push sales of the videotape.

Linda Ives’ Web site about the train deaths links to the video sales, and informs readers that “sales from the video is the only means Linda and Jean [Duffy] have of raising money for the Civil Justice Fund and for financing this web site.”

Neither Matrisciana, Ives nor Duffy returned calls to Salon News for this report.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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