Arkansas judge is investigated for sex abuse, misconduct
WYNNE, Ark. (AP) — For many male defendants in Judge Joseph Boeckmann's courtroom, the initial deal seemed simple enough: The judge would approach them after court, either himself or through a bailiff, and offer a way out of traffic or court fines.
His instructions were to gather some cans and bring them to his house or another location. Then he asked the defendants to take off their shirts, pretend to be picking up trash and let the judge take a few photos of them bending over to prove they had performed community service.
Sometimes, the men told investigators, the encounters went further. The judge might tell them to spread their legs a little. He might touch their buttocks a little. He might offer them a drink. Then the fines would disappear.
Now dozens of the defendants have accused Boeckmann of sexual abuse and misconduct, saying the small-town judge paid them to allow him to spank their naked buttocks with a paddle and to take photos of the red skin. Others said they posed nude in exchange for money to pay off court fines.
The head of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission called it "if not the worst, among the worst cases of judicial misconduct" in state history.
The case brought into the open gossip that had circulated in private for years about the judge from a prominent family that settled in the farming community more than a century ago.
Boeckmann "systematically used his authority and the trust of the state of Arkansas ... to prey upon people he knew would be less credible, people who were in danger of losing their houses, their jobs and their freedom. He is a predator," said David Sachar, the commission's executive director.
The 70-year-old Cross County judge, who has denied the allegations through his attorney, resigned in May, ending the commission's investigation. But at least part of the probe has been turned over to criminal investigators. No charges have been filed.
"His resignation is not to be construed as an admission of anything," said Boeckmann's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig. He said his client concluded that it was "not worth going through the hearing to keep a position that he would have vacated at the end of this year anyway." The judge did not seek re-election in March.
Once the investigation became public, Sachar said, men came forward with similar stories from as much as 30 years ago, alleging Boeckmann had propositioned them, taken nude photos or engaged in other sexual behavior when he was the city attorney in the county seat of Wynne and a deputy prosecuting attorney.
One man, identified only as A.A. by the commission, reported having a sexual relationship with Boeckmann that started when A.A. hired the judge as his personal attorney. The relationship continued for more than a decade.
A.A. told investigators the judge sometimes loaned him out to friends for work to pay off A.A.'s debts or in exchange for leniency. Other defendants said A.A. put them in touch with Boeckmann and told them the nude photos were an easy way to pay off court fines.
About 4,600 photographs depicting nude or semi-clothed men in various positions were recovered from computers belonging to the judge, according to Sachar.
The commission also subpoenaed checks worth tens of thousands of dollars written from the judge's law firm and real estate company accounts to his own court, to other district courts and to defendants who had or would later appear before him as a judge.
The town of 8,400 people stands in the shadow of Memphis, Tennessee, and is heavily dependent on agriculture.
By economic measures, Wynne is doing better than many communities in the Arkansas Delta. It has a handful of factories and a median household income approaching $40,000.
Townspeople had heard rumors about the judge for years.
Randy Scott's brother claimed Boeckmann propositioned him in the 1990s, when he was convicted of a murder charge. Scott moved away almost two decades ago, returning in 2014 in the hope that the small school district would be good for his teenage son.
Shortly after his return, Scott was pulled over for not wearing his seatbelt and got arrested on a warrant from a public intoxication incident that happened 17 years earlier. He was told he would have to spend the night in jail before seeing the judge.
The next morning, a jailer approached him, but instead of taking him to a courtroom, the man passed Scott a note.
"It was signed by the judge, and he wanted to know if I would spend some time with him before court," Scott said. "I knew what that meant, and I told him no and to get the hell away from me. I got an extra night in jail and a $400 or $500 fine out of that no."
Scott and a handful of other men have filed a lawsuit against Boeckmann under a legal classification called a "tort of outrage," alleging various levels of emotional distress from sexual abuse or misconduct.
A gag order was issued in the misconduct case by a circuit court judge almost a year ago, and authorities including Sheriff J.R. Smith declined to answer questions.
Asked about a criminal investigation, Deb Green, a spokeswoman for the Little Rock office of the FBI, said she could not comment.
A search of more than 100,000 pages of court dockets dating back to 2009 showed some men appeared before Boeckmann multiple times over his seven years in office. Despite being repeat offenders, the judge routinely assigned them to community service, reduced their charges, dismissed their cases over the prosecution's objections or sometimes made notes that key files had disappeared.
Several of the men who appeared before Boeckmann either listed the judge as their employer or listed home addresses owned and rented out by the judge's real estate company. Boeckmann did not recuse himself in those cases.
Since 2009, Boeckmann was the only judge in the district court to order community service. The court had no written policy for how community service was to be conducted or monitored, staff members said.
A Freedom of Information Act request showed the judge had never submitted any photos as proof of community service.
The commission's investigators identified about 35 victims through court and financial records and the photographs. If the commission investigation had continued, Sachar said, more victims would probably have been found.
When authorities announced the charges, he added, "we started receiving calls immediately."
CLAUDIA LAUER, Associated Press
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The Gayly - 6/6/2016 @ 4:46 p.m. CDT