How to win an election in Alabama: Just arrest your opponent … and everybody else
You have to love Alabama. It’s the only state I know of where a crooked sheriff can throw his opponent, the local probate judge, and two reporters in jail a few days before the election — and still win.
I still remember the day I picked up a Birmingham News to see the photo of my friend Ron Casey and his co-worker John I. Jones beneath a headline about the arrest. Ron and I had become friends in the fall of 1972, when Ron was editor of The Crimson-White at the University of Alabama and I was a freshman journalism student.
Ron graduated and joined the staff of The Birmingham News, which hired me three years later. He and Jones were assigned to cover the election of Shelby County Sheriff Red Walker, possibly one of the most corrupt officials in Alabama history (which is saying quite a bit).
The story of how Ron and John landed in the Shelby County jail hasn’t been told in a while, and it’s too good to let it die. I learned a lot of bits and pieces of it over time, in hours of conversations with Ron and City Editor Clarke Stallworth.
Ron and John had the goods on Walker, and they wanted to meet with him face to face to give him chance to deny everything. Walker told them to meet him at the Triple J Ranch House restaurant in Alabaster.
When the reporters walked in, there were deputies waiting to cuff them and haul them off to the pokey. Walker said, “You boys are under arrest for conspiracy to kill or maim the sheriff.”
At the same time, deputies elsewhere were also busy arresting Walker’s opponent in the race (County Commissioner Bill Thompson) and his longtime political opponent Conrad “Bulley” Fowler. (As a side note and disclosure, Fowler was a lifelong friend of my father. Bulley, then a little kid, walked across the street and introduced himself the day Dad moved to Columbiana from Tallapoosa, Ga.)
Ron’s “one phone call” from the jail went to the city desk, and Ron had reason to worry. Stallworth had this running gag in which he would pretend not to know who Ron was and hang up on him. When Stallworth answered, Ron pleaded, “Clarke, please don’t hang up. John and I are in jail.”
It worked, and soon Stallworth was in touch with the newspaper’s attorney, Jim Barton, who got the reporters bailed out.
The charge of conspiring to kill the sheriff was bogus, of course. Walker just wanted everybody out of the way until after the election. The amazing thing, though, is that the voters re-elected Walker despite the extensive coverage of the arrests.
The inevitable lawsuits went well for the reporters, and the party they threw with the $21,000 in winnings became a legend in the newsroom. Ron bought himself the mother of all stereos.
Ron went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his editorial writing, and died of a heart attack at age 48, much too soon.