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'Not guilty' verdict comes quickly
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The back of a pickup truck parked outside the Barton County Courthouse Friday morning was filled with signs supporting Sheriff Brian Bellendir had just been acquitted of a misdemeanor charge of mistreating a prisoner. - photo by Dale Hogg
Are we so sensitive that in Barton County you want to put tough cops out to pasture?
Jess Hoeme, defense attorney for Sheriff Brian Bellendir

It took a six-person jury less than 20 minutes Friday to find Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir not guilty of ill-treatment of a confined person, a misdemeanor charge in Barton County District Court. That included the time it took to walk to the jury room, choose a foreman and fill out the paperwork.

Senior Judge Edward Bouker warned the audience before the jury returned to refrain from outbursts when the verdict was read. He still needed to give the jurors final instructions.

Several rows of Bellendir supporters were in the audience, wearing blue, and a collective sigh of relief was their only audible response. But as soon as court was officially adjourned, they broke into applause. The sheriff announced he would conduct a news conference 30 minutes later, but he stayed in the courthouse for several minutes receiving hugs and handshakes.

Closing statements

Bellendir’s charge stemmed from an incident on Aug. 10, 2017, when he arrested Nathan Manley outside a Great Bend residence. That was a block from the home of Audrey Bellendir, the sheriff’s daughter. A video from a Great Bend Police Officer’s body camera showed Bellendir making the arrest and briefly cursing at Manley and thumping him on the head.

Chase County Attorney William Halvorsen, who was assigned to prosecute the case, asked the jury to find Bellendir guilty of “ill-treatment” of Manley, but agreed that it would be up to the jurors to define what that meant. “Ill treatment is not really defined by the law,” he said. He reminded the jury that KBI Agent Jeff Newsom testified he believed the sheriff did not treat Manley with respect. “He told Agent Newsom, ‘I shouldn’t have gone up there in the first place.’”

Defense attorney Jess Hoeme stated on the first day that his niche has become defending law enforcement officers.

“I’m worried about law enforcement. There’s a lot of scrutiny,” Hoeme said. “I’m not suggesting it would be appropriate to take someone in the jail and beat them up,” he said. On the other hand, the sheriff told him the jail doesn’t have the softest brand of toilet paper. What if someone decides to call that ill treatment?

“How far is this pendulum going to swing?” Hoeme said.

“You (the jury) get to decide whether this rises to the level of criminal ill treatment,” he continued. “The sheriff was born and raised in Barton County. Everybody know that Sheriff Bellendir is a tough cookie. This is sort of a modern day assassination. I’m concerned about the drama of all of this.

“Amy Mellor, county attorney, sent a request to Bruce Mellor at the KBI to investigate. ... Look at the big picture of it all.”

Hoeme accused Halvorsen of hyperbole, noting the prosecuting attorney had even asked Bellendir about the tag on his emails, a quote by George Orwell, “Good people sleep in their beds peaceably at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

“The sheriff, like the military, is ready to do what they need to do so you can sleep peacefully at night,” Hoeme said.

“This is where we’re at folks. Nathan Manley — don’t you feel like you should at least have the victim?” Manley did not testify, and did appear to have suffered from the tap on the head, he said.

“You saw the video,” he told the jurors, reminding them they could watch it again. “That’s it? Are you serious? Nathan Manley didn’t say, ‘ouch,’ or ‘what was that for?’ Nothing. Who is complaining? There’s more to the story, folks.”

Hoeme noted the sheriff was within his jurisdiction when he responded to his daughter’s call to 911 in Great Bend. And he had reason to believe it was serious. He’s played cat and mouse with Manley for decades.

“This is a dude that’s been arrested 55 times and now he is on your daughter’s porch.” (Actually, Halvorsen pointed out, Manley had left the scene.) “The sheriff KNOWS Nathan Manley. He treated him like you would treat your kid when he made a bone-headed move. It was ‘rude.’ ‘Disrespectful.’ Can you imagine? Disrespectful to Nathan Manley?

“Aren’t you frustrated?” Hoeme asked the jury. “It’s a revolving door in Barton County and the sheriff is being prosecuted for being disrespectful, or rude, or ill-treated (Manley),” Hoeme said.

“Are we so sensitive that in Barton County you want to put tough cops out to pasture?”