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A long way to fall

Fort Smith police and federal agents investigate Ron Fields, once one of Arkansas’s most distinguished prosecuting attorneys



On June 22 last year, Brigit Dollar, 26, of Fort Smith told police that Ron Fields had raped her. The investigation that followed would include a videotaped physical exam and repeated questioning of Dollar, interviews with her relatives, searches of her phone and computer records, lab tests of underwear and a bedspread in her home — and an extraordinary measure of political caution. Fields, the suspect, was never interviewed.

“If he had been a janitor,” one of the investigators reportedly told a relative, “he would have been arrested the next day.” But Fields was no janitor.

A product of Fort Smith public schools, he'd enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17, served as a rifleman in Vietnam, and returned in 1969 with three presidential citations. By 1975 he'd graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law, where he'd befriended classmate Asa Hutchinson, and gotten to know future Gov. Bill Clinton, who was then on the school's faculty.

Fields himself quickly gained standing in the politics of western Arkansas, beginning as a deputy prosecuting attorney. In 1978, he was elected prosecuting attorney for the 12th Judicial District, which included Fort Smith, the state's second-largest city. He held that post for the next 18 years, establishing himself as one of the state's toughest prosecutors. By 1995, Fields could boast that he'd sent more criminals to Arkansas's Death Row than any other state prosecutor and that Sebastian County, home to Fort Smith, had sent more than twice the number of felons to the penitentiary, per capita, than the state's average.

Fields was considered so tough on crime that when Steve Clark was forced to resign as Arkansas's attorney general in 1990, Gov. Bill Clinton appointed him to serve the remainder of Clark's term.

Fields' friend, Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, had enjoyed an even more meteoric rise. After a brief stint as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, Hutchinson was elected to Congress, where he gained fame as the prosecutor at President Bill Clinton's impeachment. In 2001, President George Bush appointed Hutchinson head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. At that point, the two friends' career paths merged once again, when Hutchinson brought Fields to Washington to serve as one of his two senior assistants.

In 2003, Hutchinson moved from DEA to the Department of Homeland Security, where he served as undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security. Fields changed agencies too and continued to work for Hutchinson, this time as a special assistant in DHS's office of Customs and Border Protection.

Since 2005, however, Fields had been back in Arkansas, where he'd returned to the practice of law. And now he stood accused of rape, though, on June 28, when he called Officer James Adam Holland to discuss businesses concerning some of his clients, he was unaware that Dollar had spoken with police.

According to Holland's report, he answered Fields' questions and then took the opportunity to inform the former prosecutor of the allegation made against him. Holland noted: “He asked if it was Brigit and I said yes. The next thing said, after a short pause, was by him. Mr. Fields said, ‘There is nothing illegal there. She is 25 or 26.' ”

Holland was well aware of Dollar's age. He also knew that she stood 5 feet, 7 inches tall, weighed 128 pounds, that her IQ had been tested at between 59 and 64, and that doctors said her emotional age was about that of a 10- to 12-year-old. He knew that Brigit Dollar had made it through school in special education classes, could not drive a car or handle money, had never held a job, received Social Security Disability benefits, and still lived with her mother, Claire Borengasser, who was the new prosecuting attorney for the city of Fort Smith — and the ex-wife of Ron Fields.

Holland knew that Fields was equally aware of Brigit Dollar's mental and emotional handicaps because Fields had been Dollar's stepfather from the time he and Borengasser were married, when Brigit was about 3 years old, until 2001, when Fields had moved to Washington, D.C., and the couple divorced.

Holland asked Fields to come to the police station to be interviewed. He did not come, nor did he ever respond to his former stepdaughter's claim that he had come to her home while her mother was at work and led her upstairs, where he'd made her “do bad things.”

According to Officer Kristine Deason's notes:

“I asked Brigit when this happened and she said Tuesday he had called on the phone and said he was coming over. She was watching ‘The Price Is Right' on TV. He pulled her off the couch by her arm and took her to her mom's bedroom. He took off her clothes and put her on the bed. I asked about his clothes and she said he took them off. When asked if that was before or after he took her clothes off, she thought it was before. I asked her what happened next and Brigit said he put his penis in her vagina. I asked if he used a condom and she said no. I asked her what she felt and she said she knew what he was doing was wrong. She also told me it was painful. I asked her what made him stop. She said she thought his cell phone rang and he stopped to answer it. When asked what happened next, Brigit said he then put on his clothes and left.

“Brigit said that after that, he would come on Tuesdays and do the same thing. She couldn't tell me how many times this happened, but said it was more than two. ...

“I asked Brigit if Mr. Fields ever said anything to her or talked to her and she said no. I asked if he ever said anything about telling and she said yes, that he told her not to tell or he would get in big trouble.”

Family members told police that they only learned of the situation after Dollar confided in her 14-year-old cousin, who reported it to her parents. At the suggestion of police, Borengasser took Dollar to the Children's Safety Center in Springdale where she was examined for possible sexual trauma and tested for sexually transmitted disease. No attempt was made to collect genetic evidence due to the delay in reporting. A medical summary of the exam noted: “Findings are consistent with disclosure.”

On July 2, 10 days after the first report to police, Officer Deason met with Borengasser to record three voice mail messages left on Borengasser's phone by Fields. According to Deason, Fields “apologized for calling and asked if there was anything he could do ...,” “asked her to please call him, [saying] that he has some resolutions that maybe will ease the misery he has caused,” and finally, on the third, “promised not to call again and wanted to talk with her.”

A week later, on July 9, Deason interviewed Dollar again. “I reminded her that she told me Ron would come to the house and grab her by the arm and go upstairs. I asked what, if anything, she said to him at that time. Brigit said she told him to stop. I asked her what, if anything, she said to Ron when he had her on the bed and was having sex with her. Brigit said she told him to stop.”

The police investigation lasted about six weeks. Checks of Brigit Dollar's cell phone and a computer she sometimes used revealed no communications with Fields. The bedspread in Borengasser's bedroom tested negative for blood or semen.

With that, the case went to Gunner DeLay, the district's prosecuting attorney. But when no action had been taken by Aug. 14, Borengasser e-mailed DeLay's office, asking that a warrant be issued. “Brigit and I have done everything the detectives and your office have requested,” she wrote.

Her note continued: “This is week eight. ... With the phone calls he made to me and the statement he made to [Officer] Adam [Holland], along with the physical evidence, I believe this is a very prosecutable case.” Still, no action was taken.

Finally, on Sept. 13, Holland filed a final report in which he noted: “Several days ago I was advised by the P.A.'s [prosecuting attorney's] office that the case would be taken to staff meeting on 9-13-07 and I would be able to obtain a warrant that date. I was then advised today by the P.A.'s office that a warrant will not be issued at this time. Mr. DeLay has decided that he should bring in a special prosecutor for the case.”

The next day, a court order was issued granting DeLay's request for a special prosecutor due to the fact that “numerous members” of his staff had worked for Fields when he was prosecutor, “and therefore, a conflict of interest may exist.”

By last summer, when Brigit Dollar made her accusation, Fields had been gone from the prosecutor's office for nearly 11 years, having been defeated for re-election in 1996. But everyone in local politics — and in police work, too — knew that his return from Washington was shrouded in the mystery of a federal investigation.

A decade ago, even in defeat, Fields remained a prominent figure in legal circles. During his stint in private practice, before going to Washington, he'd been appointed special prosecutor in some of Western Arkansas's most high-profile cases. These included the still unsolved 1994 strangulation death of Billie Jean Phillips in Madison County, allegations of voter fraud in Yell County, and charges of fraud and abuse of office by officials in Benton County.

Politically, he ran as a Democrat. But the biggest boost to his career came when Hutchinson, the former Republican congressman, brought him to Washington. Serving as Hutchinson's “special assistant” at the DEA, Fields was one of only two political appointees in an agency that employed 9,200 people.

There he enjoyed a 12th-floor office that overlooked Arlington National Cemetery. He had a top-level security pass and traveled extensively, coordinating the DEA's counter-narcotics efforts with law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad. In 2002, he told a reporter that he was organizing “a global coalition to fight narcotics and make sure the profits are not invested in terrorism.”

But by the following year, Hutchinson was out of DEA, and Fields was out with him. For reasons that have never been fully explained, Hutchinson was moved to the Department of Homeland Security, where he became Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security. Again, he made Fields his special assistant at a pay grade of GS-15, the highest possible outside the Senior Executive Service.

But again, neither man held his new position for long. By the summer of 2004, Fields had been placed on administrative leave due to questions that had followed him from Fort Smith. And, whether for related reasons or not, Hutchinson was on his way home from Washington, as well.

At issue was a woman named Lori Murchison.

In 1995, while Fields was still prosecuting attorney in Fort Smith, Murchison and her boyfriend were jailed on a charge of public intoxication. On Sept. 2, when Murchison was released, she told jailers that she intended to pick up her paycheck, cash it, and return to bail out her boyfriend.

But she never returned to the jail. She did not pick up her paycheck at Oaks Lodge Nursing Home. The last time she was seen alive was at the Continental Motel, where she'd gone into the office to pick up a key to her room.

Murchison is still listed as “missing” on the Fort Smith Police Department's website. But she has been presumed dead for years. And somehow, in the years after her disappearance, Fields became a suspect in her murder. Because he was a public official, the FBI had authority to investigate.

Investigators recognize that prosecuting attorneys tend make enemies, especially aggressive ones like Fields. It went without saying that a tip linking him to Murchison's murder could have come from a vengeful ex-con. Still, after the first few inquiries, the federal probe into Fields' activities began to gather momentum.

It reached the point that, on May 2, 2005, officials at the Department of Homeland Security notified Fields that his security clearance was being revoked, due to the allegations against him. The next day, unable to work without a security clearance, he was suspended from his job. Fields appealed the suspension, but on Nov. 14, 2005, the federal Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed the agency's decision.

Fields' attorney, Eddie Christian of Fort Smith, dismissed the investigation as the result of “rumors and innuendoes” reported by “two or three people,” and he derided the federal probe as “the biggest witch hunt” he'd ever seen.

But the “rumors and innuendos” were serious. The FBI was investigating claims that, while he was prosecutor, Fields had been dealing drugs and that he had ordered a former Fort Smith police captain, Jay C. Rider, to kill Murchison and dispose of her body in relation to those activities. Christian, who also represented Rider, who was by then an agent for the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board, slammed the FBI.

“They're absolutely nuts,” the lawyer said. “I have never witnessed a federal investigation that has been conducted like this one has. They have gone in and tried to intimidate people. They've told them if they do not cooperate and give them information about Fields, they're going to be indicted. They told Rider that.” Christian further complained that agents had harassed the families of Fields and Rider and that, at one point, 11 FBI agents had shown up at Rider's house, guns drawn.

“I've known this guy [Fields] for a long damn time,” he told the Fort Smith Times Record. “Let me tell you, he's one of the most impoverished lawyers I know. He wears J.C. Penney suits. He does not live high on the hog. This boy's never made any money. I mean, he's been a public servant and that's been about it, except for a short stint in private practice. It's crazy to accuse Ron Fields of selling drugs or doing drugs.”

Jack Moseley, a columnist for the Times Record, jumped to the former prosecutor's defense. “Anyone who has followed Fields' career knows he hates illegal drugs ...,” Moseley wrote. In fact, he added, “Fields or one of his deputies personally went on almost every local drug raid in order to guarantee that evidence was properly gathered, protected, and kept for use in criminal trials.”

Fort Smith police detective Ron Lockhart, who led the investigation into Murchison's disappearance, added his support for Fields. Lockhart said that his investigation indicated she died of an accidental drug overdose and that her body was disposed of by someone who was with her when she died. He said he found the notion that Fields and Rider were involved “unbelievable.”

But investigators in the Public Corruption Section of the Department of Justice were not convinced. They convened a grand jury — not in Arkansas, but in Washington, D.C. — to investigate Fields and other public officials in western Arkansas.

One Fort Smith resident who was called to Washington to testify described the experience as the worst he'd ever endured. The man asked not to be identified for this article because, he said, he feared retaliation from federal officials.

“The FBI was very nice,” he said. “They interrogated me for about 12 hours. They were trying to find out about money that was forfeited as a result of drug arrests.

“But the Department of Justice was just terrible. They subpoenaed me to testify before the federal grand jury. It was awful — a bad, bad, bad experience. They kept trying to rough me up, thinking I had information I didn't. They threatened that I could lose my license. They kept saying, ‘We're going to change the way that lawyers practice law in Northwest Arkansas.' They indicated they thought we were all in cahoots with the prosecutor during the time that Ron Fields was in office. Well, there was no truth to that.”

Others told a different story. Another source for this story, familiar with the investigation, also asked that his name not be used — except that he said he feared Ron Fields.

“When Ron Fields was prosecutor, he ran the police department,” the source said. “He had his own inner group in the department. Their attitude was: We'll look the other way on Ron and he'll look the other way on us.”

The source said that Fields carried a gun and would go on drug raids with the police. “He said he was the top law enforcer in the county, that's why he could carry a gun.” But this source found that practice troubling. “In my view,” he said, “if a prosecutor participates in a police activity, he effectively becomes a witness. The federal system forbids it.”

According to the source, Fields' tenure as prosecutor was “a reign of terror” for anyone who got in Fields' way. “He did a lot of people favors,” the source said. “If you could help him, now or potentially, he'd do something for you. But if you could hurt him, he'd try to find something on you. The view on the street of Fields was: He's powerful and he'll hurt you. People were afraid to say anything negative about him.”

Despite that, the source said, “I've seen statements given by prisoners in jail that they saw Fields shooting up.” Such a statement, he said, may have led to Murchison's death.

According to this source, Murchison reportedly said something to jailers that linked Fields to drugs. When she was released, police in Fields' gang dispatched Rider to question her, “and Rider took Fields with him.”

The federal investigation lasted a year and then another. In the midst of it, Hutchinson was passed over for the top job at Homeland Security. He left the agency in early 2005 and returned to Arkansas where he launched an unsuccessful campaign for governor.

Fields returned to Fort Smith to practice law. Sources differ on whether the federal investigation into Murchison's death and/or official corruption relating to illegal drugs in western Arkansas remains active. Robert C. Balfe, the U.S. attorney for the region, would not comment.

In any event, the ordeal had apparently taken a toll on Fields. According to notes in the police record of the rape investigation, Claire Borengasser, his ex-wife, told police that he had been drinking heavily since returning from Washington.

While officers might have questioned whether Borengasser was using her daughter to retaliate against Fields due to their divorce, they found nothing to support that theory. The couple had remained friendly and one officer, familiar with the federal investigation, observed that whenever she was questioned, Borengasser had “defended her [ex-]husband to the hilt.”

The events of last summer changed all that. By September, when Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley was appointed as special prosecutor in Dollar's case, Borengasser was long past defending Fields. She believed her daughter and wanted Fields prosecuted. If that meant enduring another round of interrogations of herself and Brigit — this time by Jegley and Terri Ball, chief of Jegley's domestic violence and sexual assault division — Borengasser was willing.

According to working papers prepared by Jegley's office, both he and Ball believed Brigit was telling the truth. That left the case to turn on a couple of key questions.

The first and obvious one concerned the Arkansas law that makes it a crime to have sexual intercourse with a person “who is incapable of consent because .... she is ... mentally defective.”

Remarkably, one memo concluded, “Notwithstanding the fact that V [victim] is mentally defective,” that law “does not apply in this case.” The reason, the memo, explained is that the law defines a “mentally defective” person as one who “suffers from a mental disease or defect which renders the person incapable of understanding the nature and consequences of sexual acts.”

The unsigned memo continued: “V understands what sex is and what happened but didn't want to participate. Therefore, ‘mentally defective' does not apply.”

The next question considered was: “Did D [defendant] engage in forcible compulsion during any sex act with V?”

The paragraph that followed read: “This question is very difficult to answer at this time. V has stated that D would come to her home, grab her arm, pull her off the couch and take her upstairs to perform sexual intercourse. How much force was exerted?”

The memo's discussion of that question focused on a 1995 Arkansas case in which the defendant was the 14-year-old victim's stepfather. In that case, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that:

“[T]he test for determining whether there was force is whether the act was against the will of the party upon whom the act was committed. Further, the age of a victim and the relationship of the victim to the assailant are key factors in weighing the sufficiency of the evidence to prove forcible compulsion.”

The high court added: “When an assailant stands in loco parentis to a victim, the law regarding force is satisfied with less than a showing of the utmost physical resistance of which the victim is capable.”

Jegley received the file from the Fort Smith police, and he and Ball interviewed Brigit Dollar and her mother on more than one occasion. There is no record that anyone from his office interviewed Fields, or made any attempt to do so.

To the dismay of Borengasser and her family, Jegley's office held the case for four months. Finally, this year, on Jan. 8 — six months after the incident was reported to police — Jegley notified DeLay that he was “returning this troubling case ... with the decision that charges against the alleged perpetrator will not be filed.”

A one-page explanation accompanied the letter. In it, Jegley noted that, “Brigit's mental deficiencies do not rise to the level of charging rape under the [law] dealing with a victim having such issues.” But in the next paragraph, he argued that, “While she certainly isn't lying, in my opinion, and that is due to her mental deficiencies, she certainly would have considerable, perhaps insurmountable problems on the stand when she is subject to cross-examination.”

He addressed the question of force in similar style. “The only force that has been articulated by Brigit is when she states that Fields took her arm as she was on the couch and took her upstairs,” Jegley wrote. “Brigit says she said ‘no' and slapped at him. However, there was opportunity to leave that she did not take as Fields was undressing.”

The page concluded: “While Brigit certainly cannot be said to have consented in these situations, the law does not provide criminal sanctions which address the allegations here.”

David Zodrow, Brigit Dollar's uncle, was furious. In December, when he learned that Jegley was inclined not to charge Fields with rape, Zodrow, of Fayetteville, fired an angry e-mail to Jegley. In it, Zodrow attacked what he called “the implication that Brigit consented a little too much” because she had not fled from her own house or attempted to call 911.

“Deciding not to file charges because a plaintiff is handicapped and unable to testify in a case is discriminatory,” Zodrow wrote. “It also flies in the face of something our family was formerly told — that Brigit does not fall under the mental “incompetency” definition that would mandate the filing of a rape charge under the statutes. So, she's too incompetent to testify, but competent enough to make decisions about having sex. This is highly contradictory.”

Another relative, Borengasser's sister, Sarah Vestrat of Richardson, Texas, was equally outraged that Jegley would not take Brigit's case to a jury. She wrote to Jegley:

“Ron Fields is a cunning lawyer who is accustomed to kicking in doors during drug raids. A terrified, mentally-impaired young woman is no match for him.”

Jegley, asked if he would like to comment about relatives' unhappiness with his decision, said, “No, I don't have anything to say.”

Fields was contacted several times to be interviewed for this article. At first he agreed, and a meeting was scheduled. He later called twice to reschedule the interview, but then canceled each time. After that, he did not return any calls.

Editor's note: Newspapers do not, as a general rule, identify alleged victims of rape, though the person's name may be public record, as it was in this case. Due to the unusual circumstances recounted here, the decision to identify Brigit Dollar was discussed with family members. They agreed that the story should be reported.

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