The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 23, 2013

MADD directs criticism at Oronogo police chief

By Emily Younker

ORONOGO, Mo. — Members of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving criticized the Oronogo police chief during a City Council meeting Monday night, saying it was “morally wrong” for him to ride in the same car with the METS director the night the latter man was arrested and charged with DWI.

Their criticism comes two weeks after members of the group went to a City Council meeting as “observers” after learning that the Oronogo mayor had been charged with driving while intoxicated earlier this spring. The group also has been publicly critical of the Metro Emergency Transport System director, who is the former Oronogo fire chief.

Kerry Freeman, president of the Newton and Jasper County Chapter of MADD, and her husband, Gregg Freeman, said they witnessed police Chief Jeff Fries on June 30 in a vehicle driven by Jason Smith, of Oronogo, after the vehicle was pulled over early that morning at a sobriety checkpoint by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Fries, who is a member of the Jasper County Emergency Services Board and is on the DWI task force that works with MADD to set up checkpoints, has not been charged with any crime.

But Smith, director of the Joplin-based METS ambulance service and a former chief of the Oronogo Fire Protection District, registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.132 percent at that stop, exceeding the 0.08 blood-alcohol limit in Missouri, according to a probable-cause statement. He was charged with driving while intoxicated.

The Freemans were at the checkpoint, which is not an uncommon practice for MADD members, they said. Treva Gordon, who serves as the group’s vice president, and her husband, Mark Gordon, also have said they were at the checkpoint and witnessed Fries in Smith’s car. Gregg Freeman also said he spoke to Fries that night.

In a statement Monday to the City Council, Kerry Freeman said a public servant, such as a chief of police, should not have allowed an intoxicated individual to get behind the wheel of a car.

“This behavior is unacceptable for anyone, but 10 times (worse) for those who hold a public office, those who have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Missouri,” Freeman, of Alba, said in her statement. “Riding with an impaired person is not against the law, but as an officer of the law, letting an impaired driver on the streets you have sworn to protect is morally wrong.”

Kerry Freeman told the Globe after the meeting that she would like to see Fries resign his position, although she did not ask for his resignation in her statement.

Fries, who was at Monday’s meeting, declined to comment to the Globe about Kerry Freeman’s statement, her call for his resignation or whether he was a passenger in Smith’s car. Smith has not returned multiple calls and messages seeking comment.

Gregg Freeman previously told the Globe: “Jeff is the police chief of Oronogo and elected to represent us (on the 911 board). They need to represent the law enforcement and public safety better. ... It’s very poor judgment for someone in their (position) to do this without regard to public safety.”

Treva Gordon said she believes the police chief exercised “very poor judgment.”

“They go into schools and tell our kids what not to do during DARE programs,” she said after the July 8 City Council meeting. “Could they not call us for a ride? They know that’s what we’re here for.”

Two weeks ago, members of the group told the Globe that they want Oronogo Mayor Bob Pearish to step down. Pearish on May 8 was stopped by Carterville police and charged with driving while intoxicated and speeding. According to a court report, his blood-alcohol content was 0.097 percent.

“I also believe that when you hold a public office, such as mayor, chief of police ... and so on, the public looks to you to do the right thing,” Kerry Freeman said in her statement Monday. “The children in the schools you speak to look up to you. Is this what you want them to see?”

Pearish was not at Monday’s City Council meeting. Repeated messages left for him at City Hall have not been returned, and attempts to reach him at his home have been unsuccessful.

Although members of the MADD group have said outside the meetings that they want the mayor and now the police chief to resign, they have not asked for that before the council.

Gregg Freeman said he thought it was evident that’s what the group wanted based on MADD’s public criticism to the media.

Bob Russell, the councilman who ran Monday’s meeting in the mayor’s absence, told the Globe that MADD has not approached the city formally to ask for any resignations. He said Monday was the first time the group had addressed the council.

Asked about that, Gregg Freeman said, “If it takes us to say that in a council meeting, we’ll go to the next one, too. ”

Other council members had no comment after Kerry Freeman’s statement.

Gregg Freeman said the group had chosen to protest these cases over past high-profile DWI cases of public officials because he thinks they’re indicative of a broader pattern in the town.

STAFF WRITER ANDRA STEFANONI contributed to this report.

Closed session

MONDAY’S COUNCIL MEETING in Oronogo included a closed session, in accordance with state law, for discussion of personnel matters. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Russell declined to comment on the subject of the meeting but said no votes were taken.