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Harold Smith underwent toe surgery early the morning of Sept. 6. The former Bel Aire mayor was supposed to stay off his feet for a few days, but he answered a knock at the door at 39th North and Parkwood around 5:30 that afternoon.
Smith was confronted by three police officers bearing a search warrant for his home. Other officers followed--10 in all, including two from the Kechi Police Department.
They were looking for drugs. And, for the next half hour to 45 minutes--the Smiths aren't sure of the exact time frame--that's what the officers did. To the Smiths, it seemed like forever.
Dumbfounded, Smith and wife Carolyn were kept in the living room area while the officers searched upstairs and downstairs for what they apparently were convinced was in the home or on their property: marijuana, marijuana seed for growing, cultivation tools, paraphernalia for distribution and consumption, cash, receipt books and ledgers, computers, tax stamps, and receipts and documents showing occupancy.
Carolyn Smith said the officers videotaped the entire search, and also them.
"It was very unnerving," she said.
The primary reason for the late-afternoon raid on the home and two acres where the Smiths have lived for more than 40 years was in their back yard--marijuana, or at least what the officers were convinced was marijuana. They said the illegal plants had been spotted from the road that passes their wooded yard that adjoins the Jehovah's Witnesses' building on 37th Street.
The officers said it appeared the Smiths, who have worked as master gardeners with the Sedgwick County Extension Office, had been cultivating the plants, and they had been planted in a row.
Nearly speechless, Carolyn Smith told the officers that if there was marijuana growing in their back yard, they were going to have to show her. They went into the yard, snipped a piece of the plant and brought it back to Smith.
When the officers showed her the suspect plants, she said she almost laughed.
"Those are sunflowers," she told them. "And they're all over the yard."
The seeds for the Maximilian sunflowers came from the Smiths' son, Matt, who is a wildlife biologist in western Kansas. Maximilian sunflowers, which have smaller blossoms than common Kansas sunflowers, grow wild. They've been planted in her back yard for at least four or five years, she said.
"There's no way that looks like marijuana," Carolyn Smith said.
The officers apparently were convinced otherwise, she said. They took samples of the plant with them.
"All this hullabaloo, and then they left," Carolyn Smith said. "I was so indignant, so upset."
When the officers were in their home, she kept trying to find out why the officers were searching it.
"I asked the police chief (Chris Ludiker), 'Why would you think this?'" she said. "You know us," she told him. "My husband hired you when he was mayor. We've lived here 40 years in the same house. Why would you think this? We're senior citizens."
Smith, a marriage and family counselor in Wichita, said the officers questioned her and her husband about why they had more than two vehicles. She said he told her that two people didn't need more than two vehicles.
"One of them is my Jeep," she said. "I drive my Jeep to Utah every year when we go backpacking there. We've gone there with our family for 15 or 16 years. I really enjoy driving my Jeep on trips."
The officers asked them "over and over," Smith said, about whether they had someone living there with them.
"They said younger men had been seen going into our house," she said. "I told them we had two sons, the one in Wilson who gave me the seeds and the other one who is an electrician in El Dorado. One visited us on July Fourth, and one was here overnight over Labor Day weekend. There hasn't been anyone else here."
Smith said Ludiker also referred to the sign on their fence near the gate to the back yard. The sign reads "Guard dog on duty." A separate sign under that sign reads "No trespassing."
"I told him it was a joke--that's why I bought it," she said. "All we have is our little dog. He asked about other dogs. There aren't any."
When their family members initially heard about the drug raid, Smith said they laughed. Then they got mad.
"At first you're incredulous--these great big guys with guns," she said. "At least they didn't draw them. They were ready for a drug raid. I bet they were disappointed."
Smith is amazed that the officers couldn't tell marijuana from sunflowers.
"They'd be blooming now if it hadn't been for all the rain--they're about a week late," she said. "Either the police chief is incredibly stupid, or it's political. I feel like taking them a bouquet of the sunflowers when they bloom--if I could work up enough nerve to do it. I just don't want any retaliation from them."
The Smiths suspect this raid, like other incidents in past years, are politically motivated. Smith said she and her husband have endured "this type of junk" since he was mayor. He resigned during his fourth term in 1998 in protest of the firing of longtime City Administrator Jim Dunning.
Carolyn Smith detailed what she said were former council members taking photos of their house and sitting near their home, as if they were watching them.
"We were just beginning to relax, to trust people again, and then this happens," she said. "My husband is a nice, little, quiet man. We are very private people."
Smith also is upset about what their neighbors and other members of the community must think.
"What would you think--10 cops coming into a house?" she asked. "Neighbors were in our yard, standing around, asking what was going on. I hate it that these guys have been all through our house. It's such a frightening feeling. The bottom line is there's no one we can call if there's a problem. I would never call the Bel Aire police again if there's a problem."
Smith said all of the current city council members and the mayor have either called or come by the house to offer their apologies.
"They've all been supportive," she said. "They're all good people."
Smith said the police chief also stopped by the house after the bungled raid to say he was sorry, and that in hindsight, it could have been handled differently.
"That's a bunch of baloney," she said. "I wouldn't let him in. I will never let him in my house again."
Bel Aire Mayor Brian Withrow said the incident with the Smiths was "obviously a huge concern."
"Any time your police department conducts a raid, whether it's the former mayor or not," he said, "it's an important event in a town our size. We're in the process of getting to the bottom of it--why it happened, what they were thinking when the decision was made, internal controls used and not used. . . where the system failed."
The mayor said council members have discussed the incident in closed session, the last time Monday night at the end of their workshop meeting.
"It's something we're not ignoring, obviously," he said. "We have a town hall meeting Thursday night. I was going to talk about the development authority, but I have a feeling it will come up."
Withrow said he plans to have someone "external to the city" gather facts and information about the case, to determine what happened, in chronological order.
The mayor said he doesn't think there was any political motive behind the raid.
"Certainly not from my perspective," Withrow said. "There's no evidence of that yet. I think they're (the Smiths) friends of mine."
Withrow said shortly after he was elected in April, he instructed the police chief not to come to him to ask permission to enforce the law.
"I didn't want there to be any sense that our law enforcement decisions had any political dimensions to them," he said. "I was not aware of the raid before it happened. No one on the council was. I don't even think the city administrator was aware."
As far as the misidentification of the sunflower, Withrow said he could understand how the plant could have appeared to be marijuana from a distance, but not up close.
"They (the police department) repeated that mistake internally three times, then took it to the DA, who looked at the pictures and said yes, and the judge said yes," Withrow said. "That's what's perplexing. How could so many people be so wrong? My understanding is they showed the judge photos of the plants."
Withrow said the plants have a similar leaf structure, but a different branch structure and color.
"In my former life, I arrested people for marijuana, so I kind of know what it looks like," he said.
Withrow worked 13 years for the state police in Texas, first as a trooper and later as an inspector, before going back to graduate school.
In hindsight, the mayor said, many people would have suggested the officer just go up to the door and knock and ask about the plant.
"Who knows how it would have turned out?" he said. "They might have ended up on the back porch, drinking pop and laughing about it."
That's what Carolyn Smith said should have happened.
"I would have taken them back there in a minute," she said. "We don't know about this stuff. We just see it on the movies. There's got to be a way we can totally clear our name."
The Smiths have retained an attorney, Dan Monnat, who also is the attorney for former BTK suspect Roger Valadez. In that case, Monnat has been asking to see the probable cause affidavit detailing why Valadez was a suspect and ultimately arrested.
Ludiker, who has been on the Bel Aire force since January 1996 and chief since last September, declined to comment, saying, "There's not a whole lot I can say right now."