DIXON – A man facing a murder charge in Lee County is back home in Arkansas, and the lead prosecutor in the case says that’s because of a mistake made by Lee County Sheriff John Varga early on in the case.
Varga dismisses the criticism as politics just weeks before the March 18 primary election.
Steven Watts, 56, of Berryville, Ark., was arrested in Arkansas last February on a first-degree murder charge as the result of a lengthy investigation into a Lee County cold case that dates back to the 1980s.
The year-old arrest has become an issue because of a report by Sauk Valley Media last week that Watts had been quietly released from jail in September after his bond was lowered – despite the fact he faces a charge of murder.
The issue also comes amid a campaign for the Republican nomination for sheriff in which Varga is being challenged by John Simonton, an officer with the Dixon Police Department.
On Monday, a colleague of Simonton’s – Dixon Police Lt. Brad Sibley – claimed that the sheriff’s dissemination of information to the media about Watts’ arrest last February was premature – in fact, devastatingly so.
When it sought a warrant to arrest Watts, the Lee County state’s attorney’s office also asked the court to seal the case, and it got an order to that effect. Officials wanted the records kept secret to avoid alerting other suspects.
Sibley, in a letter to the editor published Tuesday by Sauk Valley Media, wrote, [S]heriff Varga might as well have called the other murder suspects and told them to run and hide!”
During an interview Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Buh agreed.
“The [sheriff’s] press release 100 percent compromised the investigation,” Buh said. “Any person who believes otherwise is completely delusional.”
In an interview Thursday, Varga said that he didn’t believe last year’s news release had caused any problems in the case, and he doesn’t regret his decision.
“This didn’t affect the investigation whatsoever,” the sheriff said. “If we would’ve gone through and followed what the state’s attorney’s office plan was and what our plan was, we wouldn’t be talking about this today. It’s a pending investigation, and why the state’s attorney’s office wants to bring it up and rehash it again [now] is far beyond me.”
Sauk Valley Media reported Watts’ arrest last February after learning about it from a TV station in Missouri, which had called the newspaper for more information about the original crime. This newspaper also received information from a newspaper in Carroll County, Ark.
Varga said he issued the news release about the arrest after being contacted by various media outlets. But, he said in an interview Thursday, his release listed the bare minimum amount of information about the case.
Varga apparently told Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller that the other media outlets had agreed not to publish a story. In the interest of protecting an ongoing investigation, Sauk Valley Media had earlier agreed to withhold the story while police pursued suspects in the case.
But after the Arkansas newspaper decided to publish, based in part on information from Varga, so did Sauk Valley Media.
In a letter to the editor printed in Tuesday’s editions, Sibley – the No. 2 man in the city police department – said Sheriff Varga’s release of information to the Arkansas media about Watts’ arrest was a mistake that “any first-year officer with investigative training” would know not to make.
“By issuing the press release with the details that the sheriff included in this murder investigation before the investigation was complete, he violated the most basic police procedures,” Buh said. “In fact, as chief of felony [prosecution] of Lee County, I was stunned he issued a press release.”
Varga, at the time of Sibley’s letter, said he wasn’t surprised by the officer’s comments.
“This is how the whole election has been going,” Varga said in an interview Monday. “People make things up.”
Varga said he and Sacco-Miller had discussed how to address the media, and he saw releasing the information as the best course of action.
Buh said Varga should have known better.
“Everybody knew, including the sheriff, there were to be no comments regarding any arrests or any aspects of the investigation,” the prosecutor said.
Asked about Watts’ bond reduction and subsequent release in September, Buh again made a comment about the news release.
“The critical mistakes the sheriff made in the early stages of the Watts case, by issuing a press release, have come to haunt to this case,” Buh said.