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Mo. sheriff, two deputies charged in ‘criminal street gang activity’

March 17, 2023 Updated Fri., March 17, 2023 at 8:59 p.m.

By Kim Bell St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Mo. – The sheriff of Iron County and two of his deputies are accused of “criminal street gang activity” in what prosecutors allege was a parental kidnapping plot to help a friend.

Jeff Burkett, in his first term as sheriff of Iron County, was in jail Friday in neighboring Washington County, along with the Iron County deputies and a fourth man, Donald Rickie Gaston.

Prosecutors allege the sheriff and deputies tried last month to help Gaston kidnap his daughter after a fight with the child’s mom over a $50 bottle of liquor.

The sheriff is charged, among other things, with lying to a 911 dispatcher to report the child’s mother had kidnapped the girl and that the child was in danger. They also are accused of using “pings” from the mother’s cell phone to try to track her whereabouts.

One of the charges lodged against the sheriff is that he and the other three men were part of a “criminal street gang” because they were organized to commit the crimes.

Gabe Crocker, the sheriff’s attorney, said the small-town politicians in Iron County were hellbent on taking the sheriff down.

“These charges are 100% politically motivated,” Crocker said. “It’s simply another chapter in the long-term effort to remove the outsider sheriff.”

Iron County is southwest of Farmington, in Missouri’s lead belt, and is home to parts of the Mark Twain National Forest and Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. Nearly 10,000 people call Iron County home.

Without the sheriff working, state law throws control of the department to the county coroner, Tim Harbison. But who will patrol the 550 square miles of Iron County, with the already short-staffed sheriff’s office down three? The sheriff one county over, Washington County Sheriff Zach Jacobsen, told the Post-Dispatch he’s offered to help and is talking with the coroner to see if they can work out something.

Thursday, prosecutors in Washington County filed four felony charges against Burkett, including attempted kidnapping and being an accessory to stalking. He also faces four misdemeanors, including making a false report and misusing the 911 system. Washington County’s 911 system dispatches for Iron County.

Missouri law defines a criminal street gang as any “organization, association or group of three or more (people) whether formal or informal” who “engage in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

Under that law, the criminal gang commits at least two of the 17 crimes spelled out in the statute. Crimes on that list include assault, soliciting, trafficking, abuse and “any dangerous felony.”

The punishment for a single count of that charge alone is up to 15 years in prison.

The four men charged are:

– The sheriff, Burkett, 46, who lives in Des Arc, Missouri, in Iron County. Among the eights charges, the patrol said his crimes included obtaining criminal history record information under false pretense.

– Iron County Deputy Matthew Cozad, 39, who lives in Bixby, Missouri, in Iron County. Prosecutors allege that Cozad asked dispatchers to check for other vehicles the woman had registered in her name, and asked that area law enforcement agencies detain her if they stopped her for any reason.

– Iron County Deputy Major Chase Bresnahan, 31, who lives in Centerville, Missouri, in Reynolds County. Part of what prosecutors accused him of doing is contacting a wireless phone company to get information on the woman’s phone location.

– Donald Rickie Gaston, 62, who lives in Caledonia, Missouri, in Washington County. The patrol said Gaston’s crimes included second-degree stalking and attempted parental kidnapping.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol arrested them Thursday. The patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control conducted the investigation.

Bresnahan, Cozad and Gaston face similar charges as the sheriff. The sheriff is being held in lieu of $500,000 cash bail. His three co-defendants each has a bond of $400,000 cash. They will be asking a judge next week to reduce the bond.

Burkett, elected sheriff in 2020, is halfway through his four-year term. His salary is $63,000 as sheriff, according to January county commission minutes. Before he was sheriff, Burkett worked as a deputy.

Gaston was not in law enforcement but is known around town as a big property owner. Gaston and Burkett knew each other. “They’re thick as thieves,” said one source, who asked that he not be identified.

Charging documents allege the case began on Feb. 8 when Gaston and a woman named Adrienne L. Henry got into a quarrel. Henry is the mother of two children, a 17-year-old and a 5-year-old, according to police.

A 4-minute audio recording from the 911 dispatch center and a cell phone video picked up details of the quarrel between Gaston and Henry. They were fighting over a $50 bottle of liquor, police said, and Gaston was agitated and cursing at Henry. A female voice is heard on the recording, yelling, “Touch her again and I swear to god I’ll call the … cops.” The video ends with Gaston saying that someone punched him in the face.

Two days later, on Feb. 10, the Iron County sheriff call 911 dispatch and asked them for a cellular phone “ping,” saying he was trying to check “the well being” of someone. He said the woman had fled the county with a child, and he said a court order said the father should have been notified, charges say. While on the phone with dispatch, he said he was Gaston, charges said. After several phone pings, Cozad asked dispatchers to put a “stop and hold” on the woman.

After 11 p.m. that night, a Jefferson County police sergeant told dispatchers he found the woman and her two children and they were fine. When Burkett heard that the Jefferson County officer didn’t arrest the woman, Burkett replied by saying, “Well they’re gonna have another issue because Gaston is on his way there.”

Burkett’s mugshot Thursday, taken at the Washington County jail in Potosi, shows him with an oxygen line leading to his nose and wrapped behind his ears.

Last week, days after Burkett was interviewed by patrol investigators, he checked himself into the hospital. The Iron County Sheriff’s Department told people on Facebook that Burkett was hospitalized March 10 for complications from COVID-19.

“Sheriff Burkett is awake and alert, however, his symptoms are quite severe,” the post said.

Later that day, the office updated its message to say that Burkett was heading home for rest.

Last year, the sheriff was hospitalized for nearly four months, part of that time spent on a ventilator because of COVID, the Sheriff’s Office said.

While he was sick, he claimed some county officials were trying to remove him from office.

“Sheriff Burkett battled back,” the Sheriff’s Department said, “and the frivolous coup attempt failed … It is no secret that Sheriff Burkett is an outsider to many of the current elected officials.”

Jacobsen said he knew of Burkett but knew the previous Iron County sheriff better. Burkett unseated the incumbent, Roger Medley, in the August primary of 2020. Jacobsen said a citizen of another county told him about the issues with Burkett, and Jacobsen turned the investigation over to the Highway Patrol. It turned into the charges of criminal enterprise.

The charge of being part of a criminal street gang activity is a rarity. “I’ve been in this business 20 years and I’ve never heard of it,” Jacobsen said, adding that the prosecutor has a unique approach.

Word of Burkett’s arrest spread quickly Thursday at the twice-annual Missouri Sheriffs Association conference in Osage Beach.

“The fact that we arrested one of our own sent shockwaves through the conference,” Jacobsen said in an interview from the conference. “We have over 100 sheriffs here.”

Crocker, the lawyer defending Burkett, said the Iron County Commission has had it in for Burkett since he won the election. They tried to remove him from office when he was hospitalized, and Crocker said they slashed the sheriff’s budget requests.

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