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A killing in Pocahontas 

A witness murdered, a drug ring exposed, a snake in a box.

BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats

Travis Perkins lived in Pocahontas, a small town along the Black River in Northeast Arkansas, in a ramshackle brick building painted white, with a long, steep roof of blue shingles. Next door was a junk shop that sold VHS tapes, old toys and swords. Perkins, who was tall, unshaven and bulky, with a buzz cut and an impish grin, lived on the second floor, where there were no windows. He lived alone, with his television, his computer and pictures of his kids on the walls. He would have friends over, usually only one at a time, and they'd play board games or set up a target on one side of the room and shoot at it with pellet guns or, more often, with bows and arrows. They'd smoke meth, torching the bulb of a glass pipe, and in the height of the rush they'd stand, take aim, draw their bows and release.

Pocahontas, which lies at the intersection of the Mississippi Delta and the Ozark Mountains, is the seat of Randolph County, home to the first courthouse and post office established in the Arkansas Territory. A quiet community, the town's history is also a rogue's gallery of bootleggers and black market opportunists. It's said to have been an early hideout of onetime Public Enemy No. 1 Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, who went on to serve 26 years in Alcatraz. More recently, it has been home to a series of figures straight out of outlaw legend, like the corrupt, former state Sen. Nick Wilson, onetime namesake of the local airport; and the State Trooper Jack McMullen, who smuggled trash bags of pot up from Pasadena, Texas, before the rest of the law caught up with him. Alongside faded portraits from the steamboat era, back when the city truly thrived, the walls of the Randolph County Heritage Museum are filled with framed photographs of moonshine stills and hanged men. They are part of its history, too.

Perkins had come to Pocahontas from Dixon, Mo., in 1992, and graduated from Pocahontas High before studying to become a professional welder. He had emerged from a tough, independent childhood, in which he had thrived under his own self-imposed brand of discipline, even skipping a couple of grades in elementary school. In recent years he worked for a company called DACO, building flatbed trailers from scratch, and he was divorced, though he and his ex-wife, Kimberly, stayed in touch. It wasn't the life he had wanted or planned for, but things were improving. Around town, despite his drug use and the sorts of mean associations that tended to go with it, Perkins was generally well liked and thought of as a "sweet kid" and a "big teddy bear" — funny, kind and, at worst, "naive." He was 34 years old when, one Saturday night in April 2013, someone said to be wearing a trench coat and a wig broke into his apartment in the middle of the night and shot him twice in his bed, once in the cheek and once under his chin. His body wasn't discovered until the following week. He was lying on his back with his feet on the floor, as though he had intended to stand up.

The murder appeared to be related to an FBI-led drug investigation that, over the last few years, had targeted Pocahontas, and had sprawled outward in a kind of tragic farce, tarnishing some of the city's most respected institutions in the process, including the police force and the judiciary. Buildings were raided, reputations were ruined and general paranoia ran rampant in a community of roughly 6,500. Perkins, for his part, looked like collateral damage. For a long time afterward, his death was the subject only of speculation and countless theories. In the end, there would be only one theory, though so far that's all it has remained — a theory.

***

We often picture criminal investigations as tightly structured and logical, a series of names written on a chalkboard and arranged in a sort of pyramid according to guilt. A more accurate image, though, might be that of a spider web pattern on a pane of shattering glass, with lines extending outward quickly and chaotically. This is how the FBI came to Pocahontas.

Ask around and you'll find any number of theories as to the first cause, the inciting incident. Who talked first? Some point to a man arrested several years ago after nodding off stoned at a car wash. Maybe he said too much? Others mention a couple who always seemed strangely eager for attention. Most locals I spoke with were less specific, intimating vaguely that the city itself has long been so corrupt that it was bound to come apart eventually. Almost everyone agreed, however, that Travis Perkins' fate was finally and irrevocably sealed one afternoon in April 2011, when Glen Smith, the chief of police in the nearby town of Hoxie, switched on his lights and pulled over a pickup truck he had seen veering over the center traffic line on U.S. Highway 67.

Behind the wheel, he found 63-year-old Bob Sam Castleman, along with his girlfriend, Becky Spray. Well known in the area as a former municipal judge and attorney, Castleman was slim and nervous, with hunched shoulders and glasses with rectangular wire frames. He had been dating Spray, who at 30 was less than half his age, for a couple of years. They'd met in a professional capacity: He'd represented her in a drug case when she was 19. After running their licenses and scanning the messy interior of the truck, Smith asked Castleman if he would submit to a drug test, to which the former judge replied apologetically, "Why in the world would I want to do that?"

In truth, Smith had been looking for this particular truck. A longtime friend who worked at a farm supply store would often tip him off when he noticed customers purchasing what in law enforcement jargon are termed "drug precursors" — materials regularly used in the manufacture of illicit drugs — or otherwise acting suspiciously. "You can tell most of the time if they look suspicious," the friend later explained in court. "You can tell by their appearance a lot of times, they'll have sores on their body, on their face, their arms, their eyes will be sunk back in their head."

In Castleman's truck, Smith found a can of Coleman lantern fuel and rolled up vinyl tubing, which qualify as precursors when purchased together, and which his friend had seen Castleman and Spray collecting earlier that afternoon. On the floorboards in front of the passenger seat, Smith also noticed a bag of allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine, a common chemical precursor for methamphetamine. Both were promptly arrested, and a state judge issued a search warrant for Castleman's property on Fairview Road, just outside of Pocahontas.

The farm, over 200 acres of mostly dense, desolate woods, had once been a cattle operation, but for several years had been used only for its timber. A team of Randolph County sheriff's deputies entered through the front gate, breaking the lock with bolt cutters, and began exploring the Castleman home and surveying the surrounding area. Lining the walls inside were Castleman's collections of arrowheads and Native American pottery, which he'd been assembling for decades. In the living room hung the Samurai sword he claimed to have purchased in Japan after a tour in Vietnam. "The real McCoy," he called it proudly.

In the house, the police found lithium batteries (another key meth ingredient), digital scales and about a half-ounce of marijuana. They immediately put Castleman's son, Jerrod, and his girlfriend, Fanci, in handcuffs. At the same time, about 200 yards out in the woods in a sort of trough, two other deputies stumbled on what they'd later describe as a meth lab. Like moonshine stills before them, meth labs can be triumphs of rustic ingenuity, revealing an unlikely mastery of complex chemical processes, and this was one of those. It was a strange sight, a science experiment in the middle of a forest: an air tank, a plastic tub, coiled copper line, various lengths of piping and tubing, a hand siphon pump, funnels and a plastic pitcher containing a pill crusher and residue.

Later, under questioning, Jerrod Castleman gave up a few names of locals who he said had cooked, purchased or smoked meth on the farm. One of those he named, a regular, was one of his oldest friends, a then-32-year-old welder named Travis Perkins.

***

Long before the drug investigation and the events that followed, Bob Sam Castleman was infamous in Pocahontas and beyond for a bizarre incident years earlier involving a copperhead snake.

Castleman is the grandson of a mill worker who uprooted his family in Illinois for a small town in the south Missouri bootheel after World War I. Continuing the family's gradual southerly migration, Castleman's father, Bob Sam Castleman Sr., decided to put down roots in Arkansas. He married a woman from Imboden, a devout Baptist, and they raised three children together in Pocahontas.

Bob Sam Jr. and his older brother, Richard, both fought in Vietnam, before eventually finding themselves pulled back to Northeast Arkansas to practice law. Richard became a deputy prosecutor; Bob became a municipal judge, as well as the proprietor of what he later deemed "probably the most successful private law practice in Pocahontas."

In the '90s, according to some who have known Castleman for decades, he was part of the orbit of casual corruption surrounding the notorious Sen. Wilson, memorably described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Linda Satter as the "smooth-talking, cigar-chomping man with the ice-blue eyes." (Wilson eventually resigned in 1999 after facing over 100 criminal charges stemming from his various schemes, having funneled just over $1 million of public funds into his own pocket.)

"I prided myself in my job," Castleman would later say in court. "I worked — I wasn't an 8 to 5 lawyer. I would work into the wee hours of the evening. Some nights I would work all night. A client's problem maybe went home and went to bed with them, but they never rested with me until their case was over. I did the best I could."

One former client of Castleman's, however, told me, "There's something wrong with Bob, with his way of thinking. He's not 100 percent in contact with the world." Many people noticed this about him, this sense that he lacked a firm grasp on his surroundings (to say nothing of the law). He seemed spacey or distracted, they say, like his mind was elsewhere. Some attribute his particular form of eccentricity to his drug use, though others insist it was in place well before the meth.

Not that the meth helped. In the early 2000s, Castleman began having what he termed "blackout spells." They were typically harmless, except for one December night when he passed out while driving home from an errand in Jonesboro. He drifted off the highway and hit two large steel culverts, totaling his car, breaking his ribs and sternum and knocking himself unconscious. He was pried out of the vehicle with the Jaws of Life, and the pain and medical issues stemming from the accident would follow him for years.

Jerrod Castleman has had drug-related legal issues of his own since he was 14, and it is difficult to say which Castleman picked up the habit from the other. The two were, as a friend put it in court, "more like buddies or friends than like a father-son relationship." Jerrod is in many respects tougher than his father, more physically intimidating — "He thinks he's Scarface," as one person close to the family told me. Still, Bob Castleman has always been intensely, even violently, protective of his son, and it is this tendency that led directly to one of his strangest and most embarrassing episodes, what newspapers would later dub the "snake trial."

In the summer of 2001, Jerrod was in the middle of a feud with a former friend over the possibly fraudulent sale of a 4-wheeler ATV. One night that June, he and his girlfriend drove to the old friend's home and began doing doughnuts outside in the street, driving ominous circles in the gravel as if to issue a threat. "We were so scared," Albert Staton, the friend's father, said later in court. "We didn't know what he was planning to do." Staton retrieved his 9mm handgun and fired seven shots at Jerrod's 1998 Chevy Blazer, shattering the windshield and barely missing him.

Bob, who was called to the scene in the middle of the night, was incensed. "God was riding with them that evening," he'd say later, "or one or both of those young people would have been dead." After no charges were brought against the Statons for the incident, Bob became obsessed with revenge. "I wanted to take immediate action," he explained in court. "I think any parent would want to take immediate action."

The timeline of what happened next is difficult to accurately reconstruct, as many aspects are in dispute by both parties. It may be easiest to simply quote the federal court's transcript from the sentencing proceedings: "On or about September 29, 2002, in the Eastern District of Arkansas, Mr. Castleman, aiding and abetting a son, did knowingly deposit or mail at the Pocahontas Post Office in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and cause to be delivered by mail, a communication containing a threat to the person of another; to wit, a package addressed to Albert Coy Staton, which contained a live mature copperhead snake."

The snake had been mailed in a cardboard box filled with green packing peanuts, and it was Staton's wife who opened it while sitting in the front seat of their car. It "popped out" facing her, she said, and she threw it out of the vehicle onto the ground, trapping it under the box. Sheriff's deputies rushed to the scene and shot the snake, which was then preserved in an ethanol jar by a snake pathologist. The jar would later turn up during the trial, where it was held up in front of the jurors, so they could get a clear look.

The "snake trial" very briefly captured the imaginations of media all over the country, who offered it as an emblem of the Southern grotesque. "Lawyer guilty of mailing deadly snake," reported CNN. It was even cited in law textbooks, a perfect example of so-called "unmailable material." After a misguided attempt by Jerrod's lawyer to claim that the Statons had framed them, Bob admitted defeat and appeared contrite. Standing on the steps of the courthouse, he told reporters, "I'm not going to let a snake ruin my life."

Castleman went on to deliver an extended monologue at the sentencing hearing in 2004. "I made the mistake of taking the law into my own hands," he concluded. Judge George Howard Jr., heard his apology and was moved. "Once a sinner, not always a sinner," Howard proclaimed gravely. "I'm a strong believer in that scriptural concept." Castleman was disbarred and sentenced to 27 months in prison. However, the judge said in closing, "I'm persuaded that you have seen the light."

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***

The first raid on Pocahontas came a month after the meth lab was discovered on Castleman's farm, in May 2011. A tactical meeting was called at 5 a.m. May 9 at the Arkansas State Police's Company F headquarters in Jonesboro. None of the officers had been briefed on the day's assignment beforehand. The FBI headed the operation, and other departments were also in attendance, though the Pocahontas Police Department was conspicuously absent. It soon emerged that the city's police force was kept in the dark because it was among the targets of the investigation.

Over the next several hours, officers fanned out across the usually quiet town with S.W.A.T. vehicles, battering rams and flash grenades, breaking down doors, bagging evidence and taking suspects. A friend of Travis Perkins' told me the couch in Perkins' apartment was set on fire during his arrest, and that he himself had brandished a letter opener as a weapon amid the loud and disorienting invasion of his own home. Members of the Pocahontas Police Department were lined up at City Hall and interviewed one by one by the FBI. "It's a very small community," Anne Gardner, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, told me. "Almost everybody was talked to." Among those taken in for questioning while their homes and offices were searched were Pocahontas Chief of Police Chad Mulligan and John Throesch, a district court judge and prominent attorney.

Throesch's law office had been one of the main focuses of the investigation stemming from Castleman's traffic stop. Tipped off about possible drug activity on the premises, agents had staked out the building and set up video cameras across the street. An obvious pattern emerged. On video, they caught two of Throesch's employees leaving cash under a stone in the garden. A third figure would later come and replace the money with drugs. One of the employees was identified as Trish Mulligan, the wife of the city's police chief. The third figure, they learned, was Travis Perkins.

***

The man driving the drug investigation was FBI special agent Ed Jernigan, a Greene County native who had joined the bureau in the late '80s and had been transferred back to Northeast Arkansas in 1994. It is possible that no one has ever looked more like law enforcement than Ed Jernigan, with his thick moustache, stocky build and vaguely bemused expression. Bob Castleman had been on his radar since the copperhead incident, on which he'd been lead investigator (it became a federal crime the moment Castleman relied on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver his revenge). According to one person arrested in the raids, who spoke to me only on condition of anonymity (citing a wish not to attract any further attention from the FBI), Jernigan often seemed to take a personal interest in the Pocahontas case. "Jernigan kept on pushing it and pushing it and pushing it," he said.

The pressure worked. Another raid followed in 2012 ("FBI raids AGAIN," read a post that day on a local forum hosted by the website Topix), and as the number of suspects said to be associated with the Pocahontas drug ring mounted, those at the center of the investigation grew increasingly paranoid and despairing. "There's been some very odd occurrences in this case and they seem to continue," Jerrod Castleman complained in a hearing about his house arrest, insisting that he had been struggling with depression and anxiety as a result. "I have problems, not necessarily eating, but even remembering to eat," he said.

Bob Castleman, in a 2012 hearing over whether or not he could dismiss the evidence from the Hoxie traffic stop, claimed to have developed major depressive disorder, as well as persistent back pain, a herniated disc, 13 kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, a staph infection and a "pinched sciatic nerve" in his left leg. "I need to be back home," he told the court. "I'm not bothering anybody. I've not committed any crimes. I'm not socializing with anyone, no one is socializing with me."

Castleman presented an especially pitiful figure on the stand. "He's a peaceful gentleman," his first lawyer, a public defender, told the court. "This is not like some of the other defendants you see in this court; there's no suggestion of violent behavior, no suggestion that anybody is being injured, killed, threatened, any of those things." He claimed that after Castleman's farm was searched, the gate was left unlocked and his home was robbed. "I have very few friends," Castleman said, the emotion rising in his voice. "I've acquired a social disease, for lack of a better way to say it."

The pressure was also getting to Travis Perkins, who was painted in the government's allegations as the crucial point of connection between the drug scene's manufacturing and distribution crews (based on the farm and at Throesch's law office, respectively), the hub of what, in criminal law, is known as a hub-and-spoke conspiracy. Those who were actually involved with the scene, however, tend to downplay Perkins' overall importance in the city's drug world, offering that he was never much more than a supplier of precursors to the older, more experienced men who would actually cook the product.

Hints as to Perkins' own state of mind can be gleaned from his Facebook activity during this period, where he wrote about "sweatin' out my court date," and appeared generally despondent. "Guess [the] good ol' days been over," he wrote to one friend who wished him well. He began posting religious and otherwise inspirational quotes from figures like Mother Teresa: "When you have nothing left but God, you have more than enough to start over again." Perkins' ex-wife, Kimberly, would later testify that he had begun attending church in the lead-up to his court date, at which he intended to plead guilty. "He was at peace," she said. One of the last posts Perkins made on Facebook was a quote from the Robin Williams movie "World's Greatest Dad": "I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone."

Given the charges against him and the amount of information he had on the others, it was perhaps inevitable that Perkins would begin to seem like a liability. After Bob was released on bond, he made frequent phone calls to Jerrod, who himself was back in prison. Like all such conversations, they were recorded. They discussed the case against them in detail, with Bob expressing particular concern for his son, who had prior drug convictions and so was most at risk. "I'm just hoping they haven't turned Travis," the elder Castleman said.

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***

Perkins was scheduled to plead guilty on April 18, 2013. The federal prosecutors claim that he had in fact been turned, that he had committed to sign a plea agreement and cooperate with the government's investigation, testifying against the Castlemans. His friends, however, dispute this, arguing that the deal proffered by the government wasn't enough. "They were going to give him the same amount of years either way," one friend told me, "so he decided he wasn't going to testify." In any case, the local newspaper, the Pocahontas Star-Herald, reported that he would.

On Friday, April 12, the day before he was killed, Perkins played mancala at his apartment with an old friend. A board game in which two players take turns moving rocks around a wooden board, attempting to capture each other's pieces, or "seeds," mancala was one of Perkins' favorite games. He'd been clean for months, whether because of court-mandated drug tests or out of a sincere effort to turn things around for himself, and the game calmed him down, offered a distraction from his circumstances. While they played that day, according to the friend, Perkins talked mostly about prison.

His body was discovered by his landlord the following Monday, April 15, just three days before his court date. "Police investigating death of Pocahontas man," the Jonesboro TV station, KAIT, Channel 8, reported later in the week, though the investigation had little to go on. The ballistics analysis at Perkins' apartment was useless, investigators claimed, as the bullets were too damaged to be properly tested. Also, there were no eyewitnesses or usable physical evidence at the scene. The neighbors had heard nothing. Given the timing, however, the government was fairly confident it had a motive in mind, as well as a perpetrator. Following the murder, according to Bob Castleman's new lawyer, Blake Hendrix, "The trial immediately took on a different tenor."

Jerrod had an alibi — he was back at home by this point, his every movement monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet. Thus, Bob became the government's primary suspect. That Saturday night, the night Perkins was killed, Castleman had driven to Southland Park in West Memphis to see the dog races with a woman named Kim Caudle, an old girlfriend of his son's. Caudle later testified, however, that she didn't see him for a few hours. He placed a call to Jerrod, according to the phone records, at 12:14 a.m., and then left his cellphone with Caudle, because she was out of minutes. She next saw him sometime after 4 a.m. She also testified that she had once overheard Jerrod discussing Perkins with his father, that the younger Castleman was convinced he could "change his mind" if he could only meet with his old friend.

The drive from Southland Park to Pocahontas takes roughly two hours — four to make a round trip. If Castleman were to make it to Perkins' apartment and back, in other words, it would have been necessary to speed considerably. "By my calculations and MapQuest," Hendrix told me, "that's physically impossible. The evidence [is] just as thin as could be." Federal prosecutors, however, thought otherwise. "Travis had the most information about Bob," Gardner, the assistant U.S. attorney, told me. "Travis was the one who was out there [on the farm] doing this when Jerrod was away. My personal belief is that Bob thought he was helping Jerrod. His son was in trouble, and he and his son were very close."

"I was surprised," she said. "We do a lot of violent crime cases, but this was one of those things that just seemed so unnecessary. [Perkins] was a meth cook, but for all intents and purposes he was a pretty nice guy. He was amicable. He was going to take responsibility for what he had done. He was going to do his time and move on with his life. It was just surprising, and even today my one thought on this thing is, it was so unnecessary. What a waste. For everybody."

***

In the end, Perkins' murder didn't solve any of Bob Castleman's problems. "[Bob] didn't realize just how many motherfuckers were gonna testify against him," one of the other defendants in the case told me. "I think everybody and their dog testified against him." One testimony, in particular, must have stung. His son, Jerrod, finally agreed to a plea deal in December 2013. Tearfully, he told the court that his father had admitted the murder to him, that he had disguised himself in a trenchcoat and a wig and had driven to Perkins' apartment in the middle of the night and killed him. He said he had tossed the gun over a bridge into the Spring River. "[Bob] didn't expect Jerrod to testify," Gardner told me. "Jerrod didn't plead guilty until the day of the trial."

Strangely, the government elected not to charge Castleman with murder. Instead, it simply added on the allegation in the latter stages of his drug trial, taking advantage of the nature of the sentencing guidelines (according to which a sentence can be "enhanced," or increased, if a homicide is committed in the course of committing a crime) to make Castleman's drug conviction more severe. He was found guilty, and because of his son's testimony he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, a much greater term than he would have otherwise faced.

Hendrix, who is appealing the drug conviction, sees it as an instance of "the nightmarish quality that sometimes the federal sentencing guidelines produce." The standard of evidence required for a sentence enhancement is less exacting than it would be in an actual murder trial, he points out.

"It's really not common," Gardner said, but Castleman has effectively been sentenced for a murder with which he was never charged or tried. According to Hendrix, "You have a situation here where the tail is wagging the dog."

The remaining defendants, along with the prominent bystanders unknowingly entangled in the investigation, all of them now survivors of the so-called Pocahontas drug ring, have either fled town or are lying low. Mulligan, the former chief of police who was cleared of any involvement in the conspiracy, resigned and moved to Florida with his wife. Throesch, the district court judge who claimed to have no knowledge of his employee's activities, closed his office and now works out of his brother's building. The other co-conspirators, most of them truck drivers or auto mechanics who got in over their heads, are on probation, hoping to stay out of trouble and move on. "The thing of it is, it never was supposed to be no big deal like they made it out to be," one of them told me. "It was just people trying to get high. And then it all got escalated into a big ball of shit."

For its part, the U.S. attorney's office believes that justice has been served. "He got 40 years, and he's already 60 years old," Gardner said of Bob Castleman, "so I consider it a life sentence.

"[A murder charge] still could be tried if the state wanted to," she added. "But how much blood can you get from a stone?"

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