Judge calls Darke County sheriff ‘social media influencer,’ moves 2 homicide cases

Sheriff Mark Whittaker says of Facebook post: ‘All I did was provide public information.’

Suspects in two separate murder investigations in Darke County had their cases transferred to different courts after concerns that a social media post by the Darke County sheriff could result in unfair trials.

However, the Darke County sheriff and prosecutor’s office disagree with the court ruling and expressed concern with the extra costs and logistical issues involved with moving the trials out of county.

Sheriff Mark Whittaker in November posted on the Darke County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page the two suspects had been released from jail after posting bail.

“As Sheriff of Darke County and in the interest of public safety, I am compelled to inform the citizens of Darke County of the following information. Today, November 10, 2022 the following two subjects posted bond and are released from the Darke County Jail as required by the Darke County Common Pleas Court,” the post read. “Both subjects are on electronic home monitoring by the Court’s pre-trial services division and are on house arrest as a condition of bond. Dean M. Baker is under indictment for Murder, Tampering with Evidence and Gross Abuse of a Corpse and is released on a $150,000.00 bond pending trial. William L. Fields is under indictment for Murder and is released on $75,000.00 bond pending trial.”

A few weeks later, defense attorneys for Baker and Fields requested the cases be moved out of Darke County. Both cited concerns with information released by the sheriff’s office, according to court documents.

Baker, 35, of Greenville, is accused of killing Corey Fleming on or about Aug. 7 or 8, 2022. The 30-year-old man’s body was found in a shallow grave at a Brown Twp. commercial poultry farm. Baker was arrested Aug. 24 at a truck stop near Ocala, Florida, Whittaker said during a press briefing.

Fields, 59, is accused of shooting and killing 62-year-old William R. Duncan on Oct. 6, 2022, outside a house in the 5000 block of Smith Road in Liberty Twp. in western Darke County. Fields had been living in a camper in the backyard but sometimes stayed inside, according to Darke County court records.

Darke County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan P. Hein in December ruled Baker’s case would be moved to Clark County and Fields’ case would be in Seneca County.

Hein wrote the sheriff’s post mischaracterized the defendants and the facts of their cases, according to court documents. He added the post expressed “opinions as facts.”

The judge noted Whittaker’s role as sheriff includes investigating criminal activity and operating a jail, in addition to other administrative and registration duties.

“However, the Baker and Fields cases demonstrate the problems that result when the Sheriff expands his role to be that of a social media influencer,” Hein wrote. “These cases are clearly the first time such conduct has occurred regarding persons charged with homicide. In doing so, regardless of his subjective intent, the Sheriff inaccurately stereotyped both Defendants as threats to the public. Further, he prejudiced both Defendants by joining their cases together where there is no factual relation between them.”

While the state filed for the judge to reconsider the change of venue in the cases, Judge Travis L. Fliehman — who was sworn as common pleas court judge after Hein stepped down — denied both reconsiderations.

Fields’ attorney, M. David Merrell, said he was happy with the decision and that the case was moved to allow for a fair and impartial trial.

Merrell added the “unfortunate” comments from the sheriff had the potential to prejudice a jury.

L. Patrick Mulligan, who is representing Baker, said he respects the decision of the court and understands the reasoning behind it.

He said both sides are exploring the mechanics of the decision, but added it’s not common for cases to be transferred.

Darke County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jim Bennett, who is handling the Fields case, said there are logistical issues raised for everyone by moving the trials out of county, especially getting witnesses to Seneca County two and a half hours away. He said it will be costly, but does not have an idea now how much that may be.

Whittaker disagreed his Facebook post was enough to have the cases moved out of the county.

“All I did was provide public information,” the sheriff said.

He pointed out that the information he provided was readily available to anyone who wanted it, and that it did not include specific case details, unlike reports from news media outlets.

“At the end of the day that’s the judge’s decision,” he said.

However, the judge’s ruling will not stop him from making announcements when he deems it necessary, he said.

“Whenever there is a circumstance or situation that I believe is of a public safety concern then, if appropriate, I will be sure to relay that information to the citizens I serve,” Whittaker said.

Credit: Darke County Jail

Credit: Darke County Jail

Credit: Darke County Jail

Credit: Darke County Jail

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