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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

FARMINGTON • Steven J. Pritchett is the answer to a movie question.

There is a scene in the 1998 Tommy Lee Jones film “U.S. Marshals” when Jones’ character, Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard, is seeking a guide through the swamp and backwoods to find a fugitive.

Gerard gathers a bunch of locals and asks for the “most country” SOB in the group to help him out.

An old man spits some tobacco juice to the side while everybody turns their heads in his direction. He was Gerard’s guy.

If you were looking for the real-life answer to that question in St. Francois County, Pritchett would be a good place to start.

Which is to say that the 62-year-old ex-logger, miner and “horseshoer” is as country as they get.

“I know these backwoods like nobody’s business,” he says.

Pritchett first called me last year, after I wrote about a St. Francois County woman who was sent to prison because she couldn’t afford to pay all the court costs billed to her in a long-ago-ended child support case. He told me he had a warrant out for his arrest. Indeed he does.

It’s tied to a felony stealing charge filed in 2013 by the office of the St. Francois County prosecuting attorney, Jerrod Mahurin.

Because no one seemed to be actively looking for Pritchett, and not wanting that to change, he wasn’t ready to go public.

There are lots of people like him in the county, he told me, and they’re all scared to talk. When I wrote last month about Rob Hopple, stuck in jail for much of this year while Mahurin filed motions delaying his trial five separate times, Pritchett found his voice.

“He’s done this to a lot of people,” Pritchett says of Mahurin.

Pritchett’s case hasn’t gone to trial. It hasn’t been dismissed. It just sits as a dark cloud following him wherever he goes.

“There is no evidence,” Pritchett says. “None. I know that. Everybody knows that.”

The case involves a pile of logs.

In fall of 2012, Pritchett heard about a Park Hills woman who needed some logs removed from her property. He couldn’t do the work due to an accident in which a horse caused significant damage to his right leg. It hurts most days. He hobbles. But his son, Jason, needed work and did some logging. The woman, apparently, wanted to be paid in cash for a portion of the logs if somebody would remove them from her property.

Be careful, Pritchett told his son.

And he was. His son took pictures, Pritchett says; kept receipts; had witnesses.

But in 2013, the woman, who has several civil default judgments against her in various counties, told police that she didn’t get paid all the money that was supposed to be paid to her and that the Pritchetts refused to pay the rest.

Charges were filed against both Pritchetts. The son was arrested, and Dad bailed him out. It wasn’t easy. Neither has much money. The elder Pritchett lives on disability payments, he says. He helps support his son and grandchildren.

The Pritchetts hired a lawyer, Dwight Robbins, to represent them. After months of delays he got Jason’s case before a judge. It was dismissed on July 15, 2014, according to court records.

Robbins filed a motion a couple months later seeking to dismiss the elder Pritchett’s case “based on the same evidence provided” in his son’s case. But before a hearing could be held, Robbins was appointed as the Madison County prosecuting attorney. He withdrew from Pritchett’s case. The case got bumped around between a couple of judges. Five years after it was filed, there it sits.

Mahurin hasn’t dropped the case. Pritchett hasn’t been arrested.

It’s a stand-off.

Pritchett is convinced he won’t lose. But he doesn’t want to have to spend a month or two, or longer, in jail, to prove his case. He knows he can’t make bail. He can’t afford an attorney anymore. And he believes, based on the stories some people tell him, that poor people like him tend to spend a lot of time in the St. Francois County jail.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see there’s a pattern of behavior here,” he tells me. “There’s a lot of fear.”

The pattern is in the records. Pritchett gave me several names of people whose cases share these elements: High cash bails on relatively minor charges — none of them involving guns or violence — followed by long stays in jail and delayed court dates. The pattern is similar to one identified in several rural Missouri counties by the Missouri State Public Defender’s office, which has three pending cases in Missouri appeals courts questioning the legality of jail sentences’ being issued for delays on paying jail-stay bills.

Pritchett has become one of the people to call when somebody has a story to tell about the prosecutor. “I made my mind up that I’m going to fight for all these people.”

Pritchett hopes this column doesn’t end up putting him behind bars. But he knows what he’ll tell the judge if he gets his day in court.

“I don’t lie,” he says. “I don’t cheat. I don’t steal. Never have.”

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

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