SALYERSVILLE — Walter Hardin, the former deputy judge-executive and son of the current judge-executive of Magoffin County, could be sentenced to life in prison for downloading hundreds of images of child pornography onto his office computer last year and for soliciting sex from a detective pretending to be a 14-year-old girl.
But 10 community residents, including the sheriff, the county attorney and the Sal yersville mayor, have written letters to U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood asking for leniency in Hardin's sentencing on Monday.
Some of the letter writers said or implied that because Hardin, 29, isn't accused of producing pornography or having contact with a child, he hasn't caused real harm. Others say Hardin made a mistake but should be given a second chance.
Those writing letters in support of Hardin say he has a family — a family that is prominent, powerful and generally liked — and a community network that will allow him to get over his mistakes.
By all accounts, he was well liked and well known in the community. He worked for his father, Charles "Doc" Hardin, both in the elder Hardin's medical office and in the judge-executive's office.
"I can't imagine Wally being a threat to anyone, and I will be the first one to welcome him back to our community," wrote local attorney Teddy Flynt. "I simply do not believe our society benefits from locking someone like Wally up for long periods of time."
Most of the people who wrote letters either declined to comment for the Herald-Leader or didn't return phone calls, and mentioning Hardin's name in town often elicits a stony silence.
Hardin's attorney, Burl McCoy of Lexington, did not return phone messages, nor did Hardin's family.
After his son's arrest, "Doc" Hardin told the Herald-Leader, "As a parent, I'm devastated for my son. As judge-executive, I am treating him as I would any employee." The elder Hardin placed his son on an administrative leave, and he has since been replaced.
The letters appear to be the best way to gauge how people in Salyersville feel.
They say Hardin is from a church-going family, is the son of a doctor and public servant, had never been in trouble before and has always worked for the good of the community. He played football in high school and came back to work with the team during the summers, one said.
Since leaving Eastern Kentucky University, the letters indicate, Hardin has been a hard worker in his dad's medical practice and as deputy judge-executive. He helped the sheriff's office get needed funding, worked to improve city-county relations, was eager to help veterans' causes and volunteered during emergencies, such as floods.
The charges were "quite shocking and out of character with his past performance and conduct in the community," County Attorney Greg Allen said.
However, one letter, from dentist James Shepherd, alludes to problems. "After high school Wally had some problems that we are well aware of but over the last 3-4 years Wally has developed into a person that I am proud of and whom I call my friend ..." Shepherd wrote. "As Magoffin Deputy Judge, Wally done a great job. People were skeptical at first that Wally could not handle such a job but he proved them all wrong."
There's no public record of problems that Hardin might have had. Before his arrest in October 2008, there is no record of criminal charges against Hardin in Magoffin County. Shepherd couldn't be reached to elaborate.
Hardin was arrested last October by the state police Electronic Crime Section as the result of an online investigation.
Court records say he offered an undercover federal investigator posing as a mother $2,500 to have sex with her two young children. That investigator tipped off Detective William Lindon, who found Hardin's screen name in a chat room and eventually arrested him.
A few days after Hardin's arrest, 14 videos and hundreds of photographs of children having sex with adults and other children were recovered from Hardin's computer at the Magoffin County Courthouse. Records of sexually explicit chats about children with other Internet users were found, including with Scott County emergency director Eric Westerfield, who has since pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing child pornography.
Despite the accusations Hardin is facing, his first-grade teacher, Dottie Fletcher, said it's only fair to look at the whole person when considering punishment for a crime. Fletcher, who is now retired, said Hardin isn't charged with molesting or harming a child.
"He was someone anybody would trust with their children and their family members," she said in an interview.
She said she has talked with other teachers about how out of character the charges are, compared to what they know of Hardin.
"All of Wally's life he worked really hard in school," and was an outstanding young man, Fletcher said.
Said school Superintendent Joe Hunley, "everyone deserves a second chance."
Police and prosecutors see it differently.
"These are not minor charges," said Lindon, the state police detective who arrested Hardin in October. After six months of sexually explicit online chatting, Hardin had arranged to meet Lindon, who he thought was a 14-year-old girl, at 11 p.m. at a motorcycle dealership parking lot in Lexington; condoms were found in Hardin's pockets, court records say.
Hardin might not have had sex with children, Lindon said in an interview, but he intended to. Each of the 600 pornographic images found on his computer represents the exploitation of a child, Lindon said.
There is a concern about escalating behavior, said Kyle Edelen, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, although he wouldn't address the specifics of Hardin's case before sentencing Monday in U.S. District Court in Lexington.
"What we've found is people that produce one instance of child pornography often have numerous images of other children," that are traded back and forth online, Edelen said. The statutes are strict because it's not uncommon for collectors to make the leap to producer and then to molester, he said.
"They do kind of follow one another," Edelen said.