Audio recordings capture a judge, court clerk, prosecutor, sheriff and undersheriff making threatening remarks about a Sharon Springs couple who face felony drug charges. (Getty Images)
By Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — Mark and Mandy Helstrom feared their lives were in danger when they discovered an audio recording of Wallace County law enforcement and court officials talking about ways to kill the couple.
The couple say they inadvertently recorded the private conversation with Mark Helstrom’s phone after he left it in a clerk’s office in the Wallace County Courthouse. They shared the recording with Kansas Reflector.
In one part of the conversation, District Judge Scott Showalter, court clerk Rosella Ryser and County Attorney Charles Moser say they should take the couple into Colorado for a visit to the “Yellowstone train station.” The innuendo — from the TV show “Yellowstone” — refers to killing an enemy.
Later in the same recording, Sheriff Marshall Unruh and Undersheriff Lance Finley talk about putting a bag over Mandy Helstrom’s head.
“I just live in fear all day, every day,” she said in an interview for this story.
The Helstroms live in Sharon Springs, in the far northwest corner of the state, and are defending themselves from criminal drug charges. Mark Helstrom describes himself in court filings as sovereign — but he says he is not associated with the “sovereign citizen” movement of extremist anti-government activism.
Showalter recused himself from handling the couple’s cases after they discovered the audio recording and brought it to the court’s attention.
Ryser, Moser, Unruh and Finley didn’t respond to inquiries for this story. Showalter responded with a written statement.
“I acknowledge I made inappropriate remarks that were in poor taste, and I regret it,” Showalter said. “The remarks, made in a private conversation, were not intended as a threat to anyone. I recognize my error, recused myself from the cases at hand, and self-reported my actions to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. I apologize to the parties, my court colleagues, and anyone else affected by my remarks.”
Drugs and consent
Sheriff’s officers arrested the Helstroms in June after they found marijuana and oxycodone in their house. Moser charged them with possession of the drugs, as well as not having a drug tax stamp and possession of drug paraphernalia. Moser also charged Mark Helstrom with interference with law enforcement.
Mandy Helstrom said she suffers from a medical condition that frequently causes her to vomit or feel nauseated. The couple said she intended to order a legal form of CBD to see if it would help, but the package arrived with marijuana. The U.S. Postal Service notified law enforcement, which raided their house.
Officers found the marijuana, as well as oxycodone. Mark Helstrom said a neighbor inadvertently left the prescribed painkillers in the house years ago and that the Helstroms had forgotten about them.
The Helstroms chose to represent themselves in court rather than rely on a court-appointed stand-by counsel, who happens to be a prosecutor from a neighboring county.
In court filings, Mark Helstrom declared himself to be sovereign and to have revoked his consent to be governed.
“I do not consent to your laws nor have I consented to this court’s jurisdiction, the only reason, I have appeared at-all, is because of the government’s violent tendencies which is placing my life in danger of being terminated,” Mark Helstrom wrote in an Oct. 16 motion to dismiss his case. “I am a peaceful man just trying to live my life without interference from the government, God gave this right to man and this country was founded upon this principle.”
In a Sept. 25 filing, Mark Helstrom demanded Moser drop the charges against him.
Otherwise, he wrote, “I will have no other choice in this matter but to file criminal charges for slavery.”
Mark Helstrom said he began recording audio with his phone before the couple entered the courthouse for a Dec. 14 hearing.
Inside, he was instructed to leave his phone on the counter in the clerk’s office while he was in the courtroom. He said he forgot to turn the recording off.
A couple of days later, he said, his wife was looking through the phone and found the recording — and the private conversation among the judge, court clerk and prosecutor.
A section goes as follows:
Showalter: “Charles, we’ve decided we need a train station somewhere about two miles into Colorado.”
Moser: “And it needs to be the Yellowstone train station.”
Ryser: Yes, exactly … and we all know what that means.”
At first, the Helstroms didn’t understand the reference to the TV show and the rural canyon where enemies are executed.
“Then we found out what it was all about, and then it was like, ‘Wow. They’re talking about murdering me, is what they’re saying.’ That’s exactly what it means. You can’t take that any other way,” Mark Helstrom said.
At another point in the recording, Sheriff Unruh and Undersheriff Finley are heard talking about Mark Helstrom. Finley referenced a ball and chain at his desk, and Unruh said: “We’re gonna have to get him, ’cause he’s gonna file a report.”
Then Unruh and Finley turn their attention to Mandy Helstrom.
“God, I wish they would just put a bag over her head,” Finley said. “Like tie it off so she throws up.”
Finley adds: “That’s a medical. She needs to go to Greeley County so they can kill her.”
The Helstroms filed a complaint against Unruh and Finley with the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training.
CPOST identifies its mission as “providing the citizens of Kansas with qualified, trained, ethical, competent, and professional peace officers.” But in a Jan. 5 letter to the Helstroms, CPOST investigator Kevin Sexton said the agency doesn’t investigate alleged crimes. Their complaint was dismissed.
“The appropriate forum for any issues you may have with your complaints and concerns lie with the Wallace County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office,” Sexton wrote. “Please contact them for information on how to proceed with your concerns.”
The Helstroms say they don’t feel safe, even if the recorded comments were intended to be a joke.
“I was telling my wife, I said, ‘Well, if the cops came over here right now, and they said they had a warrant for your arrest, even though it may be real or not real, and they put the handcuffs on you and then drove you two miles out, took the cuffs off and blew your brains out, who’s gonna know?” Mark Helstrom said. “Nobody’s gonna know.”
This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.