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State police spokesman Bill Sadler retiring

by Grant Lancaster | November 29, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

In one way or another, Bill Sadler has been making Arkansas headlines for 50 years.

Now, after 25 years in newspaper and television news and another 25 as the spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, Sadler will retire at the end of the year.

As a reporter, Sadler spent time covering Arkansas prisons, reported on a deadly chemical leak at the Pine Bluff Arsenal that led to a federal investigation of his work and walked within 25 feet of a lost 9-megaton nuclear warhead that could have devastated Arkansas.

With the state police, he worked under eight colonels, more than any other public information officer in the agency's history. He was on the scene after the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting in Jonesboro and stayed with the agency through the backlash related to the killing of Black Americans by police in the past decade and the recent uptick in crime in the country that has been distinctly felt in Central Arkansas.

"I have been given a front-row seat to some of the most exciting experiences -- and when I say exciting, I mean good and bad -- that any kid could have ever imagined," Sadler said in an interview looking back at his time.

Born in Rison to a family that worked in daily newspapers, Sadler was from boyhood accustomed to taking in the local goings-on. He remembers having three or more daily newspapers on the dining room table every morning in his childhood home.

He always wanted to be where the action was, he said, and briefly tried to get work as a combat photographer in Vietnam during America's war there. He thought that the visual medium would help Americans comprehend what was going on.

Sadler never made it to Vietnam, but he took jobs with the Jonesboro Sun and later with KARK, where he got the chance to bring people reporting with a visual aspect. Early on, he began covering prisons in the state, a place where he said he's been pleased to see positive change over the years.

"I have seen a prison system that was once called a very dark and evil world and seen that dark and evil world come under the scrutiny of the federal courts," Sadler said. "It is today at least humane if not better than humane."

Although every reporter finds a few critics, it was federal investigators who took issue with his reporting on aging military munitions at the Pine Bluff Arsenal that contained -- and were leaking -- deadly nerve agents.

Sadler used Channel 4's helicopter to fly over the arsenal and get footage of the "igloos" where the weapons were stored, showing the public just how close they were to places people lived. The FBI was concerned this aerial footage might reveal critical defense secrets to the nation's enemies.

Asked who they thought he was spying for, Sadler said, "I guess the Russians."

The investigation ended when Sadler was able to produce maps from the Army Corps of Engineers showing the location of the storage "igloos" that were in the public record, he said.

A closer call came in 1980, when Sadler was on the scene near Damascus, where a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded in its silo. The blast flung the nuclear warhead that had tipped the missile into the surrounding countryside, leaving those in the area more than a little uptight until it was found in a roadside ditch and safely recovered.

"God only knows how many people walked right past it," Sadler recalled, laughing. "And everyone was kinda on edge that night."


In 1996, however, Sadler said he realized that something in the news business had changed. He wasn't able to put his finger on it, but he thought he needed to do something else.

"There was something inside of me that kept telling me, 'You need to do something different. You need to do something that has some honor in it,'" Sadler said. "Not that journalism doesn't -- it does, when done the right way."

When he was hired by the state police, he realized that even though he would use some of the same skills he learned working in news, there would be different rules that he would have to play by if he wanted to be successful.

"But never forget, you gotta be honest," Sadler said. "If you can't be honest, then you need to find something else to do."

In his work for the state police, Sadler said, he's been surprised at how close they are, and he found a family among the men and women he works with. But he also felt that he had something to prove, that he had to measure up to the state troopers. That, combined with what he calls his natural workaholic tendencies, led him to push himself hard over the past 25 years.

"I had to prove to everybody that I could run faster than they could, and I could go 24/7," Sadler said.

He hasn't taken a vacation where he completely disconnected from his work responsibilities since 2008, he said.

"I've probably poured myself into this job more than I should have, and it's come with consequences," Sadler said. "My family came somewhere second, or below."

But he would have a hard time being happy with his work if he didn't toil away as hard as he has, he said.

"It wouldn't meet my standards," Sadler said.

It took Sadler a decade of working with the state police before he had what he considers a light bulb moment, when the finer aspects of the job clicked for him.

In 2006, state police were looking for a fugitive -- 18-year-old Adam Lee Leadford -- who had escaped from a Michigan prison, eluded capture and eventually rammed an Arkansas county sheriff's patrol vehicle. The search stretched over a weekend, and on Monday, phones rang as motorists told police they had seen Leadford.

State troopers located and surrounded a man and had him on the ground when the suspect reached into his pocket for something, prompting Trooper Larry Norman to shoot and kill him.

"And it wasn't him," Sadler said.

Instead of Leadford, Norman had killed Joseph Erin Hamley, 21, of Springdale, a mentally disabled man with cerebral palsy.

But police didn't realize the fatal error until hours later, Sadler said, when a medical examiner identified Hamley.

The mistake hammered home to Sadler the critical importance of making sure that the information he had was completely correct before releasing it to media and the public, he said. If something was unclear, it paid to wait and get it right the first time, he said.

"Not only does it look bad that you made a mistake, it erodes your credibility," Sadler said. "The public expects you to get it right, even if you make a mistake."

Sadler has tried to always be upfront with mistakes, he said. He's never liked trying to make excuses or hide behind the letter of the law.

"If it went bad and we did something wrong, if I did something wrong, acknowledge it and say it's not gonna happen again. Learn from it, pick up and move on," Sadler said.

Norman would eventually plead guilty to misdemeanor negligent homicide and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 12 months of probation and 30 days of community service. He was also required to pay a $1,000 fine. He was granted medical retirement from state police due to the psychological effects of the killing.


Many years later, Sadler said he still prefers to work slowly and carefully and thinks that this thorough approach is the only way for law enforcement to do a good job. That's becoming more difficult as the public gets information faster than ever before and wants to know every detail, he said.

"[People] want answers now," Sadler said. "Yet, our system is built on a judicial process that moves much slower than that. And quite frankly, I like that."

One of the most recent challenges for state police was responding to the protests and civil unrest stemming from the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and other Black Americans before him. Protests against police use of force and discrimination spread across the country, with the latest wave beginning in earnest in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and reaching new heights after Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.

Sadler thinks that many people working in law enforcement have had cause in the past five years to "hang our head a little lower."

The average state trooper realizes that the events elsewhere in the country have affected the public's perception of policing, even if Americans realize that they can't fault police in their city or state for what officers elsewhere have done, Sadler said.

The increased scrutiny and demand for accountability is a good thing, Sadler said. He said the state police response to that change has been to increase training and make sure troopers act responsibly.

Troopers today face increased challenges, Sadler said, with violent crime up and the people that troopers approach day-to-day more likely to be armed than ever.

Even if Arkansans never lived in a perfect world, Sadler thinks that things were a whole lot closer to perfect than they are now. He's well aware of the cultural place that firearms have in Arkansas, the American South and the country as a whole.

But more and more, criminals have started to carry guns that have been illegally modified to fire fully automatically, or loaded with high-capacity magazines which are legal in Arkansas but add to the firepower a person can put out.

"I'm a believer in the First Amendment. I'm a believer in the Second Amendment," Sadler said. "But there are too many guns on the street."

The abundance of weapons in the state has led most police officers to be in a constant state of hyper-vigilance on the job. That tension wears on them, Sadler said, and requires increased training so they know how to respond to keep others and themselves safe.

"We know, internally, that the one thing that will get us through wherever we're headed in our society, the one thing that will save us, is training and education," Sadler said.

Training has been a key focus of state police director Col. Bill Bryant's tenure, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been willing to give state police the money to do that training, Sadler said. Bryant is also set to retire, with the incoming administration of Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders to pick a new leader for the agency.

Hutchinson has been invested in the state police's work, Sadler said, but hasn't tried to control operations and investigations while they're still in progress or inject politics into the work more than is unavoidable.

"Elected leaders should stay in their lane," Sadler said. "That hasn't always been the case."

In his time with the agency, Sadler said, only once has he had to stand up to a politician and tell him that his idea was a bad one, though he wasn't willing to name names.

"I had to back up that statement with my job, and I was prepared to resign if necessary," Sadler said.

Thankfully for him, it didn't come to that.

More often than not, work with state police can be harrowing, Sadler said. They've investigated incredibly brutal crimes, from child abuse cases to mass shootings.

One of the days he'll never forget is March, 24, 1998, when two minors killed five people and wounded 10 more at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro.

Sadler described going into the school about two hours after the shooting, seeing blood stains all over the ground, "and then putting faces with those blood stains" as police investigated. He worked on the shooting investigation for days, corralling reporters from across the country.

"I came into this job with more of my fair share of snakes in my head," Sadler said. "I'm leaving with a few extra snakes."


Retirement won't mean just taking it easy, he said.

First of all, he's got to keep up with his flagging commitment to staying fit, he said. On Jan. 1, 2023, he'll be in the gym with some old pals who give him grief about missing their workout sessions, he pledged.

He'll still be writing. He wants to take another look at an unsolved Little Rock homicide from the 1970s and see if he can't try to tell the story around the missing pieces. He's not sure what form that will take just yet.

And of course he'll still be reading the news. He urged everyone, especially young adults, to actively try to learn about what's going on, even if it takes them out of their comfort zone.

"Read, dang it, read," Sadler said. "Get other opinions. Get other insight."

Still, he has some gripes with today's news, on the whole, both in print and in broadcast.

"I'm disappointed in broadcast journalism today," Sadler said. "It is a medium by which so much good could be done."

Whether in television and in newspapers, the constant crush of the news cycle means that reporters don't get enough time to do their best work, he said.

Sadler will be watching for whoever takes the helm at the state police next -- and the next public information officer -- to continue modernizing the agency.

"Don't shy away from modernizing just because you're going to be held more accountable," Sadler said, offering advice for whoever comes next.

Asked if he got what he wanted out of his mid-career change of work, Sadler said he had, without a doubt.

"I've got to see a lot of things, man. It's been a hell of a party," Sadler said. "If you walk away from it, and you look back and say, 'Hey, this wasn't a bad gig' -- that's the only way you can deal with the snakes you're walking away with, too. It balances out."

Print Headline: State police spokesman Bill Sadler retiring


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