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As the trial of former law enforcement officer Charles David Chastain of Stuttgart began Monday in a federal courtroom, the caretaker of a Clarendon duck club described arriving Nov. 29, 2017, to find the front gate busted open and a pricey all-terrain vehicle missing from its parking spot under an awning.

Officers in the area said they immediately cast their suspicions on the usual suspects -- a handful of known thieves.

But as they talked about who might be responsible for the theft of the $25,000 2014 Polaris Ranger 900, none suspected that one of them might have been involved. Or that the ATV that a Tennessee club member had bought four years earlier was actually hidden in one officer's shop.

Federal prosecutors, however, say that was exactly what happened. They say it wasn't discovered until one of those usual suspects, Michael "Chase" Caldwell, called the FBI. He wanted to make sure he and his girlfriend, who regularly worked as confidential informants for Chastain, a volunteer Arkansas County sheriff's deputy, weren't the ones being taken for a ride.

Caldwell testified Monday that he stole the ATV at Chastain's request and made some mechanical adjustments to it in Chastain's shop to disguise it, in exchange for protection on his other illegal activities. But, he said, he didn't quite trust Chastain, so he secretly recorded their conversations and saved screen shots of their text messages.

A jury of six men and six women in U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes' Little Rock courtroom listened to the recordings Monday and saw the texts on courtroom monitors. They also saw text messages that attorneys said Chastain, a former deputy and state trooper, exchanged with other officers about the theft.

Richard Smith, chief deputy at the Monroe County sheriff's office, testified that he "had a good suspicion" that Caldwell was involved, and asked Chastain about it. Chastain said he would ask Caldwell and get back to Smith.

At the time, the chief deputy complained that Chastain had gotten the informant out of trouble already, and "he is getting away with too much!" Smith noted that neither Caldwell nor his girlfriend had provided any help to the sheriff's office, and "my sheriff wants his ass charged on all our stuff."

Chastain replied, "I was going to talk to y'all about bringing him over there and doing some cases," to which Smith replied, "The only way he will help himself is if he gives me the location of [the stolen ATV]."

Arkansas County Sheriff Todd Wright also testified. He said that when his term began in January 2017, he agreed to let Chastain work as a volunteer deputy, having known Chastain from years earlier, when they patrolled opposite ends of the county.

Wright assigned Chastain to work with the tri-county drug task force, which used a lot of informants, and noted that because of Chastain's experience, "he didn't require much supervision."

Caldwell, the informant, later testified that he decided to help law officers solve the case, even though he was the culprit, after getting nervous about Chastain's motives.

He testified that Chastain had also begun asking him about guns -- "if we knew where any were that we could buy or steal or get."

In one of the recorded conversations, Chastain can be heard instructing Caldwell that he wants "rifles and pistols." Chastain also tells Caldwell to let him know his plans ahead of time, "so I can protect you."

Caldwell testified that after a car ride in which he recorded that conversation, "I felt like it was getting too serious too fast," so he called the FBI, and soon agreed to cooperate with the FBI against Chastain.

He said he texted a photograph of three long guns to Chastain, indicating they were stolen, when in fact the guns belonged to the FBI. According to the string of text messages, Chastain responded that he would buy all three for $300, adding, "I will make sure I get you a little something."

As a result of the arrest that followed, Chastain, 48, is charged with extortion, attempted extortion and attempted possession of a stolen firearm. His attorneys, Molly Sullivan and Blake Byrd of the federal public defender's office, have suggested that Caldwell is playing both sides in the hopes that federal authorities will help him get some pending state charges dismissed.

Metro on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: Former Arkansas police officer's extortion trial starts; informant says he stole ATV for lawman to avoid arrest

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