Corrupt Kentucky sheriff brought down by reporters

When two small-town newspaper reporters in Kentucky began investigating the corrupt local sheriff, they not only got headline stories. They also got death threats.

CBS All Access
This video is available on Paramount+

(CBS News) A pen and a pistol were the tools one young Kentucky newspaper reporter needed during his investigation of his hometown sheriff. Adam Sulfridge exposed corruption in local law enforcement in his rural Kentucky county and ended up with an award-winning story and enough death threats against him that he had to start carrying a gun.

The following is a script from "Cleaning Up Whitley County" which originally aired on May 6, 2012. Byron Pitt is the correspondent. Clem Taylor, producer.

Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in America. Few places have been hit harder than Kentucky, a state that has also been ravaged by addiction to crystal meth. In Whitley County, Kentucky - in the heart of Appalachia -- matters were made worse when the man suspected of being at the center of the drug trade was the county's top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Lawrence Hodge.

There had long been suspicions that Sheriff Hodge was dirty, but nobody - not even federal agents - could prove it.

That's when two local journalists -- both in their 20s -- launched their own investigation. And they soon discovered poking into the affairs of a powerful county sheriff can be risky business.

Adam Sulfridge: You know you're 20 years old, and you're taking a shower one day and getting ready for class and you get a call from a federal agent because there's a credible threat against your life. Everything about it is just so surreal. You know. You don't-- you don't think a whole lot about it. Then later that night you start thinking, you're like, "Geez, somebody wants to kill me. That's a little odd." And it's the sheriff. The sheriff wants to kill you.

This wasn't exactly how Adam Sulfridge had pictured a career in journalism. Adam was born and raised in Whitley County. In 2009, he was a sophomore at the local college and needed a job. The county's daily newspaper, the Times-Tribune, had an opening. And soon, Adam had his first assignment and dangerous enemies.

Byron Pitts: Why did you feel compelled to buy a gun?

Adam Sulfridge: You do have a credible threat against your life. And it seemed like a pretty reasonable thing to do. Samantha also purchased a gun at the same time.

Samantha Swindler, then 27, was managing editor of the Times-Tribune and Adam's boss.

Samantha Swindler: We were reporting on people involved in the drug trade. And people who were all hopped up on oxys, I don't know what they're going to do. I thought if something happened I'd go down with a fight.

Samantha was exotic by Whitley County standards: born in New Orleans, educated in Boston. She'd tangled with public officials as editor of a small newspaper in East Texas. She saw familiar signs in Whitley County.

Samantha Swindler: There are problems in this community with the good ole boy system, corrupt politics, that kind of thing.

Byron Pitts: It seems to me in many ways that this community's strength is also its weakness in some ways. This is a nice polite place where people have polite conversations -

Samantha Swindler: People are very proud here and it's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing in the way that it doesn't allow you to see the things that need change.

Whitley County, Kentucky, population 35,000, is tucked in the state's southeast corner on the border with Tennessee. People here take pride in the natural beauty of Cumberland Falls and in historic Sanders Cafe, birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is also poverty. The median income is $26,000. Drug addiction is rampant. Throughout the region, red signs identify homes once used as meth labs. And then there's prescription drug abuse. Oxycodone flows in so freely. They call this stretch of I-75 "the pill pipeline."

In 2002, Lawrence Hodge was elected sheriff of Whitley County on the promise he'd clean it up. The sheriff's raid on one meth lab was covered by the local CBS affiliate.