Editor's Note: Reporting from the Montgomery County Chronicle was used in this report. The Sun previously reported on this case at the request of the Chronicle.
INDEPENDENCE — Jason Brown, the former Independence Community College football coach of “Last Chance U” fame, had his criminal case in Montgomery County dismissed. Brown was facing eight felony counts and various misdemeanors for allegedly stealing the identity of a lawyer in an attempt to silence local newspapers.
The charges were dismissed through an agreement by the former coach and the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office.
Part of that agreement included a $1,000 donation to the Independence Community College communications department to be made by Brown as well as covering court costs of $198.
The chief cause of the dismissal of charges against the former football coach was that a key witness in the case, attorney Richard Barnwell of California, refused to cooperate with investigators. Montgomery County assistant attorney David Clark said a conviction would be nearly impossible without Barnwell’s testimony.
The Montgomery County Chronicle newspaper, one of the alleged victims in the case, released a statement following the dismissal:
“We are disappointed we did not have our day in a court of law to tell our story and to show how one person used fraudulent means to attempt to silence our profession.
"We understand the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office dilemma in trying to prosecute this case. The time and expense to bring a key figure and victim from California to Kansas would have been costly and time consuming. Because Mr. Brown and other key administrators at Independence Community College are no longer employed at the college, there is no need for the State of Kansas to seek legal means to obtain accountability.
"From the onset of this case, the Montgomery County Chronicle never sought any financial reward. We sought only an understanding of a violation of a civic principle: a free press cannot be silenced.
"In a much broader scale that extends beyond a court of law, we believe in-depth soul searching needs to occur at Independence Community College so that highly questionable situations of the type that occurred during Jason Brown’s stint as head football coach will never happen again.
"We stand by our reporting and our fair criticism of Independence Community College and Jason Brown during this sad chapter in the college’s history.”
Brown had been charged with four counts of blackmail and four counts of identity theft, all felonies, as well as two counts of criminal false communication, both misdemeanors. The Montgomery County Attorney’s Office filed charges on June 28, 2019. The case had its first preliminary hearing on Jan. 28, 2020 before it was eventually backlogged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montgomery County’s investigation into the fraudulent emails concluded that emails coming from Brown’s computer carried the identity of Barnwell. The email carrying Barnwell’s name and identity indicated that Barnwell represented Jason Brown.
The emails were cease-and-desist letters to the Montgomery County Chronicle, the Independence Daily Reporter and then-assistant football coach Stephen J. Bugg.
In the emails, the person claiming to be Barnwell threatened legal action against the two newspapers and Bugg for criticism they levied against Brown through either editorial comments or, in the case of Bugg, social media.
For the Montgomery County Chronicle, the first email was received in September 2018. Follow-up emails were received in February 2019 after controversy arose when Brown sent a text to a German student-athlete who was tied to the Independence football program.
The Chronicle became suspicious of the authenticity of those emails due to misspelled words and the threat of financial harm against the paper While a threat of financial damage is common, the language used by the person claiming to be Barnwell was atypical of official correspondence from an attorney.
The Chronicle observed that the emails were coming from a Yahoo! account, not the computer server from the Cochran Law Firm. At that point, the Chronicle turned over all emails to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department for investigation.
That investigation led to a forensic analysis of the email origin, which concluded that they were sent from Brown’s college-issued laptop.
The Chronicle also reported that since Brown resigned in early 2019, it had not received any further emails from the person claiming to be Barnwell.
Brown was the head coach of Independence from 2015-19. In 2017 and 2018, the program was the focus of the popular Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U.”