On the campaign trail — from jail: Holdrege man’s name on ballot despite federal gun arrest

On the campaign trail — from jail: Holdrege man’s name on ballot despite federal gun arrest
Joe Melton

WILBER — Joseph Melton may have run an outsider campaign for mayor of a small Nebraska city, but he’ll spend election night deep on the inside.

“If I wasn’t in here, there is no doubt that I would have had a chance to win,” he said through a telephone handset in the visiting room at the Saline County jail. “I had a pretty big following.”

Although Melton’s name will still appear on the ballot for Holdrege mayor, he has been detained since July, after his indictment on federal charges of illegally possessing two gun silencers. Also called suppressors, the tube-like devices are attached to a firearm’s muzzle for the purpose of reducing the noise of a gunshot.

Now the 30-year-old businessman said he’s the one being silenced.

Melton said he suspects he’s being punished for taking on the “good old boy system” in his hometown. He pointed out that he was arrested the day after posting a Facebook video that alleged the local economic development corporation had misappropriated $162,500 in public sales tax funds.

The economic development group quickly issued a statement calling the accusations “false” and saying the use of the funds for the purchase of land for an industrial park had been cleared by auditors.

One of the more unusual races in Nebraska this year appears to have more to do with community infighting than politics. After all, both mayoral candidates are Republicans.

Mayor Doug Young, the first-term incumbent, said he initially welcomed having a challenger. The 72-year-old retired gas company worker has long urged younger residents of Holdrege to take up public service.

But Melton’s constant — and sometimes profane — criticism of local government stemmed from the council’s rejection of his plans to open an indoor shooting range in a renovated downtown building, the mayor said.

Young also said neither he nor his supporters had anything to do with the arrest, which stemmed from alleged violations at Melton’s gun silencer manufacturing business.

“I’m not real concerned about him getting a lot of votes,” Young said. “There’s a young man that needs a lot of prayer.”

And at least some in Holdrege believe Melton needs to stay away for the sake of public safety.

During a court hearing to decide whether Melton would be released pending trial on the silencer charges, the prosecutor told the federal magistrate that he’d received voice messages from Holdrege residents who feared Melton. Although the magistrate said she did not give weight to the anonymous reports, she denied Melton’s release because she was troubled by a review of his court records.

The records include two misdemeanor assault charges against Melton that were pleaded down to lesser violations. He also faced felony charges in a 2009 armed robbery of a Hastings gas station; those charges were dropped by prosecutors a few months later.

The same year, a former girlfriend obtained a protection order against Melton, alleging he pulled her hair and wouldn’t allow her to leave the house until she threatened to call police. A couple of months later, the woman asked the judge to dismiss the order.

Melton offered explanations for all.

One of the assault charges stemmed a phone threat he made to a guy who was hitting on his girlfriend, he said, and the other involved a fist fight in which he defended himself. As for the protection order, the girlfriend lied, he said. She also falsely accused him of the armed robbery, which is why those charges were dismissed, he added.

Melton even went to the trouble to petition a judge to set aside his conviction for the intimidation by phone in 2016. The prosecutors did not object and the judge granted Melton’s request.

But then earlier this year, a judge approved a harassment protection order against Melton that was sought by a Holdrege city councilman. The councilman gave the judge a four-page affidavit that listed 23 examples of harassment.

When asked about it, Melton again said he’s the victim of lies. He also leveled his own allegations of harassment against the councilman.

In the meantime, his lawyer has filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they conducted an inspection of Melton’s silencer business in 2017. If the motion succeeds, the charges could be dismissed.

If that happens and if Melton were somehow elected mayor Tuesday, he might get out in time to take the oath of office. But right now, he’s thinking a lot more about winning his freedom than winning public office.

The man wearing the bright orange shirt and pants was noticeably thinner than the candidate standing before the American flag in a campaign photo. He’s been sick, he said, and he hates being locked up.

Asked if he would consider pleading guilty to lesser charges, he shook his head as tears rimmed his eyes.

“I have to fight it,” he said. “I can’t be a felon. I can’t lose my right to vote.”

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