An ill-considered Facebook joke has resulted in felony drug charges against a Northwest Missouri State University mass media instructor after law officers searching Matthew Rouch's Maryville home for weapons discovered what they allege was a marijuana growing operation complete with grow lights, pot-filled baggies and smoking paraphernalia.
Nodaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rice called a courthouse press conference Friday to announce that he has filed charges accusing Rouch of producing and possessing a controlled substance — felonies that could land the veteran college teacher in jail for more than 20 years.
Rouch, 57, was arrested around 1 p.m. Thursday by university police who had obtained a search warrant in order to gain access to a Facebook post brought to light by student journalist Trey Williams of the Northwest Missourian, the university's campus newspaper.
The warrant was necessary, Rice said, because Williams, claiming journalistic privilege, would not divulge the location of the comment or the name of its author.
Rice said Williams had been working on a report about the consequences of careless behavior on social media sites. When the story broke, campus officials responded to its claim that a Northwest faculty member had posted a message that could be perceived as a threat.
The post was quickly removed, but read: “But yes, that's the beginning of the semester. I'm always optimistic. By October, I'll be wanting to get up to the top of the bell tower with a high powered rifle — with a good scope, and probably a Gatling gun as well."
Rice said it was clear in context the message was intended jokingly and did not, therefore, constitute and criminal act. However, Northwest officials were not amused.
A terse letter issued late Thursday to students, faculty and staff by Northwest Provost Doug Dunham said that Rouch, who was not identified by name, had been removed from campus and placed in custody on an "investigative hold."
"The university has strict policies against, and will not tolerate, threats or incidents of violence," Dunham wrote. "Northwest will take all appropriate actions that are commensurate with the evidence."
In a signed statement submitted to law enforcement officers, Rouch said his Facebook quip was in response to an earlier post by a colleague, Assistant Professor Jody Straugh, who had made a casual comment about the start of a new semester.
After reading Rouch's post mentioning a rifle and Northwest's Memorial Bell Tower, Rouch stated that Straugh responded, "Attention NSA (National Security Agency), I do not know this man."
Rouch then claimed to have posted a couple of follow-up remarks: "Uh, I hope everyone knows I was just kidding," and "Uh, I guess not."
Facebook aside, Rice said Rouch wasn't arrested until after an incident on Thursday when he reportedly told a group of colleagues that he had a bomb in his briefcase. Rice said someone relayed the remark to university police who confronted Rouch and removed him from the campus.
Page 2 of 2 - When Rouch told officers he had no weapons in his Second Street home other than a "pellet gun," Rice sought a second search warrant "because we wanted to make sure that was true."
When Northwest Police Chief Clarence Green and Nodaway County sheriff's deputies entered the house they discovered what is now alleged to be a bounty of dope.
Green, in a probable cause statement filed with Nodaway County Circuit Court, described what he called a "marijuana grow" in "plain sight" on the second floor of Rouch's residence.
The "grow," Green stated, consisted of heat lamps, plant food, approximately ten live marijuana plants, bags of dried pot, and "multiple" bongs and pipes. Bags of marijuana were allegedly found in other parts of the house as well.
Rice said at the press conference that the total amount of marijuana seized easily exceeded the 35-gram threshold that divides misdemeanor and felony possession.
"I can guarantee you it was far more than that," he said.
Rice later said that a third warrant was issued so that authorities could search vehicles parked at Rouch's residence. The suspect has since been released from jail on $25,000 bond.
Rouch now faces the possibility of conviction on two felony counts. The first, producing more than 5 grams of a controlled substance, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. The second, felony possession, carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
Northwest Police Chief Green was at the courthouse when the charges were filed and was reportedly keeping university officials posted by phone.
University spokesman Mark Hornickel released a statement Friday stating that Rouch has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
Hornickel stated other faculty members will be assigned to teach Rouch's classes, and that Rouch himself has been banned from the campus.
Rouch joined the Northwest faculty in 1992 and taught classes in television production and digital technology.