One Step Closer

I spent this morning at superior court attending the plea and sentencing hearing of Trevor Ferguson, the 24-year-old Tamworth man accused of giving the man convicted of murdering Krista Dittmeyer a ride home from where he dumped her body. I wasn’t supposed to go, but it worked out that I had to. It worked out to a great opportunity.

I say this time and time again here on LPJ, but I love shooting photos. Photography is actually what first got me into newspapers. I’ve always loved it, but in my current role I find myself shooting only on rare occasions. Our fantastic photographer Jamie Gemmiti winds up scooping most lens opportunities.

Not without reason, either. Given the choice I would hire him to shoot photos over me. He really is great at his job.

But every once in a while I still get to trigger the shutter. Today, at the hearing, because I didn’t know it was my responsibility, I showed up late. Things hadn’t started yet, so I didn’t miss anything, but I was just sitting down when Ferguson walked into the courtroom. I scrambled to get his face as he entered, but I missed. I got a shot or two of his back with the judge in the background, but nothing that was a standout photo.

I new this was going to be a big story (since I was writing it), so I had to have something. I was positioned next to the door he came in through and would leave from, so I figured I had one more chance. The hearing proceeded, and I took notes without ever turning off my camera or putting on the lens cap. It sat next to me on my camera bag. Both it and I were ready for action.

The hearing came and went (read the story here), and then he was being ushered out. This was my shot at a good photo.

Then everything changed. Ferguson was lead over to the gallery, where right in front of me members of his family were sitting. An older woman rose and clasped his face. I could hear them barely, but my hands were on my camera, not my notebook. I shot and shot and shot as she hugged him and he hugged her back as much as his cuffed hands would allow. It was a gentle moment in a story that is all around sad. I found the shot I was looking for.

Ferguson will be in jail for at least the next six years. Anthony Papile, the man convicted of murdering Krista Dittmeyer, will be in jail for at least the next 42. A third man, Michael Petelis, still has to go before a judge. Dittmeyer will be dead for eternity. I’m not sure there is much of silver lining here, except that I got a chance to shoot a front page photo. Small consolation, all things considered.

New Hampshire On Fire

The last few weeks have been crazy when it comes to murders and police shootings. Dalton, Greenland, Lancaster, Keene, Springfield — too many to handle. It was a year ago this weekend that Conway had its own such incident with Krista Dittmeyer. I’m due to do an update on that for Tuesday. To date no one has been charged. It is nice, however, to not have that media storm in my back yard. The rest of the state, however, seems to be falling apart, and it’s not even summer yet.

For the latest on the handful of incidents lately, one great source is the Attorney General’s office. I check this page every day. Lately, however, it’s been a little too busy. Just look at April, which isn’t even over yet. Not cool.

Some Days More Than Others

Some days work sucks.

Not because the boss is riding you, or because you spill your coffee. Some days are worse than that. Some days you swing by the court just to check in and the clerk hands you more than 20 pages of documents. Some days those documents all have to do with one thing — the man who beat a two year old child so badly his intestines leaked fecal matter and nearly half his blood into his abdominal cavity. Some days you have to go back to your desk and read about it, line by line, word by word, so you can explain it to the community.

Those days suck.

That was today. The child is now in his father’s custody, out of reach of his mother’s (hopefully) ex-boyfriend, who, if I was reading the account right, police allege sodomized the two-year-old boy in the woodshed while the mother slept.

My job may have sucked today, but at least I’m not the ER nurse who police interviewed who had the traumatized child put in his arms. At least I’m not the pediatric surgeon who repaired this poor boy’s insides. I can’t say with certainty the man alleged to have punched, burned and raped this small child did it, but someone did. Luckily I only have to read about it in black and white. That poor boy had to live it.

Not much gets to me in this job. It was almost a year ago that the 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer wound up first missing then dead. That was a tragedy, but the picture prosecutors painted at the arraignment of the three men arrested in connection with her murder left Dittmeyer looking less than angelic. She was a drug dealer, according to the senior assistant Attorney General, which makes her murder far less mysterious. Had she been a 20-year-old drug dealing male, wearing a hoodie and baggy pants, it wouldn’t have garnered much attention. Her child, thankfully, was never injured, even as her mother found herself floating in a pond.

Not this time. This time the mother slept while the child was raped and beaten. That hurts. That weighs on me in a way Dittmeyer never will. This child’s dangerous game was not of his choosing. He didn’t get airlifted to Maine Medical because of risky choices he made. His mother made decisions that contributed to the situation, he did not. He was two. TWO. He learned at two something many of us will never know: what true ugliness looks like. And the fact is he did nothing to deserve it.

I read about this boy this afternoon and I hated my job. I hated the sheets of paper I was holding, the words I was reading and the person who did this to this child. I hated it, and my hatred changed none of it.

Thankfully, I got a reprieve, a breather, from this story. The weekend paper is aimed at tourists, it isn’t the place for stories of toddler rape. I’ll write that story up for Tuesday, when all the tourists have gone home. Hopefully by then I’ll have steeled myself enough to reread the account.

Ugliness is out there. It doesn’t help to shy away from it, but facing it isn’t going to be easy either. Some days it’s OK to hate your job. Sometimes it’s the only sane reaction.


It’s the time of year everyone is doing their “Year In Review.” I’m no different — at work I started writing up 2011 today, and I hope to be finished by tomorrow. For the Sun my year was two things: Dittmeyer murder and Irene. For LPJ, however, it starts a few months earlier:

Iraq — It seems that would obviously be the seminal experience of any year, but in a year like 2011 three weeks in Iraq and Kuwait quickly falls into the background. Looking back, however, it still amazes me I got on that first flight out of Boston, made it to the Iran/Iraq border and made it home. It was one incredible trip.

Dittmeyer — She was killed on a Saturday night, and by Monday the Mount Washington Valley was seething with reporters. We were able to beat all of them, however; probably one of the coolest experiences of the year.

Drugs — I’ve said this before, but sometime in August I wrote what was probably the best story I’ve done so far about how drugs and crime are intertwined in the Mount Washington Valley, and how the problem is only getting bigger. It was a great narrative, something I read today and am still surprised I wrote.

Investigations — There were really two, both involving the police department. One was into how they spend their money, and the other was into money stolen from the evidence room. Both of them wound up being one-off stories in a sense, but they proved that the Sun knows what it means to be a watchdog newspaper.

Irene — This was a big one. When the storm hit we were out of town, and the Saco and Rocky Branch flooded, blocking us from getting home. We slept in Portland, Maine, and when I got dropped off at the paper in the morning I went right to it. That week was all about telling people’s stories, stories that most people didn’t realize had happened. It was a blur, much like the week of Dittmeyer, but it was one where the paper made a difference in how people saw their experience. Again, that’s why I got into this job.

Candidates — From Newt to Mitt, Santorum to Paul, nothing is more interesting than getting to sit down with the people vying to sit in the presidential seat. I’ve been able to argue with and push several of these perspective contenders, something few people get to do. It only happens once every four years, and I’m sure glad I was there for it.

Court — This is the latest in a string: arguing before a judge about the public’s right to know about the actions of elected officials. I still don’t know the outcome, but it was still an experience to be going to the courts to fight for transparency.

There have been dozens of other notables, from producing videos to my first NPR paycheck and being named employee of the year, but that’s the highest highs. Hopefully 2012 will burn even brighter, but I’m not sure how it can.

Happy New Year.

The Big Picture

It all comes together in the end—drugs, murders, rape, overdoses, heroin and shoplifting—that’s what you learn covering cops and courts.

That isn’t my only job at the Sun, but lately cops and courts have been a large part of what I cover, and today I got to put the finishing touches on a story that weaves together a lot of that coverage to get at the bigger picture.

A few months ago I was not in the good graces of the Conway Police Department. I reported on some irregular spending right before the town meeting vote, and the story likely contributed to their not getting approval from residents for two additional officers they wanted. They were not psyched, but there was no question about the accuracy of my reporting.

Then came the Krista Dittmeyer case, where, as the local media, I was the familiar face in the crowd. We were fair yet aggressive, and as were the police, and I got to know the administration a little better.

Last was the story of the money stolen from within the police department. I handled that as carefully as I could, avoiding sounding accusatory while still pressing for the story.

All that time, every day, I type up the police logs and the court news. Every day I see what they see, although instead of seeing it on the street I see it in black and white. And what I saw recently had me concerned.

Fire and medical calls are dispatched through the police dispatch in Conway, and I started seeing repeated calls for people unconscious in random places. One or two wouldn’t be a big deal, but they kept popping up, usually younger, between 18 and 50, an age you wouldn’t expect to just pass out.

Around the same time I read a story in the New York Times about a new drug called “bath salts.” The light clicked for me that these might be a new drug problem.

It turns out I was right and wrong—they weren’t bath salts, but they were the town’s drug problem, a problem most visitors never even consider. But it’s serious, and it centers around prescription medications.

And to top it all off, over the course of my covering serious cases at the court I’d noticed strange overlaps of people, overlaps that were one or two people removed, but close enough to think there must be connections between actors in several of the serious crimes in Conway.

It all tied together, but it’s hard to pull those connections into a story. I can’t just write what’s in my head—you need facts, quotes, other people to confirm things. But tomorrow’s story, somehow, is just that—what was in my head. I was able to peg it to an event, talk to people in law enforcement, health and human services and emergency medicine and pull state and national statistics together to make that comprehensive story, the one not about day-to-day events but about the big picture.

Big picture reporting is hard. It takes time, and sometimes the story is just, well, too big. Today, I think, I pulled it off. It follows a thread throughout, but it goes everywhere, and hopefully in the end it opens people’s eyes. Looking at police logs and court documents certainly has for me, and reporting is about being the eyes for everyone else.

From the Inside

I have been following the disappearance of 11-year-old Celina Cass since the day she disappeared with interest. It happened in a place I love (the North Country), and it closely resembled a story I covered (the disappearance of Krista Dittmeyer). Each day I’d check the local media and Facebook for updates, and I often heard the latest on NHPR as I drove to work.

Four months ago, when it was Krista Dittmeyer who disappeared, I sent NHPR a note to see if they wanted anything about it. No thanks, they responded, we don’t really cover crime.

I was happy about that, after seeing the television news crews salivating for the latest details (usually gleaned from my reporting in the Sun). I cover crime, but I don’t see day to day coverage of it really adding value to readers’ lives. It’s about feeding their interest, not informing them—probably important from the business side of things, but from the journalistic side of things not that valuable.

But when it came to Celina Cass, NHPR was on it. They had repeated stories about her, right down to when the Attorney General’s office announced it was her body they pulled from the Connecticut River.

I’m not sure anything really changed, however. They have a staff reporter up north, and he had a story to cover. He would have been covering something else if not her disappearance, so they took whatever he could offer.

I, on the other hand, would have been an extra expense. As a stringer, I get paid for what airs. If I covered the Dittmeyer disappearance for them it would have been a hit to their budget. Some part of it may have come down to money.

But also some part of it may have been staff. A few weeks ago I got a note from NHPR saying their news director had left. He’d been there 11 years, and I’d worked for him for two and a half. He’d been the one who got behind my trip to Iraq, and he’d been a great guide on how to improve my radio reporting. Perhaps his news judgement in part effected those decisions.

But ultimately what I take away from this is that reporting is a business, even when that business is a non-profit. There is a bottom line, and every decision that costs money has to be carefully considered. I see that at the Sun too, where business decisions have to be made. If I had a week to dive into every story I wanted to I could do fantastic work, but that isn’t an available luxury. I sometimes have a day to do a story, sometimes a few hours.

At the Reporter I was far enough removed from business decisions to be oblivious to them, but at the Sun, where I walk past the ad people and the publisher every day, I get to peek into their world.

Reporters are free from financial restraints, at least at a well-run paper like the Sun, as I’m sure they are at a well-run station like NHPR. But their impact still makes it into reporting, even if its in a roundabout way like choosing not to cover a big story or a complex story because you don’t have the resources. It’s interesting to see, and something I wouldn’t have noticed were I not on the inside.

Not So Good

They found the body of 11-year-old Celina Cass in the Connecticut River. This story was far enough outside of my area that I only tangentially covered it, but it sent me rushing back to four months ago, when it was a 20-year-0ld mother authorities were fishing out of the river, and senior assistant attorney general Jane Young was avoiding my questions.

The Dittmeyer murder case is still awaiting formal charges, but today I worked on another part of the story. Recently there have been a number of unexplained unresponsive people around town. One of them wound up dying of a drug overdose. The person who found him was visiting a swimming hole with his family when he found the man frothing at the mouth.

These types of stories aren’t fun, but in picturesque communities like the Mount Washington Valley they need to be done. Spend the day in Jackson and it can be easy to forget what Washington Street in Conway looks like.

The same is true of the North Country. I love it up there, and I appreciate its beauty every time I visit, but there are ugly stories that come out of everywhere. Today’s ugly story is out of West Stewartstown. I’m glad it’s not on my front door, but its not far enough from my backyard for me to ignore. Maybe the next search will end better…

Another Gold Star

I have three episodes of reporting I’m particularly proud of since I’ve been at the Conway Daily Sun, and all of them center on the police.

The first was a story I did right before town meeting on the department’s end of year spending habits. Several years ago the department blew through tens of thousands of dollars in the final days of the year. The next year it was a similar story, although less pronounced, to the point they had less than $50 to give back to the town. Finding and pointing out that pattern was exhilarating. When I was staring at their expenses and realized what had happened I almost started bouncing.

The second one was durring Krista Dittmeyer’s disappearance. Through random connections and some luck I found the name of her baby’s father. Then with a bit more digging I found out he was in prison in Maine. That afternoon I was at a press conference with national media where reporters in calf-length jackets and hipster glasses grilled the local lieutenant about the case. They kept asking about the father, but the lieutenant wouldn’t budge. The Sun photographer there with me had to remind me to wipe away the smirk. I knew I knew something no one else did. We wound up beating every other news outlet with that story, including the Portland Press Herald, a much bigger paper based in the town Dittmeyer lived in.

And yesterday the third story came out.

This story was about a theft within the police department, a theft that happened months ago that no one has been talking about. I was able to get the police chief, the police commissioners and the State Police to talk about the incident, and I was able to get a number of the key details out.

When you feel a story like these start to come together it feels really good. It feels like you’ve just discovered a lost civilization, one people meant for you never to find. It’s a treasure hunt, and with these ones I found the prize. There are surely more prizes out there, however. I’m happy to keep digging.

Facebook Friends

A colleague asked me the other day how I was able to get in touch with a man who until the day before was in jail pending assault charges for a hatchet attack.

Funny story…

Not really, but it is interesting to note how much information is available out there on social networking sites, and how much it of a help it can be for reporting.

Like this: people were defending a man accused of murder on the Conway Daily Sun Facebook page, so I shot several of them a message with my work phone number. One of them got back to me, and I interviewed her about the man’s character.

Then a couple weeks later there was this hatchet attack. The same woman was listed in court documents as living with the accused. So I called her up. She talked to me briefly, but when the man got out of jail on bail she had him call me.

He then said he was threatened and called racial slurs prior to the attack (the man is black). I looked at the MySpace page of one of the men involved, and his last name on that page was “Reich.” He was also fans of skinhead neo-Nazi bands. It lent some credence to the man’s story, and it sparked an interesting conversation with the police about whether they would charges coming out for anyone else in the incident.

I have also used Facebook to link people, such as relatives of the man who fathered Krista Dittmeyer’s daughter. It’s amazing what is available online. Reporters don’t have a lot of rules, and they have to use everything at their disposal to get the story. Facebook and other social media have proven to be one hell of a tool.

More Pics…

The point of this post is not to show a slew of pictures I’ve taken lately, but to remind me to jump back behind the glass.

So much of my work recently has been chasing down leads about the disappearance and death of a 20-year-old woman, and then flipping through court files on the men accused of robbing and killing her. What I haven’t been doing has been taking photos.

The new media model is not the kind where someone gets to do only one thing and do it well. Specialization is OK, but in the fractured journalism today it’s good to have experience in print, in electronic reporting, and in online journalism. The fact that I can record and edit audio adds depth to my reporting. When the news about Krista Dittmeyer was breaking I was often accompanied by Jaime Gemmeti, the Sun’s photographer. He is fantastic, consistently giving us a visually strong front page to place stories around.

But durring the Dittmeyer extravaganza, while he was shooting stills I was recording video. We came back from the press conferences with video of the entire thing, which wound up getting more than 4,000 hits on Facebook. The same thing the day of the accused murderer’s arraignment: when the senior assistant attorney general made a statement we were ready. He got a great shot from a distance that captured the pack of reporters as well as the AG, and I caught the whole statement on video.

But the downfall of a fulltime photographer is I haven’t been picking up the camera enough. Jaime is great. He is a one-man photo department. His photos inspire people to pick up the paper. I certainly don’t want him to go anywhere, but I need to tap into that inspiration to pick up my camera more.

It’s funny, because I’ve been picking up the camera for more than 15 years. I know how to use it, but in a busy news day sometimes it just falls by the wayside. The story is more important to me, granted — I’d rather miss the photo than misquote someone. But there is something about the art of photography that is enthralling.

It’s actually the same thing that draws me to radio, and it’s very different than my experience with print. When I write a story I feel like I’m braiding together a rope. You can’t ever let go of any single strand for two long, otherwise you’ll lose its place. Instead each strand has to be intertwined with the others. There are ways to massage together imperfections, but overall it’s pretty formulaic.

Audio work and photography are different. They still both retain a bit of mystique, a bit of the art. They are more pliable, more what the practitioner makes of them.

It’s funny, because I don’t consider myself an artist, even when I’m working in those mediums. Print, radio, photo, they’re all just different ways to tell a story. I’ve said before I don’t consider myself a writer, I consider myself a reporter. If the audience gets my reporting through the written word that’s fine, but my ultimate goal was to inform them, and writing was simply the means.

But it’s a means I’m pretty accustomed to. Not that I’m fast at it, mind you, just that I’ve learned how to weave. I’m still improving my audio weaving, although Iraq helped it get a lot better. Photo, however, is less weaving, is less formulaic, and requires a bit more from me. That challenge is something I relish. After a bit too long watching someone else focus the Nikkor, it’s time for me to get back behind the glass.