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.

2011

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…