Reporting isn’t an exact science. In fact, many stories that we work on behind the scenes never come to light. Sometimes you can work for weeks, months, or even years developing a story, but outside factors can knock it down before it ever gets published.
We all have our stories that got away. Here’s mine.
In spring 2014, I covered one of the most bizarre and mortifying stories of my career. A woman in the tiny, rural community of Wimer, Ore., was accused of killing to handymen on her farm – one in late 2012, one in 2013 – and feeding their remains to her pigs. Susan Monica’s strange behavior made the situation even more surreal – she would appear in court bald or wearign a wig, she was prone to outbursts toward her attorneys or the judge, and once, she shouted that she wanted her pigs butchered and given to a local community center.
Over time, it got even more unusual. Monica wrote letters to the local newspaper and did a jailhouse phone interview with another TV station. She ranted, claimed innocence, and also tried to be tight-lipped.
It also got heartbreaking. I interviewed an estranged family member of one of the victims who asked how this could have happened, and why no one had ever reported him missing. Every detail that came out added more layers of strange to the whole ordeal.
Then, the strange finally caught up to me.
One afternoon, I was returning to the station from covering a story, when my assignment editor zeroed in on me.
“Steven, we need you here. Susan Monica is on the phone.”
“Susan Monica is calling us from jail. You need to talk to her. You’re the only reporter here.”
Apparently a senior member of the newsroom had advised our assignment editor to send a letter to Susan Monica in jail, asking her to call us for a jailhouse interview. Now it was actually happening.
I wasn’t prepared for this. How could I be? It’s not often that an accused serial killer calls you from jail. I didn’t know if there were legal problems with this. I didn’t know if I would now be considered a witness; would I be questioned by police about this conversation? Could this cause a mistrial?
I looked at my news director, who gave a half-shrug, with a look as if to say “you’re the only one.”
I took a deep breath, and I sat down at the phone, putting it on speaker so our producers could hear and hand me questions. I attempted to conduct an interview with Susan Monica, who was half-coherent, with her story changing every minute. First, the killings were in self-defense. Then she denied killing anyone. Then she said she shouldn’t speak, on advice from her lawyer.
After going around in circles for more than 15 minutes, Monica casually dropped a piece of information.
“They knew where one body was,” she said. “One of the detectives was out there two years ago.”
That caught my attention.
“Why were they out there?” I asked.
“To look for a body,” she said.
Everyone gathered around the phone was wide-eyed. Even my news director looked shocked.
I had to repeat it just so I could understand it. “He was out there two years ago looking for a body?”
“Why were they looking for a body?”
“I won’t get into that.”
The conversation quickly ended after that. But suddenly, I had a trail to follow – was the sheriff’s office at her farm two years earlier looking for a body? And why hadn’t they found anything?
The trail heated up a week later, when I got a random phone call in the newsroom. It was from a man who claimed to be a neighbor of Susan Monica’s. He told me in 2012, he had been watched as Monica was burying what looked like human bones on her property. He told me he had called the sheriff’s office, who then sent a deputy out to investigate. The neighbor told me the deputies went out and claimed not to find find anything. He told me he was 100 percent certain he was human bones.
I now had two sources, but they weren’t strong ones; an accused killer and a neighbor who refused to go on camera. I needed proof. Did this deputy screw up? Would one person still be alive if those first set of bones had been found? Or was this deputy out there for a different reason altogether?
I called my contact at the sheriff’s office and asked about these statements. I asked if she could look up any records of deputies responding to her property from 2012. She said she couldn’t look it up, because it was an active investigation, even though my inquiry was about a response from two years ago. She didn’t say that no one had been out there, she only said she couldn’t tell me. Reading between the lines, I knew this murder case and that 2012 call were related. But journalism is not about what you know, it’s about what you can prove.
I had one final ace up my sleeve – a public records request. Government agencies are required to release records to the public if requested, including police reports. With the sheriff’s office circling the wagons and sources refusing to talk, it would be my last legal chance to find this information.
So I filled it out in full, requesting documents of any responses by the sheriff’s office to the home of Susan Monica in 2012, including dispatch logs, police reports and transcripts. All I needed was confirmation that yes, someone was physically there on the farm. If we were going to hold the sheriff’s office accountable, this system was our tool to do it.
I mailed it off to the sheriff. A week or two later, I got a letter in response from the county’s attorney.
My public records request had been denied. The attorney cited the open investigation against Monica as the reason for the denial, and that protection extended to any previous encounters deputies had with Monica.
And with that, the trail went cold. There may have been other avenues to explore – like finding a former deputy willing to go on the record, or trying to fight it in court. But a short time later, I got a new job, leaving behind an unfinished investigation.
This month, Monica was finally in court, and the facts came out, proving that a deputy was indeed there in 2012. Still no word from the sheriff’s office at to why no one found anything.