Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hard News

As a small-town community journalist, much of the time I cover events and happenings which range from the tedious (school board proceedings and planning commission deliberations) to the repetitious (annual fundraisers, parades, benefits and other activities). There are also many feel-good stories: new businesses opening, personal profiles of remarkable citizens, tales of unusual pets or hobbies.

The Calistoga Tribune is a serious, dedicated little newspaper, and we take our job to heart. We do not flinch from the real news. So we also deal with the tensions that do arise, when conflict breaks out in the city council, or economic woes plague local businesses, or budget crisis threatens to bankrupt the city coffers.

For me, though, as a journalist, the toughest stories are the accident and crime stories. When two teen-agers driving drunk are killed on the Silverado Trial when they veer in front of another driver, and they are all local residents, or when, like last year, a young man is gunned down in his car, the first murder in Calistoga in decades. Or when a local school board trustee's daughter is stabbed to death in a nearby city, or a Calistoga mother accidentally runs down an elderly pedestrian in a crosswalk, killing her instantly.

These are the painful stories. My job as a reporter is to call the people involved, to find out the facts, to get the news. But the last thing I want to do is to interfere in any way in these moments of shock and grief. I feel like a horrid parasite, an intruder. What I have to do, to get myself through it, is remind myself if I can do it well, I will be doing the person a favor, letting them tell their story with as much grace and honesty and dignity as possible - always respecting any request for a comment that is "off the record" during the conversation.

A few weeks ago, three elderly women were housesitting for an artist in town. Returning to the house after dinner at a local restaurant, they interrupted a burglar. The man indicated he had a gun under his shirt, and said if they didn't cooperate, he would shoot them. One managed to escape to the back yard and call 911. After some time, the other two were able to get away and lock themselves in a bathroom. The burglar (now kidnapper) fled, stealing a pickup from a neighboring property. A SWAT team, sheriffs and police arrived, but were unable to locate him. It turned out later he had left his cell phone plugged into an outlet near the studio. With that information, they identified him, and put out a bulletin. The next week, the man called police and turned himself in.

It turns out that the brother never did have a gun - it was only pretend. So this terrible burglary gone bad has now turned into something very serious because of an imaginary gun - three counts of kidnapping, two counts of elder abuse, one count of abuse, plus the count of burglary.

Initial reports described him as itinerant, but I heard he had at some point lived in Calistoga. He was a Latino man, and his name was unusual. I asked our former city councilmember, a sort of Latino ambassador, if he knew who his relations were. He said he was pretty sure he was kin to a local restaurant owner. I know this restaurant owner, so I went over to speak to him. I asked the hard question: Is this man your brother? The answer was yes. The weight and heaviness showed in his body. This man, this good man, has carried so much. He lost his teen-age son to cancer when I first started writing for the Tribune. He has another young son who has been in a lot of trouble lately. He has been struggling with the restaurant, trying desperately to keep going, putting in long hours, never taking a day off. And now this.

He told me the brother had been in an accident 18 months ago, run over by a car. Since then, the brother had "not been right in the head." He had been making poor decisions, unable to determine right from wrong. Still, this restaurant owner, my friend, was making no excuses for him. He said, "He must pay for his mistakes."

When my friend told me all of this, I knew as a journalist I should be writing it down, preparing to put his words into my next follow-up story. But in that moment, I could only see his eyes, his sadness, the terrible burdens he carried. I walked up to him, and said, "I'm so sorry." And I gave him a hug.

He needed that hug much more than the community needed the facts.

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