This line of work is full of the unexpected.
And sometimes, while covering some of the uglier sides of society, the surprises lead to complications.
Last week, reporter Michelle Dupler and I were working on a story about homeless veterans and how the annual point-in-time homeless population count would now include veteran status as a statistic.
The story also served as a roundup of other services available to the local homeless population and an update on the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition's transitional house in Kennewick. Steve Gaulke, the residential director for CBVC, is a longtime advocate for the homeless and after one subject fell through due to illness, was able to set us up with another homeless veteran. I caught up with Michelle and Tim Miller during the interview.
She spent more than an hour talking with him and he was seemed very candid about his life and the mistakes he had made to end up on the streets. We were meeting at Viera's Bakery in downtown Pasco, which didn't provide an appropriate or informative background for shots of him talking during the interview — not that I like those anyway. I was happy to listen in on the interview, however, and think up some street portrait ideas in case his itinerary that day didn't include anything relevant to photograph for the story.
Michelle wrapped up her interview and I found out Miller was heading to the American Legion with Gaulke to see if he could get some assistance. He was happy to have me tag along. It turns out Miller, who is on disability, had received plenty of vouchers for food, fuel and rent over the years from the American Legion, but since becoming homeless last April, no longer qualified. Service officer Jim Reed explained that county regulations required that veterans needed to be able to prove they've lived at a physical address within Franklin County for 90 days to qualify for assistance.
"He needs more help now than when he was working, but our hands are tied," said Reed.
I got this shot of Miller showing his prescription bottle to Reed to see if his listed P.O. Box qualified (it didn't), as Steve Gaulke, center, looked on:
It's not exactly a home run shot, but I liked the moment and the relevant information, as well as the military-looking mural in the background. For a backup subject in the 10th hour, everything had gone surprisingly smoothly. The story was slated for Sunday A1 and everything seemed to have lined up in our favor.
After returning for working on a long-term project, however, photo editor Bob Brawdy flashed a foreboding smile as he said, "You're gonna like this."
It turns out Michelle had run a background check on Miller, who was a convicted first-degree child molester. I suddenly remembered how Miller, who had been very upfront with much of his criminal history, solemnly told us he'd rather not go into why certain avenues of assistance were closed to him.
Damn you, foreshadowing! How could I have been so blind!
"He seemed so nice," I joked, "and he had so much candy!"
Michelle's MIRV F-bomb conveyed the frustration of having the main subject of her Sunday centerpiece story fade from prominence so close to her deadline.
It's better to have caught it before the story ran, however, as was the case during the 2006 Water Follies, when a front page story featured pirate "Spaz Ravanovov," who was running a bumper boat attraction. It turns out Spaz Ravanovov was actually Ruben Edward Pangelinan, a convicted child molester. An excerpt from the next day's story, "Business finds sex offender in midst," gives a hint of the reaction:
Don and Desirae Foster were so excited to see their start-up bumper boat business featured on the front page of Monday’s newspaper that they bought a dozen copies.
Then came a different kind of news: One of their volunteers helping children in and out of the boats was a registered sex offender.
“Had we known, there was no way we would have had him here,” Don Foster said Tuesday. "I'm just sick to think we could have been so naive."
City officials called the first-time small-business owner Tuesday morning to let him know that Ruben Edward Pangelinan, 32, who donned a pirate costume and helped out during Water Follies, was a Level III sex offender. An anonymous caller identified Pangelinan from a Herald photograph.
Former Herald reporter Sara Schilling (now at the Tacoma News Tribune) had written the part of the Water Follies color piece about the bumper boats. She remembers questioning the validity of the name he gave, but wasn't able to find anything fishy before the story ran. She wrote me via email:
The Water Follies experience didn't really change my perspective on subjects. I've always known it's important to verify as much as possible, even when you're just doing a quick daily story on a straight-forward community event. But sometimes things are going to get by you. You'll spell a name wrong, get a fact wrong, whatever. I think you've got to try to learn from those experiences and be sharper the next time, ask better questions, etc.
I definitely learned from the experience.
Herald reporters and editors are careful to look into subjects' criminal histories whenever possible. Obviously, you don't have to be a saint to be featured in a local newspaper story, but certain blemishes will banish you from prominence. In Miller's case, "it was partly the nature of the offense and that he didn't disclose it," says Michelle, who checked numerous sources after coming across Miller's 1998 conviction. These kinds of background checks are important, she says, when the story is likely to generate reader interest in helping the subject.
To be fair, Miller has not been convicted of any other sex crimes since then, but his unsavory past made him a shaky candidate to represent homeless veterans in any significant way. However, what was interesting to me is how definitive it was that his photo would not run as a Sunday front page shot — a gut reaction that still seems right after a lot of thought.
There's something so universally unforgivable about sex crimes — especially when committed against children — so much so that offenders are often targeted by other inmates. Almost any other crime besides murder, which would likely mean the convicted would still be in prison, probably would not have reduced Miller's role in the story from central figure to a couple quotes toward the end of the story. The smaller crimes he was candid about, like assault and shoplifting, definitely would not. Even something like vehicular manslaughter in a DUI conviction probably wouldn't have sent him to story exile.
Still, his narrative banishment doesn't mean I feel he deserves to be out in the cold. He served his time but as Michelle says, it doesn't do any good for him, us or homeless veterans to have him as the poster child of the story.
Some readers may be confused by these events and how Herald reporters and editors handled the situations. After all, we've run stories about how prisons keep gang-affiliated prisoners segregated, and prominently featured photos of gang members on our front page. Readers wrote in and complained that the images of gang members in prison were glorifying the lifestyle — a hard sell, I think to rational people who see prison as an undesirable living situation. The scourge of gangs in communities, however, does carry a similarly strong taboo for some, and as my friend Conner Jay found, public opinion on covering criminals can flip at whiplash speed.
Longtime readers might remember Conner's previous appearances in Capturing Death and A Mother's Grief. I like comparing notes with him because we're close to the same age, worked together at our college paper and now live and work in communities and newspapers of similar size, but with wildly different experiences. Conner is now at the Salinas Californian, which has been experiencing the gang wars so many around here are afraid of infiltrating the Mid-Columbia. In a town of around 150,000, Salinas had 29 homicides in 2009, and all but one was gang-related, says Conner, who wrote about Publishing a Violent Death on his blog last year.
It's always been interesting to talk about the silly complaints I've received from my published photos versus the consensus support he and the staff of the Californian have received in covering the gang violence in Salinas — even when a photo in an online slideshow featured a dead body laying in the street, something I'm sure would have caused a backlash here.
More recently, SWAT officers set a house on fire with flash grenades while looking for a shooting suspect. The guy in the house wasn't who they were looking for, but was a gang member and also didn't come out, prompting SWAT to use the grenade, intended to disorient people. He died in the fire and, of course, lawsuits have been filed.
Between A and C, Conner got access to the funeral. His coverage wasn't prominently featured in the print edition and the photos were in a Soundslides gallery, so they weren't available for reprint purchases. Still, the feature has generated nearly 100 comments, many of which accused the paper of glorifying gang life through images of death and some even accusing Conner having gang ties himself. He wrote me via email:
The story quickly caught the attention of Central California, and particularly ignited a debate with our readers and commentators at the Californian. Many saw the incident as law enforcement doing their job, even though Serrato perished in the incident and they did not apprehend the intended suspect. Serrato had known gang associations and several outstanding warrants. However some saw it as an innocent man being killed by the sheriff. The Californian's coverage to this point had no backlash.
The interest in the story pushed my editors to continue extensive coverage on the story, which had me traveling with a reporter back and fourth to Greenfield. Eventually we made contacts into the family, and were invited to the funeral. The access we were granted was startling.
Gangs in Central California are extremely secretive although very widespread. Although I am sure that many who attended the funeral were not in a gang, Serrato's known gang ties were apparent. Norteno factions associate with the color red and the 49er's. You can see within the photos that many of his friends wore this at the funeral.
When I came back and posted pictures from the funeral, the backlash from our readers was immediate. The primary complaint was why cover a gang funeral? Why embellish this lifestyle and publish the photos? Many readers condemned us for the coverage, threatening to end their subscriptions. Some even questioned whether the reporter and I had gang affiliations (read through the articles comments).
The reason we wanted to publish the photos was to provide a glimpse into this lifestyle. I agree that many of the photos look like they parade the gangster life, but this is what the funeral and procession looked like. This was the reality the people of Greenfield witnessed, as ten blocks were closed down for the funeral procession. It's something that exists within our community, and this is what it looks like on the other side of the violence. We wanted to be truthful to our readers, even if it exposed an element of our community that causes controversy.
They're all tricky situations, to be sure, and part of working in this field. Often, the most angry, knee-jerk reactions to perceived glorification of societal ills are attributed to lack of judgment and deliberation. The opposite is true, and has to be, if you're always expecting the unexpected.