Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Police Reporter

by Jami Kinton, Reporter
Mansfield News Journal

Most people dread calls at 3 o'clock in the morning.

I look forward to them.

Having several friends who work at the police and fire departments, I know that 99% of the time, a call or text message at that hour means one of three things: A fire, a shooting, or a crash. And a front-page story.

A million things run through your head when you arrive at the scene: Where are the immediate individuals involved? Have they already been transported or are they in any condition to talk? If multiple departments are present, whose case is it and who will comment from that department? Who are family members and who are just spectators? Reporters also have to deal with the fact they're only going to get about 50% of the information they want.

I rarely leave a scene satisfied. I've got eyes, but I can't ever write by instinct or what I thought I might have seen.

Recently, I left a three-vehicle accident where it was pretty obvious that one of the drivers had been killed—but without confirmation from an officer or medical personnel, the most compelling component couldn’t be reported.

It’s frustrating.

With the growing demand for immediate online news, there’s a lot more pressure covering these types of stories.When big stories are unfolding, an editor is sitting by a phone waiting for a call with updates to be able to post online immediately. And if I'm not calling, he's calling me. While readers may appreciate it, I usually don't.

Officers rarely appreciate some nosy reporter asking them for an update every two minutes. But as much as readers complain about “too much negative news,” these stories are the first ones read, evoke an emotional response, and leave lasting impressions. I will never forget covering the story of a woman who had her entire community enthralled by her twisted, almost unbelievable, tale. Within one year, Gretchen Rocks, a 28-year-old Mansfield, Ohio woman, claimed she had been brutally beaten and near death four times.

In June 2007, Rocks was found beaten and blindfolded at the home she shared with her estranged husband. Two months later, Rocks was found bound and gagged in the back of her vehicle. In December 2007, police said she was bound, gagged, and tied inside a plastic bag and left in a Dumpster behind her workplace. She had the word 'liar' carved in her chest (evidence photo pictured above).

She was also the victim of arson, when someone burned her house to the ground on her wedding anniversary.

In June 2008, police found Rocks stuffed in the crawl space of the house she used to share with her husband. She was bruised beyond recognition. When she was released from the hospital, I went to her parents' house to interview her and family members. The house was beautiful, her family was beautiful, she had two beautiful girls and she was a well-spoken, educated young lady. Everything about the setting and her detailed story added to her credibility, and tugged hard at your heart strings.

Rocks claimed, with certainty, her husband was behind the abuse.

In the most recent incident, Rocks said she had been raped repeatedly, beaten, drugged and then taken to her former residence. Having met her husband on other stories, I felt shocked and angry—angry with him and angry with myself. I had liked the guy and I couldn’t believe I’d been so far off-base with my judgment. After interviewing the family for hours, their pastor stopped over to chat with them and I had a chance to talk to Rocks one-on-one.

Although I’d never experienced anything as traumatic, I felt a connection with her.

She was definitely not the stereotypical woman in an abusive relationship. Rocks (pictured below) was pretty, smart, appeared to have a terrific family and was married to a well-known banker. The old saying “if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone” stayed in my head for a long time after.

Rocks’ husband’s home was searched and her story stayed in the paper, generating lots of talk throughout the community. As time went on, I heard more and more people express skepticism about her story. For many, it seemed awfully peculiar that Rocks appeared on the brink of death so many times, but managed to escape them all.

Months later, I was out shopping and saw a call come into my cell phone from Rocks' mother, Corrine Fleming. Having not heard from her for a while, I was curious. Fleming calmly informed me that her daughter had confessed to police that she’d made up at least two of the incidents.

I was shocked.

Another reporter had worked on the story with me, and we both had stuck up for this girl on numerous occasions, especially within our own newsroom. As the only two reporters who’d actually spoken to her, we felt that few others, with the exception of police, had more authority or knowledge on the subject as we did.

Turns out, we’d both been taken.

As embarrassed as I feel about my own judgment, that case taught me a lot. No one likes to admit it, but we all stereotype and make judgments on others based on how they live, how they speak, and how they look. Perhaps my co-worker and I go swept up in all that, and, outside of writing, lost focus. It happens. Sometimes the closer you are, the harder it is to see what’s really there. Nevertheless, these types of stories will always be my favorite.

Reporters can’t do everything those in law enforcement can do. We can’t get search warrants and we can’t force anyone to talk to us who doesn’t want to. But we certainly do as much as we can to dig, to get multiple sources and information, so that we can deliver the most thorough story possible.

They may turn your stomach and can bring tears to my eyes, but at the same time, these stories give you a good dose of reality and keep you on your toes.

Jami Kinton is a reporter for Ohio's Mansfield News Journal and won an Associated Press award for Best Investigative Reporting in 2008.


cheryl said...

Dang, wasn't this an episode of "Law and Order" about 5 or so years ago?

Too weird and twisted.

robinsax said...

Thanks for your post...any time you want to wake up for a 3 AM call for me you are in!!!

Anonymous said...

Y not show a little empathy and apologetic towards the ex husband?

Anonymous said...

Is this the same woman who was a crucial witness in the abuse case against the youth pastor John Picard?