Tackling Friday morning quarterbacks

When covering a murder case, the truth should not be the second victim

What’s the difference between a punching bag and a journalist? A punching bag doesn’t feel pain.

I’m still reeling from the unfair criticism that I was obliged to endure as a journalist. But it went along with the territory and I can accept that.

Like the night a city council member criticized me during a council meeting for not doing my homework. This was at a time when council members and other city officials spent every waking moment looking for ways to hide the textbooks, so to speak.

But that’s not what this rant is about. This rant is about unfair criticism posted last night on Facebook about a murder case we covered three years ago. (Yes, I realize that anything posted on Facebook should be taken with a grain of salt. But, now that I’m retired and don’t have to take this crap lying down, I feel obligated to respond.)

The Facebook post praised our competitor, an out-of-town newspaper prone to sensationalism, while taking us to task for not providing coverage supportive of the victim’s family. Mind you, I take a lot of responsibility for the coverage because I was the criminal justice reporter at the time and my input carried weight in how the story was played.

The truth is we were very supportive of the victim’s family because we made it a point not to be pushy. I gave them opportunities to comment, they declined and I left them alone with an open invitation to contact me anytime.

Yes, we got beat up by the competition and big-city TV stations on that count. I’ll take that ass-whipping any day. Sometimes it’s better not to pursue a story. Or to wait until the time is right.

Eventually, I did connect with family members and we had a touching and insightful interview. After the interview, I returned to my desk and wrote the story with tears welling in my eyes. The story speaks for itself.*

That said, my paper thoroughly covered — complete with previews — all efforts to memorialize the victim and raise funds for her family.

I’m also proud to say that, while police were searching for the perpetrator, my paper didn’t jump into the fray, recklessly reporting false leads. That includes a Columbus woman’s dubious claim that she saw the perpetrator and his car in the parking lot of her apartment complex. Police information released after the murderer was taken into custody indicated that, at the time in question, his car had been located in southwest Michigan. It had been there at least three weeks without being moved.

I’m also proud to say that, during a custody hearing connected to the case, we were not a part of the media frenzy incorrectly reporting that the perpetrator’s family had filed for custody of a child he and the victim had together. That was not the case. The motion they filed was clearly procedural and meant to protect their right to be included as participants in the case.

Few of the media outlets involved in this blatant act of sensationalism ever acknowledged the truth, made corrections or offered clarifications.

Our coverage speaks for itself. If you have a subscription to the Ashland Times-Gazette, all you need do is enter names from the case in the search box. You’ll find plenty of reliable information there.

Remembering Lynn Jackenheimer, one year later – Times-Gazette _ Ashland & Ashland County, Ohio

◊ Summerfield’s parents file motion in custody case – Times-Gazette _ Ashland & Ashland County, Ohio

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A Day in Shreve

Photos from the Shreve Spring Migration Sensation

On one Saturday a year, the English — as they call us — and the Amish converge on the little village of Shreve, Ohio, to compare notes on birding and the natural world, buy and sell conservation-oriented products, watch migratory birds and eat.

The Shreve Spring Migration Sensation has been around for 15 years and has earned a reputation for being one of America’s premiere regional birding events. I’d imagine that even non-birding people would be impressed. And maybe even have a good time.

Getting there is half the fun. Early morning drive through Ohio's countryside — images of natural beauty and a rural civilization past its prime.

Getting there is half the fun. Early morning drive through Ohio’s countryside — images of natural beauty and a rural civilization well past its prime.

 

My involvement at the Shreve Spring Migration Sensation is through the Greater Mohican Audubon Society. Two of our members, Gary Cowell and Don Plant, participated in the event — Gary (in the orange vest) manning a spotting scope at Wright Marsh and Don giving a talk on bats.

wrightmarsh

donbats

 

Many Amish are avid birders, learning the ropes at an early age. Some ride their bicycles from site to site, watching the waterfowl migrating through the area, which is rich in wetlands. Others are driven around in vans by the English, who they hire for that purpose.

gotmilk

 

After a fun day, I headed home on the backroads. Except, this time, I took a back road of a back road and I’m glad I did. Along the way, I spotted these two turkey vultures perched on the chimney of what I believe was an old schoolhouse. (I say that because it had two front doors, a common feature of rural schoolhouses.)

vultures

 

 

 

 

 

The Fourth Great Lie

The view from our campsite

The view from our campsite

It can’t possibly rain any harder.

That’s the fourth great lie. It ranks right up there with “I’ll still respect you in the morning,” “It’s only a coldsore,” and “I only drank two beers, officer.”

It was a miserable March weekend — very much like this one — when I uttered those immortal words, “It can’t possibly rain any harder.”

It did.

I was standing under the tarp at our campsite on Lake Fork of the Mohican River, waiting for my buddy Joe to show up. I didn’t have to work that day. Knowing it was going to rain, I got an early start so I could set up camp before the monsoon hit. When Joe arrived, which happened to be right at suppertime, the river was close to overrunning its banks.

By the time we were ready to call it a night, the river was 30 feet from our tents. We packed everything except our tents and bedrolls and put it all our canoes, which we tethered to trees.

I woke up at about four in the morning to take a leak. I stumbled out of my tent, took three steps and let it rip. I was hitting water!

“Wake up,” I yelled. “We’ve got to move.”

Joe responds to a strange apparition in the sky — the sun. (This photo was not taken during our March canoe trip.)

Joe responds to a strange apparition in the sky — the sun. (This photo was not taken during our March canoe trip.)

Without stirring from his tent, Joe grumbled, “I’m not into being told what to do.”

He had a change of heart when he heard me dragging my tent to higher ground.

We decided to sleep till dawn, pack up our tents and head downriver.

We lay inside our tents, eyes wide open, anxiously awaiting the first sign of daylight.

“I think I hear birds chirping,” Joe said.

“Those are frogs,” I told him. “It won’t be light for another hour.”

I finally dozed off, only to be awakened by the sound of water sloshing beneath the tent floor. It wasn’t quite daybreak, but we broke camp anyway and headed downstream.

It was still raining and the river had come up another five feet when we pulled out at Mohican Wilderness Campground on the mainstream of the Mohican River. We pitched camp atop an abandoned railroad embankment, dove into our tents and slept until dark.

They say lost time is never found. I’ve said the same thing about sleep. But, on that day, we managed.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes it’s OK to leave a trace

memorial111bI met Alan Konieczny in the woods this afternoon. I also met Robert Danals.

I stumbled upon Mr. Konieczny’s favorite deer-hunting spot near Pleasant Hill Lake. That’s what it said on a small green plaque his best friend anonymously placed there in his honor. The words on the plaque provided an inkling of the kind of man Mr. Konieczny was — a kindred spirit, perhaps.

The fact that his best friend thought enough of him to place that plaque in a remote spot in the woods speaks volumes about the kind of guy Mr. Konieczny must have been. It’s the best we can do in life to have friends like that.

Mr. Danals left his own mark in the woods. Apparently in 1956.

I have no idea who he is or was. He might still be alive for all I know.

I had come across Mr. Konieczny’s plaque at the very beginning of today’s three-hour walk in the woods. Toward the end of my hike, I came upon a beech tree along a ridge above State Route 95 with Mr. Danal’s name carved into the bark. Above the name was what appears to be the year he did it.

robtdanals222I’ll reserve judgement in his case. I’d like to think that he’ll be remembered for more than some guy who defaced a tree in a public forest.

 

Media Circus Clowns

Elliot Gornall. Apparently, jail inmates are now referred to as guests.

Elliot Gornall. Apparently, jail inmates are now referred to as guests.

Brace yourselves, Ashland, the media circus is about to roll into town. You’ll soon be up to your armpits in impeccably primped talking heads from out-of-town TV media. With another spectacular case coming before the court, they’ll bull their way in here, shove the small-town reporters aside and show them how to cover the news big-city style.

In a courthouse where those of us from the local media conduct ourselves with decorum and respect for people’s feelings, the out-of-town news anchors will shove microphones in victim’s faces, ask stupid questions and cobble their video and audio footage into highly sensationalized “news.”

Of course I’m talking about the Elliot Gornall case. Gornall, a Loudonville kindergarten teacher, is accused of using a pinhole video camera to record his students going to the bathroom. I assume the allegations are that he wasn’t doing it to see if he could catch them smoking in there.

In my 16 years with the Ashland Times-Gazette — most of it covering the cops and courts beat — I witnessed my share of sensational crimes. However, most the crimes I covered didn’t attract outside media attention. But they all had one thing in common — victims. Not just victims of the initial crime, but people close to those victims and the perpetrators. Friends. Family. Clergy.

When we cover crime in a small town, we have to be sensitive to that. It affects the way we conduct ourselves in court and how we write our stories. I guess that’s because these are people we see day in and day out — on the street, in a restaurant, in church, at the county fair.

That’s the real story. But there’s nothing sensational about that.

It’s OK ma, we’re just going to play in the swamp

Where the swamp used to be. Cleveland Electro Metals is now Metal-Mation Inc.

Where the swamp used to be. Cleveland Electro Metals is now Metal-Mation Inc.

Everyone called it the swamp. To the kids in the neighborhood, it was an oasis. It was a mysterious green place where we could get away from our urban environment and the prying eyes of our parents.

The swamp was a no man’s land situated between the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company substation behind Buckley Playground and the point where the Nickel Plate and New York Central railroad tracks merged. It was in a low spot in a small valley, some of which had been excavated to lay the tracks below street level, so there was always standing water there. Hence the name.

It wasn’t much of a swamp, though. Just some bottom land with crap trees, mostly box elder and tree of heaven. There was some wildlife, including some huge rats and, on one occasion, a white-tailed deer.

Don’t look for it now. The Ohio Department of Transportation deforested the swamp when I-90 was built through the neighborhood. It had been just east of where the West 41st Street exit is now.

There were two ways to get to the swamp from our side of the tracks — which, actually was between both sets of tracks. The direct way was to cut through a vacant lot off of Palm Road. It wasn’t an attractive alternative because of the human element.

On one side of the lot was Cleveland Electro Metals, a small smelting plant where they recycled aluminum, brass and copper. The workers hanging out by the furnace door on West 38th Street gave us the creeps.

Mrs. Quince lived on the other side of the vacant lot. We thought of her as the wicked witch of Palm Road. Her name wasn’t really Quince. No one knew her name. We just called her that because of the quince tree that grew in her yard. She guarded it with her life. She harvested the quince apples and hated us because we’d pluck a few off the tree from time to time.

Once you made it through the gauntlet of smelting plant workers and Mrs. Quince, you had to work your way down a steep bluff. The preferred method was sliding down on your ass, but you had to watch out for broken glass. I still have a faint scar on the palm of my hand where I sliced it open while sliding down the hill. The cut wasn’t deep enough to require stitches, but God knows what kind of toxic crap I got in there.

The long route to the swamp was by way of what we called the coal hill. I think we called it that because that was the road they used to haul coal down to the power company substation.

We mostly had the swamp to ourselves, but occasionally we had to deal with teenagers going down there to neck or harass us. Sometimes we’d run into hobos. The hobos were harmless as far as anyone knew. But they would curse at us and try to run us off.

Still, some of the kids were afraid to go down there because of the them.

The hobos intrigued me more than they scared me, probably because I was given to wanderlust.

One day I found a dog hide hanging from a tree in one of the hobo camps. It made me sick to my stomach. But, for some reason, it didn’t dampen my fascination with hobos and their lifestyle. Or the swamp.

The Picture of Dorian Graying


A Short Story for Throwback Thursday

truckfender

Portrait of the artist as a young van

Photography has become an obsession of mine — capturing light and shadow, suspending images in space and time. Birds, landscapes, sometimes people. But mostly details of things that people scarcely notice. Crystals of frost on the threads of a bolt. Patterns on a bluejay’s feathers. Flaking paint and pitted rust on an old truck fender.

Why do I do it?

A dream I had last night answered that question. Or not.

I was sleeping in the back of my car and awakened to see an incredibly beautiful bird perched on a branch outside the window. It was black and white like a magpie, only larger. Much larger. I fumbled for my camera, moving slowly and trying not to startle the bird. I got the bird in focus and took a shot just before it took off and flew around to the other side of the car.

I looked around to see where the bird had gone and there was an old man dressed in black and white standing beside the car. He made a winding motion with his hand, signaling me to roll down the window. I did.

“Put your clothes on, I need to talk to you,” he said.

The man walked over to a park bench near the edge of the woods and sat down. I got dressed and joined him.

“Wait here,” he said, then wandered off into the woods.

After about 15 minutes I grew impatient. I went to my car and grabbed my camera. I looked to see how the shot of the bird had come out, but it was just a picture of an empty branch.

I scrolled through the other photos on the camera. They had all been altered. Empty tree limbs, poorly lit landscapes, out-of-focus macro images. Even the people I had photographed looked different — bloated and cadaverous.

The man in black and white returned.

“What the fuck did you do with my pictures?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said. Then he proceeded to tell me about my life in great detail. A lot of it was right on the money. But some, like the altered photos on my camera, seemed blurry and distorted.

I wasn’t about to argue; I just wanted my photos back.