Some good. Some bad.
That's about the best way to describe this past week, but overall, I would say it turned out well. My surprise evaluation took place Friday morning in the communication arts block and it went well. That has always been my best-behaved class and the students were on their best behavior. The principal, Ron Mitchell, went over the evaluation shortly after school Friday. My grades were all high, nearly all 4s on a scale of 1 to 5. I received two five scores, in the categories that I really wanted to score high in: knowledge of subject matter and willing to go out of the way to help the students. I didn't even notice until this morning that Mr. Mitchell had checked the area that said, "Recommended for rehiring." So barring some scandal or a drastic worsening of the R-8 School District's financial situation, it looks as if I can look forward to a second year at South Middle School.
Now for the bad news. I had to leave school a little earlier than usual Friday so I could get back to the Carthage Post Office before 4:30 p.m. to pick up a package. I was expecting it to be "The Hidden Life of Otto Frank," which I had ordered from Half.com so my students would have it to help them with their research on the Holocaust. It turned out I had two packages. One was the Otto Frank book, but the other was a copy of "Small Town News." My novel has been rejected by another publisher. Oh, well. I'll just send it to the next one on the list. I am nowhere near to ready to give up on this book.
Still, if that's the worst news I have this week, I can't complain. My energy continues to be at a high level. I have kept working on room210.com and have completed the links page and the links for teachers page. I plan to add some more student papers in the next day or two. In a week or two, I will start having the advanced communication arts class write news stories for the Top News page.
I had the honor of being one the judges for Project Citizen, which has been worked on the past few weeks in social studies teacher Rocky Biggers' classes. The kids did pretty well, especially considering that this is the first time South has tried Project Citizen.
I have had some really good entries in the poetry contest for Eighth Grade Poetry Anthology. I am accepting the last entries tomorrow. After that, I have to narrow the list down to one. Judging from the quality of the entries I have seen so far, this is not going to be easy.
It has been nearly 14 years since I started covering what turned out to be one of the biggest stories of my reporting career. Ironically (you will say why I use that word in a little while), the story began in The Joplin Globe. A Carterville man named Vince McCarty was arrested on a traffic violation in Webb City and claimed he had been beaten by three Webb City police officers as they were taking him to his cell. That complaint and the city's response to it were featured in reporter Andy Ostmeyer's story. I had just started covering Webb City news for The Carthage Press, so I wasn't too concerned about losing out on that story, but I wanted to get in on it somehow. My opportunity came the next week.
I was covering a Webb City Council meeting at the old city hall when the council went into a closed session to discuss a personnel situation. It was warm outside, so several of the spectators went outside to talk. I went outside to listen A man and a woman were talking and I heard the man say, "They say that guy got beat up pretty bad."
The woman nodded and said, "You should hear the tape."
Naturally, bells started ringing for this reporter. "Tape?" I thought. I continued listening and the woman described what she had heard on the tape.
When she finished talking, I approached her and said, "I sure would like to hear that tape."
My already fragile ego was further deflated when she asked, "And who are you?"
I told her who I was and she told me she would make a copy of the tape for me and give it to me at three o'clock the next afternoon if I stopped by the convenience store she owned. I picked up the copy the next day and was shocked at what I heard. The beating had been captured on audiotape. You could hear Vince McCarty screaming as the officers used a stun gun on him and told him that this is what happens "if you mess around in Webb City." I could distinctly make out the voices of the man who was being beaten and three other people, but since I had never heard these voices before, I had no way of knowing if the tape was authentic. I always took pride in being thorough, so I went to two sources in Webb City and had it confirmed that the voices belonged to the three officers who had been accused. Now I had to convince my publisher, Jim Farley, that we should run an article on the tape. The problem was we still had no way of authenticating the tape, we didn't know who had recorded it, or if anything had been cut out of it. Having been told that the tape had been sent to the FBI for authentication, I called an FBI source and got the confirmation that the FBI was looking into this mysterious tape. After that, Farley and my editor, Neil Campbell, gave me the go-ahead on the story.
That started an interesting period in my life. I had already established a reputation as an investigative reporter while I was at the Lamar newspaper, but this one would end up putting me on the map, at least on a small scale. When the tape story hit the streets in Webb City, we received a report that Webb City police officers were stealing the newspapers and destroying them. I wrote that story also after I had it confirmed and that stopped that, even though to this day I do not go even one mile over the speed limit when I am in Webb City.
The Webb City story continued to develop. I managed to find sources in the police department who were upset with what the police chief and a few officers were doing to the city. I found people who had been on the police department who were willing to talk and I cultivated sources on the City Council and who worked for the city. For the next two years, I turned out story after story uncovering things that the mayor and the police chief wanted to keep hidden.
I published one story detailing how the city attorney had warned the council that the police chief was illegally buying machine guns for the private use of his officers. I uncovered a city document with the help of three brave council members which outlined nearly every violation of the law that had been made by the police department.
Throughout this time, the Joplin Globe reporter, a female reporter who had worked for the Globe for nearly two decades, continued to deride my reporting, saying time after time that she would not be allowed to get away with "that kind of tabloid reporting" at the Globe. And despite my efforts to carefully source my stories (and I almost always had to have at least three sources before I would print anything), I began wondering when no one picked up on my stories either at the Globe or at the three local television stations.
A battle had developed between the mayor and the police chief, which ended up in the firing of seven officers, including the three who had been involved in the beating. The other four officers, who had been fired for insubordination. Those four officers filed suit against Mayor Richardson and the council and I covered the trial at the federal courts building in Joplin. By this time nearly two years had passed since my initial Webb City story. During that trial, every controversial story I had written was confirmed in sworn testimony. The Globe reporter told me, "You were lucky," and left it at that. Nevertheless, I knew how hard I had worked and I felt vindicated.
The Webb City story was the first one to land me the number one spot among daily newspapers for investigative reporting at the annual Missouri Press Association contest in 1991. I defended that title successfully for the next three years, with investigations into teen drinking, soft sentences for sex offenders in Barton County, and a hospital administrator with a long record of sexual harassment. In 1992, my Webb City investigation landed me a finalist position in the National Associated Press Managing Editors Contest. (I lost to the reporting team which investigated the Branch Davidian shootout in Waco, Texas.)
After I became managing editor of The Press in December 1993, I didn't have as much time to devote to investigative reporting, though I still finished second in the 1995 and 1998 competitions, then went out on top with another first place in 1999. Ironically, that was awarded three months after I no longer worked for The Press.
Now to get back to that irony comment I made earlier, my job at The Carthage Press ended in May 1999, thanks to a $750 million lawsuit filed against me by a right-winger who was trying to establish a survivalist compound near Carthage. I had written on The Press' opinion page about an event he had held near Carthage, which included the phrases, "A blanket of white descended upon Carthage," and "they were here on Friday, they were here on Saturday, and those nuts were sprinkled on our Sunday.' The guy sued everyone in site, including me for $750 million and The Press for an additional $750 million. It was the first time I had ever been sued in 22 years as an investigative reporter. The Press and its owners, Liberty Group Publishing, didn't bother to hire an attorney. I received a letter saying that I needed to return the service from the guy who was suing me. If it had to be served on me in person, I would be charged $200. When the deadline to return the papers came, I asked my publisher, Ralph Bush, who had replaced Jim Farley, what I should do. He said, "You'd better to go ahead and send them in," so I signed them and returned them. Thirty days passed and I discovered that since The Press had never hired a lawyer, we had not responded to the lawsuit and I was subject to a $750 million judgment. Because of that, Liberty had to bring in a libel lawyer and since out libel insurance didn't kick in until after a $10,000 deductible, returning the service had cost the company $10,000. It took three years for me to find out that was why I was fired. Liberty's CEO had demanded my dismissal after his lawyers had jumped all over him for not getting in touch with a lawyer. He blamed me for putting him in that position. Ralph never bothered to tell him that he was the one who told me to send in the papers. Oh, well. Eventually, the judge dismissed the lawsuit, noting that I had the first amendment right to my print my opinion.
Two days after I was fired by The Press, I received a call from Edgar Simpson, the Globe's editor. He asked me to come over and talk with him and we set up an appointment for the following day. When we finished with the interview, he told me that the first job that came up with The Globe would be mine and that he was working with the higher-ups to get to hire more reporters. I never heard from him after that. To this day, I don't believe that he was just leading me on. Something happened after our meeting that kept me from getting a job with the Globe.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I believe I have finally figured out what happened. On Friday, I was at the Wal-Mart Superrcenter in Carthage when I ran into the reporter who was the victim of my Webb City scoops and other scoops during my time at The Press. She was several feet away when I caught her eye. She immediately looked the other way and quickly turned down an aisle to get away from me.
Since she has been an editor with The Globe for some time now, I began to wonder if she hadn't been the one who poisoned Simpson's mind against me. It always seemed strange to me that the Globe never came looking in my direction, considering that they recently hired a major investigative reporter with a penchant for twisting the truth, hired a religion editor and then fired him for plagiarism, and have hired a number of reporters who have trouble getting quotes right and keeping their facts straight. Things worked out better for me. I had always wanted to be a teacher and this gave me an opportunity to get back into the classroom after 18 years (though it was really hard to turn down a $32,000 a year offer to become managing editor of the Miami, Okla. newspaper). I haven't regretted getting out of journalism, but I had always wondered why The Glove had suddenly soured on me.
I could be wrong about the reason, but I don't believe I am. Now that I have that solved, I would like to find out who was taping the cell at the Webb City Jail nearly 14 years ago and send that person a thank-you letter.