Thursday, June 21, 2007

Breaking Point

Rather than put up the timeline of today’s events, let me just try to hit some high points of what happened behind-the-scenes on Thursday.

Let me just start by saying I’m not sure how much more Jessie Davis’ family can take. Tonight’s discovery – or lack thereof – was anything but a “let down” as one of our competitors characterized it on the late evening broadcasts. Believing that your loved one and her unborn child may be in a newly-discovered shallow grave in the woods only to find out hours later that it’s just pot is an emotional ride that few of us can ever finish standing up. Just think of what the last seven days have been like for the Davis clan. First, Jessie disappears and the evidence points to kidnapping. Then on Monday a baby is found near Wooster that raises the family’s anticipation that it might be Jamie’s but authorities later say they don’t believe the little girl is related. The next day (Tuesday), the family is left holding its breath when a rumor leaks that a body has been found on Mount Pleasant Road, not far from Jessie’s home. Later, the family is left speechless when the coroner says the death is actually a person who died of natural causes. Then, the next day (Wednesday), early-day rumors place the county dive team at the sewer plant looking for remains but later fire fighters tell us it’s only training. Now today (Thursday), the family endures the hours of uncertainty surround the shallow grave. How well would you be holding together right now?

I spent a good deal of my time today outside of Bobby Cutts’ home in Plain Township. I got the assignment because the FBI trashed Cutts’ place last night like it was the “Animal House” Fraternity. The chance that authorities might come back during the daylight to see Cutts or that Cutts himself my come out and make a statement forced us to camp out for the day on his street. Of course, a half dozen other media outlets were right there too.

Throughout the day, friends, relatives, and an attorney or two all stopped by to see Cutts. His three “private property, no trespassing” signs told me that I wasn’t welcome, but a select few folks were. None of those who came and went spoke to us, but their eyes told me “go away vultures” loud and clear. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cutts realized that most of us out there (OK, I guess I’m talking about me since I really can’t speak for the others) don’t mean him any harm. We really just want his side of the story. We really just want to know what he believes happened. What he has to say about his little boy who witnessed this awful sight of his mother taken away. What he wants to say about his unborn child and Jessie. Many folks make the assumption that because we’re the media, we’re must be there to crucify him. Without ever getting a chance to see him face-to-face, Cutts will only ever be guessing at my intentions.

At one point, a stranger from the neighborhood (he was wearing shorts that were ripped and showing most of his boxers; you had to be there to appreciate it) came up and asked me and the other reporters if we were with the FBI. He was frantic and really needed to find the authorities to tell them something big. The media throng was up front and honest that we weren’t police (I think the big TV cameras should have given us away anyway) and I gave him a phone number for the sheriff’s office. He left but returned an hour later to tell me his story off-camera. He saw a small car with a middle-aged white man come down a side street and then do a U-turn and leave when he saw the media. The stranger thought this guy in the car might be involved in the case somehow. I think his story is a bit far-fetched considering any large gathering of reporters and cameras usually scares most people regardless of whether they’re actually avoiding us.

I called Jessie’s sister, Whitney, around 1 p.m. just to check in on the family. I try to call only once a day since I know the media monster is overwhelming. Whitney told me that there wasn’t anything new to report and that she’d be available later in the day for comments. I asked her if there was any home video of Jessie that we might share on the air to give viewers a better idea of who Jessie is. She told me that the family really wishes it had some video of Jessie for personal viewing, but that none exists. Only shots of her from 20 years ago when she herself was a child. Having lost a brother of my own to violent crime, I could tell from that conversation how much Whitney really misses her big sister.

In the middle of the afternoon, a stranger in a nice suit with a young woman next to him showed up out of nowhere. They didn’t drive up like other relatives and friends; they simply walked down the sidewalk from the south. I asked the man if he was a friend of Cutts and he just smiled and kept going. He knocked on the door and was let in as though they were expecting him. I told the other reporters that my assumption was that he was a minister. About 10 minutes later, the man came back out of the house and started up the street. I decided to ask him again if he were a friend or relative. He told me his name was Ted Williams and smiled as he walked. The woman next to him said, “Ted. You don’t have to talk with them.” His pace increased as though he were fleeing a fire. Reporter Duane Pohlman then said, “Hey, how come you’re wearing a wireless microphone?” At that point, a small SUV backed up out of nowhere. Ted Williams and the woman jumped into the back of the vehicle for a quick get-away. In the front passenger seat, I locked eyes with a familiar face. She yells “Come On” and the car bolts away like the President’s limo during an assassination attempt. A few seconds later, I realize that that woman in the front seat was none other than Greta-Van-Whatshername from FoxNews. The local reporters on scene all began to look at one another wondering what had just happened. Had Ted Williams snuck a camera into the home? Had he gotten an interview with Bobby Cutts without Cutts’ knowledge? Why had the family let him in the home? Later, I watched Greta’s vaudeville show as she interviewed Williams live. He said that he knocked on the door cold and the family thought he was part of an expected prayer group so they didn’t think twice about letting him in. Williams says Cutts was lying on the floor looking completely distressed. Williams asked Cutts a few questions about his well-being and got short answers. Williams says that when the family realized he was from a cable TV show, they asked him to leave. The whole ordeal reeks of ethical landmines. Why didn’t Williams identify himself when the door was first opened? Did he record any audio or ever let the family know he was wearing a microphone? It’s stunts like that that make all of us in the media business look bad.

The one light moment of the day came around 2 p.m. The second that Duane Pohlman from TV5 showed up, a dark cloud swooped in with lightning, thunder, and rain. I couldn’t help but point it out to the rest of the media throng. Pohlman never missed a beat. He said, “Didn’t you know dark clouds are always following me?” We all had a good laugh.

After a nightside crew relieved me of my post outside Cutts’ home, my videographer, Larry Baker, decided we should swing by the search site on the way back to Akron just to poke around. We stumbled upon Captain Gary Shankle of the Sheriff’s Office telling reporters that pot had been found in that shallow hole that had been feared to be a possible gravesite. I was numb to the information but managed to reach producers to tell Tim White so he could add that info before our 7 p.m. newscast ended.

Inside, I was relieved because the discovered pot means that Jessie might still be alive. Whitney might get her sister back after all. Hoping for a miracle. There’s always hope.


NEOBuckeye said...

Let's hope, Eric. There's always a chance that things will work out.

TQOR said...

I understand the role and importance of the media and as am curious as the next person. And like you, I’m not sure how much more the family and close associates of Jessie Davis can take. For that reason I ask you to take off your press hat long enough to consider some of your comments from a human perspective. Regardless what individual the media is scrutinizing, the issue is compassion. I see a sad misconception of what that means in what you have written here.

Imagine what it would be like for you if a member of your family had died this morning. You are wrestling with the most intense experience you've ever dealt with in your life. Your world has just turned upside down. You are tired, numb and afraid.

Now imagine what it would be like if, at the same time, you have to deal with throngs of strangers camping on your doorstep inspecting your every grief-filled move. Everyone you encounter wants you to describe your feelings, demands that you prove you aren't to blame for your loved one's death, and asks you to reveal highly personal details about the most private aspects of your life. Inside your house, the people you love most are exhausted, struggling, and in tears much of the time. You want to comfort them but you feel powerless because inside your head you are trying to get a grip on your own shock, sorrow, confusion and loss. The telephone rings incessantly. Most of the callers are asking prying questions or shouting angry accusations. Every time you turn on the television you see your own face next to the face of your dead family member. People you've never seen are knocking on your door, peeking in your windows, milling about your yard, and talking to your neighbors about you. Most of the people who step across your threshold come uninvited and are there to make you feel guilty about the death. You have to answer the same questions hundreds of times and your answers are recorded. People approach you offering the support and comfort you so desperately need at this moment, but it soon becomes evident that their underlying motive is curiosity and they are being paid to interrogate you. You step out of your own door to get a breath of fresh air and collect your thoughts and are immediately subject to intense scrutiny. People are snapping photos, shouting questions and demanding explanations. They are questioning everything from your lifestyle to the validity of your grief. You know that the moment will be viewed and picked apart not only by the people standing in front of you, but by millions of others.

Be honest with yourself. At the moment this was happening, would you not feel hunted? Would you not feel like a prisoner? A victim? Would you really care about the intentions of these people or would you just want them to go away?

When you wrote these words you may have been thinking that you are cut from different cloth than the rest of us and could, if faced with this situation, override your own grief, emotions, and concerns about your family out of some sense of obligation to a curious public. But I think you are mistaken. In fact, I hope you are.

I would gladly wait longer for your report if it means the people who are actually living this nightmare will be spared some pain.

Eric Mansfield said...

tqor ..... thanks for taking the time to comment ... and to share so much of your personal feelings here.
I think the points you're raising are quite valid. I also think they're echoed in my thoughts above more than you may have gotten at first glance. I'd ask you to take another look. I, more than other reporters, am quite sensitive to citizens' privacy, feelings, and sense of fairness.

My own brother was murdered in this town and my grandmother died from hearing the news. Prosecutors initially attempted to charge the killer with BOTH deaths, which drew immediate media attention. At age 16, I was hit at my front door by overbearing TV reporters and had to run the gauntlet with my mother in the courts. Those are feelings I've never forgotten and I use in guiding my ethics on stories like this.

That's why I don't bother Jessie's family beyond one phone call per day and why I didn't cross the line by knocking on Bobby Cutts' door or calling his phone. Many in the media show more restraint and compassion than others realize, but we also accept that on stories that draw this much attention, we tend to look more like sharks than goldfish.