Monday, January 7, 2013

Getting Real

"There's someone outside who wants to see you," Special Projects Manager Steve Hertzke says, with heightened urgency, "something about a story you're doing tonight?"  he continues.  As I glance out the plate glass windows of the 2News studios, I see him, slim, short and pale.  His stocking hat is pulled down low over his ears, furrowed eyebrows and squinted eyes.  he is angry and pacing, not in long wild strides, but in short controlled steps, three to the left, three to the right.  I know this man.  In fact I just spoke with him, albeit, for a minute or two, just half an hour ago.

The man and his wife are accused of severe abuse of their three children.  Police say the couple's three boys, all under the age of 4 and none of them communicative  have been living in utter filthy for some time.  According to charging documents the man and woman's South Salt Lake City apartment is a ghastly disaster.

Allegations that the children were caked with dirt, their apartment littered with garbage, animal feces, and infested with cockroaches.  Police say a 4 year old boy, who suffers from Autism would often cry for hours on end without being tended too.  "Good lord," is all one neighbor could say about the apartment she was allowed into a month ago when the child was perched on the couple's back porch crying uncontrollably.

On the front door is a yellow placard, plastered onto the heavy wooden entrance, "DO NOT ENTER by order of the Salt Lake Health Department," the apartment has been condemned, and no one is allowed inside.

As Photographer Mike DeBarnardo takes pictures of the yellow, ominous sign, I hear rustling inside, the TV droning and someone crunching on what sounds like potato chips.  "wait," I stop Mike in mid sentence, as I stare at the door and hold my palm up to the photographer, "crunch, crunch," someone, it appears, is gazing through the peep hole, and munching on snack food.

Just a few seconds after I knock, the small man with the pasty face and unkempt facial hair answers, "What?" he says in a short, clipped explosion.  "I'm Chris Jones from 2News," I announce, "why are you here?" he retorts.  "Are you Mike," I ask calmly, "Uh....No." he says confidently,
"Well Mike and his wife have been charged with child abuse," I tell him,
"I haven't been charged," he snaps back.
"well you are Mike then?" and with that he slowly creaks his door closed and locks it.

An hour later I will find Mike and his wife, standing outside my office, cap tugged tightly over his head, backpack hugging his shoulder blades.

I head out to meet him, a photographer on my right shoulder, just in case, he hits me or assaults me, at least the exchange is caught on tape, and Hertzke to my left.  "What can I do for you?" I ask calmly.  "How did you get this?" he blasts, thrusting his hand, red and cold from the elements, towards the charging documents I hold in my hands, "from the courthouse, they are public record," I respond.

"Who called you?"  he quickly follows up,
"No one, I check the courts everyday to see if there have been any charges of significance made,"
"Well this is yellow journalism," he says.
"OK," I respond.
"This is none of your business,"
"OK," I repeat.
"I think this is just plain wrong,"
I interrupt, "I'm not here to debate you on the merits of what we do, If you have a concern about the facts of the story, I'll be glad to talk to you about that."
"yes, the facts are wrong," he blurts, "I'm suing the police for violation of my constitutional rights," he begins to rant, "and my wife is disabled," he continues.
"OK, well if you feel those are the facts, I have a camera here right now, we'd love to give you an opportunity to tell your side of the story."
"No," he quickly interrupts, "I'm not granting any interviews," his weary eyes burrow into mine,
"That's fine," I say,
"I just think you are wrong to..."
"I interrupt him again, "I don't think we have anything else to discuss,"  and we both turn and walk away.

This is not the first time someone unhappy with a story I've done has come to my office to accost me.  Last year an older man in a duster, cowboy hat, Bolo tie and a long, grey groomed beard was angry after police detained him.  He had approached me just seconds after I completed a live report and told me he had every intention of killing a police officer.  I told police and they talked to him.

Another man came looking for me because of a story I did about him being charged by police for threatening to kill professors at Salt Lake Community College after receiving a poor grade on an assignment.  We had to post a picture of him at every door with the statement, "DON'T LET THIS MAN IN."

It is disconcerting at times to see people, whom you know by sight, only from their mugshot, waiting for you at your door.  In the past I have been lucky, that none have tried to hurt me, and at that same time, it a good reminder, that the stories we do are indeed, about real people, not just a grainy, out of focus portrait handed to us by police.

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