Reporters at odds in sex ring case
Some may have saved innocent, others may have fed flames
By Jim Kershner
The Wenatchee sex ring case was monumental in scope: 45 adults accused of child sex abuse, with 28 convicted or pleading guilty.
Yet it was also an investigation routinely labeled a “witch hunt” by critics.
High profile trials involving Sunday school teacher Honnah Sims and Pastor Roby Roberson and his wife, Connie, ended in acquittal.
The case raised some big issues about the nature of these crimes, and about the integrity of the criminal justice system itself.
In the larger context, news coverage might be considered a mere side issue.
But what a side issue.
Several people were arrested soon after talking to TV reporters, whether by coincidence or not.
Spokane TV journalist Tom Grant was accused, indirectly, of committing some of the same crimes he was reporting on.
Spokane’s TV stations covered the story from drastically different, if not opposite, viewpoints.
In fact, some say the media were a major player in this case.
“The media has just been an astonishing part of this story,” said Kathryn Lyon, an Olympia public defender who spent months doing an independent investigation of the case, and who wrote the massive and controversial “The Wenatchee Report.”
“Without the media involvement, there would have been a lot more prosecutions and lot more convictions.”
In particular, she credited Grant of KREM-2 for hammering away at police and prosecution methods.
“What struck me, as someone from outside, is he was doing hard-hitting documentaries virtually every night, and it was virtually ignored,” she said.
Most print media came to the story late, including The Spokesman-Review, which ran its big investigative package in October.
But Grant first used the term “witch hunt” last March. From that point on, he was dogged in investigating allegations of improper police procedures, possible coercion of witnesses and conflicts of interest on the part of Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez, the lead investigator in the case.
The Wall Street Journal called Grant’s work “an unrelenting, generally remarkable exposé of the Wenatchee prosecutions.”
Not everybody agreed. Many people in Wenatchee criticize Grant’s work, which they saw as slanted toward the accused.
For a different perspective, viewers needed only to turn the channel four clicks to KHQ-6. News anchor Randy Shaw did a three-part investigation in May and the station continued to devote an enormous amount of time and resources to the story.
KHQ-6 news director Patricia Clemm-McRae said her station broke many aspects of the story, and had the best access to the Wenatchee police. Its coverage, according to Shaw, stuck to the facts.
“We elected to stay out of all of the allegations,” said Shaw. “Allegations are easily aired. I found, while investigating it, that I couldn’t document or confirm those things or those allegations. If you can’t, you don’t report it. Other than that, it’s just speculation.”
On Nov. 8, NBC’s “Dateline” devoted nearly the entire hour to the Wenatchee investigation, hammering hard on the idea of a “witch hunt.” KHQ-6 aired that show and responded immediately in its 11 p.m. news broadcast: “Q-6’s own investigation into the child sex abuse cases reveals parts of the story that ‘Dateline’ didn’t tell you.”
Q-6 reporter David Okarski said that, among other things, “‘Dateline’ glossed over the fact that scores of those accused in Chelan County have pleaded guilty to child sex abuse.”
News director Clemm-McRae said she was trying to set the record straight. Shaw said that whenever anybody, even the station’s own network, “confuses the issue,” they need to be corrected.
“We developed facts, put a period on the end of it, and put it out on the air,” said Shaw. “We’ll stand by what we did.”
NBC news producer Geoffrey Stephens, who produced the Wenatchee “Dateline” piece, said he couldn’t give his opinion about KHQ-6’s rebuttal for reasons of “affiliate relations.” However, he made it clear what he thought of the overall coverage.
“I think they (Q-6) missed the story,” said Stephens, from New York. “I think they should have probed deeper.”
Stephens credited Grant, who works for a CBS affiliate, with getting the story right.
“Tom Grant got that story, Tom Grant is responsible for uncovering that story, Tom Grant did award-winning reporting on that story,” said Stephens. “He was the only one who was really digging into that story, asking the hard questions.”
KXLY-4, the third Spokane station, also devoted extensive time and resources to the story. Reporter Kerry Tomlinson said the goal of her coverage was to lay out both sides without jumping to conclusions.
“My job was not to conclude who was guilty and who was innocent,” said Tomlinson. “I don’t know how many people have asked me, ‘Kerry, so who was really telling the truth?’ Everybody was asking. My mom was asking. I don’t know, and I can’t say, and I’m not going to conclude. My job is to say, this is what the prosecutors say is the evidence, and this is what the accused say is the evidence.”
Both the defense and the prosecution have had their share of triumphs. Sims and the Robersons were acquitted, in July and December respectively, but many others in Wenatchee pleaded guilty to sex abuse charges.
Grant said too many reporters took the easy road and simply reported what the authorities were saying. He said that nobody – not the other TV stations, not The Wenatchee World, not the Spokane and Seattle newspapers – was going out and talking to the accused.
“This troubles me a great deal,” said Grant. “All along there was easy access to all of the people who were accused, the neighbors, the church members. All you had to do was go ask. And the kids. Again and again they say, believe the children. Well, I went out and talked to as many as I could find. Not one of them said anything bad was going on. What bothers me was that the other reporters didn’t go talk to those people.”
Grant had access problems of a different kind. Early on, he said he was “squashed by the police in terms of access,” after asking questions they didn’t like.
“They shut me out,” said Grant. “All my information from the police comes from documents, or testimony in court.”
Then came a stretch in which people he talked to ended up getting arrested soon afterward.
“I talked to Pastor Roberson and a bunch of police see me, and five days later, he gets arrested,” said Grant. “Larry Steinborn, I talked to him two days before he got arrested. I talked to Honnah Sims, I put her on TV, and she said it was ‘guilt by association’ and shortly thereafter she gets arrested.”
Grant still doesn’t know if there was a connection.
Still, he said it was “very frightening.”
“I felt like I shouldn’t be talking to these people and having them go to jail,” said Grant. “For a while there, I had to tell people there may be certain risks in going on-camera with me.”
Before long, Grant found himself the victim of a whispering campaign.
“There were rumors going around that, ‘Oh geez, this guy must be some kind of molester to be doing this,”’ said Grant. “In fact, we were told by two people in a public meeting that somebody stood up there and said I must be a molester to be doing this kind of stuff.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Grant “may also soon come under investigation for sexual abuse.” Nothing ever came of it, but even now Grant says he hears rumors.
Ultimately, this incident caused him to be even more convinced that innocent people were being accused.
“I know what I’ve done and what I haven’t done,” said Grant. “I know if they’re saying that stuff about me, what could be happening to the people who I questioned and put into the public eye, who don’t have the resources I have to protect myself?”
Not that Grant didn’t have some doubts about the direction of his reporting, especially after seeing other reporters take a different path. He said he resolved his doubts by digging even harder.
“If I could have found one single solid bit of evidence that said this happened, I would have turned my back on Pastor Roby and all of his people in a heartbeat,” said Grant. “It doesn’t exist.”
The Roberson acquittals took the pressure off Grant, but he said some vindication came before that, with The Wall Street Journal’s story in September, followed later by stories in The Spokesman-Review, The Seattle Times, The Washington Post and on “Dateline.”
However, just because the national media echo something doesn’t make it right, as Tracy Warner, editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World, pointed out.
“I don’t look at this as a triumph of journalism at all,” he said. “I was shocked, in a way, at how a lot of inaccurate information was passed around. Little trivial inaccuracies in a sense. It seemed to me that a lot of reporters were writing their stories after reading other reporters’ stories, who had read other reporters’ stories.”
The Wenatchee World was harshly criticized by defendants’ attorneys. A national columnist even called a Wenatchee World reporter a “tool” of Detective Perez.
Those accusations – of reporters being too close to their sources – cut both ways.
“I think there is a tendency by some reporters to get too close to a subject and forget why they’re there,” said KHQ’s Shaw.
“I frankly considered that with my stories: whether I wasn’t being fair, because I had such good access to the people on the other side,” said Grant. “That’s a fair criticism of my work. Was I too close to the other side?”
Grant said he now thinks there was some child abuse in Wenatchee, but “there’s very little evidence that there was ever a sex ring.”
Neither Shaw nor Tomlinson is comfortable offering sweeping conclusions.
“The reason you cover something is to find out the overall picture and get that detail and get it out,” said Shaw. “And leave the rest to juries and prosecutors.”
Were there any lessons for journalists in covering this complicated, wrenching, emotional story? Yes, but almost everybody offers a different one:
Tomlinson: “Don’t take sides.”
Clemm-McRae: “Don’t get too close to it (the story).”
Grant: “Even at personal risk to yourself, you have to go out and do the stories you think are important.”
Monday, January 29, 1996