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Geiger’s Counter: When reporters become part of the story

It is rare, but occasionally, reporters become part of the story or stories they are covering. The first example that springs to mind is that of Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate scandal. They basically created ‘˜investigative reporting’ as they dug into the Watergate burglary and the scandalous coverup that followed it. They and their sources became part of the story and some actually were subpoenaed to give testimony that ultimately forced President Richard Nixon out of the White House. There are many other instances. Sometimes reporters are targeted for revenge by those about whom they have written. We had such an incident last week when a certified letter arrived at our office in Barnesville. You can read the entire letter in our news coverage but the gist of it is the writer claimed to be a Gordon State College student dying of cancer. The writer claimed alleged serial arsonist Travis Leroy Ball was innocent of the fires with which he is charged and numerous others of which he is suspected of setting. The author of the letter, which was dated January 22, claimed he was having his truck-driving father mail it after his death. He also claimed that he and his fraternity brothers at Gordon set the fires as part of their initiation because President Barack Obama had stated abandoned, foreclosed-upon houses were harming the economic recovery. Two things jumped out immediately. Gordon has no fraternities and the letter was postmarked March 12 in Warner Robins where Ball is restricted by an ankle monitor while out on a huge cash bond. We began to handle the letter carefully to preserve fingerprints and summoned sheriff Brad White who arrived within minutes to take the letter into evidence. Hours later, the sheriff’s office received the exact same letter. Both were sent to the state crime lab for fingerprint analysis – a long process. After seeing the letter sent to our office, sheriff’s investigators contacted the firm charged with following Ball via the ankle monitor. He had broken curfew twice and left his zone once. He must be at home by 9 p.m. but the monitor reported a trip to Wal-Mart at 2 a.m. one night. Sheriff White and his personnel went to Judge Tommy Wilson with this information. Judge Wilson signed a pickup order and Ball was returned to the Lamar County jail over the weekend. In the hours before he was returned to custody, there were two arson fires in Warner Robins. That could be coincidence or not. Ball has not been charged with those fires. At any rate, Ball is now back in the Lamar County jail. He must appear before Judge Wilson to explain his actions. His bond could be reinstated or he could be jailed until trial. If, indeed, Ball wrote the letters, it makes one wonder about his mental state. If you have wondered what happens when reporters become part of the story, this is how we handled it. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of the Pike County Journal Reporter and The Herald Gazette in Barnesville.

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