Ignoring a Small-Town Paper's Exclusive
By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
When Glenn Puit walked out of a trailer onto a rural road in South Carolina in the spring of 1995, the young police reporter thought he had stumbled on to the story of a lifetime.
The soft-spoken Army wife who lived in the mobile home told Puit, then a reporter with the Florence, South Carolina, Morning News, that her husband was the man authorities were calling John Doe #2, the second suspect in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. She said the government had cleared her husband, an Army private stationed in Kansas.
As he stood in the pouring rain outside the trailer, Puit, then 25, knew the story sounded like fiction. But he held in his hand a family snapshot of Army Pvt. Todd Bunting that looked remarkably like the composite drawing of John Doe #2 that had been splashed across front pages around the country.
What Puit couldn't have known then was that the story he would write for his 34,000-circulation paper identifying Bunting as John Doe #2 would turn out to be right on the money, yet it wouldn't be until this January — 19 months after his piece ran — that federal authorities would acknowledge that that was the case.
Puit was led to the Buntings' mobile home by a local law enforcement source who said the Oklahoma bombing had a South Carolina connection. Denise Bunting confirmed that her husband had been questioned by the FBI, and told Puit that Bunting happened to be in the same Kansas truck rental shop the day after suspect Timothy McVeigh allegedly rented the truck used in the bombing. According to Denise Bunting, employees at the rental counter got their dates confused and assumed Todd Bunting was McVeigh's associate. The composite drawing authorities put together set off a national manhunt that netted her husband as he arrived home in South Carolina on leave from his base in Kansas.
"I asked her for a photo, and the one she gave me was a spitting image of John Doe #2. I about had a heart attack," Puit says. "After the interview I was shaking."
Puit called Bunting in his barracks and asked him to confirm the story his wife had just recounted. A surprised Bunting said the Army had instructed him not to say anything and referred Puit to a military spokesman.
Though Puit had several anonymous sources confirming the story, his editors wanted on-the-record confirmation from authorities. For two weeks, Puit tried in vain to get anyone in the federal government to confirm that Bunting was John Doe #2. As an outside-the-Beltway reporter from a small Southern paper, Puit hit wall after wall of silence in Washington, D.C.
"It got to the point where I knew I had it, but they wouldn't even talk to me," says Puit. Convinced the story would never make it into the paper, Puit phoned the White House out of desperation in early June of 1995. A staffer finally offered a vague confirmation, assuring Puit that he was "on the right track."
That was enough for the editors to approve a front page story that named Bunting under the headline "Local Man Cleared in Quest for John Doe 2." Bunting's photo, placed next to the official composite drawing, accompanied the story, which ran on June 7, 1995.
Puit and his editors sat in the newsroom the next day awaiting what they expected would be a swarm of national media clamoring to pick up the story — but nothing happened. Managing Editor Frank Sayles called the Associated Press to ask why the wire hadn't transmitted Puit's story. John Shurr, the AP's Columbia, South Carolina, bureau chief, said the story lacked an official confirmation and the wire service couldn't run it without verifiying it through its own sources.
As days of silence passed, Puit and his editors began to doubt themselves. "The Florence Morning News is not the bastion of investigative reporting," Puit says. "I actually thought someone fed me a big whopper and maybe my skills weren't as good as I thought they were."
Other papers had come close to cracking the John Doe #2 story before Puit found the South Carolina connection. In May of 1995, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an anonymous law enforcement source said John Doe #2 had been positively identified and cleared of any involvement in the bombing. But FBI officials dismissed the story, saying they were still looking for the man in the composite sketch.
To Puit's relief, the Los Angeles Times printed a story on June 14, 1995, confirming some of the John Doe #2 scenario. But since Puit's story hadn't yet made it out of Florence, the Times version didn't include Bunting's name, photo or an explanation of how he had been cleared. Feeling vindicated, the Morning News updated its story naming Bunting and sent it to the AP again. This time the wire service ran it, and the story broke nationally.
The day that the L.A. Times story ran, the FBI issued a cryptic two-paragraph statement saying it had interviewed an individual who resembled the sketch of John Doe #2 and concluded he had not been connected to the bombing. It did not disavow the sketch and provided no further details, saying only that the FBI was continuing to investigate whether a second person had participated in the truck rental.
It wasn't until this past January that the FBI named Bunting, in court documents for McVeigh's trial, admitting that the South Carolinian became a suspect through a mix-up at the truck rental agency — exactly as the Florence Morning News had laid it out.
Citing a judge's gag order, Dan Vogel, the FBI's spokesman in Oklahoma City, refused to comment on why the federal government let the public go on thinking that John Doe #2 was on the loose after it had identified and cleared Bunting.
The FBI's belated confirmation was a bittersweet victory for Puit and the staff of the small paper. Puit, now a police reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, says he is angry with government officials who refused to take his calls. If you don't have the clout of the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times behind you, he says, federal sources can dodge your questions and stifle a story.
"At first I was really bitter," Puit says. "But I was less distraught with the media than I was with the federal government. My impression was, if you're from the Florence Morning News, they can ignore you."