A Readerís Threats, A Reporterís Ordeal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1996

A Readerís Threats, A Reporterís Ordeal   

By Jessica Gregg
Gregg, a former AJR editorial assistant, is a crime reporter in Maryland.     


From the first moment I heard his voice in September 1993, I knew there was something wrong with the man on the other end of the phone who was telling me he thought I was out to get him. He said he was going to make sure that didn't happen, his flat voice betraying no emotion even as it roared louder and louder. Nothing I said could convince him I wasn't trying to harm his cause, and his words were growing more and more hateful. My annoyance began to turn to panic, and finally, I hung up on him.

Then he called Assistant Managing Editor Bob Harper and told him he wanted to "bring me down."

Over the next year, the man on the other end of that phone followed me, delivered threats to me by way of my coworkers and called a local radio talk show in an attempt to get me fired from my position as City Hall reporter for the Frederick, Maryland, News-Post.

The nightmare began with a routine meeting story I wrote for the News-Post in September 1993 about a noise abatement policy at the local airport that had become the man's pet cause. He lived near the airport and appointed himself the neighborhood's spokesman against noise pollution. The story didn't make the front page, and the man was not mentioned in the article. He concluded it was because I had a vendetta against him, and that's when the disturbing phone calls began.

At first I had trouble believing what was happening to me. It didn't seem real, more like some kind of out-of-body experience I kept thinking would soon end. But it didn't. Instead, my unwitting involvement with the man dragged on for months.

Worse still, I realized upon raising my fears to my superiors at work that I was facing two problems--a disturbed individual bent on harassing me, and a management team at the News-Post that seemed utterly incapable of dealing with my unfortunate situation.

More than one person in management tried to joke away my distress by calling the man "my boyfriend." A few other coworkers downplayed my concerns by saying all the man needed was a "good whipping behind the barn." Meanwhile, Frederick Police Chief Major Regis R. Raffensberger informed me that the man was "unstable" and warned me not to walk anywhere alone. An undercover police officer began occasionally accompanying me to my assignments.

I didn't want to be at work, concerned that the more time I spent there the more at risk I would be. On days when I did make it to work, I was afraid to leave the building. Trapped at my desk, I wasn't doing much reporting. I felt like a target.

In November the News-Post finally called in an attorney, Matt Ruble, who said he would file a restraining order against the man. But a month later I found out the lawyer never did--under order of newspaper management. I was then told by my family's attorney that it was too late to file the order myself since by that time the "urgency" of the situation had passed. When I confronted Ruble with complaints about my diminishing legal options, he condescendingly assured me that he understood my anger with the situation since, after all, I was "only 23."

A few months after that, the newspaper's attorney did help Managing Editor Michael Powell and me in what ended up being a futile attempt to file harassment charges against the man. The charges didn't stick. Instead he was charged with a single count of battery for an incident in which he repeatedly and intentionally bumped into me at a City Hall meeting two months back.

Dealing with this situation became an all-encompassing chore. It became extremely difficult to concentrate on my daily routine and nearly impossible to get any work done.

One day the local police used me as a decoy to try to get the man to come to public meetings, a frightening role that is hardly as exciting as they make it out to be on television. The ploy didn't work, and eventually the man returned to his favorite pastime of calling me when I least expected it and threatening me.

Eventually, editors at the paper began warning me that it was time to swallow my pride and leave the News-Post. One reporter even told me to stop being a "martyr" and just quit. But I felt I couldn't. As hard as it was, I didn't want to leave the News-Post until the man was committed. I knew if I didn't see the situation through to some kind of resolution, no one else would.

But instead of resolution, I got a frustrating lesson about privacy laws, which prevent a victim, even a persistent reporter, from finding out anything about a perpetrator. I kept in constant contact with local police and scoured courthouse records looking for information about the man's mental history. The most I learned was that he had never been placed in a mental institution. This hardly filled me with relief.

In the end, my fear of the man gave way to a fierce anger at my newspaper's management that continues to this day. I'm still bitter about the fact that my editors were content to let me search for information on my stalker while never once offering to pursue any of the actions that might have helped me. I still resent the fact that I was consistently treated like a hysterical woman while opportunities to take legal action against the man came and went.

In September 1994 I finally left the News-Post for another reporting job. After that, the man began harassing Jim Grimes, Frederick's mayor, and was given a mental evaluation at the request of the Frederick County Circuit Court in the fall of 1995. I was told by Julie Stevenson, the assistant state's attorney, that he would be committed, but he wasn't. I suppose I should take solace in the fact that the man is now someone else's problem, but I can't help but think that if the town's only daily newspaper had taken an active role in trying to stop his behavior, he might have gotten the help he desperately needs.

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