|News Media Update||NORTH CAROLINA||Newsgathering|
Sheriff accused of bullying, threatening reporter
- A North Carolina newspaper says that a county sheriff admitted threatening to imprison a reporter for calling him at home; others say he has a history of bullying people.
Dec. 11, 2003 — A county sheriff in North Carolina threatened a newspaper reporter with imprisonment earlier this month after she called him at home for comment on a story, according to the newspaper.
Tonya Maxwell, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, had written numerous articles about how the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department handled a recent investigation. Two men were wrongfully imprisoned for nearly two years, without trial, for the December 2000 rape and murder of North Buncombe High School senior Mary Judd.
According to a story in the Times, Sheriff Bobby Medford told Maxwell never to call him at home again. Medford’s phone number is publicly listed.
“If you do, I will put you in jail,” Medford said Dec. 1, according to the Times article. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. You’ve caused enough trouble for me and my department.”
On a local radio show the following day, Medford admitted he made the threats, according to the newspaper.
“This just applies to Tanya,” Julie Kepple, an attorney for the sheriff’s department, told the newspaper. “If you wanted to talk to the sheriff at home, he talks to everybody.”
Editors at the Times say the incident is part of a larger campaign to “bully and intimidate” Maxwell because of her reporting. The two men who were arrested and jailed for two years have since been released, and the only witness in the case recanted her testimony. The witness now says Medford threatened to arrest her and take away her children if she did not implicate the men in the murder.
Reporters at another Asheville paper accuse Medford of employing similar tactics on them. Mountain Xpress reporter Brian Sarzynski told the Times that Medford threatened to haul him into federal court if he wrote a story portraying the sheriff as acting inappropriately by holding a shotgun in front of a crowd of protestors assembled outside the county jail.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” Sarzynski said.
Maxwell is the lead reporter in a series of articles the newspaper began publishing in November questioning the department’s handling of the murder case. The series of stories, titled “Waiting for Justice,” prompted County District Attorney Ron Moore to open his own investigation.
In a Nov. 8 editorial, Times Executive Editor Robert Gabordi accused Medford of ordering deputies not to speak with his reporter.
“The message is clear: Be a good little reporter or we’ll use the power of the sheriff’s office — a public office — to punish you,” Gabordi wrote.
Kepple said Maxwell’s phone call was “inflammatory,” and accused her of “trying to harass the sheriff.” Maxwell maintains that she was just doing her job by calling Medford for comment on the release of Moore’s report, which found the sheriff’s did nothing wrong.
In a Dec. 3 story in the Times, Gabordi said Medford’s threat would have “a serious chilling effect on free speech.”
“The implications of threatening to jail a reporter for asking questions go beyond a single journalist, reporter, or newspaper,” he said. “It cannot be acceptable in America.”
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press