Suppressing news at police request
When a newspaper weighs its reporting responsibilities, where do law-enforcement priorities fit in?
By Jon Hall
Jon Hall, who has worked for several newspapers, is teaching at the University of Michigan.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 7 (October 1989), p. 6.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
He was dubbed the “Canal Killer,” and in the summer of 1975 in South Florida this faceless murderer grabbed the headlines. The deaths attributed to him also touched off a classic confrontation between police and reporters on whether a story would compromise attempts to catch the killer, now believed by investigators to have been the serial murderer Theodore Bundy.
Beginning in June the bodies of six young women surfaced in or along drainage canals in Dade and Broward counties; speculation was rampant the deaths were related. Two victims were sexually mutilated so badly the medical examiner’s office said the murderer was similar to “Jack the Ripper.”
At the time I was a reporter with the now-defunct Miami News. I was asked to join another staffer, Rick Abrams, to search for links between the killings.
For several days, we visited murder scenes looking for witnesses, clues, anything that would shed light on the deaths. One clue was a victim’s car found with a flat tire. Eventually, we learned another victim’s car also had a flat tire. Both vehicles were parked in shopping centers.
Focusing on this information, we worked out a scenario for those two killings; the killer flattened a tire on the car of a victim and awaited her return.
He then offered help to get it fixed. We didn’t know that police had worked out a similar scenario and located a possible witness.
According to Ralph Page, spokesperson at the time for the Dade County Public Safety Department, the witness was approached by a man when she had a flat tire on her car. He “made the hair stand up on the back of her neck,” said Page.
Fearful for her safety, she fled. But she provided a partial description of a man that investigators hoped might lead to a suspect or help snare someone in stakeouts at shopping centers. Police had not publicized that incident.
Rick and I knew we had a story. We also believed that if we published it the killer’s ruse would be unworkable; no one would accept help from a stranger to fix a flat. The killer would be forced to invent another scheme to attract victims. When we asked police for comment, Page asked us to hold the story and argued that publication would jeopardize efforts to catch the killer since he would change tactics.
Though we did not know it, Page, now a television reporter, sought permission from supervisors to tell us of the possible witness. Ironically, the witness’ observations had nothing to do with the case, according to Capt. Marshall Frank, who was then a homicide investigator on the case.
What to do?
It was a tough choice. The police argued that they had a good chance of catching the killer, but declined to say why. We believed the public was better served knowing the killer’s methods.
In addition, Rick and I and our editors faced the “what if” questions. What if we didn’t report the story and a woman was killed in the ensuing days?
What if we ran the story and ruined any chance the police had of catching the killer?
We decided to run the story. Faced with that decision, police confirmed the connection between the two killings, quickly making it common knowledge.
And the killings? As far as anyone knows, they stopped; no one else was abducted by a man offering help for a flat tire. Though five or six young women were murdered in the area in the following six months, none appeared related to the canal killings. The canal murders remain unsolved and it’s unclear whether we compromised a promising police investigation.
“There’s a chance that (you) did,” says Page, who believes the murderer was Bundy, who was executed on Jan. 24 for the 1978 slayings of two sorority sisters in Tallahassee and a 12-year-old girl. But those were well after the Dade County authorities thought they had a chance to catch the canal killer.
Capt. Frank also speculates that the canal killer was Bundy because those murders “were his MO (method of operation) entirely.” He says Bundy may have killed over 100 women, and says the halt in the murders after Bundy’s arrest in August 1975 strengthens the contention that Bundy was the Canal Killer. Still, Frank says, it’s “entirely conjecture.”
Frank tried to question Bundy but the convicted killer refused to him.
It’s unclear whether our decision was a good one, whether it saved lives or merely forced a killer to new killing fields. But the story illustrates the difficulties faced by journalists caught between the public’s right to know and the sometimes legitimate need of officials for secrecy.
Page believes he could have persuaded us to hold the story if he had been allowed by police to fill us in on what they knew, why police believed their stakeouts of shopping centers would catch the quarry. I wonder if he’s right, particularly in light of the belief that it was Bundy.
On the other hand, if we had not insisted on reporting the story and another young woman’s body had surfaced in one of Dade or Broward’s muddy canals, I think I would have felt like an accessory to murder.