Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Covering Breaking News: Watching the network news tonight, the second day after bin Laden's death, they spoke about how "the story is changing." So what? When you cover breaking news, the story always changes. The first reports come from scribbled notes and from people at HQ who haven't sat down with the people who were out in the field. Once everyone settles down, the story takes clearer shape, but, by then, the news has already been reported.

Here's a breaking-news story I reported in 1991, and then the follow-up story that ran the next day, once things had settled down. Note that the incident happened at 11 a.m., about nine hours before first deadlines. This doesn't change the fact that not all the information was in, but it did allow me time to check in with the people in Philadelphia. Had it happened six hours later, the first report would have been extremely sketchy. (I actually filed the story at about 6 p.m.)

Sorry the photo isn't clearer, but it's scanned from a photocopy of the article. The editor said he was disappointed I wasn't able to get a shot of the body. I asked, "Would you have run a picture of the body?" He admitted that they wouldn't have. I love editors.

Then I had to add the paragraph about the "witnesses" who had appeared on TV saying the police had fired on the car. Note, in the second story, how much effort and space is spent disputing their version of events. If only they had had computer access, they could have been "citizen journalists." I love them, too.

You'll note that things have tightened up at the border a bit in the intervening 20 years. 

Oh, and one more thing: Editors write the headlines. I know that shotguns shoot shot.

Staff photo/Mike Peterson
State Police investigators remove a shotgun from the scene of a roadblock in West Plattsburgh that ended in death for a fugitive from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Police had chased him from the border at Rouses Point after he had fled questioning there.

Fugitive dies in police chase
Unclear how fatal bullet was fired into out-of-state gunman

By Mike Peterson
Staff Writer
PLATTSBURGH - Blasts from Wade Rollins's shotgun ended two chases in three days.
    The first was fired at Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. King Lee, as he attempted to stop Rollins's rented 1991 Toyota Tercel in Northeast Philadelphia, in the early hours of Saturday.
    The second was fired into Rollin’s chest, as New York State Troopers and Customs officers approached his then disabled Toyota in West Plattsburgh late Monday morning.
    Rollins, 29, of Bristol. Conn., was pronounced dead at CVPH Medical Center at 11:04 a.m.. It was not clear from police reports whether the wound was intentional or the result of a mishap.
    According to Supervising Special Agent Paul Graveline of the Office of Enforcement of the U.S. Customs Service, Rollins attempted to enter the United States at the Rouses Point Port of Entry. The immigration inspector on duty identified the fugitive, notified the inspector inside and sent Rollins into the building on the pretext of a secondary customs inspection.
    Rollins left his car and went into the customs shed, but, when the inspector began to question him, bolted back outside and headed for his car.
    The inspector chased Rollins, catching up with him as he was closing the door of his car, but was unable to stop him.
    Rollins sped away from the Port of Entry and drove through Rouses Point, with two special agents from the port on his tail. Two other Customs vehicles followed a short time later, and were soon joined by State Police and Border Patrol officers.
    The chase eventually led to Interstate 87 and south toward Plattsburgh, then through the city and onto Route 3 toward West Plattsburgh.
    Customs and State Police officers set up a roadblock on Route 3, just beyond the intersection with the Rand Hill Road.
    WPTZ-TV interviewed witnesses to the ensuing confrontation who said police fired into the vehicle as it approached the roadblock at high speed, but police responded on camera with a flat denial that any police or customs officers fired their guns.
    According to State Police, Rollins attempted to crash the roadblock, which damaged the blockading vehicles but also disabled the Toyota. As officers approached the vehicle, the shotgun discharged.
    Rollins was pulled from the front seat of his car and placed on the ground. First aid was applied by the Morrisonville Rescue Squad and he was transported to the CVPH Emergency Room, where he was pronounced dead.
    State Police said four of their cars and a Customs vehicle were damaged in the pursuit and roadblock.
    According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rollins’s odyssey began just after 2 a.m. Saturday morning, when he was stopped in Horsham Township, Pa., for erratic driving.
    As the township police officer was arresting Rollins for failing a sobriety test, he discovered a knife in Rollins’s back pocket. He took the knife and attempted to handcuff Rollins, hut Rollins fought back and managed to get to his car and escape.
    He then led local and state police on a 12-mile chase into Philadelphia. Cpl. Lee picked up the chase and pursued Rollins down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through a set of tollbooths and into the city.
    Rollins pulled around a corner, stopped the car and got out, and. as Lee's cruiser turned the corner, pointed the shotgun at the officer Lee stopped his car and dove across the seat as the blast shattered his windshield, showering him with glass fragments.
    Lee emerged and returned fire with his .357 magnum revolver as Rollins, who was already sought by New Haven. Conn. authorities for firearms violations, fled. 
    Pennsylvania authorities put his name and description out on a national network of police agencies, which led to his identification when he attempted to cross the border.
    Plattsburgh and Chazy State Police BCI investigators are attempting to trace the route that brought Rollins from eastern Pennsylvania to the Canadian border.

Death at roadblock following chase ruled a suicide

By Mike Peterson
Staff Writer
PLATTSBURGH - A day after Wade Rollins died at a police roadblock in West Plattsburgh, killed in the front seat of a rented car by his own shotgun in what the coroner has now ruled a suicide, there was still little known about where the 29-year-old Connecticut man spent the last two days of his life.
    However, some discrepancies had begun to clear up by Tuesday:
    One witness, who had earlier told WPTZ that police had fired on the car as it approached their barricade, told police investigators that she had heard only one shot, apparently the shot that killed Rollins. The second of Channel 5’s witnesses, Steve Mason, said he had spoken with police and would have no further comment.     "It's a small town. I've got to live here. I'm just going to keep my mouth shut, OK?" he said.
Denies police fired
    New York State Police Senior Investigator Steve Pendergast insisted no shots were fired by police or customs officers, and a superficial examination of the dead man's rented car at the scene of the confrontation suggested it had not been hit by gunfire. Pendergast said police have spoken with Mason, and he has now told them he only heard one gunshot.
    The windshield of the white Toyota Tercel showed a small impact fracture, but there was no damage to the windows on the three sides of the vehicle approachable during the investigation, while the only apparent body damage appeared to have come from impact with police and Customs vehicles. There were no apparent punctures of the body metal that could have been bullet holes.
    By contrast, when Rollins fired his shotgun through the windshield of a Pennsylvania state trooper's car Saturday morning, the windshield was reportedly destroyed. Corporal King Lee, who had ducked out of the line of fire, was showered with and cut by bits of glass as he lay across the front seat of the vehicle.
Travels a mystery
    It was not clear why Rollins was in the Philadelphia area.
    The Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Sunday that Rollins was sought by New Haven. Conn., authorities for firearms violations, but detectives in New Haven told the Press-Republican they had no information on him.
    A reporter with Rollins’s hometown paper in Bristol, Conn., however, said that, while Bristol police records showed no arrests for Rollins in the past two years, he was wanted there on various charges relating to family violence. According to Mark Anderson of the Bristol Press, Rollins’s wife, Arline, had sworn out a complaint for a Feb. 26 incident in which she alleged that Rollins had beaten her, their four-year-old daughter and their two-year-old son.
    The complaint charged that Rollins had beaten her throughout their 10-year marriage, and that the children had also been beaten before the date of the complaint.
Rented from Hertz
    Pendergast said Rollins rented the Toyota from a Hertz counter at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., Feb. 20, nearly a week before the date of the alleged episode of family violence for which he was sought.
    But, while the car was overdue, there was apparently no active effort being made to recover it.
    Rollins’s whereabouts in the 55 hours between the confrontation with Pennsylvania authorities and his appearance at Rouses Point remain unknown. Trooper Roger Hoffman of the Pennsylvania State Police said there had been an unconfirmed sighting of the Toyota in Philadelphia Saturday night, but no other indications of where he might have been.
    Ironically, Rollins appeared at the U.S. border, apparently coming from Canada, on the day Canada announced it was experimenting with express lanes at its border with the United States. While Rollins would not have qualified for express-lane treatment, Canadian authorities would not have any record of his entry unless he attracted attention in some way, such as by declaring purchases.
Alert issued
    Pennsylvania authorities had issued a nationwide alert for Rollins, which resulted in his identification at Rouses Point when an immigration official entered his license number into a computer. But Canadian border stations are not equipped with computers, and border authorities are only furnished with information on cars that are expected to attempt to cross into Canada, according to a Canadian official.
    "These kinds of cases happen,” admitted Patricia Birkett, manager for Canadian Immigration at La Colle. Quebec. "The question is, do we stop every person? Do we have every license plate number on a computer? We don't have the facilities for that. That's the way it is between our two countries: We have an open border, and, most of the time, it works."
May have turned back
    Pendergast said it was possible that Rollins never entered Canada, that he approached the crossing from the Rouses Point side, realized he would have to clear Canadian Customs, and turned back, only to discover he now had to go through the US port of entry.
    Pendergast said Rollins had enough funds at the time of his death to suggest he would not leave a trail of credit card slips. None of the cash, he said, was Canadian.

news stories copyright 1991, the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Did that "witnesses" paragraph really seem like a waste of space to you? The whole thing seemed to me like a quite valuable demonstration of the difference between witness "journalism" and professional journalism. The stories, especially the followup, show how a professional reporter investigates, and how deep an excavation it takes to get the facts. I rather liked the contrast that the paragraph about the witnesses provided. Before "citizen journalists" got that honorific, there was always a reverence for whatver a wtiness said because "she was right there when it happend!" and the whole citizen journalism thing still seems to place that above investigation. Holy bleep, that was one heckuva complicated chain of events to trace.

ronnie said...

I said to Husband the night it was reported that it was too convenient for a female bystander to have been killed while OBL was using her as a human shield. It absolves the SEALs of an accidental killing of an unarmed female and makes OBL look like a coward and scumbag in death. (In retrospect it turns out it wasn't OBL's wife who was killed, so I'm stuck somewhere between believing that it was still a crafted narrative thought up by the military as [mis]information came out of the operation, or thinking I'm a looney conspiracy theorist for thinking that.) Either way, I would be interested to know what percentage of Americans still believe that is what played out. The first narrative is often the one that sticks, later excellent follow-up reportage notwithstanding.

ronnie said...

(I should hasten to add that it goes without saying that OBL was a coward and a scumbag in life and in death, regardless. The "human shield" story just gave a satisfying punctuation note to that record.)

Mike said...

I had so much to track down on this story -- each of those elements took several phone calls -- that having to also debunk what were obviously totally bogus "eyewitness reports" was infuriating.

Mostly, I couldn't believe the TV reporter put them on the air, given that it was obvious that either the police hadn't fired at the car or they were the worst shots in the world, since they didn't hit it once.

Saints preserve us from "eye witnesses."