A Colorado reporter finds criminal evidence— in a landfill

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news and media

A Colorado reporter finds criminal evidence— in a landfill

This story is something else. First the background:

Fremont County law enforcement have been working on a cold case murder of a 17-year-old girl who was shot near Cañon City in 2006. The victim’s family has said they believe the sheriff’s office fumbled the case and might even have covered it up. Their suspicions were heightened a few months ago when a local man, Rick Ratzlaff, bought a storage shed at auction that used to belong to a sheriff’s lieutenant named Robert Dodd. What did Ratzlaff find inside? A bloody rope, an ax, and documents labeled “evidence”— evidence linked to that 2006 cold case. The state crime bureau is investigating. The lieutenant made $20,000 while on paid leave, retired, and moved to Texas. The local DA charged him with abuse of public records. There’s an ongoing effort to recall the sheriff because, well, come on.

Pueblo Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon has been covering all this from the start. And last week, she got a call from Ratzlaff who got a tip from a worker at a local landfill who said there might be more evidence there, perhaps from former lieutenant Dodd’s old home and perhaps dumped by his wife. Ratzlaff couldn’t reach the local DA, so he called Harmon, the reporter.

Here’s her recap of what she did next, from The Chieftain:

Accompanied by a friend, I drove to the landfill. As I reached the front gate, I tried to contact District Attorney Molly Chilson to alert her about the evidence. I got her cellphone voice mail and left a message. At the landfill, Orton pointed to the area where the apparent evidence was located. He helped me and my friend collect the computer, an envelope marked “evidence” that contained a DVD, a videotape labeled as containing a sexual assault investigation interview and a tackle box marked “FCSO Crime Scene Unit Forensic Lights.” We also took numerous stacks of paperwork, which included crime reports, before Orton urged us to leave for fear he would be fired. The crime reports were dated 2003 and 2006.

After my friend and I left the landfill, I again called Chilson and she answered her phone. I briefly described what had happened. She immediately said she did not want to hear any more and instead directed me to talk to Richard Wren, the District Attorney investigator. Wren contacted me, and my friend and I went to meet with him. Wren called the landfill and asked the workers to not cover any other potential evidence.

After turning over to Wren the items we had collected, he went to the landfill and collected five more videotapes that appear to be linked to other sexual assault investigations…

Somebody get a documentary film crew down here, right?

Colorado journalists debate how they’ll handle a new election law

Recently I raised an issue for journalists involving Colorado’s new election law that will allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries for the first time. I wondered how political reporters here who don’t register with a party might handle it. Would they vote if the party they choose becomes a public record? Would they even care? For a piece in Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project I found out— and found them split.

Some key insights from members of the Capitol press corps from the story:

“It doesn’t make you a better reporter because you don’t vote. I always jokingly say I’m pro-anarchy. I will vote for the most interesting things for me personally to write about. That’s very self-interested. So if there’s an interesting candidate that’s fun to write about, of course I’m going to vote for that guy or lady. I don’t find that to be incompatible with being a journalist.” — Kristen Wyatt of The Associated Press

“In order to maintain your credibility as a journalist, our political affiliation—or lack thereof— should never enter into the discussion. I’m registered as unaffiliated for that reason. I don’t want Republicans thinking I’m a Democrat or Democrats thinking I’m a Republican.” — Marianne Goodland of The Colorado Independent

“If I had to give up my voting franchise in order to be a journalist, I might reconsider what I do for a living.” — Kyle Clark, KUSA 9News

“I don’t think anyone who covers the news has a right to put a partisan label on himself or his news organization. I don’t think it’s too much for reporters to ask of themselves to keep their politics out of the public record. If they value their political rights more than their professional responsibility, then maybe they should ask themselves why they’re wearing a press badge instead of a campaign T-shirt.” — Joey Bunch, ColoradoPolitics.com

Some journalists I spoke with do register by party and explained why. Read what they had to say and more hereAlso, big thanks thanks to Kyle Clark for inviting me on his 9News nightly newscast show “Next” to talk about this issue. Watch that clip here.

Speaking of Denver TV news, corporate conglomeration just gobbled up KDVR. And that’s important because…

Sinclair Broadcasting, which already owns 173 local TV stations around the country, says it will buy The Tribune Media Company, which owns more than 40 local TV stations. Denver’s KDVR Fox31 is one Colorado station that will get swallowed up in the deal. This merger, by the way, will create the single largest holding of local TV stations in the nation. What does that mean? Well, for one it can mean less local content as newsrooms share segments with out-of-market sister stations to generate traffic. Symptoms of such behavior include annoying headlines and social media posts like “City fines pastor’s wife for praying too loud.” Who wouldn’t click on that? But pity you when you find out it didn’t happen in the station’s own city. (But you clicked!) I’ve called out that nonsense in CJR before.

Another aspect of this deal: The New York Times reports Sinclair Broadcasting Group produces “must-runs” for their local networks. And what do they look like?

From the Times:

Since November 2015, Sinclair has ordered its stations to run a daily segment from a “Terrorism Alert Desk” with updates on terrorism-related news around the world. During the election campaign last year, it sent out a package that suggested in part that voters should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery. More recently, Sinclair asked stations to run a short segment in which Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president for news, accused the national news media of publishing “fake news stories.”

Oh boy. “Critics of the deal also cite Sinclair’s willingness to use its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda,” the Times continues. “That practice has stirred wariness among some of its journalists concerned about intrusive direction from headquarters.” The piece goes on to cite skepticism from local TV producers about this top-down model and what it means for local communities— like the progressive city of Seattle. My guess is if it happens in Denver, viewers will take note. (And probably take to Facebook to talk about it.)

Denver’s city council took a shot at The Denver Post’s ownership

Of course they might not say it was a jab at the corporate suits. It was just the 12 members of Denver City Council doing their civic duty. The council nonetheless issued a proclamation urging local media owners to “provide their journalists with all of the resources necessary to carry out their essential role in civic debate and discourse,” according to The Denver PostThe Denver Post reported how the proclamation “also says council members recognize the need ‘to be transparent in our conduct of the business of the people’ and to be forthright with journalists.”  A novel idea in any kind of media environment.

More from The Denver Post who employs Jon Murray to cover City Hall, which is why we know about this news in the first place:

The one-page proclamation’s preamble speaks about the importance of strong local journalism as “essential for democracy where it is closest to the people.” But, it says, “news organizations are facing significant pressures including large reductions in the ranks of reporters and photographers, increased political attacks, media manipulation and technological changes that unavoidably threaten the nation’s tradition of robust journalism.”

Murray reports further: “Like other large metro daily newspapers, The Post has faced recurring budget pressures, resulting in recent years in layoffs and the shedding of dozens more reporters, editors and other journalists through buyouts and attrition.”

So far Denver isn’t Fitchburg, Wisconsin, where the City Hall there actually propped up the local newspaper financially. And it’s not yet Dace County, Wisconsin, where a member of the board of supervisors was publicly begging local media to come report on the board’s activities. But it’s a pretty telling commentary on the state of media ownership today. The Denver Post is owned by a secretive New York City Hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. It has been likened to a bloodsucking freak.

I profiled the Boulder-based Public News Service after one of their journalists was arrested

In my last newsletter I told you I hoped to have more about the news outlet where West Virginia reporter Dan Heyman works. He’s the reporter who was arrested while trying to ask questions of a Trump official. He works for Public News Service, which is based in Boulder. When I caught up with Lark Corbeil, the founder of PNS, I told her I was embarrassed I hadn’t heard of her outfit before. Don’t be, she said, adding that the for-profit news wire with journalists in 37 states including Colorado has been around for 26 years, but still flies largely under the radar for many— including at least one daily newspaper reporter in Boulder. “You probably haven’t heard of us because we’re slow to the internet,” she told me.

Here’s an excerpt from my Q-and-A with her for CJR’s United States Project:

PNS is part of the nonprofit Media Consortium and has an annual budget of around $1.2 million, she says. It is funded through memberships and paid services as well as philanthropic and individual donations; it counts PEW and The Annie E. Casey Foundation as supporters, says Corbeil.

Corbeil and I talked about what kind of journalists work for the outlet, where the service gets its funding, who can use its content, how staffers responded to Heyman’s arrest, and how the outlet has seen a “significant surge” in donations since. “I feel strongly that good will and democracy is at stake if we do not find ways to fund journalists to cover all the issues,” Corbeil told me. “And we cannot sustain a democracy if we don’t find a way to do it.”

Clorado’s journalist for PNS is Eric Galatas who has produced recent stories about the state’s gender pay gap, how some millionaires are urging Trump to save the estate tax, and how farmers are pushing to keep natural gas waste rules intact. Read my full profile on PNS here.

John Oliver highlighted stories in The Denver Post, 9News and 5280 magazine on ‘Last Week Tonight

If you’re maybe thinking about running for governor of Colorado, the last thing you want is the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” using the bulk of his show for a takedown of your Denver-based kidney dialysis company. But that’s what John Oliver did to DaVita CEO Kent Thiry last week, mocking the man as a “middle-aged Musketeer” and comparing his company to Taco Bell. Oliver, a British TV comic, typically devotes a significant portion of his show to an under-covered issue, mixing humor with investigative journalism. In taking on the for-profit kidney dialysis industry, Oliver relied on stories from The Denver Post, 9News and 5280 magazine, showing the filter-up impact of local news at the national level.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages

The Longmont Times-Call reported on a man, woman and child found dead in an Erie local home. The Greeley Tribune dug into a proliferation of legal, unlicensed horse racing. The Loveland Reporter-Herald reported on dating violence. The Pueblo Chieftain profiled a local who remembers the Korean war. The Steamboat Pilot covered local Ute teenagers. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel profiled a local woman who shed an abusive past. The Boulder Daily Camera looks at the reputation of Colo. 66. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported on “two years, two killings, too few answers.” The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on a jail care provider under fire. The Durango Herald covered how a judge nixed a local land swap. The Denver Post looked at high water system costs for home owners.

The best note to readers from a CO reporter this week goes to…

Brandon Rittiman of 9News who inserted this line into a recent story: “Note: I am a journalist, not a tax professional.” That note appeared in a news-you-can-use segment from Rittiman who told a personal story for a KUSA 9News broadcast about how he was able to buy a $32,000 brand new electric Nissan Leaf car for less than $10,000 because of a mix of federal an Colorado-specific tax credits. Whoa. The reporter, however, got hammered by some commenters about his choice of an electric car and for collecting the tax credits. He addressed them in a separate personal blog post.

#BacaWatch is over. It’s PR.

At the end of 2016, pioneering marijuana editor Ricardo Baca announced he would leaveThe Denver Post. Since then this newsletter has been on #BacaWatch, checking up with him, tracking his interviews, and waiting to hear what he would do. Now we know. He started a public relations shop called Grasslands that will serve the cannabis industry. He calls it a content agency. “We’re writing press releases and marketing copy,” he told GreenState. “We’re cleaning up web sites. We’re ghost writing and managing blogs and content platforms.”

Here’s an excerpt from his exit interview:

Did you have any fears about leaving journalism after 15 years? It used to be going into communications was considered ‘selling out’ 

You’re right. I’ve watched so many colleagues leave for corporate communications and public relations or marketing gigs and while that used to mean something 15 years ago it means a lot less now just because the reality of print journalism has changed so dramatically. When I started at the Post 15 years ago there were 300-plus editorial employees. Now there are 95. I am fucking terrified about the future of democracy and the future of journalism. I know there are many talented journalists working hard to cover what needs to be covered. I’ve always been a fan. Knowing what happens at the local level is massively important considering how big this country is. And when the corps of media covering state houses and city councils across the country has been decimated as it has been, that’s not good news for either journalism or democracy.

Baca also said he’s working on a TV show with the team from the Rolling Papers documentary and doing freelance stories about the industry he now serves for The Daily Beast, Esquire, and The Cannabist.

Listen to The Colorado Independent’s new podcast for stories behind the stories

There might be some growing pains in our inaugural podcast for The Colorado Independent, but I hope you’ll forgive those growing pains for the content. In our first one, reporter Kelsey Ray and I talk about our coverage over the past week and offer insight that didn’t make it into some stories. Those who are following the governor’s race might be particularly interested in one aspect about a recent big story involving an appeal in an oil-and-gas case. Listen to that first podcast here.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Alan Levine for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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