Last week, some police scanner traffic took me on a story that got stranger as it went along.
Keep in mind, what is originally reported to authorities and what goes out over the airwaves isn't always accurate. That's why police and deputies conduct investigations after they get there. It's also why I prefer to wait until I've got a police report in hand. It's likely to be more accurate, which is something I prefer in my reporting.
But because of the internet and the public's demand for 24/7-every-60-seconds news, the days when I could wait for the dust to settle on some stories is largely gone. Especially, when I knew as I did within a couple minutes, that the Boise media were already on the story. Hate those guys. One of their film crews alone has more people on it than I have staff working for me. But, the incident, involving an alleged attack on a Mountain Home School District bus, happened in "their" territory -- in Ada County (I usually leave stories there to them, I don't know why they won't leave stories down here to me -- it would make my life so much easier).
So, suddenly I'm working under a time-pressure story. The problem is, in the opening rounds of a "breaking" story, it's not unusual for facts to be garbled or later turn out to be flat wrong, no matter how good your sources are or how accurate the eyewitnesses are (watch, some day, the original accounts of the 9/11 attacks, for example, compared to what we know now).
Actually, eyewitnesses often aren't very accurate. They're frightened or confused or they really weren't paying attention to something "they saw" when it actually happened. It took a couple of seconds for it to register. Grab three eyewitnesses to a car accident, for example, and you're going to be lucky if two of them can identify the same color of the vehicles involved. I've covered shootings in my career where the eyewitness accounts ranged from "a couple of shots" in "a couple of minutes" to "30 or 40 shots" in "just a few seconds." I let the cops straighten those things out.
In fact, one of the things most likely to be wrong is the time scale. In a crisis, people's time scales get all screwed up. A minute, for example, is actually a very long time. You can prove that by just staring at a clock for a full minute. It seems to take forever. But it's not unusual for an eyewitness to say something took "a couple minutes" to happen when it might have been 10-30 seconds. Cops know and understand this phenomenon quite well.
Anyway, this story started out with a report of a parent throttling his own child on the bus during a spring field trip. Most of us, who are parents, at one time or another, have at least entertained that thought with our children. Doing it, of course, is another matter.
Then, we learned it involved a parent and someone else's child. That's even more serious.
Then I learned it was bus full of special ed kids. Those kids usually are very special to their parents, who work hard to keep them inside a comfort zone. When something traumatic happens, it can upset their equilibrium more than it would for many other kids.
It wasn't a large bus. It was one of those small ones the district uses. And there were only eight people on the bus, which had gone on a field trip to the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa. In addition to the four children on the bus, one of whom was in a wheelchair (which is why they needed a specially equipped bus) there were four adults on the bus -- the driver, a nurse, the special ed teacher and the parent. I don't know if the parent was an official chaperone or just had gone along to be with his child.
I'm still not sure who called the incident in, how and precisely what happened or how long it happened. I've gone with what the authorities say the eyewitnesses told them, but frankly, I'm doubtful that the incident took "a few minutes." The teacher and nurse are both believed to have intervened quickly. But how long did it really take? I don't have a clue.
I had a meeting to go to that evening, so I couldn't follow up beyond the fact that an adult had been removed from the bus by Ada County deputies. By early the next morning, I had his name and the charges against him. At that point, I decided I had enough for the net story and anything else I came up with I could add into my story in the paper this week.
But, I made a mistake when I put the story up on the net. I forgot to block comments. By policy, we try to block comments on stories involving crimes, at least until there is a final adjudication in court. There's several reasons for that:
1) I think it's only fair. It's not unusual for people to assume facts not in evidence, or assume something "they heard" is set in stone, even if it's five times removed from the original source and we all know how the old "telephone" game works in terms of distortion in retelling. Yet, we will have people comment anyway, and usually, what I call the "Nancy Grace Effect" also kicks in. These commentators have already decided, well before all the facts are known, of the guilt or innocence of the person. I think the legal system should always have a chance to play out, including the discovery of any mitigating factors, before determining a person's guilt or innocence. And once a full legal investigation is completed, it's not unusual for the charges to be modified -- or even dropped -- based on the totality of evidence discovered.
2) I don't want any defense attorney to be able to point to a bunch of comments and convince a judge there is a community predisposition toward the guilt of his client, which could result in a change of venue. That would be costly to the taxpayers and it would move it to a location far enough away that I couldn't cover it with my staff limitations.
3) Some people are just mean spirited. And on the net, they can hide behind anonymous pseudonyms (false names). These types of people are always much more courageous in being nasty toward someone else when no one knows who they are. I don't like that. I've seen it happen far too often. It's why we developed that policy to block comments on those types of stories, and it didn't take long for it to happen with this one when I forgot to hit the "block comments" button. Unlike the bloggers, who "know everything" and accused other members of this staff of taking down those comments, I'm the one that did it. I don't regret it and I won't apologize for it. If they just "have" to comment, I suggest they get their own website -- and a lot of liability insurance. Because as wide open as we try to let commentary be here, there are some things that go beyond the pale of what is anywhere near being appropriate and responsible, and we're taking those things down when we spot them.
Finally, as the story began to settle down, I learned some other things that would be difficult to prove, since all of the "proof" rests in records I'm prohibited from seeing by law.
The parent in this case may have had some mental/medical issues of his own, in which case his actions may or may not have been entirely based on premeditated thinking. I'm not sure, because, like I said, I can't get to the records, but my sources on that matter are usually pretty accurate. So it's a potentially mitigating point that at least might be possible. Eventually, we'll see what the DA in Ada County decides to do based on all the evidence he has, but when a final decision is eventually made I wouldn't be surprised if the full legal consequences of this misdemeanor winds up being some kind of treatment in lieu of more serious consequences. That decision could take weeks or even months and could slip by us because I don't have staff monitoring Ada County court actions on a daily basis.
All of which, while possibly mitigating, takes nothing away from the child who was the apparent victim of this adult's alleged rage.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of sides to this, a lot of things still to be determined.
Which is why a "breaking story" is never complete.