Monday, May 16, 2011

Before the Burial

Originally written 5/12/2009

How journalists uncover the truth when covering the murders of children: The Kehoe family incident

In late October 2008, a woman and her two young sons set out for an evening away from their home in Coralville, Iowa, to Sumner. Originally reported missing by the father Eugene, the family was found the next day after the injured woman went to a home and said that her sons “were in danger.” Later, the youngest son was found dead outside the family’s van, and the older boy was found severely injured inside it.

Michelle Kehoe, 35, her sons Seth, 2, and Sean, 7, were found near a pond by the Hook ‘N’ Liner Sportsman Club in Littleton, Iowa. Michelle and Sean were injured and taken to hospitals for surgery, but Seth was found dead at the scene.

The family’s van was undamaged and parked near the pond. At the time, the public did not know what happened to the family, how Seth died, or why the family was at the pond and not near Sumner.

The Tuesday after the incident, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a story about it, and on Wednesday the Des Moines Register did too. Although the two papers reported most of the same information the closed-mouth officials said, the papers reported from different circumstances—sometimes using very different writing styles—and included extra information that the other did not report.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette published its first story about the incident on the Tuesday after. Orlan Love, the Northeast Iowa Bureau Chief for the paper, covered the incident after visiting the scene of the crime.

“Unknowns overshadow the known facts in an incident in which a 2-year-old Coralville boy was killed Sunday or early Monday near a remote pond southeast of this Buchanan County hamlet,” the lede said. The reporter Love framed his story with this in mind.

Love has worked 17 years as a journalist, 16 of them at the Gazette. He said he has covered many children’s deaths, including the recent winter deaths of four children in a fire in a rural Greenly farmhouse. Most of his child-death stories have involved automobile accidents, however.

He lives 32 miles north of Cedar Rapids and works from home. Love first heard about the Kehoe family incident from his editors. He said he believes his editors might have found out about it from police scanners. The editors told Love to “get up there to Littleton.”

Because Love handles the stories in Northeast Iowa and is closer to Littleton, he was sent to cover the story. Initially, Love didn’t know that anyone was killed, let alone a child.

He said he arrived to the scene of the crime at Hook ‘N’ Liner around noon on Monday, Oct. 27.

“[It] was so unseasonably cold that most of the reporters sat in their cars with the engines running while awaiting the press conference,” he said.

At least half a dozen news media organizations were waiting at the scene. Love said it was difficult to report the story because the police wouldn’t let reporters get to the actual crime scene. Everything was blocked off, and the area was secure.

“It was a hard story to cover because law enforcement had so thoroughly cordoned off the scene, blocking access to the neighbors who might have seen or heard something and, especially, to the neighbor whose home was visited by Mrs. Kehoe when she reported her version of the incident,” Love said.

Although the media grouped around the blockade to hear information from officials, Gazette reporter Love didn’t talk much to other reporters.

“[I figured] they have more to learn from me than I do from them,” he said.

During the middle of the afternoon, the press conference occurred. Michelle was not named a suspect. As the day wore on, and when the conference was over, Love’s curiosity sparked. Officials worded things carefully.

“The police said earlier that people were not in danger, kind of like they already knew who [committed the crime],” Love said, mentioning that that could have meant someone in the family, especially the mother, could have done it. “It was kind of like they knew the mom did it. That raised suspicions.”

How did Love feel about Michelle possibly killing one son and severely injuring the other?

“You try not to lean toward anything,” he said. “Certainly, the thought entered my mind.”

Love said that because there were questions in his mind, he chose to write his story to match that attitude: what was not known was actually more important than what was known.

Following his lede, the next graph started with “What’s known is that…,” and it was then followed by the much larger graph that began “What remains to be learned, at least by the public, is…” Even the headline begins with “Family tragedy a mystery…”

An interesting three graphs at the end of the story included information from Carol Trueg, the president of Regina Catholic Education School, who said Sean is a first grader at the Iowa City school. A statement from her said that they’re thankful Sean is alive, and their prayers go out to the whole family. She also said the school children weren’t aware of the incident yet, but that counselors will be available to children after they’re notified.

The Gazette reporter Love did not find this information himself.

Although not included with his story, Love said he had help from another Gazette reporter. Because the story was from a while ago, he can’t remember for sure which reporter helped him, but he said he thinks it was Gregg Hennigan.

According to Love, Hennigan “did the digging in Coralville,” and emailed information to him. Love said he is proud that the Gazette uses reporters in the Coralville/Iowa City area.

When asked about the case, Hennigan confirmed that he was the reporter that helped Love and gave Love the Trueg information. Hennigan has been a professional journalist for five years, and has been at the Gazette for three. He said he has covered a “decent” amount of deaths.

Hennigan said he can’t remember exactly how he figured out that Sean Kehoe went to that school, but he knew Carol Trueg and called her up.

Hennigan said Trueg was willing to talk.

“It was a difficult situation, of course, but from what I remember, she answered every question she could,” he said. “I wouldn’t say she was comfortable, given the situation. But who would be?”

Hennigan asked her the “most basic” questions first.

“Did they go there, age, grade, teachers, is there a photo, etc?” he said. “And then I work my way into the tougher questions—what were they like, did you know the parents, what have you told students happened, how are they taking it?” He said that Trueg actually asked him what he knew about the crime because she didn’t have a lot of information.

When covering these types of stories, Hennigan said he tries to be as sensitive as possible, while still trying to get as much information as possible. The same goes for when he interviews parents. He said he usually says that he is trying to give readers an understanding of who the person was besides this horrible event that just happened.

“And that’s the truth,” Hennigan said. “You have to remind yourself that these people have just been through a tragedy and balance that with trying to do your job.”

Love said that in covering children’s deaths, the Gazette tries to present a complete story without infringing unduly upon the grieving family.

“I always make an effort to speak with the parents, prefacing my call with an expression of sympathy and understanding if they don’t want to talk with me,” he said. “We also usually try to speak with other relatives, school officials, and classmates in an effort to find out something personal about the deceased.”

Love said he did not hold anything back when it came to reporting about the boy’s death. But “that was not a dilemma since so little was known.”

Erin Jordan from the Des Moines Register reported her story from her office in Iowa City. Published the day after Love’s story, she had results from Seth’s autopsy that was released Tuesday. “Boy, 2, died of stabbing injuries to his neck,” ran her story’s headline. The autopsy said he died of “sharp force injuries.”

She said she’s written several stories about children dying, “unfortunately.” These stories usually involve talking to a family member, if possible, to find out about the child’s personality, what he or she liked to do, she added.

“I’ve always wanted to make any person who has died seem more like a full person than just a statistic,” Jordan said. “You also want to talk with law enforcement about the person’s guardians to see whether they have criminal records.” She’s been a full-time newspaper reporter for 11 years and has been with the Register for nearly six, she said.

Jordan found out about the Kehoe incident from a report in another newspaper, maybe the Gazette, she said. “I believe we were following [that report].”

When she wrote her version of the incident, it took her about seven to eight hours to report and write.

Because her story came out the day after other newspapers, she had those stories to look at too.

“I think there was a pervious story, so I had some basic information,” she said.

According to Jordan, she called the sheriff in the county where the incident occurred as well as Iowa City police to talk about the incident in which Kehoe drove into the river. She did a number of phone interviews and looked at court records online. She tried to talk to the father, Eugene, but she doesn’t think he returned her call, she said.

“This story was some time ago and the details are a little fuzzy,” Jordan said.

She did not write, however, any information from anyone other than officials, though she previously said a reporter should try to talk to family members and other people to make the child more than a statistic.

“If I recall, I didn’t have time to contact other family members or neighbors,” she said. “I did a good deal of time that day trying to track down what happened in Northeast Iowa.”

Jordan said the Des Moines Register normally reports details of the deaths of children by “trying to talk with family members, neighbors, school principals, etc.”

“It all depends on the time and the circumstances of the case,” she said. “As you might imagine, it’s much more sensitive to talk with family in a case like this where another family member is accused of injuring a child.”

In the case of the Greenly fire that killed four children, Jordan said she talked with the kids’ grandmother and a neighbor who called 911.

The most interesting part of Jordan’s story about the Kehoe case, aside from the “sharp force injuries” to the dead child’s neck information, was in the twelfth graph. Jordan reported that Coralville police had one other call from the Kehoe house prior to the incident.

“That was on Jan. 20, when Coralville took a medical call about Seth getting ‘caught on a treadmill.’ The boy had cuts on his stomach, but was not taken to the hospital,” the graph said.

Jordan said it’s “just normal reporting protocol” to check for criminal records through Iowa Courts Online and to seek other police calls for service. She said she did not hope to find anything specific when she made these checks. She said she had asked Iowa City police whether there were any other incidents involving the Kehoe family or calls for service at their house. The treadmill report came from that request.

“I wasn’t sure what to think about the treadmill report. I have young kids and they often get minor injuries and treadmills are exciting for almost any child,” Jordan said. “On the other hand, I wanted to report it to the public and let them decide whether it was relevant.”

When it came time to write her story, Jordan said she tried to remain unbiased.

“It is definitely a sad case that left one child dead and tore apart a family,” she said.

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