Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Oklahoma publisher who caught officials in racist, violent talk is losing his top reporter: son who took on the sheriff

The reporter who some officials of a rural Oklahoma county would like to kill, according to his newspaper's surreptitious recording of their discussion at a county commission meeting, is leaving his family's newspaper, citing threats and stress, Paige Wiliams reports for The New Yorker.

Chris Willingham, photographed through the paper's
window. (Photos: Joseph Rushmore for The New Yorker)
Chris Willingham is the son of Bruce and Gwen Willingham, who own the McCurtain Gazette in Idabel, Okla. The paper has a history of taking on McCurtain County officials, and Chris did a series of stories about irregularties in the office of Sheriff Kevin Clardy. One said 53 crime reports were missing, including “a shooting, a rape, an elementary school teacher being unknowingly given marijuana cookies by a student and a deputy allegedly shooting out the tires” of a car. The headline: “Sheriff regularly breaking law now.” 

Sheriff's Capt. Alicia Manning "was investigating several suspected pedophiles," Williams reports. "Manning told a TV news station that 'possibly other people in the community' who were in a 'position of power' were involved . . . and referred to Chris as 'one of them.' Without citing evidence, she accused him of trading marijuana for videos of children. Chris, stunned, suspected that Manning was just looking for an excuse to confiscate his phone. But when he started to lose music students, and his kids’ friends stopped coming over, he feared that rumors were spreading in the community. . . . He developed such severe anxiety and depression that he rarely went out; he gave his firearms to a relative in case he felt tempted to harm himself."

Chris and his wife Angie had "suppressed the occasional urge to leave the Gazette, knowing that they would be hard to replace," Williams writes, but now it was clearly an option. On March 6, he sued Manning and Clardy in federal court for “slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” They denied the allegations, and Manning's response said that whatever distress Chris suffered was within the limits of what “a reasonable person could be expected to endure.”

"On the day that Chris filed his lawsuit, the McCurtain County Board of Commissioners held its regular Monday meeting . . . Bruce, who has covered McCurtain’s commissioners for more than 40 years, suspected the board of discussing business not listed on the agenda—a potential misdemeanor—and decided to try to catch them doing it. . . . As they neared the end of the listed agenda, Bruce slipped a recording device disguised as a pen into a cup holder at the center of the conference table." When the room was vacated left hours later, "He went back inside, pretended to review some old paperwork, and retrieved the recording device."

In the three-and-a-half-hour recording, other officials come in, startig with Clardy and Undersheriff Larry Hendrix. Commission Chair Mark Jennings said the 2024 race for sheriff would have several candidates who “don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re getting into, not in this day and age.” Formerly, he said, the sheriff could “take a damn Black guy and whup their ass and throw ’em in the cell. . . . Take ’em down there on Mud Creek and hang ’em up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.”

Manning came in and "continually steered the conversation to the Gazette," Williams reports. She "talked about the possibility of bumping into Chris Willingham in town: 'I’m not worried about what he’s gonna do to me, I’m worried about what I might do to him.' A couple of minutes later, Jennings said, 'I know where two big deep holes are here, if you ever need them.' 'I’ve got an excavator,' the sheriff said. "Well, these are already pre-dug,' Jennings said. He went on, "I’ve known two or three hit men. They’re very quiet guys."

Editor-Publisher Bruce Willingham in his "clutterbucket of an office"
Williams writes, "Bruce took the tape to the Idabel Police Department. Mark Matloff, the district attorney, sent it to state officials in Oklahoma City, who began an investigation." On April 15, the Gazette reported the conversation under the headline, “County officials discuss killing, burying Gazette reporters.” The next day, Gov. Kevin Stitt demanded that Clardy, Manning, Hendrix and Jennings resign; only Jennings did. The sheriff’s department said the recordign was illegal and “altered.” Chris Willingham told Williams that he reduced the background noise in the audio file before his father took it to the police. Oklahoma Press Association Executive Director Mark Thomas said two of the three commissioners were present and had no expectation of privacy.

"People wanted to hear the recording, not just read about it, but the Gazette had no website," Williams reports. "The Willinghams published an oversized QR code on the front page of the April 20 issue, linking to a Dropbox folder that contained the audio and Angie’s best attempt at a transcript. They eventually put Chris’s articles online. In a rare move, the 17-member board of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association voted unanimously to suspend the memberships of Clardy, Manning, and Hendrix. . . . [Idabel Mayor Craig] Young was among those who hoped that Gentner Drummond, the attorney general, would depose the sheriff 'so we can start to recover.' But on June 30, Drummond ended his investigation," saying that the conversation was “inflammatory” and “offensive,” but not criminal. But Chris's latest story reports that Manning is under FBI investigation.

Williams ends her story this way: "Bruce and Gwen worried that the ongoing stress would drive Chris and Angie away from the Gazette — and from McCurtain County. Sure enough, they’re moving to Tulsa. Angie told me, 'We’re 40 years old. We’ve been doing this half our lives. At some point, we need to think of our own happiness, and our family’s welfare.' Bruce protested, but he couldn’t much blame them."

McCurtain County (Wikipedia map)
Williams' story has some observations about hard-nosed rural newspapering: "Bruce Willingham once wrote, 'We are aggressive about protecting the public’s access to records and meetings, because we have found that if we don’t insist on both, often no one else will.' . . . The Gazette exposed a county treasurer who allowed elected officials to avoid penalties for paying their property taxes late, and a utilities company that gouged poor customers while lavishing its executives with gifts. 'To most people, it’s Mickey Mouse stuff,' Willingham told me. 'But the problem is, if you let them get away with it, it gets worse and worse and worse.'

"In a small town, a dogged reporter is inevitably an unpopular one. It isn’t easy to write about an old friend’s felony drug charge, knowing that you’re going to see him at church. When Chris was a teenager, his father twice put him in the paper, for the misdemeanors of stealing beer, with buddies, at a grocery store where one of them worked, and parking illegally—probably with those same buddies, definitely with beer—on a back-road bridge, over a good fishing hole.

"Among law-enforcement sources, 'Chris was respected because he always asked questions about how the system works, about proper procedure,' an officer said. Certain cops admired his willingness to pursue uncomfortable truths even if those truths involved one of their own." Another unnamed officer told her. "If I was to do something wrong—on purpose, on accident—Chris Willingham one hundred per cent would write my butt in the paper, on the front page, in bold letters."

And one last revelation: Bruce and Gwen Willingham "rent several cabins to vacationers in Hochatown . . . a resort area known as the Hamptons of Dallas-Fort Worth," three hours away. Chris told her, “If we didn’t have tourism to fall back on, we couldn’t run the newspaper. The newspaper loses money.”

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