Rhino series left out crucial details

by Jordan Green

A lawyer for two Greensboro police officers suing popular true-crime writer Jerry Bledsoe and conservative weekly newspaper The Rhinoceros Times for libel said he expects two prosecutors to testify in court that the reporter plunged ahead with false and defamatory statements even though he was warned that his story was wrong, and that Bledsoe pursued a preset agenda that overwhelmed his care for the truth.

Amiel Rossabi, an athletic lawyer with grey-flecked hair who moves and speaks in concentrated bursts of energy, laid an inch-thick stack of documents obtained from the defendants on a conference-room table of the well- appointed offices of the law firm that bears his name in Greensboro’s affluent northern suburbs. Much of the paperwork consists of memos written by indicted Greensboro police Detective Scott Sanders to Deputy Chief Randall Brady, along with supporting documents related to Sanders’ extensive investigations of Rossabi’s clients, Officer Julius Fulmore and Lt. Brian James.

Rossabi said he questioned whether Bledsoe’s reporting relied on interviews with Sanders, who was indicted last September for obstruction of justice and other alleged offenses, along with Brady and former Chief David Wray, who respectively retired and resigned as their administration of the department came under scrutiny by the city manager’s office. Rossabi is also representing Fulmore in a lawsuit against Sanders and Brady, among others, claiming a pattern of harassment. Defendants Sanders, Brady, Bledsoe and The Rhinoceros Times are all represented in both lawsuits by the same lawyer, Seth Cohen. Rossabi said that Walt Jones, a lawyer who formerly represented Fulmore and James and who is now an assistant district attorney, tried to steer Bledsoe clear of reporting errors.

“My understanding is that Walt Jones will testify that he gave Bledsoe names of people who would refute the things he was about to write,” Rossabi said. “It appears that he relied on Sanders and Brady – the guys I’m suing. Sanders has been indicted. I’m suing them in this intrusion case.”

Another key witness expected to testify is Jim Coman, a special prosecutor for the NC Justice Department, who is heading the criminal prosecution of Sanders and co-defendant Sgt. Tom Fox. Sanders and Fox are white, while Fulmore and James are black. Race has played as a subtext through the controversy, determining battle lines in Greensboro and polarizing combatants.

“Jim Coman will testify that [Bledsoe’s] purpose is A, to fire Mitch Johnson; B, to restore David Wray’s reputation; and C, to prove that political correctness is more important than truth in Guilford County,” Rossabi said. “If you’re going to do that, then tell people what your purpose is, and don’t purport to be an accurate news source.”

Fulmore and James’ lawsuit against The Rhinoceros Times rests on the argument that the newspaper did not take adequate precautions to ensure the accuracy of the articles contributed by Bledsoe. The publication makes light of its attitude toward factuality, calling itself “the newspaper with all the rumors fit to print” on its internet homepage. And staking out an avowedly conservative position, The Rhinoceros Times zealously pursues its crusades, chief among them the removal of City Manager Mitchell Johnson.

Bledsoe’s series, “Cops in Black and White” ­- now up to its 53rd installment – and an accompanying set of editorials written by Editor John Hammer, have made a discernible impact on the political balance of power in Greensboro. The newspaper endorsed two former Guilford County commissioners, Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wade, who won their respective elections and have made two unsuccessful attempts to fire the city manager. Some 12 months before the recent municipal election, the News & Record came under withering fire in Bledsoe’s series. The byline of the daily newspaper’s preeminent investigative reporter, Lorraine Ahearn, gradually faded from stories related to the controversy. Since then, the News & Record has restrained itself to spot coverage of the controversy, largely avoiding probing and contextualized reporting.

Bledsoe and lawyer Seth Cohen did not return phone messages requesting comment for this story, but a written response by Hammer to questions submitted by the plaintiffs sheds some light on his editorial relationship with his famous writer.

“I talked with Jerry Bledsoe about the series; however, I took no specific actions as editor-in-chief of The Rhinoceros Times which relate to fact checking what appeared in his series or to corroborate the facts which appear in his series,” Hammer said. “Similarly, newspapers throughout the country do not routinely corroborate facts they obtain from other news sources, such as the Associated Press, the New York Times News Service or the Washington Post News Service.”

Another answer submitted on behalf of the newspaper and its owners – including Publisher William Hammer, alongside brother John Hammer – states that The Rhinoceros Times uses no “written policies, guidelines, or manuals” related to fact-checking and corroboration, and that they are unaware of any such directives at any newspaper. The answer concludes, “With regard to ‘unwritten’ policies, guidelines or manuals, defendants are unclear what is meant by this question.”

Lois Boynton, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication who specializes in ethics, indicated that it’s common for newsrooms to set some ground rules, whether written or not, to govern how information is used in stories.

“Most publications do have their own procedures with regard to any kind of fact-checking,” she said. “Whether it’s someone who’s on staff or a contributor, I would imagine that from the management perspective, they would want to make sure that any information that’s disseminated is as accurate as possible.”

Whether a contributing writer such as Bledsoe can be legitimately compared to a syndicated news service such as the Associated Press, with its bureaucracy of editors poised to vet reporting before it goes out to daily newspapers around the country, Boynton suggested that newspapers hold a vested interest in maintaining their credibility.

“There may be instances where there is an expectation that the journalist will want to provide information that is as accurate as possible,” she said. “Not only will the editors want the information to be as accurate as possible, but that will also relate to their image. Whether or not they are considered a credible source of information can be a motivating force. If you lose credibility, then you lose readers. And readership is tied to circulation.”

Rossabi said he expects a judge to sign an order compelling The Rhinoceros Times to disclose whether the publication maintains any unwritten policies on fact-checking or corroboration. The answer may prove to be a key factor in whether a jury ultimately finds the newspaper liable for defaming the police officers. With the landmark 1964 Times vs. Sullivan decision, the US Supreme Court defined the threshold for liability as “reckless disregard,” a step beyond negligence, or sloppy reporting. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned an award made by a lower court to an Alabama police commissioner who sued the newspaper over a paid advertisement from a civil rights organization that contained some inaccurate information.

A finding of liability on the part of the The Rhinoceros Times would likely require proof that the newspaper willfully departed from standard practices related to vetting stories, rather than merely demonstrated negligence in its publication of “Cops In Black and White.”

“The Supreme Court started a total revolution in libel law,” said Sandy Davidson, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. “In this case, the police officers would have to prove that the reporter knew what he was printing was false or that he entertained serious doubts about the truth of what he was about to print. They would have to do it by clear and convincing evidence. In most civil suits, the preponderance of evidence – that is, just over fifty percent – is enough. The Supreme Court is so convinced that it is so important to our democratic system to have an open and robust debate that they’ve made it very hard for public officials to win libel suits. Any public official has high hurdles to jump over.

“Newspapers can commit error, even error that defames people,” she added. “But so long as it was not done with actual malice, the newspaper is going to win. If a newspaper did not use information that a reasonably careful reporter would know to look for, that would be negligence. It’s sloppy reporting. What’s required to win a libel suit is clear proof of reckless disregard.”

The most serious allegations contained in Bledsoe’s reporting are those that raise the possibility that Fulmore, James and Lt. James Hinson, another officer who is not a party to the lawsuit, might have provided protection to drug dealers or even actively participated in the local narcotics traffic. Among 24 separate statements Fulmore and James allege to be false and defamatory, Bledsoe has written that “investigators were concerned that Fulmore might be aware of Williams’ criminal activities and could be involved in them” and that “[Brian] James… was being investigated because his actions had made him a prime suspect in a federal drug case.”

While the defendants have only partially complied with the plaintiffs’ request for documents relied upon by Bledsoe for his reporting, the sample suggests a troubling pattern of selectively marshaling information to cast suspicion on Fulmore and James.

Among the materials was a typed note from no less an authority than Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes written in March 2007 – some eight months into the series – indicating “no documented criminal activity could be identified” on the part of Greensboro police officers. The sheriff’s office removed itself from the case, Barnes said, and left the police department to internally address violations of policy and procedure on its own.

A significant plank in Bledsoe’s thesis suggesting that corrupt black police officers and their allies in Greensboro legal circles and municipal government engineered the departure of Chief Wray because of his efforts to restore integrity to the force rest on extensive accounts in “Cops in Black and White” of an investigation into allegations made by Pamela Williams. The woman, who was convicted of credit-card and insurance fraud, reportedly told investigators that Fulmore provided protection for drug dealer Terry Bracken, received drug shipments at Williams’s store at Four Seasons Town Center, and socialized with Michael King, whose non-profit Project Homestead collapsed in financial shambles shortly before the executive director committed suicide.

Those unsubstantiated allegations provided fodder for a full installment of the series. And yet Detective Sanders indicated in a memo to Deputy Chief Brady that even he came away from the investigation unconvinced there was any truth to Williams’ allegations that Fulmore was involved in criminal activities.

“It is this investigator’s opinion that even though most of what Pamela Williams was telling investigators had some truth, she was adding in and embellishing some of the information,” Sanders wrote to Brady. “Most of what would be considered serious, direct drug involvement could not be corroborated.”

Another installment about Fulmore rested on “a report from a reliable person in the community that Jay Fulmore had provided protection for [Game Time Lounge].” A document turned over by the defendants places the reliability of the source of corrupt activities by Fulmore in a somewhat different light.

The nondescript brick storefront at 1214 Grove St. in the Glenwood neighborhood now houses an array of left-leaning activist and community groups. Before police raided it in August 2003, an entrepreneur named Otis Dunlap operated the Game Time Lounge there. Undercover officers found Dunlap selling alcohol without a license, patrons openly using drugs, and female dancers with stage names like “Hennessey” and “Orgazimm” offering to have sex in a private “VIP room” for a price. The undercover officers also observed another dancer participating in oral sex on the stage in the main area of the club.

A September 2005 e-mail from Officer Brian Williamson, assigned to vice-narcotics, to his commander, Capt. Rick Ball, describes a telephone call received from a Glenwood business owner.

“She said that while in the barber shop, (on Grove St., I assumed) people were talking about the club and someone said the reason that it hadn’t been shut down is because Jay Fulmore protects them, frequents the place, gets services there, etc,” Williamson wrote. “(I don’t remember her words verbatim, but it was something to that effect). It seems like she told me that she had spoken to Jay about the club in the past, and I believe she asked me if he still worked in vice.”

Information indicating Fulmore’s lack of involvement came from abundant sources, and appeared to be readily available to Bledsoe.

Ball himself wrote in a September 2005 memo to Brady that at the time of the Game Time Lounge raid he spoke to the club owner.

“I told Mr. Dunlap that word on the street indicated he had the protection of a police officer which allowed him to conduct his illegal enterprise,” Ball wrote. “I further advised Mr. Dunlap that if that were the case and he was willing to discuss that, we would explore the possibility of substantial assistance. Mr. Dunlap replied he didn’t know what I was talking about and there was no further conversation.”

In an executive summary of the case prepared and submitted to Brady at about the same time, Sanders reported that he equipped Ben Holder, then a reporter with the Carolina Peacemaker newspaper, with a wire in advance of an interview with Dunlap. Sanders summarized the conversation between the club owner and the reporter-turned-police agent this way: “Dunlap said the only officers that he knows are Marvin Ray and Tepedino who work his area. I know Graves because he came in and gave me his card. I don’t want to know no cops because they are all crooked…. Dunlap says that there may be some dirty cops but they don’t work for me.”

Holder, now a blogger, has proven to be one of the most ardent critics of Fulmore and City Manager Mitchell Johnson in spite of the information he gathered from Dunlap in his undercover police work.

Another significant piece of information was also got amidst the sensational details in Bledsoe’s description of the activities at the Game Time Lounge. Sanders reported that he was contacted by Dunlap’s lawyer, Joe Williams, asking if he and Williamson wanted to observe a polygraph examination of Dunlap.

“We met the polygraph operator and he asked what series of questions we would like asked,” Sanders wrote. “He was told to see if there were any police personnel that Dunlap was working in concert with protecting his illegal business. The operator took this information and formulated his own series of questions. The operator later returned and told us that Dunlap was telling the truth that no police personnel were helping him in his club.”

The plaintiffs’ success might depend on whether they can prove that Bledsoe reviewed information that undermined the premise of his story and failed to use it, said Davidson at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“State of mind is important,” she said. “If they can show that there was information in the reporter’s hands that would make the reporter know or have serious doubts about the truth of the story, then you are getting into actual malice territory… You could have a reporter that was sloppy, that was negligent, that didn’t go through the material that he had. But if he did know about the material that he had, that would be libel.”

Another incident under consideration in the libel case concerns an investigation by Sanders and others into an allegation of drug use and illicit sex at the Red Carpet Inn near the Four Seasons Town Center. In a passage that the plaintiffs claim to be false and defamatory, Bledsoe wrote, “Fulmore denied [what the prostitute told the detectives about Fulmore bringing crack cocaine to a hotel room and having sex with the prostitute], although he later failed a polygraph test.”

The defendants provided the plaintiffs with an untitled and unsigned narrative presumably written by Sanders. Fulmore was reportedly asked by Detective JF Rogers, a polygraph examiner with the Winston-Salem Police Department, about whether he had sex with prostitute Brenda Weidman and whether he possessed illegal drugs or paraphernalia on the night of the alleged liaison. The narrative indicates that Rogers “stated from an overall evaluation of the examination, his certified opinion revealed deceptions was indicated.”

It remains unclear whether an official polygraph report exists. Rogers did not return a phone message left at the Winston-Salem Police Department on May 23.

Rossabi said he plans to ask Bledsoe and his codefendants in court: “Did you simply take what [Sanders and other impugned sources] said as true even though other people contacted you and said, ‘I can give you sources to refute that’?”

A separate lawsuit filed by Fulmore against the city of Greensboro that names Sanders, Brady and Wray as codefendants alleges: “The multiple unfounded investigations of and secret intrusions against Officer Fulmore represent a pattern of malicious and corrupt acts on the part of defendants to manufacture improper or criminal activities by Officer Fulmore in an effort to ruin Officer Fulmore’s reputation, cause him monetary damages and adversely affect his employment.”

Allegations that Lt. Brian James, at one time an executive assistant to Chief Wray and the designated spokesman for the department, was the source of leaked information about a major federal drug case, rely on multiple conversations with Nicole Pettiford, a woman persuaded by an informant to attempt to purchase sensitive inside information from police officers.

Sanders’ report to Brady on the case reflected its unremarkable results.

“During this investigation, vehicle registration and criminal history information was accessed by police officers and provided to Pettiford,” Sanders wrote. “Who in turn provided this information to the Source. Pettiford received money from the Source for acquiring this information. The investigation was unable to show if any of the involved officers received any money or items/services for providing this information.”

Despite Sanders’ report that he uncovered no evidence to support a conclusion that James provided inside information to Pettiford, Bledsoe used phrases like “seemed unlikely,” “seemed improbable” and “harder yet to believe” to suggest a sinister explanation for a meeting between James and Pettiford in the parking lot of Sam’s Club on West Wendover Avenue in October 2004. Three passages describing the incident are alleged by the plaintiffs to be false and defamatory:

• “[Brian] James hadn’t just run into her [Nicole Pettiford]. He had driven straight to her car where she was waiting in the parking lot.”

• “It seemed unlikely that Pettiford hadn’t asked James for information. She had told him in her first conversation that she needed him to do something for her. And the day of their meeting at Sam’s was just one day after she had taken $1,250.00 from a drug dealer as a down payment for finding out the name of a person who had given information to the police about him.”

• “Pettiford clearly needed that information to avoid problems with the drug dealer. It seemed improbable that she would arrange a further meeting in a parking lot with an officer whom she had claimed to the informant to be a primary source without asking him for information. It was harder yet to believe that she would arrange such a meeting merely to show off baby pictures.”

Why Bledsoe and the newspaper remain so committed to the story remains somewhat unclear. The series continues, with no end in sight. Calls for the city manager’s termination emanate from editorials penned by Hammer week after week. From Bledsoe’s perspective, the project does not appear to be particularly lucrative. “There have been no communications or contracts with any publishers or anyone in the movie or media business,” he wrote in response to questions, “with regard to any potential book, movie or other form of media based on the stories.”

Until a jury decides, the series might have to lie in a murky netherworld between the truth that Bledsoe and the Hammers believe and the truth that is backed up by facts.

“A newspaper has a number of missions,” Davidson said. “Truth-telling is right up there at the pinnacle. If there is no mechanism to ensure the quality of the product, the newspaper is leaving itself open to lawsuits.”

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