Officers’ lawsuit against Rhinoceros Times dismissed
A lawsuit filed by two black Greensboro police officers against writer Jerry Bledsoe and against the editor and publisher of The Rhinoceros Times newspaper has been dismissed by a superior court judge.
Judge Edgar B. Gregory ruled that after careful review of the record and 92 articles written by Bledsoe that there were “no genuine issues of material fact,” said Amiel Rossabi, the lawyer for Capt. Brian James and Officer Julius Fulmore.
The two officers alleged that Bledsoe made false and defamatory statements in his “Cops in Black and White” series, which ran in The Rhinoceros Times from 2006 through 2010, and that Editor John Hammer made false and defamatory statements in editorials about a controversy in the police department that involved James and Fulmore.
Rossabi said he plans to confer with James and Fulmore to discuss whether to appeal the decision.
“I thought there was a good possibility of success with winning this,” he said. “It’s going to depend. I think we have a good case.”
In a May 2010 deposition, Bledsoe told Rossabi that before becoming a reporter, he enlisted in the Army in 1960 and was trained in psychological warfare. Over the course of an illustrious journalism career following his military service, Bledsoe wrote for four newspapers and for Esquire magazine. In the 1960s, he said he covered the civil rights movement, including a heavy-handed response by the High Point Police Department to a protest and a black student takeover of an administration building at Duke University. Eventually, Bledsoe applied his reporting skills to nonfiction books.
In 2005, Bledsoe attended hearings of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to understand the circumstances and consequences of the 1979 Klan- Nazi shootings. He said in his deposition that he considered at one time writing a book about the truth process, but eventually concluded that there was no market for it.
Instead, he undertook an investigative reporting project about the sudden resignation of Greensboro police Chief David Wray, whose administration had been accused of racially targeted internal investigations.
“It seemed implausible to me, the whole — the whole story of — of — of a police chief ordering all these investigations because of race,” Bledsoe said. “It just didn’t — it seemed utterly implausible that a police — in this day and time that a chief who had risen up under two black chiefs could be a racist.”
Bledsoe said Ned Cline, a former editor at the News & Record, helped him arrange his first interview with Wray.
Bledsoe said he began the series as a narrative that would be written from Wray’s point of view.
Of Wray and Deputy Chief Randall Brady, who retired in late 2005, Bledsoe said: “They are both scrupulously honest people.”
Bledsoe said he initially conceived the project as a three-part series, but believes that when he and Hammer initially discussed the concept, he might have suggested six or eight installments.
Based on previous projects, many readers have speculated about whether Bledsoe would turn the series into a book.
“Once again, I don’t think there’s a market for it,” Bledsoe said, adding that publishers would view the Greensboro police controversy as a local story.
“And the other thing is it’s too complex,” he said. “It has too many — too many characters, too many things going with it. And I never had an idea of writing a book about this.”
Bledsoe said Hammer and another person edited every segment of the series in response to questions about how thoroughly his reporting was vetted.
Hammer, Wray, Fulmore, James and Scott Sanders, the officer who conducted the internal investigations at issue, were also deposed over the past 12 months.
James served as Wray’s executive assistant.
He was investigated by Sanders because of an encounter in a Sam’s Club parking lot with Nicole Pettiford, who was under surveillance because of authorities’ concerns that she was attempting to obtain confidential and sensitive information from officers.
Among the statements James and Fulmore contend are false and defamatory is a passage in a February 2007 article by Bledsoe reading, “James… was being investigated because his actions had made him a prime suspect in a major federal drug case.”
James was interviewed about his meeting with Pettiford by Sanders and Sgt. Tom Fox.
“After the interview, I received a briefing from Brady and from Sgt. Tom Fox, and my determination at that point was that I did not think that there was evidence there that showed that Brian was part of the criminal enterprise,” Wray said in a deposition in January. “I felt like that Brian had made a couple misjudgments, and I think that there were some things that looked bad.”
James and Fulmore remain employed with the department, as do Fox and Sanders, who were acquitted in a state criminal trial.
Fulmore and James indicated that being the subject of multiple articles in Bledsoe’s series took a personal toll.
In particular, Fulmore was troubled by an implication that he was tied to Terry Bracken, a reputed drug dealer.
“It plagues me now, because I put a lot of people in jail, that somebody would think that I would help somebody, like a Bracken, or to lead the public to believe that I would protect somebody like that,” Fulmore said in his October 2010 deposition. “And I know Bracken. My career dictates that I know people like Bracken because he kills people. We can’t prove it, but in my walks and in my investigation, I know he’s very, very dangerous.”
James has been promoted to captain since the series began.
“I want my reputation back, because I feel like I have lost a piece of that because of what these guys have written and published,” he said in a May 2010 deposition. “There are people in the community that think that I’m a criminal or I have closely associated with criminals.
“And you know, when I was promoted last year — and this was after they changed the process — it wasn’t a happy time,” James added. “Because you know how I felt? I felt like people were going to to look at me and say, ‘Well you know what? that guy is a criminal and somehow he just keeps skating through the system,’ you know. And I don’t — I don’t read the Rhino anymore. I had to stop, I mean, because it was just absolutely driving me nuts to look at the stuff that’s in there. But I felt like I was going to be under attack again for being promoted, for trying to excel.”