Is there a bigger ethical dilemma than debating what to do when a reporter’s investigation leads to the location of an escaped murderer?
Does that reporter tell all to officials and risk becoming an agent of the police, an arm of an agency the newspaper covers?
Or, should the paper grab the headline and story by confronting the suspect, gambling that he won’t flee for another 15 years?
That was the debate at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., earlier this year after I found an escaped murderer whom the police failed to find for almost 15 years.
Once I had the alias the police knew he used, it took a combination of a few modern Internet services and some basic reporting, and only a few days to be reasonably certain — about 98 percent — that Mike Winters of Mimosa Drive in Corpus Christi, Texas, was indeed Ralph Annis, formerly of central Kentucky. He had strangled his girlfriend’s 10-month-old baby in 1978 and had escaped from prison while on furlough in 1990.
As we grew more certain of his identity, we grew equally concerned that he would find out we were looking for him. But we didn’t rush the decision on how to handle the fairly controversial matter, and frankly, I needed to have the story as ready as possible, once it broke.
The one thing of which we were certain was that when the story did break, it would break fast.
Discussions between me and my editors went back and forth, what about this, what about that.
Some wondered about sending me to Corpus Christi to knock on his door and confront him. Others suggested a more cautious approach and wondered about the paper’s potential liability.
Our news research director had an anonymous query posted on the Cops and Courts Reporters discussion list, which is run by Criminal Justice Journalists under the Poynter Institute. We wanted to see how another newspaper, if any, had handled a similar situation and to see what reporters thought about the ethics of going to the police or not.
The responses came back overwhelmingly for turning our information over to police. The greater good of getting this guy off the street outweighed everything else for most responders. A few people said damn the police and grab the story, and one or two felt the risk of being seen as an arm of the police was the biggest factor.
That helped, a little.
About the middle of January, a day after we met with a lieutenant about the case, he started contacting family, namely Annis’ first wife. We worried then that he would launch his own investigation.
My editor, Sharon Walsh, and I sat down with Marilyn Thompson, the editor.
Thompson, who had been involved in the story all along, asked me to write up a memo detailing the evidence I had that proved Mike Winters was Ralph Annis.
That included: a similar Social Security number; one set of neighbors at an old address identified a prison photo of him that we sent by overnight mail; an anonymous tipster had in 1993 told the police he was in Corpus Christi; and a former sister-in-law had told us he was there from a search she did in the early 1990s. Annis was also working as a roofer/carpenter, which I discovered he had done before the murder.
But ultimately, we couldn’t be 100 percent certain without fingerprints — which we weren’t going to be able to get.
So we sat down and discussed the possibility of going to Texas. If we went, we would talk with former neighbors to assure ourselves of who he was, but the fear was that someone might tell him that we were asking questions and he would flee.
If we approached the owner of the company he had said in his common-law wife’s bankruptcy papers that he worked for, he might tip him off.
If we went to his front door, there were several possibilities: One, he might head for the Mexico border; two, he might get scared and violent; three, he might just deny that he’s Ralph Annis.
None of these options would give us an irrefutable answer.
Finally, we discussed the implications of going to the police to tell them what we had. We didn’t want to be seen as helping the police. On the other hand, we also didn’t want to be irresponsible and let a child murderer remain free. What if he hurt someone again?
Thompson wanted to convince the police to go after Annis themselves, versus requesting the Texas police pick him up, so that a photographer and I could be there when he was arrested.
That seemed to be the best of both worlds: We wouldn’t jeopardize their case or miss out on the exclusive story.
Doing that, we decided, was better than watching the newspaper’s actions – my actions – become the story.
Picture the headline? State police hold a press conference to say the Herald-Leader had gone for the sensational story and let – or helped – this murderer escape justice.
I also worried there was a small chance that Winters wasn’t Annis. What if we brought the police down on an innocent man?
Thompson took our plan to the publisher, Tim Kelly, who suggested we contact Jerry Ceppos, vice president/news for Knight Ridder.
Ceppos wasn’t worried about an innocent man potentially suing us, and he thought our decision to take it to the police was solid.
Go, go, go, was his response.
I reported as much of the rest of the story – the victim’s family, court records – as I could in the next few days and started writing. At the same time, I called the lieutenant in charge of the case as a courtesy to let him know we were planning to ask for a meeting with the head of the police agency.
But we never got the chance. The story broke while I was waiting for a call back from the lieutenant.
Annis was turned in by a former sister-in-law, who told police she was tired of me bugging her, and she hoped by giving them a tip it would all go away and give her family some peace. (Her sister had married Annis while he was in prison and had escaped with him.)
She called an Indiana police officer from the town where she lived, and he notified police in Texas. The Corpus Christi Sheriff’s Department called Kentucky State Police to say they thought they had found Annis and needed the warrant so they could arrest him.
The Kentucky sergeant I spoke to the night Annis was arrested congratulated me and said they owed me one. He also jokingly offered me a job.
The Corpus Christi sheriff, whose officers apprehended Annis, said, “You’re the reporter who started all this? Congratulations.”
Mixed emotions: an awkward, uncomfortable feeling to know I’d helped the police; anger at the story breaking the way it did (my initial reaction wasn’t printable); satisfaction knowing my information about him was dead-on accurate and that he was back in prison; and a little angst learning about his Texas family, who knew nothing of his past and whose lives are forever changed.
Had I known Annis and seen him in the local grocery store, I honestly don’t know if that would have made a difference in how I felt about my role in his capture. I can’t separate who I am as a journalist from me, private citizen. I know few dedicated journalists who can.
As I learned more and more about Melanie, the baby he killed, the satisfaction that he was in prison again grew.
The story didn’t start out to help the police catch this man, or to find him. My job isn’t to do their job for them, but part of a reporter’s job is to make sure the cops are doing their jobs.
The lieutenant overseeing the case had been fairly helpful, although he wouldn’t show me the entire police file on Annis.
But after the story broke, and we focused on their actions during the past 15 years, he quit returning my calls and conversations with the police spokeswoman became a little chilly.
Their official response, a statement from the police commissioner faxed to us late the next day, was pure spin.
They were taking credit for nothing they had done and a situation they certainly didn’t control.
Annis’ arrest “highlights the positive results that occur when law enforcement, news media and the general public partner together,” said Commissioner Mark Miller in the release.
We highlighted that in a second-day story, and the response I get when I call now is civil, but cool.
It is possible some police agency might seek my help in the future, but I doubt it. What I hope they learn is that they too can use free and paid Internet services like LexisNexis, AutoTrack and others that in today’s society makes finding people a fairly simple matter.