“We’d like to see you do some investigative reporting.”
I heard those words, in various forms from various higher-ups in my newsroom several times in early 2012.
Around that time, I’d gotten a tip about a privately run women’s shelter in Cherokee County called Bethany Place. The tipster put me in touch with a former resident who’d recently “escaped” with her daughter. The former resident described the shelter as a cult-like labor camp. She said its residents, desperate from lives wracked by substance abuse or domestic abuse, were unable to escape the shelter once they moved in. The place was run by a strong-willed woman who claimed to have the authority of God himself.
The story was unlike any I’d ever done and few I’d seen or read. This may help explain why it took me sixteen frustrating months to get it on the air.
In May 2012, I interviewed two former residents on camera. Both of them had to call 911 in order to leave the shelter, escorted out by Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies.
One of the whistleblowers was depicted on the shelter’s web site as a Bethany Place success story. The other had stayed there eight years and had become a trusted insider. Both had a lot of credibility.
I also interviewed the founder and director of the shelter, a fiery woman named Sandy Reed. While she claimed the former residents were liars, she admitted to much of the substance of what they said. Yes, the residents work hard to maintain the shelter; yes, their mail and phone calls are monitored, to keep them away from the toxic influences that put them in the shelter in the first place; yes, we take whatever cash they have. Why shouldn’t the residents help pay the shelter’s expenses? We’re a non-profit.
And no, we don’t give the residents an exit strategy. That’s their business. They’re grown women. They can figure it out.
And yes, God lives inside of me. I speak to the residents with His authority. You got a problem with that?
Between May and October 2012, I talked by phone or on camera with more than a dozen former residents. Their stories were virtually in lockstep, describing Reed as a bully and her shelter as a house of horrors. Yet most had entered voluntarily. And as Reed said many times, there was no razor wire or fences surrounding the facility. Any resident could walk away from the rural facility– though they’d have no cash, no vehicle and no place else to go.
I’d interviewed Reed twice. She was a compelling on-camera presence.
But so were the women who’d lived in her shelter under her rules. By summer, I’d gathered five of them on a Sunday afternoon in a hotel conference room and interviewed them as a group.
It became a story with two distinct and credible viewpoints. Reed’s side had the backing of Cherokee County’s retiring District Attorney, Gary Moss. He was a board member. Former residents said Reed would cite Moss’s presence on the board, and the backing of Sheriff Roger Garrison, to keep them in line.
The former residents’ viewpoint had sheer numbers and consistent themes: This place isn’t the benevolent, loving institution that its 25 year reputation suggests.
Between October 2012 and August 2013, when it finally aired, the story stalled. It got reviewed, again and again, by Gannett’s legal team and by my superiors. It probably didn’t help that the first drafts of my script would have filled twenty minutes of TV time. I rewrote it at least a half dozen times.
The story lacked some classic investigative-reporting elements. There was no misspent government money. There was almost no paper trail at all — except for the police reports of the 911 calls.
In the meantime, my whistleblowing former residents were all why’s it taking you so long to get this story on TV? It was a reasonable question. I never had a good answer. It was becoming the most frustrating journalistic experience of my career.
I broke the logjam after getting Jaye Watson to analyze my script. One morning, she spent an hour rewriting it by restructuring the existing story and flipping some of the elements. My boss, who understandably loves Watson’s writing, suddenly liked my script much better.
After months in the hopper, and one last legal run-through, the station scheduled it to run on a Friday night. The piece was six minutes long. It concluded with some speculation about where the former residents, and yours truly, might end up in the afterlife.
Now the question is whether I can produce a follow-up that takes less than 16 months to produce.