MURDERING THE TRUTH

"All the evidence was there to show what they said happened had happened," Placencio says.

In addition to the suggestion of murder, the Republic story on Lorenzo Johnson's death strongly insinuated that he had been abused at Boys Ranch.

In making that insinuation, the newspaper focused on two phrases taken from two of 16 letters Lorenzo Johnson had sent to his mother over the previous 18 months.

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Just as the newspaper ignored a key passage in Vander Jagt's letter to Lorenzo's mother, the Republic omitted important statements from the teenager's other letters.

Those statements cast the letters in an entirely different light than that projected by the Republic's story.

The Republic used one passage from the letters to support its contention that Johnson was hinting to his mother that he was experiencing trouble at the ranch.

That passage, from a March 16 letter, says, "I don't think i'm [sic] going to stay out here, because it's a lot of raceism [sic] in this place and outside of this place in the real world . . ."

The next phrase of the run-on sentence in the letter, however, was not used by the Republic's reporters. That phrase strongly implies that Johnson wanted to stay at the ranch for another year.

". . . I will most likely if they will let me stay out here for another year while i'm [sic] going to school make some money then move to Florida," he wrote.

The Republic story also points to Johnson's last letter to his mother, dated June 21. The newspaper quotes Johnson to this effect: "I can't wait to talk to you when you call me, because I have a lot to tell you that I can't write on paper (because Ranch staffers read all mail). It's a lot about me being up here."

On its own, the passage appears to be a desperate call for help. But when read as a whole, the letter containing that passage fails to transmit such urgency.

In fact, the Republic deleted a key phrase preceding the passage--a phrase that softens the tone of the letter considerably. And the newspaper added the passage "(because Ranch staffers read all mail)" to Lorenzo's quote.

The actual passage from the letter stated: "Myself i'm [sic] doing pretty good, I can't wait to talk to you when you call me because I have a lot to tell you that I can't write on paper, it's a lot about me being up here. Right now i'm [sic] cooking in the kitchen, it's pretty fun in here but it does get kind of tiring, so my friend gave me a week off." The letter concludes with Lorenzo asking his mother to send him some sweat pants, shampoo and hair grease.

New Times has obtained copies of 15 of the 16 letters Lorenzo Johnson sent home and of several of the poems he wrote. The letters repeatedly convey the message that he is doing well and attempting to get his life in order. They also convey a sense of remorse for his past actions--actions that caused him to be sent to Boys Ranch. And the letters project hope for the future.

Above all, the writings display the agony of a young man trying to establish a loving relationship with a wary and emotionally distant mother.

His feelings toward his mother are most eloquently expressed in a poem he wrote. It is titled "I Love You."

I Love You, Mother, for your quiet grace.
For that dear smile upon your face.
For marks of toil upon each loving hand.
That worked for me ere I could understand.

After McDonald delivered his report on Johnson's death to the Republic in mid-November, the newspaper printed a short story on the report across the bottom of its Valley & State news section.

Paul Brinkley-Rogers--one of the reporters who wrote the original story about Johnson's death--also wrote the story about McDonald's report.

The story briefly summarized McDonald's conclusion that the death was accidental. The story noted that McDonald's report claims the Republic withheld information that "clearly exonerated Arizona Boys Ranch of any abuse or wrongdoing in Lorenzo's death."

Brinkley-Rogers' account, which incorrectly gave Lorenzo Johnson's age, then quoted Republic managing editor Pam Johnson. She said the newspaper stood by the story and that there was nothing left hidden between its lines.

The story never addressed the litany of specific findings about the Republic's journalistic practices: the doctoring of quotes, the omission of vital information, the discussion of murder theories with key sources and the failure to fully review police records or seek interviews with all of the Boys Ranch employees present at the scene of Lorenzo Johnson's death.

The day the story appeared, the Department of Economic Security released more than 1,600 pages of records related to its investigation of the Boys Ranch to the Republic. Among those records was a 150-page report on Lorenzo Johnson's death.

Robertson and Brinkley-Rogers prepared another lengthy Sunday story for November 20, detailing the findings of the DES report, which substantiated 13 of 30 abuse allegations investigated since last January.

But the DES report also concluded there was no physical abuse connected with Lorenzo Johnson's drowning.

The Republic buried this important finding--a finding that supported McDonald's report and completely undermined the premise of the newspaper's August story--in the second-to-last paragraph of a 40-inch-long newspaper article.

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