MURDERING THE TRUTH
As the centerpiece of a high-profile investigative series, the Arizona Republic published a story suggesting Arizona Boys Ranch employees had mistreated and later murdered a troubled black teenager. The story was wrong.
In compiling the story, two Republic reporters doctored quotes, failed to interview key witnesses and ignored contradictory information. When confronted with those journalistic failings, Republic editors had an odd response.
They backed the reporters. Then the newspaper savaged the Boys Ranch on its editorial page.
After publishing a string of stories on alleged wrongdoing at the Arizona Boys Ranch, the Arizona Republic delivered its coup de grce last August.
Under the mournful headline "Kid Without a Chance," two of the Republic's top reporters told a tragic story about a 17-year-old boy who drowned in a canal after running away from Boys Ranch employees.
Prominently displayed on the front page of a Sunday edition, the story strongly insinuated that Lorenzo Johnson, who was black, ran away from the Boys Ranch because he feared punishment at the hands of racist ranch workers. The privately run ranch is a rehabilitation facility for troubled youngsters, many of whom have committed serious crimes.
Near the end of the story, the reporters quoted the boy's mother as she raised the possibility that Johnson might have been murdered while in the custody of two Boys Ranch workers and a prospective employee. She called for the reopening of an investigation that concluded Johnson's death was accidental.
"I think they killed him, but why, I do not know," Minnie Dunwoody was quoted as saying by the state's largest newspaper, which has a Sunday circulation of more than 500,000.
The story had immediate impact, appearing to document abuse by Boys Ranch employees at a time when the facility's license to operate was already in jeopardy.
That impact, however, was based on false conclusions reached through unethical and sloppy journalistic practices. While preparing the story, Republic reporters omitted, twisted and, at times, manufactured information.
Then, when confronted with documentation of those journalistic deficiencies, Republic editors backed the reporters, and the newspaper harshly criticized the Boys Ranch on its editorial page.
The journalistic and ethical failings of the Lorenzo Johnson story are manifold:
The story raised the possibility that Johnson had been murdered, but offered no supporting evidence for Dunwoody's vague charge. The newspaper made no attempt to interview two of the three men present at the scene of the purported killing. The newspaper's reporters never bothered to interview the sheriff's detective who investigated Johnson's death. And they failed to review photographic evidence supporting the conclusion that the death was an accident.
To buttress claims of wrongdoing at the Boys Ranch, the Republic quoted from letters written by Johnson and a woman the teenager met just days before he died. In its story, however, the newspaper distorted the general thrust of those letters, focusing on passages that might be linked to other allegations of abuse at the Boys Ranch.
Key statements in the letters--statements indicating that Johnson had not been abused at the Boys Ranch--were omitted from the story.
Statements were excerpted from a crucial letter and strung together to make a continuous, misleading quote--a journalistic technique known as compression. It is a technique that is widely considered to be unethical.
Republic reporters helped to prepare a letter, which Johnson's mother signed, saying Dunwoody doubted that her son's death was an accident. Later, however, Dunwoody retracted her statements, saying the Republic had "lied to me." The newspaper never reported that retraction, nor the manner in which it obtained the letter.
The distortions and false implications in the Republic's story were not widely known until the Boys Ranch decided to conduct its own investigation into Johnson's death. The nonprofit facility hired a former U.S. district attorney for Arizona, A. Melvin McDonald, who assembled a team of former federal and state investigators. The team prepared a 182-page report on Johnson's death and the Republic's coverage of it. The report was delivered to Republic management last month.
"It is clear, beyond any doubt, that Lorenzo's death was not caused by criminal acts of others," McDonald concludes. "The three men who were slandered by the August 28th Arizona Republic story were heroes, not villains."
The Republic's reaction to that detailed investigation was, to say the least, unusual.
The newspaper allowed one of the journalists who wrote the original story on Johnson's death--a journalist accused of unethical conduct in McDonald's report--to write an article on that report's findings. The resulting article brushed lightly over those findings, when it was not brushing them aside entirely.
The newspaper followed two weeks later with a blistering editorial that lambasted the operation of the Boys Ranch. In the article on McDonald's investigation, Republic managing editor Pam Johnson defended the newspaper's reporting. "Mr. McDonald may contend there is something hidden between the lines, but what the story said accurately reflected the situation," Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was quoted as saying.
Johnson's quotation is misleading in an ironic way. Vital information literally was hidden between the lines of her newspaper's story on the death of Lorenzo Johnson.
Police reports, interviews with Boys Ranch employees and documents and information obtained by McDonald's investigators give a detailed picture of what happened last June 27 in a remote section of the Sonoran Desert 15 miles north of Florence.
Shortly after 11:15 a.m., Boys Ranch employees Michael Graham, 49, and Charles Fleishman, 42, along with prospective employee John Goldsmith, 44, piled into Graham's Ford LTD at the Boys Ranch's main campus in Queen Creek.
The men drove across the campus to a cottage and picked up Lorenzo Johnson, who was to be transported to another ranch facility in Oracle. Graham, with seven months' experience at the ranch, barely knew Fleishman, a 14-year employee.
Neither man had met Goldsmith, who was visiting from San Diego, prior to that morning. And none of the men had had previous contact with Johnson. All four would soon experience a horrifying afternoon when one life was saved--and one lost.
Johnson, wearing boots without shoelaces and a yellow Boys Ranch tee shirt, which signified that he had broken a ranch rule, sat in the rear seat behind Graham, the driver. Fleishman sat next to Johnson. Goldsmith joined Graham in the front seat for the 90-minute drive south to Oracle.
A door lock, which could not be operated from the back seat, was engaged to keep Johnson, who had a long history of running away from family, relatives and foster homes, inside the car. And ranch employees had reason to believe he might try to run.
Johnson was being transported to Oracle to work in the camp's Civilian Conservation Corps. The transfer was a demotion for Johnson. He was being punished for twice having fled a ranch honor camp west of Flagstaff a few days earlier. He voluntarily returned from the second escape after spending two days on the lam.
A few minutes after leaving the Boys Ranch camp in Queen Creek, Johnson indicated he needed to use a rest room. Fleishman asked Johnson whether he could wait until they got to Florence, approximately 15 minutes down the road.
Johnson said he could not. Graham pulled off the paved road and drove three-tenths of a mile down a dirt road. Fleishman and Johnson got out of the car, and Fleishman allowed the boy to walk behind a nearby desert shrub.
Fleishman stood about 15 feet away while the boy defecated. Graham and Goldsmith remained in the vehicle, with Graham monitoring Johnson through a rearview mirror.
Johnson hiked up his jeans, fastened his belt and suddenly ran, scrambling beneath a barbed-wire fence several feet away. The chase was on.
"I really think this was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Fleishman said in an interview last week. "It wasn't something he planned." Johnson began running in a zigzag pattern across the desert, with Fleishman giving chase. Johnson was a little overweight, carrying 160 pounds on his five-foot, four-inch frame, but his youth gave him the advantage over his pursuers in the midday summer heat.
Johnson's flight across the Sonoran Desert was stopped as suddenly as it started. Without warning, Johnson came to what must surely have been a strange sight for someone from rural Mississippi. Stretched across the desert, as far as the eye could see in either direction, was the Central Arizona Project canal.
Johnson ran down a dirt road parallel to the canal, with Fleishman several hundred yards behind. By this time, Goldsmith also was closing in on Johnson. Graham, meanwhile, had driven the car down the dirt road and stopped at a bridge that crossed the canal, blocking Johnson's path.
"We had him cornered," Graham said in an interview last week.
Graham approached to within a couple of feet of Johnson, but the two were separated by a wire fence. Graham is a specialist in crisis intervention. He teaches other Boys Ranch counselors techniques for dealing with juveniles in precisely these types of situations.
But the techniques weren't working.
"He never would really engage with me. He just kept being hostile, being threatening," Graham said.
Johnson halfheartedly threw a couple of rocks, one at Graham and another at Goldsmith. He also tossed a rock into the canal, as if he were trying to determine how deep it was.
"At that point, I said, 'Forget that, kid, nobody can swim in there,'" Graham said.
Everyone was winded and sweating profusely under the summer sun; Graham said he decided to back off a few feet and let Johnson settle down.
Johnson began studying the canal more intently.
The cement banks of the canal were clearly steep, pitched at a 33-degree angle. The width of the canal to the top of the other bank was a daunting 94 feet, with 69 feet of water in between.
The CAP canal, however, can look deceptively shallow and placid.
Goldsmith asked Johnson if he knew how to swim, and Goldsmith understood Johnson to say he did. During their conversation, Fleishman continued moving down the canal path toward Johnson's location.
Suddenly, Johnson ran over a dirt embankment next to the edge of the canal wall and started running at an angle down the treacherous slope.
"I thought it looked like he was gonna try to run underneath the bridge" that crossed the canal in an attempt to bypass the three men, Fleishman told sheriff's investigators.
Goldsmith immediately ran after Johnson and saw the young boy, who never ventured out of the shallow end of the swimming pool at the Boys Ranch, go into the water. Goldsmith followed, quickly finding that the CAP canal is not a placid, shallow waterway.
The water was cold--64 degrees--and it flowed with bewildering turbulence. Entering the water in his dress clothes, Goldsmith had no idea it was 15 feet deep.
Graham, meanwhile, ran across the bridge and headed down the bank of the canal to locate Johnson, who was flailing wildly in the middle of the canal. Fleishman also crossed the road to keep up with the current, which was sweeping Goldsmith and Johnson beneath the bridge and down the canal.
Graham scrambled down a steel ladder embedded in the canal wall and stretched his body out, hoping Johnson would grab him.
"When I got down there, he was too far out and passed me," Graham said. "I don't recall making the decision, but the next thing I know, I was diving in the water and pushing myself out there."
The water was murky, and Graham couldn't find Johnson, who had gone underwater.
"And then there he was, right in my face," Graham said.
"He reached out and grabbed my hand, and I chugged him back over to the bank," he said. "Several times, I tried to tell him, 'Be still. I'll do this. Knock it off, kid.' He just fought me the whole time. I don't think he ever really knew I was there."
Graham and Johnson struggled for several minutes, reaching the side of the canal a couple of times. But the canal walls beneath water level were covered with algae. They were as slick as glass.
There was, Graham said, no way to get out.
Graham and Johnson continued their struggle.
"He [Johnson] pushed me under and climbed on top of me. I was like a rock or a board or something he was just climbing over," Graham said.
It had been more than 30 years since Graham had taken lifesaving courses, but he remembered that a person in danger of drowning should be approached from the rear. Surprising the victim and then stabilizing him quickly with his head above water is essential when attempting the rescue of a panic-stricken person.
"I tried several times to do that. One of those times, I let go and turned him around while trying to get away from him, and he was gone," Graham said. "It was just real surprising to me how one second he was there and then he was just totally gone." Graham soon realized he was seconds from going under himself. It was very difficult to breathe. His arms and legs felt dead.
"I knew I couldn't go after Lorenzo anymore, wherever he was," Graham said.
By this time, Goldsmith had managed to get out of the water. He still doesn't know how. Graham yelled at him to get help, and the prospective employee ran off toward the road to flag down a passing vehicle.
Fleishman, meanwhile, had entered the water downstream and began searching for Johnson. He couldn't find the boy, but quickly realized that Graham was now in trouble.
Fleishman and Graham drifted toward another steel ladder embedded in the canal bank. The ladders are placed every 700 feet. Fleishman grabbed the ladder and extended his legs toward Graham, knowing that if he floated by, the 49-year-old likely would never make it out of the canal alive.
"I don't remember anything but grabbing his blue jeans," Graham said.
Graham slowly pulled himself onto the bottom rung of the ladder and held on.
"At that point, I remember thinking, 'My head's out of water, and I got one hand on solid ground; I'm going to stay here all day, maybe a week.' I had no need to get anywhere at all," he said.
Slowly, Fleishman and Graham staggered up the ladder. Graham tried to stand up and collapsed face first in the dirt. "I realized my face was in the dirt, and I really didn't care," he said. "I never have been that tired in my life."
Once out, the men continued scanning the canal, hoping to see Johnson.
Lorenzo Johnson, who had a habit of running away but always coming back, would not return this time. His body was discovered seven days later, 15 miles downstream.
The Arizona Republic assigned Richard Robertson, a former city editor who is now on the newspaper's investigative team, and feature writer Paul Brinkley-Rogers to the Lorenzo Johnson story. Brinkley-Rogers went to Mississippi to attend Lorenzo's funeral and to make contact with the family. But the funeral was private, and Brinkley-Rogers was unable to interview Johnson's distraught mother, Robertson says.
A few weeks later, the Republic received a telephone call from an emotional Mrs. Dunwoody. During that phone call, Robertson says, she mentioned the possibility that her son may have been murdered.
"She was the one who raised, in an emotional kind of way, the questions about whether her son was killed," Robertson says. "We didn't plant any words in her mouth."
Soon, the Republic helped to prepare a letter for Dunwoody to sign. It is unclear who actually wrote the letter that formally questions whether Johnson's death was an accident.
Investigator McDonald says the letter was prepared by the Republic, for Dunwoody's signature. Dunwoody's husband declined to allow his wife to talk to New Times. Brinkley-Rogers did not return phone calls.
But Robertson says that Dunwoody wrote the letter. The Republic merely typed it for her, he says.
"We wrote it, we typed it for her, but she, uh, those were her words," Robertson says.
Dunwoody signed the letter on August 16. It was later used to support a Republic lawsuit seeking to unseal Arizona Department of Economic Security records concerning Johnson.
The letter also was an outline of the story the Republic would soon write on Johnson's death. It contained detailed information about the Boys Ranch and allegations of abuse that Dunwoody knew only because the Republic had told her about them.
"She read the newspaper stories," Robertson explains. "She asked what was going on at the Arizona Boys Ranch."
McDonald claims the Republic manipulated Dunwoody, fueling her doubts about her son's death and suggesting to her that Lorenzo may have been killed.
"When they went out there, [they] took a bunch of their newspaper stories, and they are sitting there telling her, 'We think your kid got snuffed by these people.' They then get her to make statements like that," McDonald says. The mother's statement that she suspected murder was then used in the Republic's story, without sufficient explanation, McDonald claims.
"They simply quote her," the former U.S. district attorney says.
While claiming that Dunwoody first raised the possibility of murder, Robertson says that possibility already was on his and Brinkley-Rogers' minds. Given the serious allegations of abuse at the Boys Ranch that already had appeared in the press, and continuing investigations of the facility by the Arizona Department of Economic Security and a California court district, Robertson says, it was reasonable to consider there might have been more to Johnson's death than first met the eye.
"In the midst of all of that, a kid flees from his handlers and drowns," he says. "Who wouldn't question whether or not there was any link between these two events?"
While Brinkley-Rogers was focusing on Dunwoody, Robertson turned his attention to Karen Vander Jagt, the person who may have been closest to Lorenzo Johnson at the time of his death.
Five days before he drowned in the canal, Lorenzo had run away for a second time from a Boys Ranch facility near Flagstaff. Vander Jagt was camping nearby with her daughter and two other friends. At about 11 p.m., she discovered Johnson sitting next to a public rest room at the White Horse Lake campground in the Kaibab National Forest. The boy was dressed in a tee shirt and sweat pants. He appeared to be very cold. It was obvious he had been crying. Vander Jagt asked Lorenzo if he wanted to return to stay with her. He accepted.
For the next two days, Lorenzo stayed at the Vander Jagt camp. He soon told Vander Jagt and others that he had run away from the Boys Ranch and mentioned that, although he "hated" the facility, he would likely return. He also said that he loved his counselor at the Boys Ranch. He never made any mention that he had been physically abused at the facility.
Vander Jagt took an immediate liking to the boy, and sensed that he was in desperate need of a strong family bond. The boy opened up to Vander Jagt, telling her about his long history of running away and about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his stepfather, who married his mother when Lorenzo was 1 year old.
"He needs a mother's love. He needs a mother's attention," Vander Jagt says she told a Boys Ranch counselor when she drove Lorenzo back to the camp on June 24.
Vander Jagt told Lorenzo that she would visit him, and that she and her friends loved him.
A few days later, Vander Jagt learned that Lorenzo was dead. She sent a letter to Dunwoody, telling the bereaved mother about Lorenzo in the days before he died.
The letter is crucial to understanding Lorenzo Johnson's final days. It was written by Vander Jagt before the Arizona Republic contacted her, and before she learned of theories that Boys Ranch employees might be implicated in Lorenzo's death. Vander Jagt's letter to Dunwoody says Lorenzo "basically wanted to be with you more than anything in the world."
It then makes a central point: "He was not mistreated by Ariz. Boys Ranch, he just wanted to get away."
Dunwoody gave the Arizona Republic a copy of Vander Jagt's letter. When the newspaper printed the story on Johnson's death, however, there was no mention of crucial information: Johnson had indicated to Vander Jagt that he was not mistreated at the Boys Ranch.
The reporters did, however, use Vander Jagt's letter in their story. They picked four disconnected phrases--phrases scattered throughout the letter--and condensed them into one long quote that was used to conclude the story with dramatic, heart-wrenching flair.
When asked why the newspaper had published a compressed quote, Robertson does not answer directly.
"I probably should have quoted the whole thing," he says.
Other journalists are quite direct in their judgments on the condensation of quotes.
"Compressing quotes, or doctoring them in such a way that readers don't hear or read what is in the actual document, is fudging the truth," says Joann Byrd, ombudsman at the Washington Post.
"I don't see any reason not to tell readers exactly what you had in front of you," she adds.
When asked why the Republic failed to publish a key statement in Vander Jagt's letter--that Lorenzo was not abused at the Boys Ranch--Robertson essentially claims the statement was not germane to the newspaper's story.
The Republic's story, Robertson says, was not centered on allegations that Lorenzo Johnson had been abused by the Boys Ranch.
"The point of the story was Lorenzo Johnson was mistreated by the system," Robertson says.
Nearly the entire Republic story focused on Johnson's final days at the Boys Ranch. The Boys Ranch is part of the "system" used by authorities to rehabilitate troubled youths.
Like Dunwoody, Vander Jagt signed a written statement after being interviewed by Republic reporters. Vander Jagt says the affidavit was prepared after Robertson discussed several different theories on Lorenzo's death with her. One of those theories involved the possibility that the boy had been pushed into the canal by Boys Ranch employees.
By the time the Republic was done interviewing her, Vander Jagt says, she was "80 percent" sure the boy had been murdered.
"The reporters from the Arizona Republic swayed me," she says.
In the days before the story on Lorenzo Johnson's death was published, the Republic made only halfhearted attempts to contact the men who had witnessed it.
A few days before the story appeared in print, Robertson arrived unannounced at the Tempe home of Michael Graham. Graham, who was angry with Robertson because of an earlier story about Boys Ranch, declined to be interviewed.
"I had been interviewed by him before out here at the ranch regarding all this crap [about abuse], and saw how he misrepresented what we gave him," Graham says.
Besides, Graham says, he didn't want to talk about the events surrounding Johnson's death.
"It's real personal, and it's nobody else's business," he says.
Robertson confirms that he sought a comment from Graham, who implied that the other two men at the scene of Johnson's death would also refuse to talk to the newspaper.
"I assumed from that [Graham's reaction] they weren't going to talk," Robertson says, explaining why he didn't try reaching the other two men.
And, Robertson says, their direct comments were not needed. They had given lengthy statements to the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, and the Republic had copies of those statements. "Our goal was to tell their side of the story," he says.
The men's version of events surrounding Johnson's death was included in the Republic story. There was, however, no response from them concerning Dunwoody's allegation that "they killed" Lorenzo.
"I didn't know he was going to accuse me of murder, which is basically what he did," Graham says.
The newspaper also did not interview the homicide detective who investigated the case, Larry Placencio. Placencio says there is no question in his mind that Johnson's death was an accident.
"At this time, there is nothing to indicate any foul play," Placencio says. "I don't think the investigation should be reopened at all."
Robertson says the Republic didn't contact Placencio because it had a copy of his investigative report. "I assumed he put all of his information in the report," Robertson says.
In Robertson's view, that report indicated that Placencio performed only a cursory investigation and failed to look into Lorenzo Johnson's life at the Boys Ranch.
"They didn't track down Karen Vander Jagt," Robertson says. "They didn't . . . have any reference in their report of Lorenzo having run away just a few days before he drowned."
The lack of effort to place Johnson's death in context with the ongoing troubles at the Boys Ranch raised nagging questions about the thoroughness of the investigation, says Robertson, who calls the probe a "slam dunk."
"They walked out there and looked around," Robertson says. "Mel McDonald called it a thorough investigation. Horseshit."
If Republic reporters had interviewed Placencio, they would have learned that he had taken numerous photographs that, in the detective's opinion, conclusively showed that no one pushed Lorenzo Johnson into the canal.
Placencio located Johnson's footprints next to the edge of the canal. He says he found no indication of the struggle that would likely have occurred if the men had shoved Johnson into the canal.
The detective also located the footprints of the three men. They were situated in the areas in which the men said they had been standing.
Two scuff marks from Johnson's shoes etched onto the canal wall also indicated that the boy had slid down the canal wall, as Fleishman told police.
Placencio feels he obtained the most important evidence in his investigation by simple observation. All three men risked their lives entering the CAP canal. The men's disheveled appearances, their soiled clothes and their state of exhaustion all supported their independent versions of what happened that tragic afternoon.
"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.
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.
While it continued to ignore information that supported McDonald's report, the Republic launched a counterattack against McDonald and the Boys Ranch on its editorial page. A lengthy Republic editorial called for Boys Ranch director Bob Thomas to be removed in the wake of a DES report confirming several instances of child abuse at the ranch.
The editorial made no mention of the DES finding that Johnson had not been abused by Boys Ranch staff.
The Republic's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, Steve Benson, also harpooned Thomas and McDonald in an accompanying cartoon, which showed the men branding juveniles as though they were cattle. Benson tossed ex-Arizona State University football coach Frank Kush into the sketch, showing Kush, now the Boys Ranch's administrator, pulling tight a rope wrapped around a youth's neck.
As the Republic and the Boys Ranch faced off, McDonald was trying to convince Dunwoody that her son's death had been an accident. McDonald was successful.
The day the Republic's initial story ran--August 28--McDonald was on the phone to Dunwoody, who was infuriated because the Republic had published information she believed had been divulged "off the record." She was particularly angry that the newspaper reported--correctly--that Lorenzo had been abused by his stepfather, who remains Dunwoody's husband.
A week later, Dunwoody prepared a handwritten letter that withdrew the permission she gave the Republic a month earlier to review her son's confidential state files. The letter was faxed to McDonald's office.
"They used me and my son's death to continue their story about the ranch. They lied to me in that they promised they would not use my husband's name. They took everything out of context," her letter states in part.
She concludes the letter by begging a Maricopa County court "not to let them have my son's file or any of the boys [sic] files."
McDonald submitted Dunwoody's letter in opposition to the Republic's lawsuit seeking DES records on the ranch. The letter failed to keep the records private, but it did keep the names of Dunwoody's relatives from being released.
A brief note attached to a copy of Dunwoody's letter indicates there was extensive discussion between McDonald and Dunwoody before she wrote her letter condemning the Republic.
"I hope I wrote the right thing in this letter," her note to McDonald says. "I am so tired and sleepy. I have not slept since this happen [sic]. If I misspell some words, forgive me on that. Thank you for helping me."
The Republic's coverage of Lorenzo Johnson's death heaped blame on the Arizona Boys Ranch and, to a lesser extent, on officials in the Mississippi and Arizona juvenile justice systems. In attempting to uncover failure in those institutions, the Republic revealed severe shortcomings in its own reporting standards. And the newspaper's top management made no attempt to redress those shortcomings once they were documented beyond any reasonable doubt.
The Arizona Republic has been quick to lower the boom on other journalists accused of unethical conduct.
Paul Schatt, editor of the Republic's editorial page, all but crucified an Arizona State University journalism student earlier this month for inventing a story. The student falsely claimed she had witnessed the murder of an Israeli man by religious zealots at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. "The real evil in this case comes from the dishonest student," Schatt concluded.
Since then, Schatt's editorial page has blasted the Boys Ranch.
It has not, however, mentioned the report on Lorenzo Johnson's death that a former U.S. district attorney delivered to Republic management more than a month ago.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.