Only delivery trucks were barreling down the icy main street of Ouray before dawn on Thursday, but the newspaper kiosks were fully stocked – a welcome turnaround from exactly one week earlier.
That’s when the roughly 5,000 residents of this mountainous Colorado county awoke to find that almost every copy of the local paper had been swiped from red-branded newspaper boxes dotted around its two main towns. The front page story of the Ouray County Plaindealer detailed sexual assault allegations against three local young men, including the stepson of Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood, but no one could read it.
The Plaindealer cried foul, and the theft launched the story into the stratosphere. It seemed, at first glance, to feature all the gripping elements of a noir small-town scandal: A young girl raped. A local paper censored. A police department blamed. A hunt for the paper thief among a tiny population in a seasonal community.
The Plaindealer leaned into that narrative – fast.
“I’m sorry that most of you locals who like to get your papers from the racks were not able to put your quarters in and receive your weekly news today,” co-publisher Erin McIntyre said last Thursday afternoon in a statement to readers, adding: “It’s pretty clear that someone didn’t want the community to read the news this week.”
She wrote dryly: “I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions on which story they didn’t want you to read.”
The implications were clear – that the cops, or someone connected to the accused, had stolen the copies or orchestrated the theft. Ouray’s police department, fire department and county sheriff’s office are clustered on the same street in the tiny, scenic historic district; locals are quick to point out that Ouray, while a mountain town, is not a ski town. The tony slopes of Telluride are about an hour’s drive away, but Ouray – founded as a mining camp not even 150 years ago – draws a different crowd of ice climbers, skijoring enthusiasts and tourists drawn to its hot springs. (The mercantile store on the main street on Thursday sported a sign on its front door imploring customers to remove crampons before entering.)
As the paper theft story was picked up nationally last Thursday, however – and on the same afternoon that McIntyre released her feisty statement – the real culprit returned the papers to the Plaindealer, apologizing.
It would soon become apparent that all had not been what it seemed.
Someone, indeed, had not wanted the community to read the news – but that someone was connected to the victim, not the alleged perpetrators.
Paul Choate, a 41-year-old local restaurateur close to the victim’s family, had grabbed an early copy and “could not make it through the entire article before I was disgusted,” he told The Independent on Thursday.
The piece, written from a 24-page, heavily-redacted affidavit, included what he considered to be graphic details about the assault allegedly perpetrated last May against the 17-year-old victim by Gabriel Trujillo, 20; Ashton Whittington, 18; and Nate Dieffenderffer, the chief’s then-17-year-old stepson – allegedly at Wood’s home.
It wasn’t the first local article about the case; the Plaindealer had previously run the accused’s mugshots and reported that there had been an alleged assault. But Mr Choate says the detailed brutality in the 24 January edition left him angrily horrified – and, “acting out of emotion,” he went around emptying the newspaper kiosks before the county began its Thursday.
“That was dumb on my part,” he said. “I never would have thought it would hit national news or even state news. I thought, by returning the papers and offering compensation for any damages, that they would kind of realize they’re wrong in it and we would just bury it – but instead it was published and it hit the Denver news.”
He also “never would have thought that” suspicion would centre on the police and the accused men’s families.
“I know that the family of the perpetrators are not bad people,” he said. “I wanted no blame to be placed on anyone. But myself, you know, I’ll own up to everything – and I don’t want it to negatively affect the families of everything going on on both sides.”
He added: “I never would have thought it would come to this. I never, ever wanted to draw any negative eye towards this community.”
His backfiring decision, however, inadvertently shone a spotlight on the difficulties prosecuting – and reporting on – sex assault cases of such magnitude in a close-knit population so remote. In the days after the paper theft – as donations poured in to the Plaindealer from free media supporters and as Ouray hosted the annual Ice Festival for which it’s famous – the town also found itself at the unexpected center of a debate about local journalism, the First Amendment and the ethics of sexual assault coverage.
Ouray is perhaps best known as the start of the Million Dollar Highway, a breathtaking 25-mile drive to Silverton, and the town is closer to the Utah and New Mexico borders than it is to the state capital. Denver is nearly 200 miles away as the crow flies – the drive a good five and a half hours or more.
But few people were talking openly about the sexual assault case in Ouray, where the year-round population hovers around 1,000 but swells seasonally. As is often the way, however, the drama was playing out on Facebook as locals took to their keyboards – many supporting Mr Choate, others taunting him, still others sharing unrelated complaints about the paper.
The Plaindealer addressed the fiasco head-on in its 25-31 January edition, slapping a below-the-fold editorial on the front page headlined “The local news minefield: tough decisions, lessons learned.”
The previous week’s piece, the publishers wrote, “triggered a backlash against us from some who felt like we shared too much information about the alleged violent assault. For that, we are sorry. But we need to explain why we made those tough decisions.
“Our job is to communicate facts, however gruesome and objectionable, to show what is going on here in our community.”
Speaking to The Independent, McIntyre said Thursday that she “did not expect that backlash at all … and I think if this story had been reported in a larger place, it probably would have hit differently – and I don’t know that it would have elicited the response that it did here.
“This is a really emotional situation anyway. And to have a case involving sex assault with three separate defendants and pretty egregious allegations, in the basement of the police chief’s house, I mean, that’s pretty bad already,” the 44-year-old said. “But then I think the violence … is probably what pushed some people over the edge.”
It had been her byline on the stolen edition’s story. McIntyre and her husband, co-publisher Mike Wiggins, staff the paper along with one Report for America journalist – and a rescue pup named Walter Cronkite.
“When I was reading that affidavit and trying to decide how to frame the story and accurately illustrate what happened, it’s difficult to know what to include or not include – because if you include too much, then you’re being gratuitous,” McIntyre told The Independent. “And if you just gloss over it, then it’s almost like you’re silencing the victim and her experience, and you’re diminishing what she says happened.
“So I felt like I tried to choose the right balance, but clearly some people did not agree with that. And I do think that perhaps I was using a lens that wasn’t calibrated for this place.”
The Plaindealer published an expanded letters to the editor section on Thursday, several of the missives critical of its editorial decisions. Three subscribers have cancelled since last week’s publication, McIntyre told The Independent, while 40 more have renewed or signed up. The Plaindealer boasts around 1,000 e-subscribers and 1500 print readers, she said – proportionally impressive numbers as the media landscape pales nationwide.
“Obviously, we’re going to be really careful about what details we include from here on out,” McIntyre said. “And we heard people when they said that they felt like it was too much. We did.”
Choate, without a doubt falling into that camp, included links to victim support groups in his initial Facebook mea culpa – including to the Ouray County Support and Advocacy Project (OCSAP), a non-profit formed last January to serve victims of sexual and intimate partner violence.
OCSAP Board Vice President Heather Toth, who owns local coffee shop Mojo Cafe, was seething on Thursday about how the entire episode had snowballed.
“Ultimately, this is because of the perpetrators,” she said. “All of this – the paper, the papers being stolen, the way the paper wrote about it, the way that the community is all stirred up – I just want to be really clear that this is caused by the perpetrators of this incident.”
At the same time, she said, “it was not reported, and I think it should have been, that the victim in this case did not want to report to police.
“They were a minor at the time, and it was a case of mandated reporting. They did not want to report this, and they did not have a choice – and then, now, they don’t have a choice in what the paper publishes about them. They don’t have a choice in what people say about them. They don’t have a choice in who knows this, because this has gone national and international.”
Toth said she’d been bolstered by the outpouring of support for the victim, but the “awful set of circumstances” also offered an opportunity for community learning and growth about how to handle these cases – particularly in a very small town. There are fewer than 200 high school students between the two county secondary schools in Ouray and Ridgway, and everyone tends to at least know of everybody else.
“Not only do you have, as a victim of an act of violence, the trauma, the shock, the physical impact, the psychological impact, just, like, how it affects your ability to function as a human, but then you have this added layer of, what does everybody think of you?” Toth said. “And they’re telling you, or you’re hearing about it, or you’re seeing maybe even your perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family on a regular basis. You can’t get away from that in this kind of small community.”
She emphasized that community entities – including media – needed to do better when it came to always choosing to “prioritize the victim.”
Imperative when covering or even discussing cases, she said, was to imagine “the victim’s in the room with you; the victim can see you and they can hear you. And that person is your most cherished loved one. So we’re starting there, with that knowledge, with that approach.
“When a paper or a news organization reports on these crimes, I would hope and ask that they hold themselves to that standard.”
At the Plaindealer, McIntyre said feedback following Thursday’s front-page editorial indicated “that people appreciate that we’re willing to reflect, and that we heard what people were saying.
“But we’ve also said we’re not going to shy away from telling these stories, because there are people who think we shouldn’t have reported it at all.”
Choate, for his part, says he wishes he “would have sat down and taken some deep breaths and wrote a very long letter to the editor.”
Despite the explosive level of publicity the theft brought to the story, he said “the victim is doing remarkably well.
“She is an amazingly strong young woman,” he told The Independent. “And it’s very surprising how well she’s coping with this; of course, it’s very, very difficult on her and everyone around her.
“I wish I could take my actions back, because I would never have tried to put a spotlight on it the way it has been.”
He’s facing uncertain legal penalties as the trio accused face sexual assault charges. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has headed up the assault investigation, and all three charged are scheduled for virtual courts next month.
In the meantime, the restaurateur said he hoped “that there can be good that comes out of a situation like this for future victims.”
On Thursday, among the ten letters to the editor the Plaindealer published – one calling for the police chief’s resignation, some criticizing the paper, some praising it – a message from another Ouray reader stood out.
It detailed programs in the Ridgway schools to educate about respect and consent, including visits from the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office as well as self-defense courses and other resources.
But the writer, Jen Donovan, also directly addressed parents and community members, urging them to be open, present and generous with their time and financial support.
“But mostly, talk and reflect,” she write, “end the rape culture by creating the mindset that you don’t blame the victim, you blame the perpetrator(s).”