Coverage You Can't Count On
South Valley Bosque fire gets doused with a dose of manic hysteria
On the night of Thursday, June 10, Bernalillo County Fire Chief Bett Clark was leading a troop of local TV reporters down Brown Road in the South Valley, to the property where a fire in the Bosque ignited earlier that afternoon.
But as the media and fire officials approached the scene, police investigators deterred the group. News crews wouldn't be allowed in the area, the county sheriff said, while investigators pursued more details about an unidentified device on the property.
During this time, three men who co-own the property where the fire started were being questioned by authorities about several jars of chemicals and a few storage drums nearby—one marked "flammable liquid." The materials were in plain sight near two 80-gallon cylinders on the property.
Lu Yoder, one of the co-owners now charged with negligent arson by the Bernalillo County Fire Marshall, said he had waived his Miranda rights "just after dark" and complied to tell authorities exactly what chemicals were on the property, in what quantities, and what, if any, hazard they represented. During a tour of his property last week, he said he cooperated fully with a federal investigator when asked about the device. He would later tell police in a recorded interview around midnight all about the machine, which converts vegetable oil into biodiesel and fuels the Cummins diesel engine in Yoder's Chevy truck.
Meanwhile, after being turned away by the sheriff, local TV news personnel were now ritually assembled on the outskirts of where the fire started and at 9:53 p.m., Kate Godwin, a reporter at KOAT Channel 7, reported she had "new details on how this fire started."
The next sentence followed: "Investigators have determined the point of origin for the fire right outside a home on Brown Road SW. They also tell us there is a suspicious device there. They say they have no idea what it is, but it certainly doesn't look like it belongs there and right now investigators are trying to figure out if it, indeed, did start this fire."
After a minute of voiceovers and clips of evacuating residents from earlier that day, Godwin returned onscreen at 9:55 p.m. "We'll have more information shortly about that suspicious device that was found ... and if it did indeed start this fire."
At 10:03 p.m., Godwin reappeared, standing by with Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, himself just two years removed from a brief stint as crime reporter at KRQE News 13. "We'll bring in whoever is necessary," White says. "It is our hope now the personnel on site can identify it. Obviously it will need to be disassembled at some point, because it is not stable. And it is very dangerous."
White was then dropped out of frame as Godwin explained: "Again, as you saw here first on seven, the sheriff's department is investigating some sort of suspicious device found at the point of origin of the fire. They have no idea what it is. They say it is very large and it has a lot of fuel around it and it looks very flammable." She adds: "They are bringing in chemists."
The coverage then cut back to the studio, where Doug Fernandez repeated that something "very suspicious" had been discovered, and Diane Anderson added that the device was "highly flammable" and "very large," all according to the sheriff.
At 10:30 p.m., Godwin interviewed Fire Chief Clark who explained the actual cause of the fire. "We pretty much pinpointed the cause," Clark said. "The point of origin seems to be a warehouse or shop—not a residence—a grinding or welding operation. Obviously these cause sparks and that is the cause of the fire."
Godwin: "Is that the official cause?"
Clark: "That is the cause of the fire."
Godwin then said: "I want to clarify, no homes were lost in the fire, just a two-car garage and a very, very, very large workshop, about 1,500 square feet."
Godwin did not ask Clark about the "very large," “highly flammable," and "very suspicious" device that Darren White had just told her was "not stable" and "very dangerous."
And if you stayed tuned to Channel 7 that night to learn more about this suspicious device that might, indeed, have started the fire, you waited in vain. If you rushed home from work to catch the 5 p.m. news the next day for a follow-up, nothing was mentioned then, either.
So what was that suspicious device? Surely, our reliable, you-can-count-on-us TV news coverage would follow this story to its conclusion. All those scary adjectives certainly sounded like a public threat to the surrounding community that the sheriff, of all people, wouldn't want to cause unnecessary hysteria.
When I contacted Channel 7's news director Sue Stephens on Thursday, June 17, to find out what follow-up coverage was given the next day, Stephens said the station reported that the "suspicious device," was used to make bio-diesel fuel out of vegetable oil. After the Friday, June 11, noon newscast, the incident had never been mentioned again as of this writing, one week later. Stephens added, "It was the sheriff in our live interview who was going on and on about it being a suspicious device, and not us."
A Major Explosion
KOB-TV Channel 4's Nicole Brady's also reported on the "suspicious device" at 10 p.m. on Thursday, June 10. Her story went like this: "Sheriff's department is now conducting a criminal investigation. They have found what they say is an unidentified but highly flammable object that they believe may have been involved in starting the fire. ... Investigators are still trying to figure out what exactly the suspicious device is."
The camera pulls back and into the frame slides Sheriff Darren White. "It's just a very strange device," he says, " and we had very trained investigators who are very familiar with meth labs and they can't identify it."
Brady: "Can you say it's not a meth lab?"
White: "I won't say that, either."
That was the first and only time Channel 4 mentioned the device. The station never did a follow-up to explain what it was, according to a station spokesman interviewed on Thursday, June 17.
Meanwhile, Sheriff White confirmed to the Alibi last week that by Friday morning, June 11, federal authorities and the state police had determined that the device was used to convert vegetable oil into biodiesel, a clean burning fuel used to operate diesel engines. He said there is no criminal investigation being conducted by the county sheriff's department or any other agency, because there was nothing hazardous or illegal about the converter.
"They determined it was nontoxic and nonflammable," White said. "They didn't feel it was a haz-mat (hazardous materials) situation that required it to be dismantled. That was Friday morning and I said OK, I'm cool. We called TV stations to tell them that we identified it. Whatever they did with that information is not up to me."
Bernalillo County Fire Chief Bett Clark also confirmed to the Alibi last week that the biodiesel converter had nothing to do with the start of the fire. "That was not found at the point of origin, nor was it the cause of the fire," she said. "We have nothing to do with that contraption (in the arson investigation)."
Remarkably, after what was broadcast about the device the night of the fire, none of these details were reported on the evening news in the week following June 11 on either Channel 4 or Channel 7.
By the next day, incredibly, the Albuquerque Tribune was chasing White's dream of an explosive devise, even after it had been identified. The front page story on Friday, June 11, starts: "Another 70 feet and it would have been much worse."
The story quotes Sheriff White being interviewed the morning after, at the scene: "I shudder to think what would have happened if the fire had gone further," he said.
The Tribune report claims the fire came within 70 feet of the biodiesel converter and " a major explosion," but when I went to the scene on Thursday, June 17, to see the device for myself, the distance was more like 150 feet. Besides, a "major explosion" would have been an exceptional event, considering the experts had already deemed the converter to be nonhazardous.
The device was, in fact, still assembled and the property owners said nothing had been moved or confiscated by authorities.
America's Most Wanted
So, Sheriff White's now infamous, unstable, dangerous, very large, highly flammable, clandestine and sophisticated, suspicious device that might have been a meth lab and obviously needed to be disassembled had vanished from the evening news the night after the fire.
That's because the fire story had morphed into something of an "America's Most Wanted" episode with the three co-homeowners now being charged with negligent arson by the Bernalillo County Fire Marshal's office. The obligatory grainy, black and white mug shots were included on the evening news and in the daily papers.
The lowlights of the follow-up reporting included a Fox News report quoting nameless fire officials who said, "the three men tried to run away." This was false. One went to find his fiancée, but returned to the scene and the other two never left. All were taken into custody at the scene. It was after all, their home.
With the investigation less than a day old, Channel 13 quoted Fire Chief Clark saying, "Once the fire started, (the three suspects) did not properly report it to the authorities." However, records show one of the suspects, Ben Tucker, called 911 almost immediately after the blaze started at 3:34 p.m.
News 13's lead-up to the 5 p.m. news asked the senseless Internet poll question: "Should the three men accused of starting the Bosque fire yesterday be prosecuted? Yes or No." Results were promised by 5:30 p.m. and (shazam!) 81 percent said yes and 19 percent no. How many people participated in the unscientific poll was not revealed. Which begs the question: How, even in some station manager's skewed ratings war fantasy, is this useless data newsworthy?
News 13 also reported that "felony charges were not the first crimes these men have been arrested for." The obvious implication was that at least one (if not all three) of the men had a prior criminal record. Although one suspect, Peter Gallo, had been arrested for trespassing, he had never been convicted of a crime, let alone convicted of a felony. This was not reported in the segment. Neither of the other two suspects, Lu Yoder and Ben Tucker, have criminal records. Tucker was once cited for disorderly conduct while protesting the Iraq war at UNM, but the charges were dismissed. That's it.
By the weekend, Channel 7 was also back in top form. This time with a teaser that proclaimed: "Suspects claim they called 911 right after the fire started, but we have those tapes that could prove differently. Hear for yourself tonight at 10."
Tuning into the 10 p.m. broadcast, it's back to Kate Godwin for more coverage you can count on. The 911 tapes are described as a "frantic call from a young girl ... more calls to 911 would quickly follow." After a set of hyper voices playing out their personal panic, Godwin explains: "At this time 911 was only allowed to provide us some of the tapes."
Then she reports that the suspects' attorney claims one of his clients did call 911. That's it. No explanation why the teaser stated "we have those tapes" and then the actual report states that "911" (whoever that is) only shared "some" of the tapes. The report, of course, in no way proved that Tucker did not call 911, as the teaser implied.
By Tuesday evening, June 15, Channel 7 reported a story entitled, "911 Tape Might Clear Three Charged in Bosque Fire."
In the story, reporter David Quinlan reports: "Prosecutors say they have a strong case, and just because Tucker called 911 doesn't mean he is innocent."
Then this quote from District Attorney Kari Brandenberg: "I don't buy any single piece of evidence. We don't convict or charge someone on one piece of evidence."
But come on, how could the DA claim to have a strong case when the investigation isn't finished?
When the Alibi raised this question with Brandenberg on Thursday, June 17, after reading her the transcript of KOAT's report (she said she hadn't seen it), she responded: "I simply said it's under investigation and we have to look at the evidence as a whole. I don't know who the heck they are talking about (in reference to "prosecutors"). I don't know if it's a strong case, or not. We're careful about (making statements about cases under investigation), especially in the beginning stages. We have ethical responsibilities."
Ashes to Ashes
When I visited the point of origin of the fire last week, the "very, very, very large" structure that Channel 7's Godwin said was destroyed by the fire turned out to be a 200-square-foot art studio. The other structure lost in the fire was a 400-square-foot garage.
The art studio belonged to Dawn Tipka, Lu Yoder's fiancée. In it she kept her drawings, artifacts and momentos collected during a lifetime of world travel, including trips to Southeast Asia, Turkey, Israel, Africa and the trans-Siberian railroad. All of the irreplaceable items were lost in the fire.
After walking the charred area around his home with me last week, Lu Yoder was clearly still shaken by the felony arson charges he and his housemates are faced with, not to mention the grief and depression his fiancée is consumed with. He said he became physically ill when watching videotaped news coverage, calling it "a Hollywood cop show fantasy." He showed me six fire extinguishers that he said are always kept on the property and outlined where brush was cleared, water buckets were handy and spark shields were erected around the area where the blaze started.
The suspects' neighbor, Felix Molina, also lost the tools and machinery of a workman's trade, practically his entire livelihood, all of which was uninsured. He too has been emotionally devastated by the fire and as of last week was unwilling to talk to his neighbors. Yoder regretted that Mr. Molina is suffering.
"Before this fire our neighborhood was distinguished by an atmosphere of gift exchanges of homemade honey and homegrown vegetables, spare car parts, tools and loaning each other shop equipment," said Yoder. "That's the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. The sensational news reporting and innuendo that we are criminals is poisoning our chances of restoring the friendship and mutual respect that we lived with down here."
For the public in general, the news wasn't all bad. The 64 acres of burned Bosque didn't lead to a single lost home and officials have described the effect as similar to a controlled burn.
Still, in an age where local live news coverage takes on the character of some perverse form of entertainment, it would have been helpful, once the smoke cleared and the information became available, if all that bluster about a suspicious device was given the proper follow-up that it deserved.