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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ross Rambles: Journey into the labyrinth

Monday, January 16, 2006

A few weeks back, a woman came into the office wanting to talk about being raped. I didn't want to talk to her. She brought documents with her. I didn't want to read them.

It wasn't just that I didn't have time, although I didn't. My aversion to the subject of her visit resulted from the almost certain knowledge that after talking with her and reading the documents, I still would not have anything I could use as a news story.

The newspaper is often seen as a last resort by people desperately struggling against a cruel and indifferent world. It could be someone involuntarily institutionalized, someone whose children have been taken away and placed in foster care, or someone who feels abused and harassed by law enforcement. It could be anyone buffeted about by powers beyond their ability to resist.

Well, isn't that what newspapers do -- champion the helpless, expose injustice and fight evil?

Not usually. Mostly, we report on local government bodies, cover high school athletics, share items of human interest and describe developments in the business community. We don't do a lot of fighting evil at the Chronicle Times.

The print and broadcast media of metropolitan areas may do a little of that after sifting though hundreds of leads from an area inhabited by millions of people.

They look for something involving a pattern of incompetence, negligence or corruption. They don't pay much attention to an individual distraught over the results of a plea-bargain agreement, as was the situation with the woman who came to our office to talk about being raped.

We're all busy here with our mundane tasks. Personally, after writing one, two or three articles for each of the four issues a week, sorting through dozens of emails and faxes every day for items of local interest, editing and formatting those items, writing the occasional editorial or column, taking photos and performing other routines duties, I have little time for investigative reporting.

I wanted to tell the woman to go away and take her stack of documents with her but I didn't. She was not just an anonymous voice on the phone. She came to the office to talk directly about horrible experiences. She has a face. She has a name -- Cathy Wahlers. The man she says raped her also has a name -- Ronald Rickett.

I agreed to read the documents and talk to her at a later date.

What I read conveyed a woman's nightmarish experiences with alcohol abuse, attempted suicide, commitment to treatment, allegations against her that she harassed a health care professional and the removal of her children from her care to the care of her parents.

There were no details on the alleged rape itself, not even a date, just some time in 2004. A court document about the criminal case against Rickett stated that he had entered a plea of guilty to the crime of intent to commit sexual abuse, an aggravated misdemeanor. He has been scheduled to serve 60 days in jail after the first of the year.

The incident occurred in Sutherland. This is on the fringe of our coverage area. We cover South O'Brien School District sports and we do an occasional special event or human interest story in Sutherland, but we don't regularly get police reports or court reports from O'Brien County.

In a subsequent meeting, I told Wahlers of the need to give focus to a news report. In this case, that would most likely involve the plea bargain agreement that resulted in a 60 day jail sentence for a violent crime.

She was reluctant to let go of other issues -- her arrest for violation of a restraining order that she says she was never served with, glowing character references of Rickett by the mayor of Sutherland and the director of a nursing home in Cherokee where Rickett has a relative, and (most importantly to her) what she claims to be false allegations from and a violation of confidentiality by a health care professional.

Wahlers wanted me to convey the totality of the hell she has experienced in the last year and a half.

I called Bruce Green, the county attorney for O'Brien County. He said Rickett had originally been charged with a class C felony. Green said that what Rickett did was not technically rape. It did not involve sexual intercourse. Still, the allegation did involve an act of sexual violence.

Green said that Wahlers had not wanted to testify at first, not wanting to relive the experience. That was why the plea bargain was made, reducing a class C felony charge to an aggravated misdemeanor. Green said that Wahlers later changed her mind but it was too late by then.

At my last meeting with Wahlers, she acknowledged that she had changed her mind. She said she informed a counselor about her change of mind but this information wasn't relayed.

Here's a blind alley to go down," I thought to myself.

At this last meeting, Wahlers had more papers. A list of bills from a health care provider showed that Wahlers was billed for her frequent visits, which, according to Wahlers, gives evidence that she was not stalking the health care professional as she was accused of doing. I wasn't clear on what was being shown by another lengthy document relating incidents regarding treatment and evaluation.

Here were more blind alleys leading to even more blind alleys, all leading further away from anything that would have any significance to our readers.

Wahlers had a letter to the editor she wanted us to print regarding rumors she said were started by the health care provider. I told her that we probably wouldn't print it because of liability issues. The letter was basically directed to an individual about matters that have no meaning to our readers.

I decided I had gone far enough into this particular labyrinth.

Cathy Wahlers, I hope you find what you are looking for. I hope you find peace of mind. I can't give it to you.