Flashbacks and fallout

Oct 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

From the outset, Metro Times has been committed to producing news that matters, and that the people of this area weren’t finding elsewhere. This commitment was made in an editorial that appeared in the first issue of this paper 25 years ago.“Every other major city in the country counts on such a paper for vital information that is not supplied by the dailies or by slick city magazines,” we wrote in the paper that hit the streets on Oct. 16, 1980. “Certainly Detroit, the sixth largest city in the U.S., merits an alternative paper of some substance.”

We also wrote that, way back when, people were warning us that the metro area would not, or could not, support a serious attempt at independent journalism.

“We think they’re wrong,” was our response to the naysayers.

At this point, it’s probably safe to say we won that argument.

As for living up to the promise of producing a paper of substance, it’s also safe to say we’ve kept our word. Over the years, Metro Times has earned the reputation of being a news outlet that’s unafraid to take on any issue or special interest, no matter how powerful. As one of our previous investigative reporters liked to say, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.”

In putting together this retrospective, we were struck by the changes that have occurred in the past two-and-a-half decades. Some of these changes were the direct result of articles we published; others happened because of the ever-shifting nature of our world. There’s an old aphorism that maintains the only constant in life is change. This look back sure reinforces that. Even that editor’s note from issue No. 1 is no longer true in at least one respect. Once the nation’s sixth largest city, Detroit, which has been losing about 10,000 people a year, has fallen to No. 11 on the list of most populous cities.

On the other hand, we see our mission of producing hard-hitting investigative journalism as being more vital than ever. —Curt Guyette, news editor


Push comes to shove”

October 1980

Then: Within the first few weeks of the Metro Times’ start-up, reporter Mike Betzold made sure city officials knew we intended to be a serious player. Betzold produced a two-part series focusing on attempts to use newly enacted “quick take” laws to obtain residential and business property in the Poletown area of Detroit. The city was going after the land to make way for a massive new GM assembly plant that then-Mayor Coleman Young hoped would help revive the city’s sinking economy. The mainstream media, for the most part, joined the chorus singing praise to a plan that promised to bring thousands of new jobs to Detroit and Hamtramck. Betzold told the story of affected residents who asked why it was their homes being destroyed to secure economic development. Betzold questioned the propriety of using city tax abatements to facilitate the displacement, and pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the city was ignoring the law requiring it to pay fair market value for the land it acquired.

Five years ago: When we wrote about this story for our 20th anniversary issue, we noted that the city had shifted from engaging in costly court actions to obtain land for a manufacturing plant, to engaging in a costly fight to take riverfront property as the permanent site for three casinos.

Now: As for the casinos — the attempt to bundle three gambling joints and their hotels along the riverfront failed miserably. We still don’t have permanent casinos, but when they do get built, they will be at three unconnected sites across town. In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court overruled the original decision that allowed Poletown to proceed, deciding that it’s unconstitutional for the government to take private property to make way for private sector development.


“The Secret Belle Isle Casino Gambling Plan”

April 1985

Then: Reporter Rosanne Less, who eventually left journalism to become an attorney, and Ron Williams, this paper’s co-founder, who served many years as its editor, wrote a story that began:

“The Metro Times has learned of the existence of a confidential document which details a proposal to transform the city-owned island park of Belle Isle into an international resort and conference center which would feature casino hotel gambling.”

In an attempt to shape public opinion, the money guys went to the business-friendly Detroit News, hoping it would put a positive spin on the story before we could hit the streets. Williams recalled how TV newsman Bill Bonds sent cameras to our offices and asked the question, “How could a little paper like this scoop everyone else in town on a story this big?”

Now: Obviously, the plan to turn Belle Isle into an international resort didn’t make it very far. But, with the city teetering on the edge of insolvency, the question of how to keep open a park that costs more than $6.5 million a year to operate and maintain is as relevant as ever. The island’s aquarium was closed earlier this year, and there’s been renewed discussion about charging cars an entrance fee to the park. The idea of having the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority take it over has also been floated. Not that we took the idea seriously, but earlier this year, when we tried to calculate what Detroit’s civic gems would fetch if sold garage-sale style to help keep the city solvent, we asked around to see what Detroit’s cherished island might be worth. One real estate type told us that Belle Isle would sell for about $500 million if converted into a high-end gated community.


“Detroit’s apartheid connection”

April 1986

“Detroit’s People Mover: Made in South Africa?”

August 1988

Then: With African-Americans making up more than 65 percent of the city’s population in the 1980s, it was fitting that we paid particularly close attention to the struggle for equality in South Africa, a place where blacks were being denied basic human and political rights by the white minority. During that time, MT produced two stories that created quite a stir. A piece in 1986 exposed ties between the South African government and the financiers of a $500 million waste-to-energy incinerator planned for the city. A lot of ruckus was raised, and there was the whiff of hypocrisy trailing Mayor Coleman Young, who a few years earlier had been arrested during an anti-apartheid protest held at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. Despite objections, the plant was built.

In 1988, we revealed that some steel manufactured in South Africa was being used to build the People Mover. Doing so violated a city ordinance. Much outrage on the part of the citizenry, much embarrassment among city officials. About $30,000 worth of steel railing imprinted with the words “Made in South Africa” was removed.

Economic sanctions eventually helped force the dismantling of apartheid. After serving more than a quarter century in prison, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994.

Now: South Africa hasn’t been on our radar screen for a while, but we revisited the incinerator in 2003. This time around, the issue wasn’t apartheid connections, but rather the economic, environmental and health problems critics of the facility point to when they argue that the garbage burner needs to be shut down. Problem is, even though it’s a significant financial drain on Detroit, the city can’t afford to mothball it, because several hundred million dollars in bond debt remains, and must be paid off before closing the place can be considered feasible.


“The new JOA threat”

August 1988

Then: A year before The Detroit News and Free Press entered into a joint operating agreement, we were already writing about the issue. We warned early on that allowing Gannett and Knight Ridder to play corporate footsie — sharing advertising, production and distribution functions — instead of competing full-on, would be bad for journalism and bad for advertisers.

The role of media watchdog is one alternative papers have traditionally played. We’ve tried to do our part over the years, intensely covering big issues like the JOA, and then the bitter strike that began in 1995 and turned into a lockout of unionized workers at the two papers. Our lead reporter covering the strike during its early stages was a former News investigative reporter turned freelancer named Ric Bohy. We’ve also taken a lot of pleasure in tweaking the dailies over smaller stuff throughout the years, like the time we printed a review critical of one of Mitch Album’s books — a piece that was originally supposed to run in the Freep but was killed by then-publisher Carole Leigh Hutton to protect her star columnist.

Now: This summer, Knight Ridder pulled out of Detroit, selling the Free Press to Gannett, which in turn handed over ownership of The Detroit News to an outfit called MediaNews and inked a new JOA. We responded with a cover story that tried to explain the deal in a way the dailies weren’t doing. And, as usual, columnist Jack Lessenberry has been weighing in on the subject. If anything, the new agreement makes the dailies an even more interesting beat for us to cover. Sure, we don’t have News publisher Mark Silverman to kick around anymore. He and Hutton — described recently by Lessenberry as “two of the most spectacular doofuses in the history of Detroit journalism,” have been shipped back to their respective corporate headquarters. But there’s going to be plenty more fodder coming from our friends in the mainstream for years to come. What’s happening at Detroit’s two dailies is a story we intend to keep covering. As for that freelancer who provided strike coverage — Ric Bohy returned to Metro Times last year to become the paper’s editor.


“Patriot games”

October 1994

Then: When the Michigan Militia was linked to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, reporters from around the country were clamoring to get a copy of this story we’d written six months earlier. Expanding on a piece that originally appeared in the Traverse City alternative paper, Northern Express, MT investigative reporter Beth Hawkins provided a disturbing account of the Michigan Citizens Militia. In that article, she quoted militia expert Chip Berlet saying, “I personally do not sleep well with groups of armed paranoids who believe the government is behind a totalitarian conspiracy.

“Eventually they will have a confrontation. It is inevitable.”

Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, the MT staff put in a marathon effort to produce a special issue covering the event and the local connections. In that edition, then-editor Desiree Cooper wrote: “America now ponders aloud how we failed to see it coming, despite several warning shots from alternative publications such as the Metro Times and Traverse City’s Northern Express.”

Now: Not much attention is being paid to homegrown terrorists these days. Since 9/11, the concern has been with Osama bin Laden and his violent disciples. Convicted of manslaughter, Michigan native Terry Nichols is serving two life sentences for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001 for setting off the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. But there are plenty more wing-nuts from the far right still out there. As Daniel Levitas wrote in his book, The Terrorist Next Door, “in the post-September 11 world, Americans would do well to be on the lookout for more hardened underground activity on the part of hate groups, as well as more efforts by the radical right to recruit and mobilize supporters based on fear and distrust of Arabs, immigrants, Israel, and American Jews.”


“The Big Mac attack”

March 1996

Then: Back in the mid-’90s, it looked as if John Engler, then governor of Michigan, could end up being the running mate for whomever won the Republican presidential nomination. If that happened, we wanted to put on the record a clear blueprint of how Engler operated and what the effects of his “business friendly” style of governing were.

In a four-part series, we took an in-depth look at how he rose to power, and then how he wielded that power once in office. Then we created a Web site, so the national media had an easy place to go if the time came that they needed to do some quick brushing up on Big John’s history. We looked at his incestuous relationship with the insurance and natural gas industries, and at his efforts to reshape our public education system. We exposed how a small group of extremely wealthy fundamentalist Christians were secretly using nonprofit organizations to promote a change in the state constitution that would allow the public financing of parochial schools.

Now: Given his business-friendly history as governor, it came as no surprise when Engler, after being term-limited out of office, was named head of the National Manufacturers Association in 2004. More interesting is that the person trying to represent the GOP in next year’s governor’s race, Dick DeVos — son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos — was, like his dad, linked to the “parochiaid” campaign we exposed nearly a decade ago.

But they had their fingers in a lot of right-wing pies. We reported that members of the DeVos family and their foundations handed out more than $8 million in 1994 to fundamentalist churches, conservative political causes, anti-abortion groups, English-only proponents, term-limit advocates and groups that support using the Bible as a basis for government. Needless to say, this is a governor’s race we’re going to be especially interested in.


“Let him die”

September 1999

When cops shoot”

April 2000

Then: In “Let him die,” reporter Ann Mullen revealed that at least 17 people had died while in Detroit police custody between 1992 and 1997. Most of these deaths occurred while prisoners were locked in their cells. After Mullen began looking into the issue and raising questions about the policies that contributed to some of those deaths — and the significant payout of tax money to settle lawsuits brought by the families of those dead prisoners — the Police Department announced a number of reforms intended to address the problem.

Seven months later, Mullen had the DPD in the spotlight again. This time the issue involved police shootings. Along with the Michigan Citizen, Metro Times was the first paper in town to start drawing attention to the number of people Detroit cops were killing, and the way the department was investigating — or, more accurately, not investigating — its own when an officer shot someone. Eventually the dailies began reporting on the problem as well.

Now: In 2003, the city settled two federal lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department that, after a 30-month investigation, accused the Detroit Police Department of repeatedly violating the constitutional rights of suspects, prisoners and witnesses. Among other things, the city agreed to reform policies regarding use of force, and promised to upgrade officer training. A U.S. judge and an independent federal monitor are overseeing the changes. Earlier this year, it was reported that the city had complied with just five of 90 requirements ordered by the court.


“Waste knot”

February 2002

Then: Reporter Lisa M. Collins started her story about a waste disposal plant in Detroit by describing what it was like to be in the home of Willie Bell Gouch, a neighbor of the facility. “Without warning, a putrid stench rushes into Gouch’s home. As the waste-disposal plant down the street dumps thousands of gallons of industrial wastewater trucked from Canada directly into the sewer system, black oily muck and metal-laced water flood Gouch’s basement and gurgle into sinks, bathtubs and toilets throughout the neighborhood.”

In pursuing this story, Collins was carrying on a Metro Times tradition of producing top-notch environmental journalism. (Investigative reporter Monte Paulsen wrote several noteworthy stories in the early ’90s.) Collins reported that the company, Canflow, had been repeatedly cited by the city and state for violations. We found the company had been cited at least 15 times over a six-year period for “exceeding allowable levels of pollutants, including mercury, silver, nickel and phosphates.”

In addition to problems at the facility, the story also chronicled the efforts of neighbors to have the plant shut down. A week after the story appeared, Detroit’s Department of Water & Sewerage halted the renewal of Canflow’s discharge permit, a move that prohibited the company from doing business until its problems were corrected.

Now: Canflow remains closed.


“Trail of a con man”

May 2003

Then: When news editor Curt Guyette wrote about con man Rick Stover of Harrison Township, he pointed out at the start of the story that Stover wasn’t the kind of criminal who would ever be featured on an episode of America’s Most Wanted. Stover was a white-collar crook who “used doctored documents and a glib tongue to cheat the unsuspecting.” He may not have used a gun to steal, but he did cause a lot of harm and heartache. Especially for businessman Ron Bargman, who claimed that Stover ripped him off for more than $70,000 while working for him, helping to drive Bargman’s small manufacturing company out of business.

As angry as Bargman was with Stover, he was equally upset with the Macomb County criminal justice system, which didn’t put a high priority on criminals like Stover. It took more than three years of trying before Bargman could face Stover in court. But instead of the jail time Bargman wanted to see handed down, Stover was given five years’ probation and ordered to repay two victims, including $50,000 to Bargman. Eight months later, Stover hadn’t made a payment. When he failed to show up for a hearing, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. We picked up the story after Bargman contacted us, saying that it was obvious the police weren’t working to track Stover down.

Now: The day after our story hit the streets, Stover was arrested. A tip from someone who read our article led to his capture. He was sentenced to serve at least two years in prison. Bargman says Stover was released twice since then, but ended up back in prison each time because of parole violations. “He’s in prison right now,” Bargman says. “He has another parole hearing coming up soon.” And what about all that money Stover was ordered to repay? “I never saw a penny of it,” Bargman says.


“Dearth and taxes”

August 2003

Then: Collins again got a lot of people’s attention when she wrote this story detailing the utter shambles Detroit’s tax collection system was in. She disclosed that Detroit, with one of the lowest tax collection rates among America’s large cities, lost an estimated $60 million a year in uncollected taxes. In many cases, she reported, city officials had no clue as to who owned property and what they owed on it.

Written at a time when the city’s budget deficit was just beginning to blossom, she reported that, at the time the story was written, about 130,000 of the city’s 400,000 parcels were listed as tax delinquent. Even so, Detroit employed only two tax collectors. No computerized database of tax delinquents existed. Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz told Collins: “Detroit is our central city. If the current situation continues, all the deliberate planning that’s gone on for revitalizing the city, the community, the real estate, that is all threatened. The city’s current collection system is a great detriment to all of that. It could be devastating.”

Now: A week after “Dearth and Taxes” ran, Detroit and Wayne County officials got together and agreed to shift responsibility for collecting delinquent property taxes to the county. Such a switch required legislative approval, but with the city on board, the state quickly enacted the change.


Confessions and recantations”

June 2004

Then: Ann Mullen struck again, this time with a powerful story detailing how police coerced what appeared to be a false confession from a teenage murder suspect. Detroit cops got the kid, 13-year-old Antoine Morris, to admit that he and his friend, Vidale McDowell, killed Antoine’s mom, Janice Williams, early in 2002. Morris recanted his confession almost immediately after making it. Police had scared him into confessing, he claimed, saying they told him he was bound for jail, where he’d end up being “somebody’s girlfriend.”

Morris was set free and prevented from testifying at McDowell’s trial. He wanted to tell a jury that his confession wasn’t true. Instead, all the jury heard was the confession cops wrung from the boy. Despite having a case filled with gaping holes, prosecutors won a conviction and McDowell, an 18-year-old high school senior when the killing occurred, was sentenced to life in prison.

Now: In June 2004, after spending more than two years behind bars, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed McDowell’s conviction, ruling that his Sixth Amendment protections were violated when his lawyers were prevented from questioning Morris in court. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office subsequently announced it wouldn’t seek a new trial. As a result, McDowell is a free man today.

“They took two and a half years of my life for something I didn’t do,” McDowell told Mullen at the time of his release. Credit for McDowell getting sprung belongs to his lawyer, not us. But with an investigative piece like this, there’s an inevitable sense of satisfaction in seeing a terrible wrong righted, and in feeling that just telling of the story is part of setting things right.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]