Reporter under fire

Nov 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

If Diane Bukowski worked for the Detroit News or Free Press or any of the local TV stations, everyone would already have known about her arrest while covering a fatal traffic accident that took place following a police chase on Election Day.

But, toiling as she does for the weekly Michigan Citizen, the reporter's run-in with state cops has so far been off the media radar. By the time you read this, that might have changed. Bukowski held a press conference at her lawyer's office Monday and was to be arraigned in Detroit's 36th District Court on Tuesday (after we went to press).

She faces five felony charges, including resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. If tried and convicted, Bukowski could be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison.

In an e-mail sent Sunday, Bukowski called the charges "completely false."

According to Michigan State Police Capt. Harold Love, commander of the MSP's southeastern Michigan sector, it's Bukowski who's spreading false allegations. "Many things in the article she wrote were flat-out false," Love tells News Hits.

That article began this way: "A Detroit motorcyclist returning from the polls Nov. 4 was allegedly hit by two Michigan state troopers on the city's northeast side. The impact of the crash pushed him into a pedestrian who was also killed, then into a pole, according to one eyewitness."

A second eyewitness — who, like the first, reportedly requested anonymity — "separately confirmed that the state troopers' car rammed the cyclist," Bukowski wrote.

Love says a videotape recorded on a camera mounted in the police car conclusively shows that cops did not hit the motorcycle.

"Because this was a sensitive, high-profile incident, I immediately called for a copy of the video," says Love. "I'm convinced that we have very firm ground to stand on."

He says that the driver of the motorcycle, James Willingham, 42, attempted to flee when the troopers tried pulling him over for speeding. The chase only lasted about 30 seconds, and when Willingham's motorcycle struck and killed pedestrian Jeffrey Frazier, 32, the patrol car was so far behind that it was initially difficult to clearly make out what exactly had been hit, according to Love.

Subsequent investigation found that the motorcycle was stolen, according to police. Bukowski's article quoted a friend of Willingham's saying that he was present when the motorcycle was purchased.

The reporter tells News Hits that when she arrived more than two hours after the accident occurred, she interviewed witnesses and then began taking photos with a digital camera. Though the two bodies were covered with yellow tarps, it was still a grisly scene.

That much is not disputed.

Police claim Bukowski was arrested only after she refused to comply with orders. Love says officers were attempting to protect relatives of the dead men from seeing "graphic and gruesome" pictures in the paper.

"We work with the media all the time," says Love. Sometimes, he says, reporters step far enough over the line that it's "within the rights" of cops to arrest them, but that isn't always the "right thing to do. This time, it was the right thing."

Bukowski says that, even though she identified herself as a reporter, when she got too close one of the cops screamed, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" and "immediately told me I was under arrest." She says her camera was seized and photographs erased.

"It was just a small digital camera," says Bukowski. "The trooper just snatched it from me and erased the pictures. I didn't realize I was in any area I wasn't supposed to be."

Love says the deleted photo allegations are news to him and he'll check into it.

Bukowski says she's been a reporter for eight years, working exclusively as a freelancer for the Citizen, which bills itself as "America's most progressive community newspaper." Her work has frequently focused on allegations of police misconduct. She was the first reporter to shed light on Detroit police officer Eugene Brown. In seven years, Brown shot nine people, killing three. He subsequently became a focus of coverage in these pages and in mainstream media as the issue of questionable police shootings in Detroit came to the fore. Eventually the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and ordered the department to make changes.

Over the years Bukowski has also been critical of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office for not bringing criminal charges against officers involved in cases where evidence indicated shootings were unwarranted.

Bukowski says she's establishing a legal defense fund. Anyone interested in helping can contact her at 313-205-6718.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]