The Observer Beset By Banks, Lawyers And The Competition

November 17, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The Chesapeake Observer burst on the scene in southern Anne Arundel and Calvert counties three years ago with blaring headlines, tales ofmayhem and allegations of official misconduct. It broke the mold of the typical community weekly newspaper, it angered many public officials, and it sold.

Now, the Observer and its editor-publisher, T. J. duCellier, are in legal and financial trouble.

She has already spent about $15,000 to defend against a libel suit filed last year by the Calvert County state's attorney, and her lawyer wants out of the case because she owes his firm about $40,000. She has filed for personal bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure on the newspaper's office in Chesapeake Beach, and she faces a $2,500 small-claims suit from a former employee. She has spent $6,000 defending herselfin a zoning violations charge by the town of Chesapeake Beach.

Amid all this, the Observer has new competition from a weekly paper that just opened down the street, in North Beach.

"Ever since the state's attorney sued me, it's been a daily death watch: 'Is she going to go under? Is she going to go under?' " said duCellier.

For the time being, the Chapter 13 case filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Rockville freezes everything, including the libel suit by State's Attorney Warren F. Sengstack. The suit was triggered by a story that typifies the sort of cage-rattling reporting that duCellier has practiced since she started publishing the tabloid in June 1988.

"We've written the stories that other people didn't want to write," said duCellier, who is 41 and started working as a reporter in 1979. "Writing crap that puts people to sleep and saying you're a newspaper is a joke," she said.

duCellier claims circulation of about 6,200 papers a week, a third of those sold in southern Anne Arundel County, the rest in Calvert and some in Prince George's. Readers get a weekly helping of community news, lots of local crime reports, plus stories that carry such headlines as "Cruel lie in a small town panics S&L depositors"; "Now it can be told: the REAL story of what happened"; and "Starving dogs rescued; beach man convicted of animal cruelty."

It was not the brand of reporting these quiet communities were used to, said former Calvert County District Judge Larry D. Lamson. He said her style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

"Calvert County is still fairly cliquish," he said. "T. J. was an outsider who could never break into the, what you'd call the inner circle."

At first, said Lamson,"people would compare (the Observer) to the National Enquirer. Like all papers, she had some things that

were good and some things that were not."

As Sengstack saw it, the Page One story on Dec. 19, 1989, "Grand juror tells shocking story about Langley case," was not good at all.

Without quoting a source, the story said that "information made available to the Observer" suggested that Sengstack had interfered with grand jury deliberations to block an indictment in a 1989 murder case.

Sengstack filed suit against duCellier, her husband, Vincent, and King Publishing on Feb. 9, 1990, claiming defamation of character and demanding an unspecified sum for damages. The case was scheduled for trial Nov. 18, but that's been put on hold by the personal bankruptcy claim, which duCellier filed in September.

The Sengstack case is duCellier's second court fight with a public officialin the short history of the Observer.

Last April, duCellier and her husband sued Calvert County Sheriff L. C. "Bootsie" Stinnett in U.S. District Court in Baltimore after Stinnett refused to release routine police reports to the Observer. In a letter to duCellier, Stinnett said he would withhold information because "based on past articles that have appeared in your newspaper, it is quite obvious that you have a great difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction."

In an out-of-court settlement shortly after the duCelliers filed suit, Stinnett backed off the news blackout and agreed to pay the duCelliers $4,500 for attorney's fees. Since then, he said, his relations with thepaper have improved.

"She's kind of laid off of me," Stinnett said. But, he said, "after the lies she printed about me, I just keep waiting for the blade between my shoulder blades."

He referred to stories she wrote alleging that Stinnett had been accused of racism while he was a state trooper. She alleged in another story that Stinnettmade disparaging personal remarks about a female police cadet being considered for a job on the North Beach Police Department, where her husband was then chief of police. Neither story was accurate, said Stinnett.

Stinnett defeated Vincent duCellier in the election for sheriff last November. Stinnett said T. J. duCellier used the paper to promote her husband's campaign.

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