The Observer Ends Its Watch In Chesapeake Beach

Hit With Libel Suit And Bills, 'Tired' Publisher Calls It Quits

April 13, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Nearly four years after she started capturing readers and shaking uplocal politicians with a weekly newspaper that some compared to a supermarket tabloid, the publisher of The Chesapeake Observer has called it quits -- for now.

"I looked around one day and said 'I don't want to do this anymore,' " said T. J. duCellier, who put out the last issue of the Observer -- which covered Calvert County and southern Anne Arundel -- on March 17. "I think mostly I was tired. I was exhausted from doing it day in and day out."

When it closed, six months after duCellier and her husband filed a personal bankruptcy claim, the Observer had about 2,000 subscribersand sold 4,200 copies each week on local newsstands.

duCellier plans to start publishing a new paper in a different format this springfrom her new home in Hedgesville, W.Va. The paper will also cover Calvert County, southern Anne Arundel and some Prince George's County news.

"I have a lot of sources," duCellier said. "It's very easy for me to get information . . . With a fax machine, an 800-line and some (computer) modems, there's no reason this cannot be done from home."

She hopes to lure back readers of the Observer, many of whom have already switched to other papers.

Barbara Wyatt, manager of the 7-Eleven in Dunkirk, just over the Anne Arundel line in Calvert County, said customers "were upset at first, but they've adjusted. They'vestarted buying the St. Mary's paper." She referred to St. Mary's Today, a paper with a similar penchant for screaming headlines and even more emphasis on crime news.

Ann Davis, manager of the High's store across from the Calvert County courthouse in Prince Frederick, saida lot of people have asked about the Observer, but many have alreadyswitched over to other papers.

Since June 1988, duCellier had served as editor and publisher of the Chesapeake Beach-based paper that became known for focusing on crime and allegations of official misconduct. Former Calvert County District Judge Larry D. Lamson has said that when the paper first appeared, "people would compare it to the National Enquirer."

duCellier's years at the Observer were marked bya number of scraps with public officials, one of which contributed to the newspaper's demise.

That was the still-pending libel suit filed in February 1990 by Calvert County State's Attorney Warren F. Sengstack. The suit, demanding unspecified damages for a claim of defamation of character, stemmed from a story duCellier wrote in 1989 alleging that Sengstack had improperly interfered with a grand jury murderinvestigation.

duCellier said she had spent about $15,000 defending herself, her husband, Vincent, and King Publishing against the suit, and still owes a lawyer more than $40,000. She said the Sengstack suit was not the "deciding factor" in her decision to close the paper, "but it was a factor."

She said Sengstack's chief purpose in filing the suit was to drive her out of business and "shut me up." Sengstack could not be reached for comment.

duCellier faces a $2,500 suit from a former employee who claims duCellier owes her back pay and commissions, and she has spent $6,000 defending herself in a zoning violations charge by the town of Chesapeake Beach.

Since she and her husband declared personal bankruptcy in September, the Observer's Chesapeake Beach office, and their home in Chesapeake Beach have been turned over to a trustee and sold. A home they own in Fairhaven is onthe market. In February, duCellier and her husband moved to a rentedhome in Hedgesville, near Berkeley Springs.

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