Paper justified in giving details of killing to show evils of drug addiction

October 17, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

THIS IS A sordid story. You must know that from the beginning. You might not want to read further. It's shocking and terrifying, something you might not encounter in your worst nightmares. And you certainly don't want your children reading it.

But it is a story you must read. You must read it as paraphrased from the Easton Star-Democrat of Talbot County -- which published it last month -- and then determine if the various reactions to it are justified.

The tale started in early September, when Robert Kralle walked into the Star-Democrat offices and urged managing editor Barbara Sauers to run a story about his stepdaughter, Yvonne Fountain, who had been missing a week.

"It was such a crazy day," Sauers remembered. "It was the day the Spicknall baby was found.[Richard Spicknall, 27, of Laurel, is accused of fatally shooting his daughter Destiny, 3, and son, Richard, 2, on the Eastern Shore.] Everybody was out everywhere covering every angle." In spite of the hectic atmosphere, she talked to Kralle.

"He said, `Look, at this point we just want to know if she's alive and if there's a body,' " Sauers recalled. Perhaps a story, Kralle said, might inspire somebody to come forward. He gave a brief history of his stepdaughter, telling Sauers she was a crack addict, had been in treatment but had backslid into the habit.

The Star-Democrat ran an article about her being missing on Sept. 12.

The paper did some more checking.

The 33-year-old Fountain was last seen the night of Saturday, Sept. 4. She finished her waitress' shift at Snapper's restaurant in Cambridge around 9 p.m. and went with some friends to a bar. Later, she went to another bar, where she met another friend, Ruth Davis. Davis then drove Fountain to a bar on Cambridge's Cedar Street, an area known to be an open-air drug market.

Dorchester County court records, filed after the arrest of three Cambridge men more than two weeks after Fountain's disappearance, indicate that on Cedar Street, a man known as "Dreds" walked up to the woman and whispered something in her ear. The pair crossed Cedar, and Dreds then "grabbed [Fountain] by the neck and forced her into an alley," Star-Democrat reporter Bryon N. Johnston Jr. wrote in his Sept. 21 article.

According to a witness, two other males joined Dreds in the alley, where Fountain performed oral sex on all three. Dreds then offered Fountain some crack, which she refused. He then dismissed her, telling her she could go.

But one of the others -- a 16-year-old boy, authorities say -- grabbed Fountain from behind and slapped a choke hold on her. She passed out, and another 16-year-old boy who had joined Dreds in the alley stomped on Fountain's face. Dreds and the other youth allegedly joined in.

Somehow Fountain remained conscious, but not for long. After she sat up, Dreds allegedly told one of the youths to "finish her off." The boy who put the choke hold on Fountain then tried to snap her neck. When that didn't do the job, he pushed her to the ground again, leaped in the air and came down on Fountain's face with both feet.

Court documents say the witness then left. Fountain's assailants wrapped her body in plastic and took it into some nearby woods, where police found her Sept. 17.

Willie James Bradwell, 22, Otha Wongus III, 16, and Diontre Lamont Stanton, 16, were indicted in Fountain's killing on Wednesday. A fourth suspect, 17-year-old James Norman McRae, was charged in her killing the same day.

That, essentially, is the way the Star-Democrat reported the story. Two days later, the paper printed letters from two readers critical of the lurid details. On Sept. 26, the letters to the editor page contained 10 missives with the same theme. Star-Democrat editor Denise Riley said the consensus seemed to be that the paper shouldn't have revealed the grisly manner in which Fountain died.

"And we certainly shouldn't have used the term `oral sex,' " Riley said in describing the mood of the protesting readers. She defended the story appearing as printed.

"This was a monstrous thing that happened to a woman," Riley said. The graphic account, including the references to oral sex, were done "to show where her life had gone because of drugs."

There's also a regrettable race angle to the story. Fountain was white. All those arrested in her death are black. That has prompted charges that Fountain's killing was a black-on-white "hate crime" and thus ignored by Baltimore media. WCBM talk show host Les Kinsolving stands by his comment that had Fountain been black and her accused killers white, "the Baltimore media would have descended on the Eastern Shore with an army of reporters." Riley was fervent in her disagreement.

"To foment something like that [race] is terribly irresponsible," she said. "It's much more a drug crime."

The only call Riley got about the race question was, she said, from Kinsolving. Most Star-Democrat readers who protested the Fountain story saw not race, but a media gone amok.

The view from this side of the Chesapeake, from this columnist, is that Riley and Sauers made the right call. The account of Fountain's descent into the drug addiction that led to her death shouldn't make for reading that causes no discomfort. As the Star-Democrat aptly put it in an editorial, the horrible saga of Yvonne Fountain illustrates more powerfully the evils of drug addiction than the trite phrase "just say no."

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