Weeks into my television career at WTOL 11 in Toledo, my photographer turned to me in a hospital parking lot and said, "So what kind of video do you have for this story?"
His question caught me off guard. I had done the digging, and uncovered that driven by the opioid epidemic, violence was surging against emergency room nurses and doctors. I had the data to prove it.
"But do you have the video?"
It turns out a made-for-newspaper investigation was a huge challenge for TV.
In that parking lot, for the first time, I began questioning the wisdom of leaving a 25-year newspaper career for TV.
I have always been in love with newspapers - the smell, the ink on the fingers, the ability to read about last night's baseball games. I was afraid of the dark, and my mom would sit in my doorway each night, reading the paper and waiting for me to fall asleep.
The editor of the local paper came to my school in the eighth grade. After his talk, I knew that I was going to be a newspaper reporter. And for more than two decades, I was. I interviewed rock stars, sports stars, country music stars, U.S. senators and representatives, moms and dads. I knocked on the door of a man who had just killed three people, talked to people who had lost everything in a fire. I designed pages and put out a special edition on 9/11. My editorials helped bring a universal preschool plan to Toledo. I investigated a potential cancer cluster and, with only dog tags as a clue, was able to tell the life story of a veteran whose ashes were discarded in a storage unit. I shared about my personal battle with anxiety. My dream became my reality.
But by early 2018, the dream was fading. Our newspaper powerhouse had faded from a daily circulation of 175,000 to about 40,000. The news director at WTOL, who had noticed my tenacity and local knowledge, reached out to me about leading the station's new investigative unit. I decided to give broadcast news a try.
In May, 2019, I received an email from advocates with the Ohio Innocence Project. Their clients, Wayne Braddy and Karl Willis, were claiming they were innocent of killing a 13-year-old boy in 1998. Everyone in prison claims to be innocent, don't they? But I agreed to read the trial transcript - all 690 pages of it. There was no physical evidence against these two men. There was only the word of one man, Travis Slaughter, who cut a deal with the state. I later pulled the prosecutor's personnel file and in it was a letter from the detective, complimenting him on an "unimaginable" conviction.
Travis' story on the stand was that he was a drug dealer and the boy, Maurice Purifie, owed him money. He asked Wayne and Karl to help him kill Maurice. Travis said they encountered Maurice at 4 in the morning. After the young teen mouthed off, Travis shot him in the chest and passed around the gun for Wayne and Karl to shoot him. The narrative made no sense.
In exchange for that testimony, Travis received 18 years in prison. A reduced punishment for an unrelated rape was also included in the deal. Wayne and Karl were convicted and sentenced to 23 years to life.
Two other things jumped out in the transcript. There was no defense. The appointed counsel offered nothing, other than cross-examination. And a detective said there was no written report of the six-hour interrogation of Travis because it was all on the tapes.
Tapes that turned out to be missing. When I asked for the prosecution file, all of the original files were also missing. I was a pain to the police and prosecutor.
My call with Karl's attorney was stunning. He ignored pleas from Karl and Karl's family to have Karl testify "because the state had proven nothing." The attorney was so distraught by the guilty verdict that he left his coat and belongings in the courtroom and drove around for hours. He has never taken another criminal case. Wayne's attorney didn't even remember details of the case.
In the following weeks, I met with Wayne and Karl. Their stories were remarkably consistent despite their years apart in different prisons. As a journalist, you need to listen, even if you have reason to be skeptical. I listened to them and was able to verify their stories with documents and later interviews.
But the most important people in the story were Travis Slaughter and his former girlfriend, Shondrea Rayford, who prosecutors said had overheard the men saying they killed Maurice.
To be a good investigator, you have to be extremely stubborn, fearless, and persistent. But I also say it's about building relationships and trust. I spent hours and hours with Travis and Shondrea. I wrote a letter to Travis and left it at his halfway house in Akron. More than a month later, he unexpectedly called. Through phone calls and personal meetings, I gained his trust and he told me that Wayne and Karl never had anything to do with it. He said they were close friends but that they had a falling out. In separate interviews with the three men, they told the exact same story. On the day Maurice was killed, all three men said they hated each other and they would never have been hanging out.
Shondrea had spent 20 years running from the case. But I built her trust through repeated phone calls, some of them in the middle of the night.
Finally, she agreed to tell her story on camera. Karl and Wayne had nothing to do with the killing, she said.
By this time, I’d become more comfortable with the visual aspects of reporting for TV rather than print, thanks in part to mentorship from Brendan Keefe, lead investigator for WXIA. His visual storytelling techniques and script writing really helped me shape the way I tell a story. In fact, in some ways it is easier to make a TV investigation compelling. You’re able to let the viewers see these characters, see their passion, hear their voices.
Travis also got on camera, saying the story he told police was out of vengeance and that his former friends were not involved. In fact, he said the police and prosecutors coached him on what to say to get a conviction.
Then, after getting a lawyer involved, those missing interrogation tapes showed up. His interview with me in which he said he was coached matched up with what I saw on the tapes. The stories Travis initially told police were nowhere close to what he told on the stand.
I found the jury foreman's name on the trial documents and tracked him to the Columbus area. I told him what I knew, and he shook his head and said he now believed the men might be innocent. The victim's brother hated Wayne and Karl for more than 20 years, believing they had brutally murdered Maurice. He now believes the real killer is walking free. No one, other than the prosecutor, is now saying the men are guilty.
Because of this investigation, there will be more court battles in 2020. Some of the combatants formerly on the side of the state are now cooperating with the defense. In a call from prison, Karl told me: "I didn't know if I could trust you at first. But you won me over. You had an open heart to our story."
People wonder how I could transition from print to broadcast journalism. I tell them that I am a storyteller. Everyone has a story to tell, and it's my job to tell that story, whether it is with words or pictures. As a longtime newspaper reporter, I’m really able to use those skills to unleash my full investigation on our web site and give the viewers more details, documents, police reports. My newspaper background has allowed us to give more well-rounded investigations to our viewers.
"Guilty without Proof" gave a voice to two men who spent more than 20 years with no one listening. Wayne and Karl have been heard –at one point more than 9 million people viewed a promo of their story. So have more defendants in northwest Ohio. In a follow up investigation, I had pulled billing records to the county. Wayne's attorney billed for seven hours of investigation. Unbeknownst to me, Ohio counties have an appointed counsel cap, limiting the amount of money defense attorneys can bill for their work. Lucas County's cap was $4,000 for aggravated murder. In other nearby counties, the cap was $15,000. After the follow-up investigation that caused Lucas and other counties to adjust their caps, providing more resources to appointed counsel. They will now be defending themselves on a more equal playing field because of my follow-up investigation.
I always knew I’d be a reporter, but never anticipated winning a Murrow Award for TV news. I tell students that they have to believe that they can make a difference through journalism. That’s true whatever the platform. It has become a joke with my wife. She'll ask me, "What are you going to do today?" And I'll respond, "I'm going to change the world, baby!"
It's a responsibility I have. But it's also a gift I receive when I can make it happen.