Two Modesto mothers talk about their fears of deportation and about knowing their civil rights.
Say what you want about 2018, but we can agree it ended under the heavy fog of the horrific murder of Newman police Cpl. Ronil Singh, a husband, a new dad, a son and a brother.
No reporter likes to cover these types of stories, being asked to reach out to grieving family members to get a window into the life of the victim or to pepper with questions law enforcement officers whose focus is on capturing the suspect and protecting the case while keeping emotions in check.
As our digital numbers show, there certainly is a place for breaking news. But our reporters would rather create journalism on issues that serve a deeper purpose to our residents, or to be the voice for the silent, or to introduce inspiring people who warm the hearts of our readers.
There was plenty of that in 2018 coming from the men and women in our third-floor newsroom at the corner of 11th and J streets in downtown Modesto. Here are some of the works our reporters felt were their best or most important, or stories they just enjoyed writing.
- Tireless and careful enterprise and investigative reporting have for years been Garth Stapley’s trademark. That never was more evident this year than in his series of stories on the alleged sexual abuse by youth pastors years ago at the former First Baptist Church in Modesto. His countless interviews with several victims, who assumed no one would believe them, yielded stories felt at churches in Kansas and Arizona. One former Modesto youth pastor, Les Hughey, who was founding senior pastor at a megachurch in Scottsdale, Ariz., left there in disgrace after Garth broke the story of alleged abuse. Another, Brad Tebbutt, was placed on leave by his last-known employer, International House of Prayer in Kansas City, after Garth’s interview with victim Jennifer Roach. “I never could have predicted that giving a voice to previously silent victims would become among the most important stories I would do in my career,” Stapley said. “But that’s what has happened.”
The story of the woman in Modesto who died after she was run over by a CalTrans cleanup crew may never have gone public without the dogged reporting of Erin Tracy. Her repeated returns to the homeless encampment — with photographer Andy Alfaro — and subsequent interviews with other homeless people there not only put a name on the victim, but also a much-needed light on a state agency’s program that is becoming more dangerous and expensive by the year. Erin’s natural inquisitiveness also led to a county investigation looking into the uptick of crashes – and possible fixes – at a popular intersection east of Modesto. Her ability to connect with a subject was best illustrated by a recent story on a Modesto woman whose husband died as a result of a scuba diving accident in Hawaii. “Like Kathy (Monday), I hope that by sharing her and Jeff’s story, a life might be saved,” Erin said.
As a local news organization, one of our missions is to own important issues that impact our community. Nobody owned homelessness more than Kevin Valine. From the temporary solutions near downtown, on Scenic Drive, and at Beard Brook Park, to under the Ninth Street Bridge, Kevin informed readers on every twist and turn. He wrote not only about solutions, but about causes, like that of an 86-year-old woman named Neftely “Lee” Kennedy, who was being priced out of her apartment. With confidence, I can say Kevin’s reporting, and bringing this issue, as one said, from the backyard to the front yard, was instrumental in our success this year with “A Book of Dreams.” Thanks to our residents, the Stanislaus Community Foundation and, to an extent, Kevin’s ability to shine a light on the problem, our fundraising effort raised more than $80,000 for agencies that focus on finding shelter for those in need.
We put Rosalio Ahumada, our courts reporter, on immigration this year, and within weeks, he flourished. His ability to gain trust with contacts afforded him interviews with two women who live daily with the fact that deportation could be around the corner. They revealed their fears, their hopes and living a life where a return to Mexico is a door knock away. His reporting also revealed agencies out there that can provide support for the thousands of undocumented immigrants in Stanislaus County. Rosalio also reported on some truly awful court cases, including a sentence for a Ceres father convicted of sexually abusing his daughter and then killing her. “Details in the case were gruesome and the pain the girl’s mother and great aunt endured was more than I could ever imagine,” Rosalio said.
If anyone can bring a person or issue to life, it’s Deke Farrow. He’s as comfortable on a breaking news story as he is drilling down into human emotion. The former was illustrated last week by his tireless work on the death of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh and the latter by his profiles on Army veteran Eli Price and Waterford dad Adam Davis. Price’s struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury were only revealed through a series of interviews and monthslong reporting and writing. That Davis of Waterford was able to tearfully talk about the tragic death of his son, Johnny, while riding bikes on a July day goes to Deke’s ability to put interview subjects at ease. Of course, a music and movie buff, Deke loved telling the story of a robbery years ago in Modesto that was the jumping-off point to Robert Redford’s reportedly last-ever acting role.
If there’s a complex issue to unpack — and in a hurry — few can do it better than Ken Carlson. In addition to being one of the state’s top medical writers, he keeps a close eye Stanislaus County agencies, education and is a quick study on a range of issues. He broke stories this summer on the state water grab – pointing out in one of them a potential conflict of interest involving the head of the State Water Resources Control Board and her husband whose agency has had millions of dollars in contracts with the state agency. There was the controversy involving Modesto City Schools and two refugee girls from Afghanistan and their attempt to attend school at Davis High. Ken covered labor issues involving the Yosemite Community College District, along with another potential conflict involving a former chancellor over a software services contract.
Marijke Rowland is one of our most-read reporters. And why not? She writes on the businesses that open or close or the ones we simply frequent. She also keeps an eye on empty lots, and one of those – north of the Vintage Faire Mall – she discovered will be developed into restaurants, retail stores and housing. And who doesn’t want to take a taste test of Gallo’s rebranded Thunderbird? Interestingly, one story she felt most touched by was her report on the passing of Modesto arts icon Grace Lieberman. “While writing obituaries is never fun, it was truly my honor to be able write the tribute. … Her dedication and passion for all of the arts remains a true inspiration.”
There was a lot more inspiring work that certainly touched and informed readers through our coverage of elections, high school football, entertainment and, in partnership with our McClatchy neighbors in Sacramento, Merced and Fresno, valleywide issues on health, the environment, immigration and transportation. Certainly, our editorials sparked emotion and mostly civil conversation. Well, maybe not mostly.
Through it all, though, the sheer volume this year of letters to the editors and comments on Facebook showed me that we connected with readers and that there is a great need and place in our community for local journalism.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement, and that’s my goal for next year: to keep getting better, to keep serving you, the reader, and to help us better engage with residents on issues that affect them.
This year closed on a truly tragic note. Here’s hoping for a happy and fruitful 2019. As always, thanks for reading The Bee.
2018 Most-Read Local Stories on Modbee.com