A tragic death, a stolen urn, and how the media helped

A tragic death, a stolen urn, and how the media helped

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It had been a long time since I last heard from John Putnam. I met him in person once when we attended a court hearing at an old, eerily quiet courthouse in Llano, Texas, but we’ve had countless conversations by phone. And when the phone rang at my desk at the San Antonio Express-News a few days ago and I heard John’s familiar voice, I was dumbstruck by the latest news:

Someone had stolen his sister’s ashes.

* * *

Laura Putnam was a bright 23-year-old graduate of Texas Tech University. Six years ago, she was spending a Memorial Day Weekend at the resort community of Horseshoe Bay, where her boyfriend, Justin Moore, asked her to marry him.

Laura Putnam
Laura Putnam

Someone driving a speedboat cut short their promising future. The speedboat’s sleek, curved hull struck the watercraft Laura was riding in and went airborne, knocking Laura into the water. Whoever was at the wheel of the speedboat fled as the two survivors, Justin and his cousin, yelled for help. It was night and they couldn’t find Laura. She was gone.

It took nearly two weeks for search parties to find Laura’s body. Then the Express-News assigned me to the story when game wardens discovered a damaged speedboat at the dock of local Budweiser beer magnates Berkley and Vincent Dawson, who live in San Antonio.

View Map of locations in the Laura Putnam case in a larger map

The Putnams had just learned about the discovery of the damaged boat when the phone rang at their house in Grapevine and the caller ID said: San Antonio Express-News. I was on the other line.

John still remembers how his family, numb from the loss of Laura, were very reluctant to talk to the media. John’s mom, Betty, didn’t see any point in talking to reporters. But John answered the phone. We started talking.

I kept in touch with the Putnams — mostly with John, who was about my age. Somehow, the Putnams realized I wasn’t calling them because I was a vulture. I called because Laura’s life mattered, it was unclear who killed her, and I was trying to figure out who was responsible for her death. The Putnams wanted the same answers. They realized the media could help find those answers by shining the light of public scrutiny on a murky, unsolved case.

I think it’d be very difficult to cover this story if I was a blogger and not a full-time newspaper reporter. Facebook and Twitter are cool, and for some stories, especially breaking news, they’re wonderful tools. For the recent opening of a new segment of the River Walk in San Antonio, we invited Flickr users to submit their pictures of the event, and we featured their shots in a photo gallery and map on our Web site. It was awesome.

But Twitter is not going to pay me to stake out a grand jury, pore over court records, track down witnesses, and do everything else a reporter must do to cover a story like the Laura Putnam case. It was important, full-time work. I wouldn’t be able to do this in my spare time or as a hobby. Often, newspapers are the only organizations willing to pay for this kind of shoe-leather journalism.

David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” explored this problem in a column he wrote for the Washington Post. Simon had read about a police shooting in Baltimore and the news brief contained scant details — not even the officer’s name was released. Simon had worked at the Baltimore Sun, where the paper’s newsroom has been gutted, and no one was challenging the Police Department. Simon started digging into the case, learned the officer’s name was Traci McKissick and found disturbing information about her track record.

In an age when newspapers are downsizing and some are disappearing, Simon asked: Who’s going to spend the time and money to uncover this kind of information? He wrote:

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

After many stories about the Putnam case, one day I found myself in a courtroom in the small town of Llano with the Putnam family, sitting at a polished bench that looked like a church pew, and watching a young man named Robert “Triple” Corrigan III admit his guilt in Laura’s death.

Corrigan, who had no prior criminal record, received a six-month jail sentence, but had to stay out of trouble for 10 years or risk going to prison. After he was arrested in Austin on a charge of driving while intoxicated, he tried to commit suicide and suffered irreparable brain damage. There were no happy endings in this case.

After that, I didn’t hear from John in awhile. He friended me on Facebook and I caught up with him a bit. Then he called me last week about Laura’s stolen ashes — burglars had broken into his parents’ new home in a Fort Worth suburb, mistaken the urn for a jewelry box, and stolen it.

The Putnams were devastated. But John contacted a local TV station. And minutes after that broadcast aired, an anonymous tip came in and the urn was found near an oil well site, not far from the Putnams’ house.

The point of this blog post isn’t to claim the mass media is infallible. It isn’t. But many of us become journalists because we want to tell important stories that would otherwise go untold.

“This is the most relieved I’ve been in a long time, period,” John told me after the urn was recovered. “You guys really helped.”

John, you can call me anytime.

UPDATE: I got another call from John, who had gut-wrenching news. His mom, who had been suffering from depression after Laura’s death, committed suicide.

I still have the card Betty Putnam gave me several years ago, thanking us for sticking with the story of her daughter’s death. I hope a day will come when my phone rings, John will be on the line, and he won’t have any news about yet another tragedy or tribulation his family is forced to endure.

They’ve been through enough.