Sat. May 18th, 2024

A Small-Town Paper Lands a Very Big Story

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Bruce Willingham, fifty-two years a newspaperman, owns and publishes the McCurtain Gazette, in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, a rolling sweep of timber and lakes that forms the southeastern corner of the state. McCurtain County is geographically larger than Rhode Island and less populous than the average Taylor Swift concert. Thirty-one thousand people live there; forty-four hundred buy the Gazette, which has been in print since 1905, before statehood. At that time, the paper was known as the Idabel Signal, referring to the county seat. An early masthead proclaimed “indian territory, choctaw nation.”

Willingham bought the newspaper in 1988, with his wife, Gwen, who gave up a nursing career to become the Gazette’s accountant. They operate out of a storefront office in downtown Idabel, between a package-shipping business and a pawnshop. The staff parks out back, within sight of an old Frisco railway station, and enters through the “morgue,” where the bound archives are kept. Until recently, no one had reason to lock the door during the day.

Three days a week (five, before the pandemic), readers can find the latest on rodeo queens, school cafeteria menus, hardwood-mill closings, heat advisories. Some headlines: “Large Cat Sighted in Idabel,” “Two of State’s Three Master Bladesmiths Live Here,” “Local Singing Group Enjoys Tuesdays.” Anyone who’s been cited for speeding, charged with a misdemeanor, applied for a marriage license, or filed for divorce will see his or her name listed in the “District Court Report.” In Willingham’s clutterbucket of an office, a hulking microfiche machine sits alongside his desktop computer amid lunar levels of dust; he uses the machine to unearth and reprint front pages from long ago. In 2017, he transported readers to 1934 via a banner headline: “negro slayer of white man killed.” The area has long been stuck with the nickname Little Dixie.

Gazette articles can be shorter than recipes, and what they may lack in detail, context, and occasionally accuracy, they make up for by existing at all. The paper does more than probe the past or keep tabs on the local felines. “We’ve investigated county officials a lot,” Willingham, who is sixty-eight, said the other day. The Gazette exposed a county treasurer who allowed elected officials to avoid penalties for paying their property taxes late, and a utilities company that gouged poor customers while lavishing its executives with gifts. “To most people, it’s Mickey Mouse stuff,” Willingham told me. “But the problem is, if you let them get away with it, it gets worse and worse and worse.”

The Willinghams’ oldest son, Chris, and his wife, Angie, work at the Gazette, too. They moved to Idabel from Oklahoma City in the spring of 2005, not long after graduating from college. Angie became an editor, and Chris covered what is known in the daily-news business as cops and courts. Absurdity often made the front page—a five-m.p.h. police “chase” through town, a wayward snake. Three times in one year, the paper wrote about assaults in which the weapon was chicken and dumplings. McCurtain County, which once led the state in homicides, also produces more sinister blotter items: a man cashed his dead mother’s Social Security checks for more than a year; a man killed a woman with a hunting bow and two arrows; a man raped a woman in front of her baby.

In a small town, a dogged reporter is inevitably an unpopular one. It isn’t easy to write about an old friend’s felony drug charge, knowing that you’re going to see him at church. When Chris was a teen-ager, his father twice put him in the paper, for the misdemeanors of stealing beer, with buddies, at a grocery store where one of them worked, and parking illegally—probably with those same buddies, definitely with beer—on a back-road bridge, over a good fishing hole.

Chris has a wired earnestness and a voice that carries. Listening to a crime victim’s story, he might boom, “Gollll-ly!” Among law-enforcement sources, “Chris was respected because he always asked questions about how the system works, about proper procedure,” an officer said. Certain cops admired his willingness to pursue uncomfortable truths even if those truths involved one of their own. “If I was to do something wrong—on purpose, on accident—Chris Willingham one hundred per cent would write my butt in the paper, on the front page, in bold letters,” another officer, who has known him for more than a decade, told me.

In the summer of 2021, Chris heard that there were morale problems within the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff, Kevin Clardy, who has woolly eyebrows and a mustache, and often wears a cowboy hat, had just started his second term. The first one had gone smoothly, but now, according to some colleagues, Clardy appeared to be playing favorites.

The current discord stemmed from two recent promotions. Clardy had brought in Larry Hendrix, a former deputy from another county, and, despite what some considered to be weak investigative skills, elevated him to undersheriff—second-in-command. Clardy had also hired Alicia Manning, who had taken up law enforcement only recently, in her forties. Rookies typically start out on patrol, but Clardy made Manning an investigator. Then he named her captain, a newly created position, from which she oversaw the department’s two dozen or so deputies and managed cases involving violence against women and children. Co-workers were dismayed to see someone with so little experience rise that quickly to the third most powerful rank. “Never patrolled one night, never patrolled one day, in any law-enforcement aspect, anywhere in her life, and you’re gonna bring her in and stick her in high crimes?” one officer who worked with her told me.

Chris was sitting on a tip that Clardy favored Manning because the two were having an affair. Then, around Thanksgiving, 2021, employees at the county jail, whose board is chaired by the sheriff, started getting fired, and quitting. The first to go was the jail’s secretary, who had worked there for twenty-six years. The jail’s administrator resigned on the spot rather than carry out the termination; the secretary’s husband, the jail’s longtime handyman, quit, too. When Chris interviewed Clardy about the unusual spate of departures, the sheriff pointed out that employment in Oklahoma is at will. “It is what it is,” he said. In response to a question about nepotism, involving the temporary promotion of his stepdaughter’s husband, Clardy revealed that he had been divorced for a few months and separated for more than a year. Chris asked, “Are you and Alicia having sex?” Clardy repeatedly said no, insisting, “We’re good friends. Me and Larry’s good friends, but I’m not having sex with Larry, either.”

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