The scanner tuned to the Somervell County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher frequency squawked on last Friday around 11:20 a.m. Officers sped to a roadside park on the east side of the Brazos River bridge. I couldn’t tell from the exchanges over the scanner exactly what was going on, but it was something big.
Then someone called our office. A bunch of law enforcement people, including our local justices of the peace, were clustered at the roadside park, the caller said. Did we know what was going on? When a JP is called, that usually means there’s a body. JPs have the legal authority to pronounce a person dead.
My colleague, Linda Rowe, came in from lunch. I grabbed my camera and we headed out to the scene.
Law enforcement vehicles, some with lights flashing, lined the side of U.S. Highway 67 by the roadside park. A white pickup truck was parked at the back of the park. The passenger door was open and officers were clustered around it, looking inside. Some wore gloves and were placing items of evidence in brown paper bags.
Investigating officer Lt. Anders Dahl of the county sheriff’s office walked up to meet us and stop us from going any farther. I asked if there was a body in the truck. Yes, he said. I got the basic information from him. The authorities were checking the license plate and looking through personal effects to identify the man and contact his family.
At that point all the officers knew was that the man was Hispanic, middle-aged and had been shot once in the head with a small-caliber pistol. The body would be taken to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office for positive identification and cause and time of death.
The man was from Cleburne. How and why he ended up at the roadside park to spend his last minutes, under the tall oak trees, no one knows.
Word spread quickly around Glen Rose. More people called our office wanting to know what had happened. They were especially concerned that the person in the truck was someone local.
In the past, they would have had to wait until the newspaper came out on Wednesday. But technology now allows the Reporter to become a daily publication. When news breaks, we post it as fast as we can.
I wrote the story and we posted it online, then put the news on our wall on Facebook. One reader in particular criticized the move, calling it “tasteless” and accusing the newspaper of being more interested in hits on the Web site than good journalism.
That stung. We were trying to get the word out to our readers as quickly as possible. Many people had questions. They deserved answers, although we certainly didn’t have all of them since the investigation into the man’s death was ongoing.
But a violent death in a small town IS news. Unfortunately, many people living in large cities grow so accustomed to shootings, stabbings and deaths from other crimes that it becomes almost routine. Violent deaths often only merit a paragraph in a large metro newspaper.
In a small town, though, it’s important, even shocking, because things like this don’t happen here every day. In fact, they rarely happen, which is what makes them news. One definition of "news" is that it's an event out of the ordinary. This certainly was.
Reputable newspapers have a policy against reporting names of suicide victims, rape victims and minors who are victims of sexual crimes.
But a violent death at a public roadside park along a busy highway, drawing sheriff’s officers, Texas Rangers, JPs and other law enforcement authorities warrants an explanation.
The Reporter did not have the man’s name, nor would we have published it if we did have it and authorities had not notified his next-of-kin. When reporting crimes, we rely on law enforcement authorities to provide us information as they can. We do not try to solve crimes, as one reader suggested, or interfere. If law enforcement does not want us to have information, they can always say, “No comment" or ask us to leave.
When I followed up with Sheriff Greg Doyle for some information on Monday, he commented that he wanted people to know what had happened because so many were concerned.
That’s what I like about covering the news in a small town. Violent death is NOT routine. A man’s death in a roadside park matters. I have to put on my news hat and put my emotions aside when I cover such stories.
An event like this deserves a front-page story so that people can see that, yes, bad things can happen in their town. But news like this isn’t like the body of a nameless victim. It shouldn’t be buried and forgotten.