It's hard to not cast a cynical eye on the tsunami of ink the Burlington Free Press has unleashed in trying to obtain police and university documents related to the case of the Essex couple who went missing on June 8. On the one hand, as a fellow journalist, I can sympathize with reporters' and editors' ire over being repeatedly shut down in their public records requests. On the other hand, the daily drumbeat playing out on the front pages of the Free Press seems like little more than a way of generating headlines in a criminal investigation that, for now, is mostly unfolding behind closed doors.
Ever since the June 8 disappearance of William and Lorraine Currier of Essex (pictured) the Free Press has run at least seven stories about the legal wrangling over the paper's denied records requests for search warrants, police affidavits and UVM emails belonging to William Currier, an animal-care technician employed by a university subcontractor. Both the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office and UVM officials have repeatedly denied those requests.
Based on the number of Free Press writers who have penned stories on this subject (four), as well as the urgent tone of their headlines — "Ruling pending on release of Currier case search warrant" (June 23); "Warrants, emails challenged in Currier case" (June 23); "Prosecutor challenges judge's ruling to release warrants to media in case of missing Essex couple (June 25); "Supreme Court keeps Essex search documents secret" (June 27); "Court rules to temporarily seal warrants in case of missing Essex couple," (June 28); "Judge: Prosecutor's case for sealing search warrants in missing couple case weak" (June 30) — one could led to believe that Vermont's courthouses are under siege by an army of Gannett lawyers filing repeated motions and memoranda in the name of the Fourth Estate.
At least, that what I assumed when I queried managing editor Mike Townsend about the Free Press' ongoing court battle with Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan. Thus far, Donovan has refused to release any of the documents, at the behest of Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose, and has asked the Vermont Supreme Court to uphold his decision.
"The Free Press has not engaged in a court battle or enlisted the services of an attorney," answered associate editor Mike Kilian in an email to Seven Days.
"Not engaged in a court battle?" That's an interesting, if disingenuous, take on things, considering the print headline on the June 25 front-page Free Press story: "Court battle brews in missing couple case."
To be fair, the Free Press hasn't actually made its case in court — just the court of public opinion. However, that's likely to change soon, as the Vermont Supreme Court has asked both sides to file court papers about the records request by July 6.
"Three judges' rulings to date have concluded that the State's Attorney's Office has failed to make the case that release of the search warrants would impede the investigation," Kilian noted, "and our hope would be that the Supreme Court concurs."
Is this a bonafide violation of Vermont's open-records law — a cause the Free Press has been championing for months, as evidenced by its daily chronicle of open-records provisions and the legal exemptions thereto — or a tempest in a teapot?
Obviously, Donovan believes the latter. While he said he understands the need for transparency and the media's right to access public records, that right is "not absolute."
"For me, part of the critical question here with search warrants is the timing of when they’re [made] public," Donovan said. "Are they public after charges are filed? That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But during the pendency of an investigation, where perhaps there is an alleged perpetrator out there who could gain an advantage by having access to this information, I don’t think there are strong public policy reasons for releasing that information."
University officials have essentially staked out similar legal ground, according to Enrique Corredera, UVM's director of communications.
"We have regularly demonstrated our commitment to openness and transparency, especially when responding to public records acts requests," said Corredera. "But in this case, the request involved records previously provided to police as part of an ongoing investigation involving potential criminal activity. Our position is that we simply cannot take any action that could potentially interfere with an ongoing police investigation."
In the meantime, one might also assume that the Freeps' reporters are onto an especially juicy lead that justifies compromising the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation: Are the Essex Police covering something up? Have their detectives botched the investigation? Is the family frustrated by the pace of new developments?
"That would be speculation," Kilian wrote back. "All I'll say is that the free flow of information assists the public in gauging the effectiveness of their elected and appointed officials.
"The Currier disappearance has generated considerable public interest and concern," he added. "The Essex police have shed very little light on the case. We believe release of the search warrants has the potential to build public understanding of what might have occurred in a high-profile case." Not to mention the potential for more headlines.
But Essex Chief LaRose begged to differ on who's shedding light versus heat. Pointing out that he and other Essex officers are fielding media inquiries "every day" on the Currier case, "I think we’ve been very open with all the media in sharing what we can," LaRose argued. "We’re putting out as much information as we can without compromising the investigation."
Could the release of the warrant returns — that is, what police turned up in their search of the Curriers' home — actually compromise the investigation?
"I'd say stronger than 'could,'" LaRose said. "I can't say definitely, but there's a strong possibility."
Some information included in the police affidavits would be known only to family members, police or a potential perpetrator, LaRose noted. Moreover, he's asked the family not to be public about certain details, in the greater interest of finding the couple more quickly.
"We asked the family to try to help us out here and not make it any more public than we have to," LaRose explained, without mentioning specifics. "We can’t say it’s protected information that only the police know, but it does help us to narrow the scope of things."
Early on, LaRose said, the family had questions about why detectives couldn’t share more information with them. "But when we explained it to them, they understood it right out of the chute why we do things like that and were appreciative of it," LaRose said. "It's very difficult for them, but they understand that we’re doing everything we can do to figure out where Bill and Lorraine are. And, they’re 100 percent behind our efforts."
When asked if the family has designated someone who might answer a reporter's questions on this legal brouhaha, LaRose added, "They don't want to speak to the media."
Finally, LaRose seemed at a loss to understand why the Free Press was putting on the full court press for information that will be made public in due time. As he put it, "Jeez, we’re all in this together, the public and police, trying to get justice served here in the best way possible."