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From the Publisher: Inside the Scoop

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Published February 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 8, 2022 at 5:30 p.m.


Nicholas Languerand and a clip from the letter he wrote to Seven Days - COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE; MATTHEW ROY
  • Courtesy Of U.S. Department Of Justice; Matthew Roy
  • Nicholas Languerand and a clip from the letter he wrote to Seven Days

Letter writing may be a lost art, but apparently no one informed the U.S. prison population. Seven Days gets snail mail from incarcerated people all over the country. Most are multipage, handwritten cries for help, alleging injustice, mistreatment and conspiracies. Some offer original short stories and poems. Either way, reading the contents of an envelope stamped "inmate correspondence" generally requires patience, empathy and needle-in-a-haystack faith.

At the end of last year, one such missive caught the eye of Seven Days news editor Matthew Roy. Sent from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Virginia, the letter, from Nicholas Languerand, was printed neatly on lined paper: "As far as I am aware, I am the only Vermonter that was arrested for involvement in the January 6th riot at the US Capitol. I don't know how much, if any, media exposure my case has had in VT, but in SC where I was arrested there has been plenty..." The Wolcott native had been indicted on seven counts — including a felony charge of assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon, and he faced one of the longest proposed prison sentences thus far.

Roy did a quick Google search and confirmed that media reports had identified Languerand as hailing from South Carolina, where he was staying with his grandparents when federal agents took him into custody last spring. In his letter, Languerand said he planned to return to Vermont and sought "to make my voice heard among my neighbors who I will eventually return to live with." He said Seven Days was the first — and only — Vermont media outlet he had contacted. "I can only imagine what can of worms I am opening by reaching out to you," he wrote. "Perhaps none at all."

Roy photographed the letter and texted it to reporter Derek Brouwer, who jumped on the story that grew into this week's cover investigation. In the federal court papers documenting the case against Languerand, he found mention of a Burlington restaurant. It reminded Brouwer of an August 2020 incident at Manhattan Pizza & Pub, when someone in a Guy Fawkes mask showed up screaming at the takeout window and later accused the restaurant on social media of being involved in a worldwide child sex-trafficking ring — a well-worn and false conspiracy theory that believers of the QAnon movement were spreading that summer.

At the time, Manhattan's co-owner declined to talk to our reporters. But when Seven Days called earlier this month, he directed Brouwer to the Burlington Police Department report in which Languerand was named as the offender. Brouwer collected law enforcement records from Morrisville and Stowe, too, methodically gathering local intel.

He also started an expensive email exchange with Languerand using the jail's "family and friends" service. They planned a post-sentencing interview, pending approval from Languerand's attorney.

But the lawyer never responded to Brouwer's requests and walked away when the reporter approached him in person on January 26 in a Washington, D.C., court. Brouwer had flown down that morning for Languerand's sentencing hearing. During the 6 a.m. flight, he'd written the gripping lede for "Capitol Offense" and sent it to his colleague Colin Flanders, who was working the Vermont angles of the tale.

Flanders got recruited to help on the story when Brouwer noticed a week earlier that the court file contained a bunch of new documents. In the hope of a more favorable sentence, the defense had submitted a 77-page memo recounting Languerand's difficult childhood. Although Brouwer had already discovered a lot of it, the document provided much more detail than he had time to verify. Flanders would track it down instead.

Meanwhile, all of us were worried about getting scooped — yep, that's still a thing in journalism. We had no idea whether any local media outlets had figured out that Languerand, a Vermonter, was being sentenced that day. National coverage — in the New York Times or the Washington Post — would likely contain enough bio info to tip them off.

Ideally, we wanted to hold off on releasing the news about the sentencing hearing in order to be able to break it in this week's print edition. But, just in case, Brouwer penned a short piece that could run online immediately if it looked like any of our competitors were pursuing it.

In D.C., Brouwer was the only reporter in the courtroom, but he had no idea who was watching remotely. He said the security guards noted his presence and mission. "The guy x-raying my bags said something to the effect that he was surprised a newspaper like that existed anymore," Brouwer told me, adding that he was glad he'd made the trip. "There's no replacement for being there in person. It gave us some scene and color, yes, but it's also important to watch how a subject acts, talks and looks — who shows up for him and who doesn't."

The long-form journalism you read in Seven Days takes time and effort to craft. After more than a month of reporting, Brouwer got home at midnight, woke up the next morning and started writing. Flanders and Brouwer worked almost nonstop for the next 36 hours to meet a Friday noon deadline. They filed the story at 12:08 p.m.

Then began the editing. Every story at Seven Days goes through at least two rounds; in this case, four editors weighed in, looking for holes, asking questions, suggesting word changes, writing the headline and other packaging elements.

The news team decided to fast-track the piece for the same reason Brouwer wrote and then held back the placeholder news post on the sentencing hearing. With each iteration, the story improved. The closer it got to completion, the greater our collective eagerness to get it publish-ready — at least online — in case someone beat us to the punch.

Two rounds of proofreading, design and fact-checking all happened over the weekend so the story would be ready for prime time on Monday. We broke it that afternoon, then followed up with a spot on WCAX-TV's six o'clock news. In the end, we scooped ourselves, two days before the paper came out on Wednesday, to meet the nail-biting challenge of publishing timely news in a weekly print publication.

Our newspaper may be called Seven Days, but we moved heaven and Earth to get this important story done in five.