Our Freedom of Information Issue salutes the winners of the 2011 James Madison Awards
Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Acheivement
One midsummer day in 2007, Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher Tim Crews noticed smoke billowing into the air several miles away. A duck hunters cabin on an expansive Glenn County farm compound was ablaze. By the time the fire engine sirens had sounded, Crews was on his way there to find out what was happening.
The twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror, which has a circulation of 3,000, is run by a small staff on a shoestring budget — but Crews' tenacity in the wake of the cabin fire has shown that it doesn't take a multimillion dollar budget to practice hard-hitting, investigative journalism that has an impact. If it hadn't been for Crews' comprehensive series, "Who Killed Bud?," Ivan "Bud" Foglesong's death in that fire might never have come under the microscope.
Following a yearlong investigation, the coroner's office ruled the death a suicide. "One of the lieutenants told the widow, 'We think Bud just went in there and poured a can of gas on his head and set himself on fire.' " Crews said. But he didn't buy it. "I said to them, why would he do that? "
With some digging, Crews learned that the man who perished in the fire had been a commercial pilot. Prior to that, "he'd been a military attaché, trusted with the nation's highest secrets," Crews said. "No drug or alcohol problems, physicals all the time. Not your typical unstable guy."
Using public records as well as information gathered through his own research and interviews, Crews published bits of information in the Valley Mirror that local law enforcement had apparently missed. There was ongoing strife between Foglesong and the district attorney's son, which had flared into violence directed at Foglesong at least once. The D.A. was Foglesong's brother-in-law and a neighbor on the family compound where the cabin burned. Crews talked to the nurses who gave Foglesong emergency medical care just before he died — telling them there had been an explosion. Crews spotlighted inconsistencies within the investigative reports, key evidence that went missing, and the demolition of the burnt cabin without a permit.
Faced with the dilemma that the evidence didn't add up, the sheriff coroner issued a new death certificate, characterizing it as an accident instead of a suicide. The Valley Mirror stories kept coming.
"Finally, the sheriff coroner, after two years, convenes a coroner's inquest," Crews recounted. That hadn't happened in Glenn County in 40 or 50 years. "The coroner's jury came back in an hour, 9-6 for death at the hands of another." The investigation is now at the state level.
The "Who Killed Bud?" series is just one example of Crews' journalistic grand slams. A different D.A. lost his bid for reelection, largely due to Valley Mirror coverage: "[He] said at a domestic violence meeting about a domestic violence victim, 'Lying bitch deserved to be beaten.' So we ran it in 40 point, top story," Crews said, "because it tells you very drastically what the establishment's attitudes are toward women. That just cannot be."
Other stories have landed him in hot water. Crews once spent five days in jail for refusing to give up a confidential source who told him that the new assistant sheriff had stolen a low-quality firearm. Crews has won numerous journalism awards and will be honored with the Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Achievement at the James Madison Awards ceremony. But his raw reportage has made enemies, too — including some within the local legal system. With his propensity to sue government agencies when they violate the California Public Records Act (CPRA) by withholding public records instead of honoring his sunshine requests, this dynamic has spelled trouble.