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Annals of JournalismSeptember 25, 2000 Issue
I Got the Sheriff
By Alex Kotlowitz
September 17, 2000
The New Yorker, September 25, 2000 P. 44
ANNALS OF JOURNALISM about a scandal in Princeton, Illinois... Describes how reporter David Silverberg uncovered a scandal involving the raffling of a motorcycle to fund the reelection of Sheriff Greg Johnson, and a dead reporter... The raffle came and went, and the townspeople began to wonder who’d won the bike. A new Harley in a town the size of Princeton, after all, would be noticed. Finally, after weeks of speculation in the local cafes, one ticket buyer decided he’d been bamboozled and consulted a lawyer. Nothing ever came of that, but a local reporter named Thetis Sims started nosing around... The mother of six grown children, she was a rather large woman, who had a heart condition... Silverberg ran into Thetis Sims’s husband, Cletus, at Wal-Mart. Cletus confirmed that his wife had been investigating the raffle and the matter of the missing Harley. He also told Silverberg that, at the hospital where the paramedics had taken his wife, the Sheriff mentioned that he had been showing Thetis something before she died. Cletus believed that the Sheriff had presented Thetis with an anonymous letter that had been mailed to neighbors earlier that same day, accusing Cletus of sex crimes. It was signed, “A Concerned Father and a saddened Husband.” (The accusations were completely unfounded.) To Cletus, it seemed clear that the Sheriff was trying to intimidate his wife into backing off her investigation... The Sheriff declared that a Lyle Rawson, of Chicago, had won the raffle, and that he had chosen to take twelve thousand dollars in cash rather than the bike... Over the next few months, a series of newspaper stories continued to poke holes in the Sheriff’s statements. The Peoria paper, for example, debunked the notion that Johnson and Sims were “exchanging pleasantries” when she died. The paper established that the Sheriff had been on the line to Princeton’s assistant postmaster inquiring about the legality of sending defamatory mail when Sims had her heart attack. He ended that call to phone for an ambulance. Silverberg reported that Johnson’s campaign treasurer had refused to sign an amended report on the raffle that the Sheriff tried to file with the elections board... Silverberg was the first to write about the suspicions raised by Sims, and in journalism being first means a lot. Silverberg says that people now come to him with alleged dirt on one politician or another, expecting him to dig. “I think because they’ve seen what I can do, they think I’m capable of things I’m not capable of,” he said. “I do the best I can to keep up with the news in Bureau County.”...
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Published in the print edition of the September 25, 2000, issue.
Alex Kotlowitz, who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the author of four books, including, most recently, “An American Summer.”
More:
Campaigns
Heart Attacks
Newspapermen
Raffles
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