Following arrests of several News-Times reporters Wednesday, further charges could be pending after the FBI discovered various slippery and illicit means employed among staff members to scoop stories for the paper.
The federal investigation initially began following the arrest of Billy “Hoe” Smith, a former Union County Jailer, who was charged with having sex with female inmates in exchange for contraband goods. An article in the News-Times described the acts with such detail that local FBI Director Lance Goodnight said he had to take a closer look.
“The story described down to a T the acts he asked from the women in jail in exchange for cigarettes and cell phones,” he said. “There’s simply no way that all that could have come out of a probable cause affidavit.”
Investigators seized reporters’ cell phones and personal computers in the hopes of discovering the means with which they came up with such salacious scoops.
Amid exchanged complaints detailing the sources who notoriously wouldn’t return phone calls and plans to catch Applebees Karaoke Night later on in the evening, were a smattering of messages that dealt with the specific stories they were working on, according to the FBI report.
While all information into Smith’s arrest was indeed compiled in the probable cause affidavit, stories concerning lemurs set loose at Mellor Park Mall, — left undetected for approximately three weeks — license plates mysteriously exchanged in the middle of the night between the police department and sheriff’s office vehicles, and the theft of all snow cone machines from portable trailers across the county, all gave cause for concern, Goodnight said.
“How could they have known about the lemurs?” Goodnight wondered aloud. “No one else did.”
Further investigation revealed that reporters Allison Gatlin, Heather Hawley and Sara Mitchell had, in fact, hacked into a number of Facebook accounts and deleted Topix pages for the information concerning all three stories, he explained.
All three maintain that they did so under the direction of Managing Editor Chris Qualls who pointedly told them to dig deeper into their respective beats.
Qualls, however, maintains that he had nothing to do with the hacking incidents and said he would willingly hand over his cell phone and computer to investigators.
“I just don’t know where I went wrong,” he said, sadly shaking his head at the near-empty newsroom. “I just don’t know.”
Gatlin, Hawley and Mitchell were all transported to the Union County Jail on charges of invasion of privacy, according to the FBI report. Further arrests may follow depending on the information elicited from the three during interviews, Goodnight said.
Reportedly, the three have banded together and used their collective one phone call to make sure the story made it to the newsroom by press time.