A fairly bizarre news story from the county seat of my recently-former Colorado home not only caught my eye, but quickly spread to national, and now international, headlines.
Naturally, the story made it into True for this week:
How Many Obliviots Have a Part in This Story?
The tiny (population 900) tourist town of Ouray, Colo., is rocked by a scandal: a 17-year-old girl was raped several times by more than one man. Three men, aged 18, 18, and 20, were arrested, including Ouray’s police chief’s 18-year-old stepson, who was nabbed in Kansas on a fugitive warrant. Then the local newspaper dropped another bombshell on the front page: the rapes occurred in the police chief’s home while he and the rest of the family were sleeping upstairs. But the story was hard to read, in that someone “put in four quarters and took all the papers” from the newspaper’s racks, said co-publisher Erin McIntyre in a statement — or, at least, 12 of the 13 racks, since the thief missed one. “Whoever did this does not understand that stealing newspapers doesn’t stop a story,” she said. “If you meant to intimidate us, you just strengthened our resolve.” The paper made the story free on its website, and rushed to print more papers, thanks in part to more than $2,000 in donations from readers. But as multiple national media outlets covered the theft, which story is beginning to spread internationally, the man who took the papers came forward to return them. Paul Choate, 41, a local restaurant owner, was cited for theft; the Plaindealer said he has no apparent connection to the Ouray Police or the suspects in the case. The county sheriff brought in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to investigate the rape to avoid conflicts of interest. (RC/CBS, Ouray County Plaindealer) …Obliviot tries to hide the news, the news blows up in his face. Perfect.
First, I have updated the story since publication regarding Paul Choate. It originally noted that “the Plaindealer said he has no apparent connection to the police chief or the rape case.” I changed that because re-read the newspaper’s statement, which was before he was cited and therefore unnamed.
It reads: “The suspect in this matter is unrelated to any of the defendants in the alleged sex assault case, and unrelated to any law enforcement, including the Ouray Police chief and his department.” So I’ve updated the story to better reflect that. See also a later statement from the newspaper at the bottom of this page.
Next: I know the sheriff and undersheriff quite well (which department was called in to investigate the crime, but punted it to state investigators for obvious reasons).
I also somewhat know the police chief mentioned, in that we served on a board together, and he asked me to help with a couple of the department’s radio communications issues.
And I know Erin, the newspaper’s co-publisher, reasonably well, both personally and professionally, and her husband (the other co-publisher) less well. Erin is an awesome bulldog of an investigative reporter; a big fish in a small pond who really turned the local paper around after buying it a few years ago, doing some great work. Erin wrote that front-page story, which is indeed disturbing.
Doing the Job
Some locals are aghast that the paper would report about a sex crime in any sort of detail. The thing is, that same newspaper has run many upset Letters to the Editor about other sex crimes in the county that were either not prosecuted, or the accused was found not guilty, and How Could This Happen?
Yet when the newspaper is finally bought out by a couple who does report on such things, who have the guts to point out the ugly truths, there are complaints about that, too! In fact, her husband filed a police report after receiving a telephoned threat. It’s a thankless job, so I thank Erin (and Mike) for doing it so well.
Because it happens more than anyone thinks, in part because such stories are so often covered up, swept under the rug, or just not investigated (or prosecuted) well. Plus, sometimes the men are actually innocent. And, of course, many victims don’t report the crimes because they don’t want to testify in open court, or think that no one will believe them — and indeed the teen victim in this case figured no one would believe her, either, since it happened at the police chief’s house. But the hospital called the sheriff when she went to the emergency room, and while I fully understand this glare is terribly uncomfortable for her, it at least sounds like there will be some prison time served for this crime.
More About the Case
All three men were arrested on warrants charging sexual assault. Whittington is also charged with providing alcohol to a minor, presumably the victim. All three have been released on $60,000 bond.
The victim said she was willing to report the crime because, she says, she was also raped by Trujillo and Dieffenderffer in the summer of 2021 (I’ll do the math: she was likely only 15; Dieffenderffer was 16 or 17). When she ran from the chief’s house in May, she grabbed a sweatshirt she found to cover herself. It turns out that belonged to the chief; it’s presumably now held as evidence in the criminal case.
Why was she at Dieffenderffer’s house? Because they were celebrating Whittington’s birthday; he had just turned 18, and Dieffenderffer was to turn 18 eleven days later. (Yes, he was thus a juvenile at the time of the rape; I’d be shocked if he was not tried as an adult.) Dieffenderffer was in Kansas because he’s now in the U.S. Army, I’m guessing stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, since he was arrested by Geary County Sheriff’s deputies.
More about Ouray
Last, all of this is hitting the fan right in the middle of Ice Fest, an annual international ice climbing festival in Ouray’s Ice Park, so the cops are super busy. Yep, the city runs the largest municipal ice-climbing park in, almost certainly, the world. I wrote about that in this blog in 2007 — after I happened to end up in the middle of a climber rescue while there taking photos.
P.S.: If you missed that we moved away from Colorado, see this post.
23 January 24 Update
I’m publishing this statement issued yesterday afternoon by the Plaindealer in its entirety since it answers quite a few questions about its coverage. All emphasis is from the original.
We understand the person who took the newspapers was upset about the story on the sexual assault that allegedly happened at the Ouray police chief’s house. We want to explain a few things to you, in light of Paul Choate’s recent statements, and to correct some misinformation that is circulating.
We want to be transparent with you about how and why we reported this story, even if you disagree with our decision to do so.
We reported this story because it’s important for the community to understand the severity of the allegations of this crime.
This case is a matter of public interest for several reasons – it involves a young woman who says she was raped by more than one suspect in the police chief’s house while he was sleeping upstairs.
It involves alleged underage drinking and drug use, in the police chief’s house. The victim in this case was reluctant to move forward with the investigation and charges because she told investigators she was afraid no one would believe her, citing the people involved, and the potential repercussions.
We included details showing she told investigators this wasn’t the first time she was sexually assaulted by two of the suspects, which is important to know. We obtained these details from public documents filed with the court.
In reporting thoroughly on this story, we needed to convey how serious the allegations were in this case – and the brutality of what was recounted for the investigators.
Others in the community need to be aware of this crime being reported, and of the details. Those people we need to inform include other potential future victims of sexual assault.
We need you to know that, prior to publishing the stories on the alleged rape case, we communicated with a person who has been supporting the victim. She agreed to speak with the victim and provide a copy of the affidavit we received to her, and review the details so the victim would not be surprised by what was coming in the paper. We did this before the story was published. We did not hear anything from the victim before the story was published.
Paul Choate may justify his actions as protective of the victim in this case, and say his motivations for committing a crime were to illustrate that victims’ statements shouldn’t be publicized without their permission. But our conversations with him on the day he returned the newspapers he stole didn’t reflect this mission.
Initially, he accused us of overshadowing stories he deemed positive by putting the sexual assault story on the front page, above the fold.
“I hate to see rape trumping something like skijoring, you know?” he said.
During conversations the day he returned the newspapers, Paul Choate also repeatedly brought up previous stories, criticizing the Plaindealer’s coverage of former Sheriff Lance FitzGerald (who had a series of alcohol-fueled domestic incidents before the voters of Ouray County recalled him with more than 90% of the vote), the Ouray KOA campground (which flouted COVID rules during the pandemic), and the parasite outbreak tied to Taco del Gnar restaurant in Ridgway.
“What you did to the KOA during the pandemic… What you did to Lance (FitzGerald)… you don’t follow up. You don’t do your research. …For you to go in and make basically accusations, there’s no facts to a lot of what you say,” he said.
He became angry during these conversations and said, “I want your little newspaper kiosk off my patio tomorrow.” We informed him he does not own the patio at Kate’s Place restaurant.
Simply put, Paul Choate had a grudge against the Plaindealer before we wrote this story. And when we spoke with him about the newspaper theft, he alternated between saying he was sorry and lashing out against us for doing our jobs.
When we told him we had reached out to a liaison for the victim, providing the affidavit and its details before we published the story, his response was, “Where was my phone call?” We told him he is not the victim in this case.
We considered not reporting his name, for fear of further harm to those involved in the case. But Paul Choate removed that option when he called the largest TV station in Colorado and confessed, and a journalist at that outlet announced he had contacted them and they would report the name after he was cited.
Paul Choate’s decision to steal the newspapers created a situation where he has caused more harm. As a result, the story he didn’t want people to read in a county of 5,000 has reached a national audience. And the Plaindealer has been dragged into a story it would much rather cover than be a part of.
If Paul Choate had seemed truly apologetic, we would have not pursued charges. The fact remains – he tried to prevent others from reading a story about a serious crime reported in Ouray County. It backfired and now that story has spread much farther than it would have, had he not tried to suppress the public’s right to know and the freedom of the press.
We will explain more in a column in this week’s Plaindealer.
Thank you to those who have been supportive of our continued efforts to provide the community with relevant, vital local news coverage.
We sincerely hope the focus of attention can return to the story about the case, instead of the story about how someone tried to prevent others from reading the story.
As An Aside, I was one of the “victims” of the parasitic illness at the local gourmet taco joint mentioned here. The newspaper published my letter to the editor on the subject, and the owners of that restaurant came running up to me a few days later when I went back in to eat as a show of support. They offered me a free meal; I refused, telling them that we knew their business took a hit, and we were there to support them the way it really matters to a business: with our paid patronage.
With that, my letter:
While I don’t dispute the right of anyone to file a lawsuit when they feel wronged, I’m still disheartened by your report of two suits against Taco del GNAR, as I consider them to be victims of their supplier(s) — the “John Does” — who let them down, just as the affected diners were victims and let down. After all, as you report, “Cyclospora outbreaks are typically the result of contamination during growing or shipping produce, rather than poor food handling or cleaning practices.” That doesn’t spell negligence on GNAR’s part to me.
I speak as one of those affected diners: I had lunch at GNAR during that time; I was wondering what was going on with my gut 10-ish days later as I did get sick. Once I saw the reports, I put two and two together and got antibiotics, which quickly fixed me up. Yes, it was quite uncomfortable for a bit. But considering how rough our local restaurants have had it through the pandemic and the “great resignation,” I’ve already been doing all I can to support them, including returning to Taco del GNAR as this event does not reflect on them. I hope others will join me.
Log Hill Mesa
Speaking as someone who has been involved in some way or another in many events that made local news, I don’t recall ever feeling that the current publishers of the Plaindealer have been unfair in coverage I’ve read in their pages.
- On January 29, with many in the community calling for the resignation of Police Chief Jeff Wood, the Ouray City Manager put him on an indefinite-term paid administrative leave. The community is riled that he has not made any statement, but it would probably be inappropriate for him to do so since it is not his investigation. (Source)
- I mentioned in my commentary that I’d be “shocked” if Dieffenderffer was not tried as an adult. In early February, the prosecutor indeed charged him as an adult, replacing the earlier charge as a juvenile. (Source: Plaindealer, 8 February 2024)
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