As I read reporter J. Andrew Curliss’ story about the Hamlet police before it was published Sunday, incredulous at what he’d discovered, I could think of only one person: Pat Stith.
If you missed it, Curliss went to Hamlet, a small city about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh, and reported a story no one could make up. The Hamlet police had pulled motorists and charged some of them with low-level offenses, such as failure to have a proper license tag and having an out-of-date inspection sticker. Police seized at least 25 cars. They demanded thousands of dollars for their return. When owners couldn’t come up with the money, police had the cars sold as scrap.
At least 10 of the scrapped vehicles belonged to people who were not convicted of any wrongdoing.
Stith was an investigative reporter at The News & Observer for 37 years before retiring in 2008. He had a talent for deep reporting and an eye for the remarkable story. He called such a story a “Hey, Martha” – as in the breakfast conversation that started: “Hey, Martha! You’re not going to believe this!”
Stith has been away for five years, but his influence remains. He was a great colleague, always willing to set aside his project to help a young reporter. Among them was Curliss.
Stith, 71, works part time for law firms, reading records and emails. He backpacks and is learning to fish for king mackerel.
I asked him if Curliss’ story reminded him of any of his own. He sent a list of his favorite “Hey, Martha!” stories, some of which he worked on with other reporters. Here are five of them:
• “$25,000 C&D Appointee Fills Legal Requirement,” 1971. Gov. Bob Scott hired an old political friend and former state Democratic Party chairman at a salary of $25,410 (about $145,000 in today’s dollars) as director of a department that no longer existed. The department had been abolished but not the directorship.
• “Creswell Inmate Uses Forged Court Records to Escape,” 1984. A Williamston man serving a life sentence for burglary used forged court records to trick state prison officials into releasing him. At the time the story was published, the felon had been missing for seven months. After the story was published, the state issued a warrant for his arrest.
• “Phillips, Nine of His Subordinates Reimbursed for Free Hotel Rooms,” 1986. The state schools superintendent and nine of his employees stayed in complimentary hotel rooms for up to 10 days while attending meetings and billed the state for lodging. The superintendent said he’d done nothing wrong but repaid the money.
• “Raleigh Police Chief Finds Merit in Psychics, Biorhythms,” 1986. Raleigh’s police chief occasionally flew a psychic to town at public expense to consult on unsolved murder and missing-person cases.
• “Cherry Point Medical Records Mishandled, 1,000 Documents Found Inside a Wall, Report Says,” 2004. Medical documents for patients were hidden in a wall of a Naval hospital, according to a Navy report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead of filing the documents, hospital personnel apparently climbed onto a chair or desk, lifted a ceiling tile and dropped the records into the space behind the drywall.
Meet the columnists
Rob Christensen, political columnist, and Barry Saunders, local columnist, will appear at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh’s Ridgewood Shopping Center at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9. They will talk about some of their favorite columns and answer your questions. I will moderate. We hope you can drop by.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @john_drescher