UNC Asheville students investigate public records, help reopen Buncombe County cold case

Written by on March 17, 2011 in Open Government, Politics, Region, Top News Comments Off
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A work surface in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Division is crowded with sets of public information on a 2002 cold case. Students at UNC Asheville used the documents in their investigation of the case, which was reopened by investigators. Photo by Natalie Pearson

Editor’s note: In honor of Sunshine Week, Carolina Public Press invited UNC Asheville seniors Natalie Pearson and Timothy Meinch, both students in the university’s Public Affairs Journalism class, to write about their use of public records in reporting about Joseph “Joe” D’Aquisto, an Asheville man who disappeared in 2002, at age 61.

By Natalie Pearson and Timothy Meinch

A pile of CDs and a crumpled Hallmark paper bag lay strewn across a conference table in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office on a January afternoon. In the Criminal Investigations Division’s room, worn cardboard boxes hold tools, an old computer hard drive and a firearm.

It was a typical scene in a missing person cold case investigation, except we — a group of four UNC Asheville journalism students — are working side by side with Buncombe County detectives.

UNC Asheville senior Natalie Pearson is a mass communication and literature major and is currently the sports editor at The Blue Banner, UNCA’s student-run newspaper. Pearson is originally from Sheffield, England.

“Try not to touch any of this stuff without gloves on,” said Detective Kevin Briggs, sliding a box of black latex gloves to the reporters across the table.

We are two of the four students in our Public Affairs Journalism class who are investigating the 2002 missing persons case of Joseph “Joe” D’Aquisto, an Asheville man who went missing in 2002, at the age of 61. Thanks to our lecturer Michael Gouge’s collaboration with Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Coordinator Lt. Randy Smart and Public Information Officer Lt. Randy Sorrells, we experienced an investigative journalists dream come true, working to solve a cold case.

The sheriff’s office has offered this kind of access to other students in the senior class in the past. However, with our interest, the department agreed to reopen the case, one of 13 cold cases in the county. Briggs is currently the lead case manager.

Beginning to sort through public information

We started in mid-January with a tour of the investigators’ workspace in downtown Asheville after Smart and Sorrells visited our class and presented the case. After that, the doors were opened for us to work freely and uninhibited.

Access came with some requests. While most of the information we explored was public, detectives asked from the start that we keep the case’s specifics private during the developing investigation.

We sorted through evidence, leafed through bulky, three-ring case binders and watched live interviews with people of interest on the division’s television. In short, we experienced our profession’s ideal habitat – full access to and immersion in real, primary-source evidence.

Timothy Meinch is a senior at UNC Asheville, studying mass communication (journalism concentration) and Spanish. Upon graduation in May, he plans on moving to Des Moines, Iowa, where he will pursue a career in journalism. Meinch grew up in Asheville.

Our first task was to find and organize nine years of documents and information about the case. Items ranged from pages of scribbled interviews with sticky notes to computer floppy discs and filmstrip negatives.

“They did things differently back then,” Briggs said.

With his help, we sorted and correlated the information within a couple of weeks. However, the bigger challenges have come now, more than two months later, as we continue to strive to make sense of the information.

Research takes time, money and relationships

Unlike the worlds portrayed in “Law & Order” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” making sense of and using available, open information does not come easily. The glamour of Hollywood’s on-demand field samples and quick evidence processing fades in the real world, or at least in Buncombe County, where systematic and complex processes prevail.

Part of our cold case included a perplexing sexual assault trial from 2002. One student (Natalie) decided to pursue this case further and went to the Buncombe County Courthouse to get the case file.

Trial records are stored in two separate areas in the courthouse. The first, home to civil records, is a sea of folders sandwiched on metal shelving units. The second, home to criminal records, is many floors above.

We soon learned that 2002 criminal records, unlike civil records from that year, are not stored in the building. Instead, you must locate the case number using the plaintiff’s last name with the help of a clerk, who then places a request for the record to be delivered to the courthouse.

Although the records may be public, the cost to acquire the trial transcript can soar into the hundreds of dollars. In addition, tracking down the general case files and actually receiving them can take time. In our case, it took four days.

Situations like these often send journalists and the public down a long road to accessing public records, which are a necessary tool for supporting sources in news stories. They can reveal the difference between speculation and opinion and fact.

As things turned out, they serve criminal investigators just as they serve the journalist, and the detectives at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office are aware of this. In the end, the Briggs was able to satisfy our queries about the nine-year-old court case. Nearly immediately, he e-mailed us all the sheriff’s office owned regarding the case, including a partial transcript and previous detectives’ notes.

Moreover, their services were not limited to raw data on papers and documents.

Detectives were willing to talk with us and participate in interviews for any aspect of our numerous stories – from the time DNA takes to come back from the lab, to how they facially reconstruct skulls, to the legality of a polygraph. They allowed us to visit the office any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and even gave us our own workspace.

Hoping investigation helps solve the case

Our exchange with the Criminal Investigations Division revealed the value of professional openness and honesty for the journalist. While public records, facts and documents remain the source of validity and substance in our work, access to and dissemination of this information often hinges on genuine relationships.

We will continue working with the detectives until the end of this semester. By May, our planned graduation date, we each will write seven articles on our discoveries, and we hope to meet with the persons of interest in the final few weeks of our investigation.

Briggs and his coworkers continue to investigate the case, and they share new developments every time we enter the division. We hope, like the detectives, that our fresh eyes and minds will contribute to one day solving this nine-year-old mystery.

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