This year, I will celebrate my fortieth anniversary as a journalist/author. Here is a blog that recounts a story from my early days as a reporter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I hope it makes you smile!
FROM MY FILES: SEX AND THE SADDLE published April 30, 2010
“Why don’t you reporters simply publish the truth?” a frustrated public official once asked me.
Whenever I hear a question like that, I think about an incident that happened when I was a young reporter at The Tulsa Tribune in Oklahoma and a woman called, asking for my help. She explained that her husband was in prison and that she was being sexually harassed by an assistant warden. He had threatened to have her husband beaten unless she had sex with him.
I met the woman in a restaurant and was struck by how striking and articulate she was. She was twenty-nine.
She told me that her husband was doing a ten-year bit for armed robbery and that he only had a couple years left before he would be paroled. He’d been a model inmate and had recently been made a trustee on the prison farm that operated outside the walls. She had promised to wait for her husband and had been faithful to him, she assured me.
Her problems with the assistant warden began, she said, when she drove to a remote area of the prison farm for a secret rendevous with her husband while he was tending cattle there. Escape wasn’t on either of their minds. Sex was. Unfortunately for them, they were caught in the act and her husband was stripped of his trustee status and sent back to the main prison. Her visitation rights were taken away from her.
Now this is where the assistant warden came in.
While we were talking, the woman slid a white envelope across the table to me and explained that it contained photographs of her nude sitting on a horse saddle. “I had a girlfriend take them of me because my husband wanted them. The ones in the envelope are a few of the rejects,” she said without the slightest embarrassment.
Some of the photos that hadn’t been rejected had been delivered to the prison and had been discovered in her husband’s cell and turned over to the assistant warden. He was married, but she claimed that fact hadn’t mattered. She told me that the assistant warden had called her and demanded sex. Otherwise, he would make life difficult for her husband in prison. “Please help us,” she pleaded.
Her’s was a serious allegation. If her charges were true, the assistant warden needed to be exposed and prosecuted. So I went to the prison and interviewed her husband, who, not surprisingly, told the exact same story. I told him that I couldn’t publish their charges without giving the assistant warden a chance to tell his side. Much to my surprise, the convict told me to go head and confront him.
“If he knows that you know what he did, then he’ll leave my wife alone and be afraid to do anything to me,” the convict said. “He’ll know you are watching out for us.”
I talked to the assistant warden, who denied everything and claimed the convict and his wife were trying to ruin his reputation because he had taken away the man’s trustee status.
So who was telling the truth?
I didn’t have a clue. There was a record in the prison files that verified the prisoner had been stripped of his trustee status after he had been caught having sex with his wife at the prison farm. But there was no evidence that the assistant warden had contacted or sexually harassed the wife — no taped recorded telephone calls or letters.
My editors and I decided there was simply not enough evidence for us to write about the couple’s charges. I was told to check periodically on the inmate to make certain that he wasn’t being punished by the assistant warden but otherwise I was to forget the entire matter.
This summer, I will celebrate my 37th year as a journalist/author, but I still think about that incident every once in a while — especially when I hear someone suggest that the “truth” is easy to find. Sometimes, it isn’t.
As far as I know, the inmate was not penalized and was ultimately paroled. The assistant warden retired without any blemishes on his record. Whether or not the couple is still together is unknown to me. Did the assistant warden back off after I got involved? Did the couple conjure up the entire story — and, if so, why? And what about that envelope with the photos in them?
You might be wondering if I looked at the snapshots. Of course, I did. I had to look at the evidence, didn’t I? And to this day, I remember exactly what I said when I put the nude snapshots back into the envelope and handed it back to her.
Remember, I was only twenty-five and I was trying to act professional.
I said: “Nice saddle.”