March 2008

Apparently there HAVE been other food fights in Cedar Rapids schools over the past 20 years — just nothing that would have brought the kind of attention this last one at Jefferson did. Former Cedar Rapids resident and 1995 Kennedy High School grad Scott Hougland e-mailed me to let me know that he participated in a food fight at Kennedy back in the early 1990s and was punished by having to eat lunch in the principal’s office for a few weeks. Here’s his response when I asked him what happened:

“Not sure. I just remember I went to the snack station and tossed some ho hos.”

His punishment pales in comparison to the disorderly conduct charges eight organizers of the Jefferson fight are facing.

It wasn’t like they were trying to make a point or social statement, either. From what I was told by Principal Chuck McDonnell, the teens — mostly girls — organized the fight as a way to “send off” one of their friends who was moving away. If they’re this good at organizing people to do their dirty work already, I can see a bright future for these girls in politics…


Rock Island, Ill., police put out a warning to Johnson and Iowa County sheriff’s offices that a local man who was fired from his job today called his wife from Bettendorf telling her “Goodbye” and that he was going to kill himself with firearms he took from his home — including an AK-47 rifle, variants of which are (surprisingly) legal to own. His wife told police that he really liked the Tanger Outlet Mall in Williamsburg and might be headed that way.

It was all speculation, of course. But about a dozen deputies, state troopers and police officers sat on westbound Interstate 80 for at least two hours waiting for him to come by as a measure to protect him and others. Nightside reporter Erika Binegar and I took a road trip to check it out just in case anything happened. Which it didn’t. But you never know. That’s why police, and we, were ready for anything.

He never showed up along the interstate, but I don’t know what happened to him. I’m hoping he did something a little more constructive, like cheer himself up with a mint Oreo Blizzard or took a walk.

UPDATE: Rock Island police said he was found safe in Rock Island — after driving to Wisconsin and back. Neither Williamsburg nor the Tanger Outlet Mall had occurred to him as a destination.

I managed to get Gazette reporter Jennifer Hemmingsen on the phone for a few minutes today to talk about how the Iowa City bureau is dealing with the Sueppel family murders.

Jennifer Hemmingsen

Q: How did your reporting and editing team decide to approach this story initially?

A: Editor Lyle Muller was like the “sergeant.” He planted me at the Sueppel’s house, and I stayed there from 8 to 5. I took one bathroom break when videographer got here. Megan Ver Helst went to the car crash on Interstate 80, and Gregg Hennigan stayed in the office making tons of phone calls and gathering information. Diane Heldt covered things from the University and Iowa City schools’ angle.

Q: What did you think when you first heard about the murders? How did that help shape your coverage?

A: It’s horrifying, especially when kids are involved and when people are so obviously innocent. At first, people didn’t know if they were safe because of the “active shooter” alert, so we had to work as hard as we possibly could so people could make decisions like ‘Am I going to take my kids to school today?’ I think we did a really important job. In times of crisis, we are the only source of information. People want to try to figure out what is happening and why. People care about this sort of thing. And there are so many rumors, people need someone vetting the information and printing only the stuff that’s verified. We are the only people out there sifting facts from rumor.

Q: What rumors have been really tough for you to dispel?

A: Steven Sueppel’s alleged drug use — that was NEVER substantiated by police. As a matter of fact, he recanted that statement in following interviews, and no proof was found of drug use. No drugs were found in the home during a search after the murders. He was not just some hopped-up cocaine guy who just appeared to be a perfect dad. Also, Steven Sueppel didn’t have a history of violent behavior. He doesn’t have a prior record, and no one could find any evidence that he ever threatened to hurt his family before. According to police, this just came out of nowhere.

Q:How did covering this murder affect you? 

A:To know it was someone who was supposed to protect them and love them, that was really hard. A long time ago, when I was working in Minnesota, I covered the murder of an 18-month-old, raped and murdered by a babysitter. My daughter was the same age and I had babysitters, it really freaked me out. I cried. It was the first time I understood that things can happen, apparently for no reason, and they happen to people like me. Now have covered almost 10 murders, and all kinds of crazy sexual and physical abuse. I would feel a lot better if these things didn’t happen, but it’s important for people to know. I think about all the people who were there, who saw it, the emergency responders and police. My job is just sort of to be a professional witness. We give people a cleaned-up version of events.

Q:Why did this case get so much attention?

A: A few people have pointed out that this has gotten so much more attention than other murder-suicides in Iowa, I think that’s a good point. There was one not so long ago by Riverside that didn’t get nearly as much attention. I don’t know the stats, but its been said that if the victims were well-off, white and well-known, people seem to care more. As for this situation, Steven Sueppel was already in the news because of his embezzlement charges, there were children involved and so many people knew who they were. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong to treat each instance differently, but it happens.

Q: What were some of your concerns about covering the murders?

A: There were a lot of media on this story from Des Moines, the Quad Cities, even national reporters. There were at least six live trucks at the house, it was a bit of a circus. You are out there with a bunch of other reporters trying to find out information that people really want to know, but you feel like a heel because you might be the 30th person to knock on a neighbor’s door. You just have to try to be respectful and give them a chance to say something if they want. You know you are there at one of the worst moments of people’s lives asking them to talk about it. If it wasn’t them, they’d be interested in reading it because that personal element is what makes the story real. I don’t know if people think we think about it. It’s because you think it’s important. I don’t want to win a Pulitzer for this stuff, I just want it to serve a purpose.

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: We are just trying to keep thinking of the questions people are asking that we haven’t answered yet. But are we ever going to know what was going on inside his head before he killed them? It’s not likely. I don’t know if there is always a reason why things happen. Maybe there’s a combination of reasons. We might never know.

Unfortunately, the hatemongers of Westboro Baptist Church have decided to picket the Sueppel family’s funeral. You’ve probably heard of them. Apparently protesting at events that honor gays and lesbians– even soldiers’ funerals — has become passe for Fred Phelps and his sheep.

See the church’s flier advertising the picket here. I’ll warn you right now, it’s disgusting. But it’s typical of their asinine propaganda.

I went to talk to some of the picketers from the Topeka, Kan., church when I was a junior at Iowa State. You can read my column about the experience here.

I’m not going to waste any more space in my blog on these morons.

UPDATE: They decided not to show. Good for them.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. –T.S. Eliot

“The Waste Land” by British poet T.S. Eliot points out a poignant contradiction noticed by many psychologists. Spring, which is supposed to be a happy time, isn’t fun for some people. In fact, statistics show April and May are the most common months for suicide nationwide.

One theory on this, in particular, grips me. Despite a new season, nothing changes in the seriously depressed person’s life. It seems a promise has been broken. The despondent person sinks further into hopelessness, falling below his or her “suicide threshold.” The next step downward is for the person to take his or her own life.

Like spring, weekends and holidays have a potential to deliver much more happiness than they often do. This may be a reason behind other nationwide statistics: Monday is the day of the week when most suicides occur, and suicides are much more common the first few days after a major U.S. holiday than they are in the days immediately before the holiday.

(Much thanks to Ned Rozel, science writer at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska — Fairbanks, for the information)

I actually played a very small role in the coverage of the woman and her four children found dead in Iowa City on Monday. We had three Iowa City bureau reporters, three photographers and two editors who spent a majority of their day making sure The Gazette had the latest information to present about the murders in an accurate and fair manner. I was assigned to write a related story, which hasn’t been printed yet.

When these things happen, they are so shocking to the community, so tragic to the family involved, that we as journalists have to take a step back and realize the impact our coverage will have on not only those close to the victims but the entire region. It requires a quick mind to connect the dots and a kind heart full of respect and sympathy — both of which my colleagues who are working on the story have in abundance. That’s why The Gazette has the most complete coverage, to give the community a fuller picture of the events unfolding in front of them.

It’s also why Jennifer Hemmingsen and Gregg Hennigan were interview by national media about what they knew. I hope to bring you more Tuesday about how they are covering the evolving story of the Sueppel family’s deaths. Let me know what you want to see.

1417 Fifth Ave. SE

Police tracked Illinois fugitive Javon Dockery here last week. To strengthen their case for a search warrant for the home, they searched through trash bags outside to find evidence of drugs inside the home, owned by 37-year-old Delinda Morgan. Once inside, they got what they were looking for — and more.

Delinda Morgan Delinda Morgan

Obviously, they found Javon (although they’re still not sure how he knows them. My guess is the Morgans are relatives of the Morgans from South Holland, Ill.). They found evidence of drugs, according to the filed search warrant return. They found Delinda’s son, 17-year-old De Reginald, who court records say apparently hasn’t been to school for most of the school year. And they found out De Reginald was the one who was shot in the foot earlier that week — not his cousin.

Neither Delinda and De Reginald are strangers to law enforcement. Our archives indicate Delinda was stabbed during a fight 15 years ago and has been convicted on numerous assault charges, as well as one of selling cocaine. De Reginald has been in the Juvenile Court system since he was at least 13 years old, adjudicated for (among other offenses) pinning down a 14-year-old girl and feeling her up while being in her house without permission. 

Regardless, his grandmother called me today to bring up the fact that he wasn’t arrested on warrants for all the crimes listed in the article. They were actually warrants for probation violation on those charges since he hasn’t been to school. He’s now in the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center. I wrote a clarification for Tuesday’s paper.

Despite the charges filed by police against the home’s occupants, neighbors don’t think it’ll stop the trouble they cause. My guess is there are dozens more stories like this out there…

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