You might have seen this woman on television this week if your were watching coverage of the Amish school shootings.
Her name is Rita Rhoads.
She is a media whore.
Rita is a Mennonite midwife who helped deliver many of the Amish children who were in the school when they were born. I first encountered her just an hour or two after the shootings. We both arrived at a police checkpoint near the school at the same time, and both got directions from the same state trooper to get around the the other side of the school where the media were gathering to await briefings.
That first day, as outside media poured into the little village of Nickel Mines, reporters scrambled after any passersby wearing a straw hat while photographers and cameramen shot pictures of every horse and buggy they could find.
I encountered Rita again inside the auction house where the Amish who ran the business had graciously opened their doors to allow the press to use their bathrooms, and later, to find someplace to plop down their laptops to file stories. Rita's husband and I struck up a conversation. They were from nearby Quarryville, and I knew a couple folks there from some previous business endeavors.
I had planned to interview Rita at some point, having heard her mention to the state troopers back at the checkpoint how she had delivered many of the children. Then I noticed the notebook her husband was carrying and heard him tell a TV reporter they could do an interview with him at 2:30. The husband was acting like an agent. The notebook was her interviews appointment calendar.
Since I was assigned to write the main "crime" story the day of the shootings, I decided the Rita angle would have to wait. Later that day, I pointed her out to two colleagues and suggested one of them talk to her.
Nothing she had to say that day fit into our coverage. Located in nearby Harrisburg, we did not find it necessary to write a lot of "meet the Amish" stories that the out of town and national media did. To our readers, those horse drawn buggies are not scenic and quaint. They are impediments to traffic that chew up roads with steel buggy wheels and drop roadapples in their wake.
By the second day, we made a conscious decision to avoid Rita Rhoades and her traveling 15-minutes of fame entourage. She could bask in someone else's spotlight, we were more interested in talking to actual local Amish (Mennonites, though oft confused by outsiders as Amish, especially in areas like Snyder and Union Counties near Bucknell, where the horse and buggy population is all Mennonite, not Amish, are not the same).
Rita's routine didn't really bother me until Thursday, when I started seeing stories move on the wire quoting her about details of what went on inside the homes during some of the viewings for the dead girls. She was one of two non-Amish welcomed into the home for that very private ceremony. And as quick as she could get back to the media encampment, which had by then been moved from the auction house to a church parking lot a few miles away in order to give the Amish more privacy, she began telling reporters every detail she could remember.
Had she limited her comments to things that could have been as easily found by researching Amish customs -- the color of the dress, the shape of the coffin -- it might have been O.K. Not Rita, though; She was on a roll, and so were the cameras. Rita told how one by one the siblings were invited to the casket to touch their dead sister's cold arm. She even described the bandage covering the evident head wound that killed the girl. Intimate details from a very private ceremony at which she was a guest.
She was back the next day, talking about the funerals and telling how one of the slain girls, according to a recovering shooting victim, had volunteered to be shot first in hopes of saving the others.
To me, she betrayed the trust and privacy of those families who invited her in. But Rita was getting attention. More than she has ever gotten before. More than she will ever get again. Her 15 minutes of fame was more important than the families privacy.
Rita was not the only media whore in Nickel Creek this week. Out in front of the auction house, a man who drives buggies for a tourist buggy ride concession, held court for the media, handing out buggy ride pamphlets while doing interviews with a gathered horde of reporters, all of whom were too ignorant of Amish custom to realize that a real Amish man would not allow television cameras to film an interview.
Sam Fisher, the Amish guy who runs the auction got wind of what was going on and chased the man off the property. Later Sam told me the buggy driver was a member of a sect known as the River Brethren, who have some similarities with the Amish, including a plain style of dress that, while similar, is distinct from the Amish.
"I'm not even sure he is actually a River Brethren. I think he was excommunicated because he divorced his wife," Sam told me.
Then there was the assistant coroner who told the Washington Post (and others) that one of the victims had over 20 gunshot wounds, calling into question police accounts that said the gunman fired 13 or 14 rounds from a handgun and three or four from a shotgun.
It is highly unusual for an assistant in a coroner's office to be talking to the media, especially in a big case like this. In fact, the coroner himself was not even making statements, allowing the state police to serve as the official spokespersons. If he was even in his office, the coroner was not taking phone calls there.
One of my colleagues, who used to work at the Lancaster paper, had the coroner's cell phone number and passed it along to me. After he got over the surprise that I had gotten his cell number, he proceeded to tell me that A) he could not believe any of his staff would have talked to the Post and B) the staff member in question lacked the experience or expertise to distinguish between the entry wounds caused by the double-0 buck shot in the shotgun shells and the bullets in the handgun (a magnum shell of double-0 contains 12 pellets, which accounted for the large number of entry wounds).
That lack of expertise didn't stop the assistant from appearing on Nightline.
The media itself was certainly not without its disgraceful moments. Sam's son John told me the day of the viewings, he and some other Amish men had to chase off several media members who snuck on to the farms where the families and neighbors had gathered, somehow bypassing the fire police providing "security" at the farm's lanes.
"We chased one guy off three times, Finally we had to forcibly remove him," said John.
That is as close to fighting words as you will get from the Amish.
There were unconfirmed reports that some media types had been caught Tuesday night trying to sneak through fields to get closer to the school. At least one photographer apparently hiked a long way through other fields to get pictures of graves being dug at the cemetery where the funerals were held. The road that led to the cemetery had been closed to outsider traffic.
As a journalist, I am ashamed of the ones who did that stuff, and the ones who went knocking on the doors of families who had kids in the school, despite those families attempts to remain unknown and away from the media. But I am also proud that those scoundrels were few in number and in no way reflected the behavior of the vast majority of the media covering the story.
As the auction house press operation wound down Wednesday, a steady stream of media folks sought out Sam and thanked him for his hospitality. Despite the expressed wishes of the Nickel Mines Amish community to be left alone by media outsiders, Sam told me the experience had changed the way he viewed the media.
Prior to this, his perception was based on occasional glimpses of televised news reports. "I'd be somewhere, and I'd see the reporters all gathered on the courtroom step, pushing and shoving, rudely shouting questions. I would think 'If it were me, I'd probably bop them one,'" Sam said.
After playing host to the horde for two-and-a-half days, Sam said he had a newfound respect for the journalism profession. "By and large they were very kind and very considerate," he said.
I know my colleagues who covered the story and I tried very hard to be just that. Not just to Sam, to whom I cannot give enough thanks for letting us set up a "Nickel Mines Bureau" in the middle of his business, but to the community as a whole.
The afternoon of the shootings we came to know of a family that had three boys and a girl in the school. They were neighbors of an Amish man named Jake King we met, and with whom we were able to build a rapport. Jake's wife had talked to families of some of the girls. He was willing to tell us what she told him, but also appreciated our desire to hear it from her, instead of third hand. Jake sent us up the road to visit his farm and told us to tell her he had sent us.
His wife was not there when we arrived, but Jake's teen-aged daughter, who was past school age for Amish children (they stop at eighth grade), came over from next door to greet us. She was babysitting the rest of the neighbor's children while the parents were gathered with other parents awaiting word on their children.
We learned a few things from our conversation with her that might have made for some "juicier" details in the story. Standard protocol is for a source to tell you ahead of time that a conversation is off the record. We did not stand on that protocl in this case, though. When she expressed reservations about us putting things she had confided in the paper, we decided we would not use them.
Nothing she told us was close to the details Rita the midwife dished out. It was little more than the number of children the neighbors had, how many went to the school, how many were male or female and the fact that the family had moved next door a few years ago and elected to keep the children in the West Nickel Mines school, rather than switch to East Nickel Mines, which was a little closer.
The young lady was concerned she would be violating the neighbor's privacy of we wrote any of that. Lucky for those folks they lived next to Jake and his family, and not next to Rita the midwife.
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