By Tiffany Edwards Hunt
If you ever watch The Laramie Project, a play about the Matthew Shepard murder that occurred in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998, you will get a glimpse of the career crisis I had as a result of covering that story.
At one point in the play, the newspaper reporter character that is named after me shouts, “These people are like predators!” in response to the national media that swooped in to the town of my alma mater.
I was standing outside the Albany County courthouse with a friend of mine who caught the journalism bug with me at our college newspaper before I went on to work for the Laramie Daily Boomerang after graduation. When I made the statement to my friend (and later relayed it to some New York playwrights) we were watching national television reporters running down the street with their cameras and tripods and booms, chasing after the father of one of the perpetrators in the hate crime against the gay University of Wyoming student.
Fresh out of college, I idealized journalism, believing it was a noble profession, the ultimate community service. But watching those reporters running and basically looking ridiculous, and then dealing with their snobbish pack mentality during the trial of Aaron McKinney, I had an epiphany. I realized the pointlessness of seeking to be like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour or like Connie Chung, the television reporter I had grown up watching in Southern California. I settled on being a crime reporter, a.k.a. ambulance chaser, for the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s equivalent to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. But then after a couple years of solely covering people’s tragedies — man’s cruelty to man and exceptionally heinous acts against women and children — I realized how impossible it was to be truly objective. I am emotionally impacted by each and every case I cover, and every tragedy I delve into to write about professionally has a profound effect on my personal life.
I got so fed up with crime reporting. and with a certain editor trying to pepper my work with sensationalism, that one night in the Casper newsroom I told my editor, “I’m writing you one last story,” and it was exactly the way I wanted it to be written to be the most sensitive to the victims of a drowning that had occurred that week.
I packed up my desk right after I wrote the story, and within a week of its print date, I moved to Hawaii. I covered politics for a daily here for five and a half years, rarely touching a crime story. I have chosen such stories very carefully, knowing how deeply impacting they are, as I get acquainted with the victims and/or their surviving family members if the victims were killed. That has been the case with the Brittany Jane Royal and Boaz Johnson story.
When Brittany’s pregnant body was pulled out of the water and I received a press release seeking from the public help identifying her, I decided that that would be a story I would follow. I became acquainted with both Brittany’s and Boaz’s family members, and got a pretty clear picture of what their lives were like before they settled in Hawaii in late 2012/early 2013 and became acquainted with each other in Kalapana.
Eight months after fishermen pulled Brittany’s body from the water, the case culminated with a press conference detailing how Boaz killed Brittany before killing himself.
I was filled with adrenaline to get the story out within an hour of the press conference. I mean, for the last eight and a half months I was bound and determined to find out who had strangled Brittany and threw her and her unborn child in the ocean and what had happened to Boaz.
After writing the story detailing what ultimately happened and posting the story on my website, I felt so deflated, so sad. The impact had finally caught up to me. I thought of the couple and how young they were and how young their relationship was, having only known each other for three months before that fateful Memorial Day that an argument escalated to murder and then ultimately suicide. I thought about what it must have been like living out on the lava in a tent growing bean sprouts in Mason jars, carless, hiking out to the road to hitchhike or take a bus to Pahoa. I thought about what it was like for me being pregnant, how ravenous I was and how much steak and potatoes I ate. I thought of that unborn child and how this was about the time the child would have been born.
At that moment, I received a call from a woman who, for a couple of months, has been trying to get me to write a story about allegations of deplorable living conditions at a federal housing project in Hilo and retaliation she has had for speaking out.
In preparation for an eviction hearing slated for the next morning, she wanted some papers back that she had loaned me. I had her meet me at the coffee shop where I was, decompressing. When the woman showed up, I was so emotionally drained I really didn’t feel like I had it in me to sit down and hear everything she wanted to share. But to be polite I offered to buy her a cup of coffee.
After hearing her out, I felt compelled to reschedule my following day to attend her eviction hearing. As she and I were talking, a couple and their 9-year-old girl approached and told us they couldn’t help but overhearing us talk about Riverside Apartments and shared their own story of deplorable living conditions there.
I was re-energized, ready to delve in and possibly help these people shine the light on some injustice in Hilo.
I went on my way and, by the time I got back to my computer in the early evening, there were several comments on my website and on my Facebook page regarding my story on the Brittany Jane Royal murder. Some of the posted comments absolutely infuriated me. People were unsatisfied with the outcome of the case, bent on other theories, and casting doubt on police’s determination that Boaz had killed himself after killing Brittany. I spoke up on my website and Facebook, sharing my viewpoint that these people were essentially victimizing the victims, the family of Brittany, and actually Boaz’s family too, by suggesting that there is more to this story at this point. Some of those expressing their doubts then turned on me, asserting that I haven’t done my job as a journalist by thinking the plot isn’t as twisted as they’d like to believe.
The next morning I showed up at the courthouse for the woman’s hearing and, I kid you not, from 9:45 a.m. to noon, I sat in the courtroom feeling like a balloon with a slow leak. If you are going to deal with the judicial system at all, may I give you some advice, or will you please read through Hilo attorney Jill Raznov Wedgwood’s column featured in this edition? Don’t represent yourself. It is so uncomfortable watching people try to represent themselves before a judge, feigning to be officers of the court. I felt so sorry for that woman, but then, like I said, I also felt really uncomfortable. If I could see a movie of myself sitting there in the courtroom gallery, I would be hunched over, rubbing my face, holding my forehead, even covering my eyes at certain times. It was so painful to watch. The woman was not getting the judge’s nuances, she was missing plaintiff’s attorney’s softballs, and she just floundered so badly. In the end, after a long, sad story, and, believe me, the woman was using plenty kleenex to tell it to the judge as she stood there posing as a lawyer, the woman was evicted. In a compromise, which the woman claimed was “giving up a two million dollar lottery ticket,” or the ability to wage a civil lawsuit against the Big Island Housing Foundation, the woman was granted 30 days to figure out a new housing plan for her and her son. Suffice it to say, the whole scene was —pardon the expression but my friends know I use this expression a lot — a total shit show!
After that hearing, I sat in the parking lot of the Judiciary Complex with the woman, and then I gave her a ride back to her apartment. I spent two more hours with her after the eviction hearing, being both reporter and counselor, and after I left her company, I felt like my brain was going to explode.
At press time, a federal grand jury had indicted Xavier “Peewee” Cortez for the murder of an 18-month-old girl three years ago in one of the apartments. The woman was hell bent on shining the light on that crime. And I think she helped to do so, mentioning it in court papers related to her eviction.
I just went away from that apartment building thinking about victims, real and perceived, and how heaven or hell exists within each and every one of us, no matter what our living conditions may be. I also went away thinking about how people can be such crusaders for a cause that they risk spinning their own families into chaos and turmoil. There are injustices all around us, we could really go off the deep end obsessing on them. We have to find a balance, doing what we can for our community, but then also ensuring other people’s nightmares don’t become our own.
I came home to more chatter on my website and Facebook about the Brittany Jane Royal murder, more conversations expressing doubt that Boaz killed her, people wanting more information to satisfy their curiosity and rest their minds busy with other possibilities. Reading through people’s comments, I started flashing back to being 21 years old, shouting, “These people are like predators!” And there was my aha! moment: It’s not really the journalists who are the predators per say. It’s the consumers, the viewers, the readers, the people who want every little juicy detail.
Thanks to my relationship with Brittany’s family, I know what is written in the three-page manifesto Boaz left in a composition notebook beside his hanging body in that Kalapana kipuka. I know details that the family knows that the public doesn’t. And it is up to family members if they want to release the information. It’s theirs right now, and they are keeping things private. But its information that tells them, and me, for that matter, that without a doubt Boaz killed Brittany and then killed himself. I imagine the people who are wanting that information, who are questioning the police’s determination, standing in line at a luau. They have a plate of food, but the helping is not enough. They want more. The people who are serving them are looking at them, thinking, “What is wrong with you? Eat your food! Don’t you see that you are being greedy?” This Brittany Jane Royal murder and Boaz Johnson suicide is not our story. It’s theirs. And their families have inherited it. Over the last eight months, we have tried to be helpful to both families in efforts to solve the mystery that reverberated in our community and became internationally publicized. Now we need to back off and respect the families, and allow them to share what they choose when they are ready.
As I was reading through these comments on the Internet, I remembered what it was like to be a newspaper reporter back when you didn’t get instant feedback on your stories. The World Wide Web has introduced three-dimensional journalism. There is the writer, the source, and the reader, and everybody is wedded together through the Internet. For the most part, I have seen it work for the greater good, but in this instance with the Brittany Jane Royal murder and Boaz Johnson suicide, I have seen how terrible it can be. And it really spun me into a career crisis of sorts. I started thinking really strongly, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be part of this. I recalled why I started newspapering to begin with, that it was simply to write. I envisioned the cute little shack depicted in Patricia Leo’s artwork, which I featured on the cover in last month’s edition. Back when I was a college student and I used to carry around a journal, I sketched the house I live in today, and I envisioned being at home in the forest writing stories. As I recalled my dream from the past, I started fantasizing about how to get back to fully realizing it: going completely offline, getting rid of my website, my Facebook and my Twitter, and even ditching my smart phone. I’m still sitting in that fantasy as I write. I want to go back to simply just writing for the love of writing. And I want to revisit some of my other hopes and dreams expressed in that journal.
I’d like to be a little bit more reclusive and see the public when I work my part-time job in Pahoa or when I have to go out to the grocery store.
I don’t want to read or write about crime anymore. Well, I don’t know, my husband might call my bluff on that one.
The campaign season is on the horizon, and that might get me stoked about newspapering again. We’ll see. Politics, as ridiculous as it can be, is pretty darn thrilling fodder for the pen and keyboard. Along those lines, Fred Blas, the former Puna councilman, drove past me standing outside our Pahoa store the other day, hollering, “I’m back! I’m going to run again!” That sure sparked my interest in a follow-up!
Another matter I wanted to address: it costs a lot of money to put out this newspaper, and quite frankly the ad sales are pretty weak. I am so incredibly grateful to my existing advertisers, believe me. I just hope that you will let them know your appreciation, so they know you’re reading, and so they will continue to be motivated to advertise. Without my advertisers, these 16 pages wouldn’t be possible; it’s that simple. And, at the end of the day, if I don’t gather enough money to pay the printer, this enterprise does not happen. C’est la vie. We may be a free press, but journalism is most definitely not free.
As for the dedication of this editorial to I’o, well, that is the Hawaiian Hawk. I’o is said to be a symbol of royalty and a guardian spirit that watches over kupuna. I’o is also the name that Brittany told her family she was going to give her baby if he was a boy. It would have been a baby boy born around this time, Brittany’s family confirmed. Baby I’o will always be in my heart, right there with Brittany and every other victim whose story I have shared over the years.
(Tiffany Edwards Hunt is the editor and publisher of Big Island Chronicle.)