Police secrecy counterproductive in homicide case

Freedom Newspapers

Last weekend’s discovery of a body in a ditch north of Clovis has spurred a series of frightening rumors that spread rapidly through the region’s coffee houses and restaurants, via neighborly conversations and water-cooler chitchat. And some of that spilled over into a stream of phone calls to media outlets and local law-enforcement agencies.

By midweek, Curry County Undersheriff Doug Bowman said his office had received dozens of calls from area residents with tips related to the slaying. “They’re sending our guys 5,000 different directions and it’s freaking going crazy,” he said. Some of those callers might have been the same ones who called the Clovis News Journal and other media.

Rumors behind most of those calls appear to be mostly false — as often is the case no matter the topic — Laura McNaughton’s death is the only one in the area that’s being investigated as a murder, law officers have said repeatedly. Other false claims include those of a serial rapist in the region and that restaurant waitresses are being targeted for criminal acts.

Widespread existence of these reports has made the community uneasy and fearful.

Why is that? Lack of knowledge.

Where crime occurs and the facts from our public safety officers are few, fear pops up and mutates into rumor, conjecture and speculation. People don’t know how to tell if they or family or friends might be in danger, or if they face becoming a murder victim themselves.

Of course, as most everyone knows and understands, law officers during the initial investigation never reveal all the facts they know about a crime. But in this high-profile tragedy police have yet to tell the public how McNaughton died. They won’t say what kind of physical evidence they’ve gathered, if any. And they won’t say if last week’s mysterious suicide attempt east of Clovis is connected to the homicide.

They won’t even say how they knew to contact the victim’s family for identification of the body.

Court records on the case have been sealed and public police reports are supposedly non-existent. As of Saturday afternoon, officials had not revealed any information they learned from a preliminary autopsy report they received last week.

This region’s curiosity has often matched its residents’ determination to solve problems themselves. It is a trait born a century ago on the high, windy plains of eastern New Mexico by pioneers determined to craft their own future. When facts are not available to satisfy our pioneer need-to-know spirit, we tend to speculate.

OK, a lot of gossips live here still. In a way that is caring, and in another it is unfortunate. But, remember, tales told by gossips could not take flight if our public safety officers would alleviate citizen concerns and provide some basic facts about this case.

Oddly, District Attorney Matt Chandler agreed with us Wednesday when we asked if the rumors might die down if more information were made public. He said he planned to meet with law officers Thursday to discuss which information could be released and then hold a media briefing.

That occurred. A press conference was held Thursday. Unfortunately there was almost no new information on the slaying that came from that event. All we really learned was that police are working hard to solve this case. So much for sharing information.

What happened to the plan to be more forthcoming? If anything, the briefing fueled speculation.

At least Bowman said early last week that evidence suggests McNaughton was not a random victim and “it’s possible” she knew her killer. But on Thursday Chandler would not even go that far at the press conference. If police knew who killed her, he said, they would arrest that person.

Like you, we appreciate law-enforcement being careful not to point fingers in the wrong direction or releasing information that could hamper prosecution or unfairly damage reputations. Everyone should share those concerns.

What isn’t clear is why it is necessary to prevent the public from knowing even simple things like how the young woman’s body was identified or how she died, as we often see and read about in most homicides. Airing a few basic facts would be a start toward erasing the feeling accompanying these rampant rumors, that police are trying to hide things for reasons unknown.

Once facts are placed on the table for all to examine, gossips will be discredited and rumors will fade.

And a better informed public might even start calling police with better tips that will help catch the killer.