Journalists are drawn to their underappreciated profession for the same reason all artists are—by a compulsion that has to be wrestled to ground in long hours of solitude between the afflicted and a mess of paper and ink. Journalists are individuals, of course, and no cookie-cutter profile uniformly fits us all. But after decades of rubbing shoulders with them and being one myself, I can safely say it’s not the promise of riches and fame that drive us. Fighting injustice, righting wrongs in high places, painting a picture of the human toll suffered by those ensnared in those and other forms of official skullduggery—these are the things that move us.
Like all art forms where we put our own selves on the line, and to which we sign our names for all the world to see, things don’t always work out the way we think they will. And despite our best efforts, things aren’t always what they seem.
This happened recently at this paper when AVA publisher Bruce Anderson responded to a well-crafted and heart-rending letter (posted on 8/21 and 8/22 of this year and signed by the author) by local Sarah Walker. In it she describes all the ways that Mendo officialdom has persecuted her personally and let down her family, putting four of the nine children she shares with her current partner Christopher Mangrum into foster care and ultimately up for adoption and facing, in her view, callous judges and indifferent social workers who have conspired to separate her from her children and destroy her Willits home with Mangrum (who she refers to in her emails and texts as “Mr. Mangrum,” an oddly formal stylistic reference appearing these days almost exclusively in the New York Times).
Anderson believed Walker’s story for many reasons, all honorable. Over the years the county’s foster care and child welfare systems have been fraught with incompetence and negligence, a handful of mismanaged cases even resulting in the preventable deaths of several children. The AVA unstintingly reports on these cases. In an expensive county with few options for the poor and their families, Walker’s own stated poverty was also certainly a convincing factor, as was her claim to be homeless while Mangrum languished in the Mendocino County Jail (in Walker’s words, “getting primped and pampered at Hotel Mendocino”) for a forged vehicle registration, possession of a controlled substance, and a suspended license. Walker wrote that she could not visit him because she, herself, had been an inmate within the past six months.
Finally, Anderson is a devoted father and grandfather and especially susceptible to the plights of children caught up in the maelstrom of their parents’ chaotic lives. He also believed Walker’s pledge to turn her life around and get her kids back. In her earlier emails this included dumping Mangrum, who was still in jail when their communication began. Anderson helped her, even writing to county contacts who might be able to either help her find a place to live or shed some fresh daylight on her lost child custody case. Committed to helping her, he signed his pledge to support her, “Your Friend, Bruce Anderson, AVA.” He was all in.
Walker’s story didn’t unravel all at once. It was more like that loose thread on your favorite sweater that you can’t resist pulling until the sleeve comes undone.
The first cracks in Walker’s story were embedded in her least believable statements, like when she wrote that she had no idea Mangrum was a drug addict. Not noticing that your intimate, live-in partner of 11 years is a meth addict is hard to swallow even by compassionate listeners inclined to believe her. In her letter to the AVA she wrote, in part, “I was not aware that Mr. Mangrum was battling an addiction…One thing I haven’t got is an understanding of the criminal mind. I’m a total loss in that department…I may seem naïve…I haven’t been immersed in that environment, so I’m not sure what exactly to look for.”
After more back-and-forth with Anderson, who urged her to go public with the details of her story because greater public awareness of her struggles could work in her favor both with the courts and the county agencies Walker claims have it in for her, and as supportive documentation for her continuing court cases. This ultimately led to setting up an initial face-to-face meeting with Anderson, who drove to Costco to meet with Walker at a mutually agreed-upon time.
Walker never showed up.
Thinking that it might be easier for Walker to speak candidly with another woman, I entered the fray at this point and tried my hand at setting up a meeting with her. My first email to her bounced back, with the announcement that “The email account that you tried to reach does not exist.” This was puzzling, since Anderson had reached Walker at the same email address earlier. But once he explained to her that I write for the AVA, my emails to her were delivered no problem. So after some more back-and-forth, this time with me, Walker wrote that she would be in Ukiah by noon on Saturday and I agreed to meet her in the Ukiah library at high noon. She further wrote that Mr. Mangrum had meanwhile been released from jail on his own recognizance, and that he could come to the interview too. “[He] COMPLETELY (her caps) supports my position for full disclosure Over (sic) all aspects of my life and shares in my belief that enough govt abuse is enough. He wants to help by providing details or however he can.”
I waited patiently at the serene and peaceful Ukiah library until 12:35; Walker never showed up for this second scheduled in-person interview, this time with me.
At 2:30, two-and-a-half hours past our scheduled interview time, Walker sent me a text message stating that “She just got to service” and “was not aware that plans for noon had been agreed upon.” She further wrote that “We are in Potter Valley, decided to get away from the hub-bub of it all.” She went on to question whether the library was the right place to have our meeting. “I’m not sure the library will be a place I can relax and get into ‘replay mode’,” she wrote. “I think I will be distracted by the ears of others, and I do not want that preoccupation to interfere with, or have a negative impact upon, the quality of information. I’ve chosen to be out doors (sic), closer to nature is where I feel safer, where I feel less dead inside…more in ‘my element.’ What about the lake or hwy 20 at cold creek?”
That was the end of the road for me since I had other obligations and a long drive back to the Bay Area. To be fair, would Walker have possibly shown up in a more pastoral setting? Maybe. But with so many red flags and contradictions, when every communication began with a “favor” request (hard copy back issues of the AVA whenever her name appeared, hopefully references that could tip court proceedings in her favor; letters and calls from Anderson to county contacts who might individually plead her case; help in selling her belongings to raise needed cash, to name a few), even the most compassionate among us begin to feel used. This is not pleasant to admit to ourselves so we rewind and rehash all that was said and done, searching for something we missed along the way that should have tipped us off before wasting all that time and energy.
But it wasn’t really wasted in the end and it’s the only way to be, really. Staying open to the plights of our fellow travelers is what we do, and sometimes we get duped. That doesn’t mean it will happen the next time.