Only delivery trucks were barreling down the icy main street of Ouray before dawn on Thursday, but the newspaper kiosks were fully stocked – a welcome turnaround from exactly one week earlier.
That’s when the roughly 5,000 residents of this mountainous Colorado county awoke to find that almost every copy of the local paper had been swiped from red-branded newspaper boxes dotted around its two main towns. The front page story of the Ouray County Plaindealer detailed sexual assault allegations against three local young men, including the stepson of Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood, but no one could read it.
The Plaindealer cried foul, and the theft launched the story into the stratosphere. It seemed, at first glance, to feature all the gripping elements of a noir small-town scandal: A young girl raped. A local paper censored. A police department blamed. A hunt for the paper thief among a tiny population in a seasonal community.
Anyone with information regarding the theft was urged to contact the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office, not the local authorities, casting even further suspicion. The Plaindealer leaned into that narrative – fast.
“I’m sorry that most of you locals who like to get your papers from the racks were not able to put your quarters in and receive your weekly news today,” co-publisher Erin McIntyre said last Thursday afternoon in a statement to readers, adding: “It’s pretty clear that someone didn’t want the community to read the news this week.”
She wrote dryly: “I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions on which story they didn’t want you to read.”
The implications were clear – that the cops, or someone connected to the accused, had stolen the copies or orchestrated the theft. Ouray’s police department, fire department and county sheriff’s office are clustered on the same street in the tiny, scenic historic district; locals are quick to point out that Ouray, while a mountain town, is not a ski town. The tony slopes of Telluride are about an hour’s drive away, but Ouray – founded as a mining camp not even 150 years ago – draws a different crowd of ice climbers, skijoring enthusiasts and tourists drawn to its hot springs. (The mercantile store on the main street on Thursday sported a sign on its front door imploring customers to remove crampons before entering.)
As the paper theft story was picked up nationally last Thursday, however – and on the same afternoon that McIntyre released her feisty statement – the real culprit returned the papers to the Plaindealer, apologizing.
It would soon become apparent that all had not been what it seemed.
Someone, indeed, had not wanted the community to read the news – but that someone was connected to the victim, not the alleged perpetrators.
Paul Choate, a 41-year-old local restaurateur close to the victim’s family, had grabbed an early copy and “could not make it through the entire article before I was disgusted,” he told The Independent on Thursday.
The piece, written from a 24-page, heavily-redacted affidavit, included what he considered to be graphic details about the assault allegedly perpetrated last May against the 17-year-old victim by Gabriel Trujillo, 20; Ashton Whittington, 18; and Nate Dieffenderffer, the chief’s then-17-year-old stepson – allegedly at Wood’s home.
It wasn’t the first local article about the case; the Plaindealer had previously run the accused’s mugshots and reported that there had been an alleged assault. But Mr Choate says the detailed brutality in the 24 January edition left him angrily horrified – and, “acting out of emotion,” he went around emptying the newspaper kiosks before the county began its Thursday.
“That was dumb on my part,” he said. “I never would have thought it would hit national news or even state news. I thought, by returning the papers and offering compensation for any damages, that they would kind of realize they’re wrong in it and we would just bury it – but instead it was published and it hit the Denver news.”
He also “never would have thought that” suspicion would centre on the police and the accused men’s families.
“I know that the family of the perpetrators are not bad people,” he said. “I wanted no blame to be placed on anyone. But myself, you know, I’ll own up to everything – and I don’t want it to negatively affect the families of everything going on on both sides.”
He added: “I never would have thought it would come to this. I never, ever wanted to draw any negative eye towards this community.”
His backfiring decision, however, inadvertently shone a spotlight on the difficulties prosecuting – and reporting on – sex assault cases of such magnitude in a close-knit population so remote. In the days after the paper theft – as donations poured in to the Plaindealer from free media supporters and as Ouray hosted the annual Ice Festival for which it’s famous – the town also found itself at the unexpected center of a debate about local journalism, the First Amendment and the ethics of sexual assault coverage.
Ouray is perhaps best known as the start of the Million Dollar Highway, a breathtaking 25-mile drive to Silverton, and the town is closer to the Utah and New Mexico borders than it is to the state capital. Denver is nearly 200 miles away as the crow flies – the drive a good five and a half hours or more.