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GROB: The story I never wanted to write

By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

I was the first journalist to read the full arrest record in detail. I was the first news writer to see the photos.

I still have the page from the legal pad I used to scribble notes as I looked at the files. Among other things, written in bold, angry letters in the top right hand corner of the page, there are two words.

“I quit.”

There is a curse word written up there in the corner, too, one not appropriate for a family newspaper.

James Grob
James Grob

This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I was physically sick from what I’d seen and read. I consider myself a good writer, and I certainly have many years of writing, editing and reporting experience, but I had no idea how I was going to write an article about this.

A baby named Sterling Koehn had died, and his parents were implicated.

Zachary Koehn and Cheyanne Harris, his dad and mom, were charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. Sterling was found dead in a swing seat in their apartment in Alta Vista, Iowa.

He died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection from diaper rash. Investigators said his diaper hadn’t been changed in over a week — maybe two weeks. Sterling died 12-24 hours before anyone bothered to call 911.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I couldn’t look at the photos. I was sick.

I’d covered some pretty horrific things over the years at newspapers large and small, and also some wonderful things. I’d gotten out of the business for a few years, and returned to work at this small-town bi-weekly in New Hampton. I’d been there a few weeks, and I’d been re-energized. I was loving community journalism. Covering board meetings, city celebrations, football games, local events — I felt like I was doing something worth doing again.

Yes, there was bad news, too, that was essential to cover — but even that was kind of fun and challenging to write about.

Then this. The most horrible thing I’d ever seen. As a parent — as a human — I wanted out. How does something like this happen?

Eventually, last fall, Sterling’s dad was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death and sentenced to life in prison. He has appealed his conviction.

Closing arguments were heard in Sterling’s mom’s case on Wednesday, and by late in the afternoon the jury had returned a guilty verdict for her, too.

But justice wasn’t on my mind on the day I read those files and saw those photos. I wanted out. I wanted to go home, go to bed, get some sleep, and never go back to work.

I didn’t quit. I did my job. I reminded myself that cops and first responders and soldiers and firefighters see things like this far more often than I do, in person, up close.

So I wrote up what I’d seen. I was more careful and more focused than I’d ever been. Never have I treated a task so respectfully. My editor had done some work already and talked to some sheriff’s deputies and county prosecutors about the case, and so we shared a byline on the article.

I told him it would be OK with me if he left my name off of it, or just used “news staff,” or something like that. I really felt like I didn’t want to be associated with the story. He told me he understood, but he was going to put my name on it. He told me that at some point, it would be important to see the specific names of the people who covered the story.

He could tell I was sick. He told me to take the rest of the day off. He knew I needed that.

In the days and weeks that followed, I watched the story take off and become a national and international news item. The way the story morphed in the national media was upsetting to me.

Forensic investigators had used insect larva to help determine the time of death, which is a standard procedure. Major media outlets focused on that one small detail, and began referring to Sterling Koehn as a “maggot-infested baby.” I felt it took the humanity away from this baby, and turned a tragic story into some kind of awful zombie movie.

What’s worse, it simply wasn’t true. Sterling wasn’t “maggot-infested.” I read the reports. I saw the photos. National publications used those words to get attention, to attract internet clicks, and that pissed me off.

It’s a myth that small-town community journalists like it when the big papers and media organizations pick up our stories. Some assume that we’re somehow supposed to be flattered that they found our stuff to be worthy of their publication.

They oftentimes don’t treat those stories with the same care and focus. In fact, I saw one national publication lift this particular story, word-for-word, from the article my editor and I had written, place their own journalist’s name on it, drop the phrase “maggot-infested” into the story and headline, and call it their own — as if they did any work at all.

Even though I put in the work, I requested my name be taken off the story, because it disturbed me so much. And here was another writer, at a major newspaper, so eager to take credit for someone else’s work. I felt like there was something wrong with that, something inhuman.

It’s no wonder we have a president who’s constantly screaming “fake news.”

I hate that he says that. He’s not right.

But he’s not completely wrong, either.

I’m a father of two daughters, and I helped to take care of them when they were babies, but you don’t have to be a parent for the story of this baby to cut at your emotions.

You just have to be a human being.

Maybe if more of us went back to just being human, there’d be fewer Sterling Koehn stories to write.

— Editor’s note: James Grob was a reporter at the New Hampton Tribune when Cheyanne Harris and Zachary Koehn were arrested and charged with their baby’s murder in October 2017. Grob is now a reporter for the Press. Both newspapers are owned by Enterprise Media Inc. of Charles City.

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