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Murder in a Small Town

Wilton’s patricide story proves the news media adage—"If It Bleeds, It Leads"—but how many gory details and rumors are too many?

 

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! 

And I mean ALL about it.

If you wanted to find out all the gory details about last week’s , it was extraordinarily easy to do so. Read how a father, found brutally slain, was lying ‘in a pool of blood.’ Listen to the 911 call to hear the anguish of the wife of the victim—also the mother of the accused. Learn how the victim’s son admitted to police that he , and all the things he was after his arrest.

Inquiring minds want to know!

Rumblings started happening almost immediately, as the first ‘breaking news’ alerts began hitting the Web just a short time after the actual murder took place—perhaps only an hour or two after at the most.

It didn’t take long for news of the Ramsey family slaying to spread, as word rippled out through town—emails and Facebook and phone calls started passing the information along the small town network.

“Did you hear? The police called it a ‘suspicious death.’ Up on Signal Hill Road. Do you think it was someone who’s still on the loose?”

I live in Wilton, and admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my just-the-facts-ma’am journalist hat at first, either; instead I was simply a concerned neighbor, leaning more toward the neurotic, horrified type. Our first call was to friends on the same street where the killing happened to make sure they were OK.

Less than 24 hours later, Wilton became ground zero for media madness. A press conference was held for local, regional, state and even New York metropolitan news outlets. Our little, semi-rural village had suddenly become the location for the lead story on the evening news.

The press wanted every detail: What weapon did killer use? Was the victim stabbed after the fatal blow was struck, or before? Was the son mentally ill and psychotic?

Why did the reporters want to know? Because many of you wanted to know. The more gruesome the headline could be meant more newspapers would sell, more clicks would be made on online articles, and more viewers would flock to the “News at 11.” I’m no novice, and I know the phrase “If It Bleeds, It Leads” exists for a reason.

Heck, it got my mom in New Jersey to make an urgent call to me shortly after the 5 pm news aired the story the day after the murder, to make sure I lived on the other side of town from where the crime was committed. I hadn’t even thought to call her to tell her what had happened, but I shouldn’t have been surprised that she would have heard the story. By that point our small town murder had become big town news.

Small town also means rumor, gossip and curiosity. I got cornered wherever I went—”What happened? What’s the true story?”  Chatter was active on Facebook, with people passing along whatever tidbit they’d heard. It was also my job to cover the news in the neighborhood where I live, to report on the .

For me, the lines began to blur. I can’t ever listen to 911 calls from a crime which are released to the media, be it Trayvon Martin’s death or the Ramsey case here in Wilton. As a journalist, I understand their potential news value—they provide clues about the crime that are reportable, and they may indicate other newsworthy things. For example, one Patch reader suggested it was clear from listening to the 911 call that it took too much time for police to arrive on the scene once dispatch received that call. That might be a news story worth looking in to, and if the media don’t listen to the calls, they wouldn’t know.

But as a mother, a sensitive person, and a human being, I just can’t bring myself to eavesdrop on another human being’s raw, private anguish. The empathetic pain is too great, and to me it’s none of my business. Some media go so far as to link to the actual audio from the call; I’m personally glad this news outlet wasn’t one of them.

With stories like this one, journalists place calls to the victim’s family friends, they knock on neighbors doors—and the reception is often much, much less than welcoming. They get screamed at or even spit upon for intruding past the moral barriers of propriety and niceness, in order to try and paint a complete picture of what happened and, perhaps, why.

It seems the public is conflicted too, as some Patch commenters favored the discussion and continued reporting about what happened; some even offered their own theories as to why Ramsey might have killed his father—? Mental illness? Other people felt how tasteless and crass it was to dig into the privacy of the family and the Ramseys should just be left alone with their grief.

It didn’t stop rumors from circulating and getting whispered over luncheon counters and in nail salons. “Was he the stepson?” asked one town resident. “He was definitely into drugs,” said another.

It’s a jumble of needs—the family needs privacy and compassion; the accused needs a fair trial; the public thinks it has a right to know; the journalists wants to get the scoop to feed that hungry public.

But here’s what I think each of us really needs:  to take a good look in the mirror and decide—for you and you alone—exactly whose need is more important.

Do we, as a public, have a right to know what happened when a potential crime happens in our own backyard?

Does the family at the center of the tragedy need to keep private their saddest, most awful truths from being torn open for all to learn?

Do journalists need to fulfill their professional mission and continue to cover the story as the conduit for the public’s right to know?

Does the accused son’s status of innocent until proven guilty need to supersede the media’s right to uncover and publish as much information as possible before any trial?

If you’ve read to the bottom of this story, or even clicked on it in the first place, maybe your greatest need of all is to look at yourself in the mirror and try to figure it all out.

carol ball May 09, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Heather, your hallmark is writing thought provoking pieces, and more often than not, the comments sections to your pieces, have nothing to do with the content of your article. It is a matter of personal opinion whether the comment drift away from the topic is appropirate or not. In this case, the Ramsey family tragedy opened the door to another serious issue in our community that needs to be discussed. It doesn't diminish the pain and heart ache of the family, but it is something else entirely, and it is necessary. The drift to talking about mental illness and drug abuse -- whether this is a factor in this sad story or not -- we don't really know -- may actually save other lives. Gossiping about this tragedy is short lived. We all have a general idea about what happened. Now each individual needs to process it and find ways to be supportive neighbors to eachother.
Loralyn Cropper May 09, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Great article! On a very personal level, I feel that these stories and the "stuff" it brings up like mental illness or drug use at the high school makes us stop and think. And that is a good thing. For example, the horrible fire in Stamford on Christmas day, made our family stop and think about having fire ladders for the upstairs, to make sure that there were working fire alarms and escape plans talked about for the family. I feel very sad for the Ramsey family and hope that we can all learn lessons from it, whatever they may be. So, press coverage is a good thing....in my humble opinion....
Rational Wilton Mom May 09, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Well said. And yes, no one is immune to the possibility of drug abuse, pain and tragedy in their families. We'd like to believe we're are above it from happening in our lives, but we are not. My prayers, thoughts, prayers and support are for the entire Ramsey family.
Glen K Dunbar May 10, 2012 at 12:47 PM
Oh Nancy. Sadly, I live in New Canaan. I am not lucky to live in Wilton. I say that to open my memo here. I want to say how sad that whole story made me. I am sorry for the poor Dad/Victim, I feel terrible for the people left behind. I feel sick for the criminal as He knows He is not all there and will carry this w/him till He is Judged by Heaven. So so sad. As miserable as my life is I actually feel for all involved in this. I also want to say to the people of Wilton, CT how sorry I am this happened in Your community. I thank God that as gone as I am that I am not that gone. It also shows thought that "the system" needs to address people w/emotional illness and GIVE them the support help then need and/or ask for. This shunning people away because of lack of money or insurance is for the birds. "The system" people are so nervous about people abusing the system they turn away those in need. Note, people would not be asking for help if they did not need it. anyhow, Thanks for the memo Nany Woeful GLEN
Sushi May 30, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Mental illness is only compounded by illegal drugs. The problem for professionals is trying to differentiate between what is the cause and what is the effect. Especially in young people. It is truly not an easy thing to do. Drugs for mental illness often exacerbate the problems and make them worse. The mother who is left behind will have a very difficult time with all of this. I pray for her and so should everyone else. She needs support more than anyone in this situation as the survivor in this trauma. Bless her heart and soul, poor thing....

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