A horrific news week in the suburbs

Updated 1/23/2012 9:11 AM

If you just landed in the suburbs and looked at the front pages of our Wednesday and Thursday editions, you might have thought: What a horrific and dangerous place to live.

On Wednesday, our Page 1 stories included a murder-suicide in Villa Park that took five lives; a shootout after cops in Carpentersville attempted to arrest suspected drug dealers with a bullet fragment striking the window of a nearby school; a judge deciding the woman who left her newborn on a Wheaton lawn was an unfit mother.


Thursday: Relatives, classmates grieve for the Villa Park murder victims; Carpentersville police explain their actions; Arlington Heights teen among those charged in a videotaped beating of teen in Chicago.

It's a time, in most of these stories, when our local authorities must step up to the plate. First and foremost, their job is to protect the people in their charge. Part of it, too, is dealing with the local media so they can tell their communities -- quickly but, most importantly, accurately -- what's going on.

On the former, it appears all performed well, and I certainly don't want to diminish the importance of that. On the latter, communicating effectively with your local newspaper, we have some decidedly mixed results. I tell you all this at the risk of perhaps sounding a little whiny, but when our phone calls aren't returned or we're shut out from information, our coverage snuffers, and, worse, misinformation can fly far and wide when we and other news media go to less official or knowledgeable sources. Here are some examples from those stories:

• Staff writer Elisabeth Mistretta, who worked on the Villa Park murders, contacted officials at Willowbrook High School, attended by one of the victims, to talk to school officials, students -- anyone who might be able to tell us about Darnell Holt, 16, one of four people shot to death in a house that was set on fire. The gunman/arsonist later took his own life. Not much information was immediately forthcoming, but through social media, Beth learned that Darnell was a wrestler; she asked if she could talk to his coaches. Nope, not the first day, but to their credit school officials held a news conference and made the principal and wrestling coaches available.

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• In that same first-day story, DuPage County courts reporter Josh Stockinger called the coroner's office repeatedly, trying to confirm some of the details about the grisly crime. Late in the day, he was told something would be posted on the coroner's website by 10 p.m. It wasn't. Stockinger had a discussion the following day with Coroner Peter Siekmann about the problem and was left with the impression better cooperation might be forthcoming.

• Carpentersville school officials took care of business the second they realized shots were being fired and quickly locked down a school. But the following day, after the crisis was abated, an information lockdown remained in place. Reporter Larissa Chinwah was told only that a piece of metal, possibly a bullet fragment, struck a classroom window. Our requests to take a picture of the damage were denied, while District 300 Superintendent Michael Bregy and Lakewood School Principal Tim Loversky did not return phone calls.

Again, I tell you all this not to prompt a Daily Herald pity party, nor to excoriate public officials at a time when they have a lot on their plates. But getting the word out when the news is not particularly good is important.

Some people understand that better than others. And maybe some people are simply more gregarious, interested in dealing with the media. So I leave you with another example this week of a public official's candor. I've seen an amazing amount of furtiveness and deception when an elected leader in the suburbs gets seriously ill. All of a sudden, the public's right to know becomes secondary.


Then there's Naperville Mayor George Pradel.

As Justin Kmitch reported online Friday, the 74-year-old Pradel was hospitalized a day earlier with surgery to repair a 95 percent blockage in a coronary artery. He had had a minor heart attack in 2010 and open-heart surgery in 1993. The stent inserted Thursday was his third.

So, with some trepidation and fear of being intrusive, Kmitch called Pradel on Friday afternoon. He left a message that if the mayor felt like talking sometime in the not-too-distant future, to return the call.

Pradel called back four hours later.

And we were able to give citizens of Naperville a clearer picture of their chief executive's health. That's how the deal between the public and public officials works best.


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