20th Anniversary Feature Part One: 1999-2004
Inweekly is no longer a troublesome teen. We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this month. Rather than attempting to cram two decades of highlights into one week, we’ve decided to break it up and use all four July issues to cover the key moments from each five years of our history.
We start this week with the reporting that established our journalistic chops—the fall of the powerful W.D. Childers. In the upcoming weeks, we will reprise the inside story of the maritime park referendum, how Inweekly garnered a national reputation and our reconnection to our roots as a community advocate. We’ll also highlight some of the other important issues we’ve created like Best of the Coast and Rising Stars.
We hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane.
The Early Years & The Story That Put Us On The Map
By Rick Outzen
Few businesses could have been more dysfunctional than this newspaper was during its first three years. The Pensacola Independent published its first issue on July 1, 1999, and Congressman Joe Scarborough launched his Florida Sun a few months later, which created a bare-knuckled battle over readers and advertisers and led to the merger of the two weekly pubs and the creation of the Independent Florida Sun in January 2001.
The name would continue to evolve over the succeeding years—Independent Sun, Independent News, IN and now Inweekly—but that’s a story for another issue. Let’s go back to 2001.
The merger of the newspaper didn’t go smoothly. Scarborough ran the show for about five months before he decided that neither the newspaper nor Congress were suited for him. In May 2001, he announced his resignation from the U.S. House and that he would join the Levin Papantonio law firm. While he maintained a hand in the paper’s editorial coverage, I reassumed the role of publisher.
While we didn’t agree on many things, Joe and I agreed that the newspaper’s future would be built on investigative reporting. Fortunately, we had Duwayne Escobedo as news editor and UNC grad Steve Mraz to do the digging. However, we underestimated the backlash the paper would receive when we began shining light in the dark corners of local government.
W.D. & Inweekly
In June 2001, a man, who for 30 years had been one of Florida’s most powerful lawmakers, took over the chairmanship of the Escambia County Commission. W. D. Childers had lost his Florida Senate seat due to term limits in 2000 and had come home to Pensacola and successfully won the District 1 commission seat after convincing incumbent Mike Whitehead to step aside.
Many initially marveled at how Chairman Childers was revolutionizing county government. The daily newspaper wrote about his leadership style and how effective he was at getting things done.
However, we began hearing stories of backroom deals and vendors’ arms being twisted. People were afraid to come forward because no one crossed the “Banty Rooster,” Childers’ Tallahassee nickname. We put Escobedo on it.
On Aug. 31, 2001, we published “Crazy Like a Fox, Or Just Crazy,” which pulled back the curtain on what was happening at the old Escambia County Courthouse on Palafox. While he insisted that he autographed hundreds of issues, Childers wasn’t happy. He told Escobedo, “That paper is crap. Maybe I’d read it if it had more stories about Elvis.”
Scarborough didn’t help the relationship the following week when he wrote a satirical column comparing the handwriting of the 5-foot 6-inch Childers to Napoleon’s signature. Childers told PNJ opinion editor Carl Wernicke, “Well, the only thing that stopped Napoleon was Russia and the snow. This ain’t Russia, and it ain’t snowing.”
The following months, this newspaper was slammed by all sides. Threats, both to the business and us personally, came our way daily. Advertisers were warned of dire consequences if they did business with our newspaper.
A smart publisher would have backed off and tried to make amends with the chairman, but few people have accused me of being smart. In November and December 2002, County Administrator Tom Forrest, County Engineer Cindy Anderson, Assistant Administrator Bill Neron and acting County Administrator Gregg Welstead resigned.
The board was having trouble finding anyone to serve as county administrator. Childers told Escobedo that heading the county wasn’t rocket science.
“Just because someone knows Chapter 15 of the ‘Good Government 101’ textbook, doesn’t mean he’ll do a good job,” said Childers (“Crowning Moment,” 11/9/01).
Smelling a Rat
Then we began to hear of million-dollar land deals being approved during late night commission meetings. Again, we assigned Escobedo to the story (“Mine, Mine, Mine: Critics Bash County Land Grabs,” 1/25/02).
On Nov. 1, 2001, the commission had voted 3-2 to use $3.9 million in local option sales tax funds to buy the 48-acre former Pensacola Soccer Complex, near the corner of W Street and U.S. Highway 29, from Elliott Properties. The deal was closed three weeks later—a record for county land deals. Then on Jan. 10, 2002, Junior made another add-on motion to purchase the former Stalnaker Mazda site on U.S. 29 for $2.3 million, which was approved 3-2.
In both votes, Childers and Commissioner Mike Bass affirmed Commissioner Willie Junior’s motion while Commissioners Tom Banjanin and Terry Smith opposed. After the votes, Banjanin emailed his constituents, “I smell a rat. I’ve been fighting buying these lands. There’s absolutely no need for them.”
Childers defended the votes to Escobedo, saying that Brent Park on W Street would be relocated to the soccer site. The car dealership land would be a place to service its fleet of cars and a spot to launch Sheriff Ron McNesby’s two helicopters. He argued that the youth sports association and McNesby came to commissioners asking for the lands.
“We made a good buy,” Childers said. “Nothing we bought since I’ve been here are things that we can’t turn around and make a profit on. We really bought some crap over the years.”
He went after his critics. “You’ll always have whiners, criers, squawkers. They couldn’t balance their checkbooks if you held it up for them. They wanted to make money off it and got pissed when they didn’t.”
Two weeks later, State Attorney Curtis Golden announced a special grand jury to investigate the land deals. Sources at the courthouse shared with us that bribes, kickbacks and corrupt business deals may lead to four commissioners being indicted.
Golden said, “I’m confident we’ll determine if anyone was unjustly enriched by any transactions made by the Board of County Commissioners.”
Businessmen came forward to share with our newspaper how they were shook down by Commissioner Junior (“Axis of Evil?,” 2/15/02). Developer Mike Green said, “Before I could get out of the commission door, he wanted $5,000. He said, ‘I want cash; I want it by Friday.’ I didn’t take it to him, and he called me asking, ‘Where’s my money?’”
Commissioner Bass told us his only mistake was trusting Junior on the land deals. He said, “I tried to accommodate Willie. Unfortunately, not enough information was given or just wasn’t known. We should have slowed down the process.”
He added, “It certainly lends itself to suspicion that deals were cut. That’s embarrassing to me, and I don’t want it to happen again.”
Childers seemed to be unfazed by Golden’s announcement. “I don’t know of any real criminal wrongdoing. I don’t think you’ll find any evidence of payoffs. Who’s doing the payoffs? It’s not that simple. If somebody looks rotten to the core, then somebody needs proof something happened. I don’t believe it did.”
He said he welcomed the scrutiny. “Hopefully, they’ll turn over some logs and some rats will run out.”
On March 25, 2002, the state grand jury returned five sealed indictments. After about two months of rumors flying around the courthouse, Childers was fed up and asked for Escobedo to come visit him (“Childers on the Warpath,” 4/5/02). He blasted Bass, Smith and Junior and shared his responses to questions from the grand jury.
He acted as if the investigation was about everything but him. “I just hope (the grand jury) clears up a lot of these questions. We need to clean up the way business has been conducted at the county courthouse … I have nothing to hide. I haven’t taken any kickbacks, stole any money or taken any bribes.”
The chairman said of his fellow commissioners, “I had one chance to purge my soul. These bastards will probably take me and hang me, skin me, freeze dry me and everything else. I figure this stuff will come out anyway sooner or later.”
He said he was willing to help the state and was pondering buying airtime on TV to get some information out to the public.
Childers shared that he had loaned Junior $90,000 in seven payments made from May 31, 2001, to Feb. 21, 2002. He provided Inweekly records of his checks and a handwritten contract written on Feb. 16, 2002, that stated Childers would get the Junior Funeral Home building if Junior failed to repay the loan by June.
He supplied his checkbook records to prove he had received no kickbacks on the land deals. “I have no outside source of income. There’s no money from a soccer complex. All the money I let Junior have is mine. Some people have got some leisure time, not me. I’m working my fingers to the bone. It’s all my money; I made it.”
He defended the loan as a sound business investment. “Some might think I’m ruthless, heartless and mean, but if I’m not paid back, I’ll take the whole kit and caboodle. It’s especially a good investment if I can get the vacant property adjacent to it.”
On May 1, 2002, Golden announced that the grand jury returned nine indictments. Commissioners Childers, Bass, Junior and Smith were arrested and removed from office. Joe Elliott and his wife, Georgann Elliott, of Elliott Properties, which sold the land to the county, were also arrested (“Busted,” 5/3/02).
The charges were as follows:
Mike Bass: Three counts of violating the state Sunshine Law, two counts bribery, principal to money laundering and racketeering
W.D. Childers: Five counts of violating the state Sunshine Law
Willie Junior: Four counts bribery, four counts extortion, two counts of violating the Sunshine Law, racketeering and grand theft
Terry Smith: Three counts of violating the state Sunshine Law
Georgann Elliott: Structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements
Joe Elliott: Racketeering, bribery and money laundering
On June 17, 2002, Childers was charged with two counts of bribery and one of money laundering after Junior pleaded no contest to one Sunshine violation and 10 felonies, including bribery, racketeering and extortion, and agreed to testify against other defendants. Prosecutors in exchange promised a prison term of no more than 18 months instead of a possible 125 years.
Eleven days later, Childers was convicted on one count of violating Sunshine Law over a call he and Commissioner Smith made to Supervisor of Elections Bonnie Jones over country redistricting. The Pensacola jurors acquitted him on two other sunshine violation counts and hung on a fourth.
We saw the indictment of Childers as a vindication of our reporting. Maybe our little band of reporters did know how to shake up the status quo. Readers learned that they could trust our reporting.
On the third anniversary of our newspaper (Inweekly, “Willie Junior: The Devil Made Me Do It,” 6/28/02), I wrote, “We are a small band of writers, editors, graphic artists and business people struggling to make a difference in this community we love. Count on us to be the community newspaper that fearlessly tackles the hard questions and tells the story behind the story.”
And we have continued to strive to live up to that commitment.
On April 9, 2003, W.D. Childers was found guilty of two charges of bribery and unlawful compensation. The trial was moved to the Okaloosa County Courthouse in Crestview because of heavy news coverage in Pensacola. He was sentenced to 42 months in state prison, ordered to complete 250 hours of community service and 18 months of probation after he finished the sentence. Childers served nearly three years of his prison sentence in West Palm Beach and was released on June 17, 2009.
Mike Bass pleaded no contest to two Sunshine violations, and prosecutors dropped bribery and other felony counts.
Terry Smith was convicted on two Sunshine counts and sentenced to 250 hours of community service and ordered to pay $4,987 in fines and court cost.
Jurors cleared Joe Elliott in December 2002 and his wife, Georgann, in April 2004 of any wrongdoing in the land deals.
Willie Junior testified in Childers’ trial that the chairman had given him a collard green cooking pot filled with cash and passed him a note with “100″ written on it twice, claiming Childers told him it meant each would get $100,000. In November 2004, while Pensacola was still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, Junior disappeared the day before his sentence hearing. His body was found in the crawl space under the East Strong Street home of Benjamin Dudley. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrea Minyard later ruled Junior took his own life by drinking antifreeze.
Following the Facts
More Key Investigative Stories from 1999-2004
“DooDoo Voodoo on Main Street,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 11/2/01: Inweekly began to push for ECUA to relocate its Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant, whose odor made even walking down Palafox a challenge. The plant was built in 1937 and pumped 15-20 million gallons a day of treated sewage into Pensacola Bay. We believed that it was stifling any growth on the western edge of downtown. Even after spending more than $30 million on improvements, the plant continued to stink up downtown Pensacola.
“Meltdown at the ECUA,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 3/8/02: The newspaper uncovered government documents that indicated utility officials knew of possible radium 226 and radium 228 contamination in the drinking water but failed to alert potentially affected Pensacola residents. The documents tied a former ConocoPhillips/Agricola fertilizer plant to polluted water as early as 1957.
“Swim at Your Own Risk,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 7/26/02: Pensacola Beach had 11 drownings in 2001; another half dozen drownings had already occurred in 2002. By comparison, an average of only 20 people drown annually on all of Florida’s beaches. Instead of beefing up beach safety, the SRIA fired all but four of its 18 lifeguards and boarded up many of its lifeguard towers.
“Overdue,” by Jason Whited, 1/31/03: The city of Pensacola had run the West Florida Regional Library System into the ground. The system ranked at or near the bottom of Florida’s 50 library systems. From spending per capital on library services (47th) to number of volumes on shelves (49th), the city council had failed users in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
“Caught Red-Handed,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 6/27/03: Escambia County School Board member John DeWitt’s income for education software companies doubled over his nine years on the board, while those companies sold $1,041,740 to the school district over that period. Our investigation found he had blocked votes regarding products sold by competitors.
“Ugly Face of Domestic Violence,” by Duwayne Escobedo, 7/30/04: FavorHouse’s Sue Hand told us that domestic violence-related murders for the two-county area had hit an all-time high. Checking out the story, sources told us law enforcement officials refused to thoroughly report or aggressively prosecute such cases. We wanted to change that.
“Hate and Murder in Dixie,” by Sam Baltrusis, 8/20/04: Our reporter Sam Baltrusis interviewed the older brother of Scotty Weaver, a gay teenager who had been beaten, strangled and stabbed numerous times, partially decapitated and his body set on fire a month earlier. During the daylong interview, Sam and the brother were mocked and followed by the hate-mongering locals.
“Secrets in the Schoolhouse,” by Duwayne Escobedo and Mollye Barrows, 12/2/04: The newspaper partnered with WEAR TV reporter Mollye Barrows on the story of Rebecca Ramirez who came back to Victory Christian Academy to conduct a one-person protest, claiming that the founder of the all-girls boarding school had raped her when she was a 16-year-old student in 1992.