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Small-town Colorado newspaper theft was to protect victim, not police chief

I spoke to the man who confessed to stealing the papers about his real motivation for doing it.

When a small town Colorado newspaper published a frontpage story on Thursday about a rape that had allegedly occurred at the police chief’s house, more than 200 copies of the print edition were reportedly stolen.

The initial response from the paper’s owners indicated they believed it was an attempt to silence them. “It’s pretty clear that someone didn’t want the community to read the news this week,” Erin McIntyre, who co-owns the Ouray County Plaindealer with her husband Mike Wiggins, said in a statement.

The interpretation of events picked up by national news outlets such as HuffPost, CNN, and The New York Times seemed to draw the conclusion that the theft was in some way connected to the chief, Jeff Wood, his stepson—who is one of the young men accused of sexually assaulting a local 17-year-old girl—and/or one of the other two suspects. The story included gruesome details of the alleged rape from a Colorado Bureau of Investigation affidavit that the three defendants, who were arrested in December for suspected felony sexual assault, would likely not want to be made public.

Suddenly Ouray County, Colorado (population 5,000) was in the national spotlight for a story that sounded eerily similar in motivation to the police raid on the Marion County Record in Kansas—a story The Handbasket broke in August.

The paper’s owners appeared to support that narrative. Wiggins tweeted Thursday:

The Handbasket has learned, however, that while the theft was motivated by a desire to keep the story out of view, it was for reasons quite different than initially presumed. I’ve confirmed the man who stole the papers personally knows the victim and did it because he was angry that they’d chosen to print such graphic details of the sexual assault without the victim’s consent, according to him.

Here’s how I figured out that the initial reporting didn’t accurately capture what happened in Ouray:

On Friday, the paper reported that Paul Choate, a 41-year-old local restaurant owner, had confessed to the theft and returned the stolen papers. He received a citation for petty theft, apologized to the paper, and offered compensation for lost revenue.

New copies of the paper were distributed Friday, and the owners sent out a newsletter, writing: “Anyone who attempts to interfere with our ability to distribute news is going to have their efforts backfire on them. We may be a small newspaper, but we're going to stand up for ourselves.”

But the details in the story they published Saturday about Choate and his citation were a bit unclear. “The Plaindealer is not disclosing Choate’s relationship to the sexual assault case,” they wrote. “The theft was not connected in any way to the three defendants in the case, their families or the Ouray Police Department.”

So I texted McIntyre on Saturday to clarify what this meant and she replied: “It’s not connected to the defendants in the sex assault case or the police department.” I understood this to mean that it was possibly connected to the rape victim. I asked McIntyre if that was accurate and didn’t receive a reply.

Later that day I found Choate’s Facebook page and saw that he’d published a post personally confessing to the theft. I then sent him a direct message to see if my suspicion was correct—that he stole the papers to protect the victim. On Monday, he confirmed.

“I read the paper weekly and it disgusted to me to point of the actions I took,” he told me via phone. He confirmed that the victim is indeed someone he knows personally, but The Handbasket is not disclosing specifically how they are connected to avoid unwanted attention for the victim.

We spoke moments after Choate posted again on his Facebook page Monday afternoon, in which he explained a bit more about why he did what he did:

“I want to make it clear that my intentions were completely opposite of what has been portrayed in the media. My motivation behind this is to bring to light that no details in any victims statements and interviews should be posted without their consent. Specifically, I was appalled by the graphic details reported; I would never want this information to come out about someone I cherish. It was irresponsible to publish this without the consent of the victim and without links to resources.”

He was sure to mention that an article in the paper the previous week about the case “provided sufficient and well written information,” ostensibly to make it clear he wasn’t against coverage in general. But this latest piece, he felt, went too far.

“In effort to support victims and combat rape culture, I am including links to three local advocacy groups. I encourage you to consider donating to these organizations. Additionally, if you or anyone requires assistance please be aware that there are resources in your local communities.

Thank you for taking the time to read this statement. I hope it clarifies my intentions and spreads light to responsible journalism and supporting victims of sexual assault.”

He then provided links to advocacy groups Men Ending Rape Culture, Ouray Support Advocacy Group, and Faultless.

When asked if he planned to take any legal action against the Ouray County Plaindealer, Choate replied, “No, not at the moment. I think my point has been taken.”

Choate said the small mountain community has been mostly supportive in the aftermath of his confession. “There’s been a little bit of negativity from people that don’t necessarily know the situation overall behind what I did out of anger.”

The Ouray County Plaindealer did not respond to requests for comment.

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