Meet the reporting duo helping a mid-size Illinois paper punch above its weight

George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer hard at work (courtesy image).

The story started when a grandmother called the Belleville News-Democrat in Southern Illinois. Her 14-year-old granddaughter had been gang raped, she said, but no one had been arrested, and no one had been prosecuted.

By the time News-Democrat reporters George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer started looking into the assault in 2010, five or six months had passed. The case had gone cold for law enforcement. But for the pair of investigative reporters at the mid-size McClatchy paper near St. Louis, Missouri, it was just the beginning of a three-year odyssey to find out why this and so many other rape and sexual abuse cases in southern Illinois were never prosecuted.

After months of searching paper court records in 32 different counties across the southern part of the state, the reporters discovered that during a nine-year period, from 2005 to 2013, 70 percent of sex crimes never made it to a courtroom even though victims were able to identify their attackers 95 percent of the time. Their findings were published in an award-winning multimedia series, “Violation of Trust,” one year ago this month that included the story of the 14-year-old—as well as a detailed account of how the reporters assembled the data (note: much of it through old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting).

Much has happened in the year since publication. In November, St. Clair County, where the News-Democrat is located, received a $1.95 million federal grant to, as the paper reported, “allow prosecutors to more aggressively pursue domestic violence and sexual assault and advocate for the victims.” The Illinois Attorney General in March assembled a task force to improve the investigation of sexual assaults in Illinois. At least two counties the News-Democrat investigated assigned prosecutors specifically to sex crime cases. Currently, the reporters are working on two follow-ups to their original investigation.

Last week, the News-Democrat learned that Hundsdorfer, Pawlaczyk and photographer Zia Nizami won the prestigious John Jay College/H.F. Guggenheim Excellence in Crime Reporting Award for the multi-part series. The runner up was The Guardian US, which shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 with The Washington Post. This is the second time the reporting duo won the award. They also took the top prize in 2010 for a series on treatment of prisoners at the Tamms supermax prison in southern Illinois, which closed five months after the paper published its investigation. For that story, the reporters also won a George Polk Award.

Both series were an extraordinary investigative effort for a newspaper the size of the News-Democrat, which has a daily print circulation of about 32,000 and an average of 707,350 monthly unique visitors in 2015.

“This is a place, a perfect storm for a couple of reporters who’ve had a very productive partnership,” Pawlaczyk said of the News-Democrat.

Pawlaczyk is a full-time investigative reporter at the paper, with Hundsdorfer working with him when she’s not on her regular beat reporting on courts. Even then, Hundsdorfer said, her colleagues willingly step in to cover for her. “If I’m in the throes of this, somebody has to go do my beat,” she said. “Somebody else just picks up, and it’s seamless. We’re lucky that way.”

The two still have to work their monthly weekend shifts and day stories like everyone else, but they also have the luxury of disappearing into their reporting, talking through leads and ideas in an attic of the newsroom where their boxes are stored. As a result, the paper has carved out a niche in investigative reporting that is almost unheard of for a paper of its size, in an industry of shrinking newsrooms and resources for time-intensive reporting.

“We made watchdog reporting our priority,” said executive editor Jeffry Couch, who has been at the paper for 12 years. “We like it big and small. In recent years we’ve been doing even more investigating, reporting, writing, publishing on the same subject instead of holding it for a series. We think reader. We have to make decisions where to put our resources. We put them here.”

Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer have been teaming up on investigations for 16 years. Beth and George or George and Beth. That’s what they’re called in the newsroom. They share bylines and responsibilities and trade off on who writes the lead even though Pawlaczyk is older, more experienced and the full-time investigative reporter. Hundsdorfer is quiet— the introvert, as she describes herself. Pawlaczyk, who has been at the paper for 21 years, doesn’t mind the spotlight, his reporting partner said. It just works.

The two first started working together 16 years ago. In 2006, they collaborated on their first award-winning series about children who had died in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The series won a National Headliners Award, a Casey Medal and Robert F. Kennedy grand award for domestic print.

Their editor, Gary Dotson, a senior editor at the News-Democrat who has overseen most of the major investigative projects in the past two decades, said he tries not to encumber his reporters with deadlines. He also encourages them to write smaller stories that lead to more stories instead of waiting to publish big series.

“It’s unusual in a newsroom this size to find reporters who pretty much have carte blanche getting the time they need to work these investigations and write these stories,” he said. “I just try to stay in touch with what they’re doing and when I see it starting to come together and gel then we start mapping out deadlines and timetables.”

Mark Poepsel, assistant professor in the Mass Communications Department at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, said the Belleville paper is putting resources into the kind of reporting that makes it relevant to its readers. It’s unusual, he said. Most news organizations claim they don’t have the money to do investigative journalism. But Poepsel said it’s the only way for local journalism to survive.

“People can get the national and international news just about anywhere,” he said. “News organization should be doing more in-depth and investigative work. I just call it real journalism. It’s something really valuable to a community and something they aren’t going to get anywhere.”

But it’s not easy work. At the end of the day, when many of their News-Democrat colleagues are headed home, Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer often are just getting started.

“Beth and I will take off just as we’re leaving work and drive 150 miles to interview someone,” he said. “We work it 24-7 and you just got to go. It’s the nature of the beast. We find that talking to people, going to places, really does reward you.”

The “Violation of Trust” series was their most challenging story yet, he said, because of the difficulty in rounding up records. They then had to create a database because nobody, not even the FBI, tracks prosecutions of sex crimes. The various counties also had different ways of tracking the crimes, not always differentiating between felony sexual abuse and felony sexual assault. There were numerous other issues as well.

In Carbondale, a city clerk refused to turn over police investigative files because the smell of the pen from redacting information made her ill, she told the paper. She also claimed that she didn’t have time. The paper challenged her refusal and got the records.

In the case of the 14-year-old who was raped, a sheriff said he couldn’t get hospital records. Pawlaczyk, who already had them, gave the sheriff a copy.

Pawlaczyk said in looking at more than 1,000 redacted case files, they saw one botched investigation after another and heavy-handed interviewing by police who weren’t sensitive to what a rape victim had just been through. “It was outrageous,” he said.

Pawlaczyk said the pair worked on the stories for 14 months over a three-year period. In all, they sent out more than 100 requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information law.

It was worth it, said Hundsdorfer, who voluntarily underwent a rape examination and wrote about it to let readers know the process.

“They were victims and nothing happened,” Hundsdorfer said. “Just to give them a chance to have a voice and see anything happen, that’s probably the biggest benefit of what we did.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.