Biker backlash

Sacramento Valley Mirror defends decision to run photo of accident victim, despite threats

Sacramento Valley Mirror editor/publisher Tim Crews said he feels publishing graphic photos can stop future accidents.

Sacramento Valley Mirror editor/publisher Tim Crews said he feels publishing graphic photos can stop future accidents.

Photo by Ken Smith

Tim Crews believes there’s no room for pulled punches and half-truths when it comes to reporting the news. He disdains media outlets that soften content to avoid offending readers, and his own dogged devotion to journalistic principles has earned him and the twice-weekly newspaper he edits and publishes—the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror—national attention and renown.

That same commitment has also garnered ire over the years, with some locals nicknaming the paper “The Valley Smearer” due to its penchant for publishing unfiltered, sometimes unflattering information about Glenn County residents. Crews and company are in the midst of such a situation now, and say they’ve been threatened with boycotts and bodily harm since running a story about a fatal motorcycle crash on the front page of the Mirror’s Nov. 18 issue.

The report included an above-the-fold photo of three first responders at the crash site, pulling back a tarp and revealing the face of the victim, 20-year-old Bailey vonBargen of Orland. It relates how vonBargen was killed the night of Nov. 16 after losing control of his speeding motorcycle at the intersection of Roads 27 and QQ in Artois, and describes the high-speed chase of a motorcyclist by Orland police earlier that evening. Orland Police Chief J.C. Tolle is paraphrased, saying he is “confident that Mr. vonBargen was the individual officers were chasing earlier.”

The Mirror was inundated with angry feedback following the article’s publication, with most of the rancor surfacing on—as Crews calls it—“antisocial media.” The paper has very little Web presence; it doesn’t maintain a website and, prior to Nov. 18, its Facebook page was a virtual ghost town. Since then, it has received dozens of comments and reviews from supporters and detractors, the latter of which include several people professing to be friends and family of vonBargen.

Among the most prolific critics is Kayla Wills, vonBargen’s sister. On Dec. 12, she posted that the paper “stat[ed] as fact that Bailey died after fleeing from police” and refutes that vonBargen was the biker involved in the earlier chase. She and others were also offended by the picture.

In a separate comment that day, Wills, who did not respond to messages requesting an interview, wrote: “I want to give you the opportunity to make this right before I make the biggest boycott this small county has ever seen. … All I am asking is for an apology for Bailey’s friends and family. A story that honors my brother’s short life and that the photographer be fired. You can still write stories and take pictures of death and crime without hurting your own small community. I will give you my parents’ information so you may apologize, I will give you information and photos of the ride in Bailey’s honor, and the scholarship donated to Orland High School in Bailey’s name. I will meet you in person, I will forgive you and stop the boycott, for God’s sake just apologize.”

Crews said other comments he interprets as physical threats are more concerning, and that they aren’t limited to the Internet. Larry Judkins, who wrote the article and took the photo, reported receiving a phone call from an irate reader on Nov. 20. The man complained about the paper’s reportage of a bar fight he’d been involved in last year and claimed to be a friend of vonBargen’s.

“He said he was fed up with the Valley Mirror and was going to ‘straighten this out once and for all,’” Judkins said during an interview at the paper’s office on Monday (Dec. 14). “I tried to get him to say exactly what he meant by that, so he said he’d come down to the office and show me. He didn’t come right out and say it, but it was fairly obvious he was intending violence.”

“We asked him when we could expect him,” Crews piped in. “He never showed up.”

The phone call and online threats have been reported to police.

“In the past when we’ve ignored stuff like this, bad shit happened, and I’m not going to put up with it,” Crews said. He elaborated on the “bad shit,” saying he’s endured documented attempts on his life and damage to property in the form of cut brake lines on one vehicle, a bullet hole in another and a nearby arson fire he believes was an attempt to burn down his office.

Newspapers have long grappled with the question of whether to show pictures of the dead or not. Most papers tend to not show them out of respect for surviving family, with the exception of photos determined to be exceptionally newsworthy by a paper’s editorial board.

An editorial explaining the Valley Mirror’s stance was published Dec. 11, and Crews stands by the article.

“It’s a solid story,” he said. “I made the decision about which photo to use, and I would make the same decision today because I don’t think it’s our business to be hiding things from people. Our theory is, and I think it’s very much old-fashioned, that by showing the brutal truth you may very well prevent something like this from happening again.”

Crews said he has no qualms alleging the deceased man was the same motorcyclist who led police on a chase, noting it was highly unlikely two motorcyclists were speeding around the same rural area. He also noted that a 536-foot-long skid mark on the roadway indicates vonBargen was riding dangerously fast at the time of the accident.

He also said the paper has published postmortem photos on several occasions—including those from the April 2014 collision of a bus and a FedEx truck on Interstate 5 in Orland that killed 10 and injured 39 people—and will continue to do so when newsworthy.

“It’s consistent with our usual practice,” he said. “We deal with what is. We deal with the truth.”