Shore town big item on the Tube

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHESTERTOWN - This little town on the Chester River woke up on television Tuesday.

Not the occasional camera crew, across the Bay Bridge for a feature about the charm of the 300-year-old Kent County seat. Not even the quick-hit spotlight of the stations from Baltimore and Washington on a particularly intriguing murder trial or some gruesome killing.

This was definitely Tee-Vee. Big-time national exposure. Lead story on the NBC's Today show. A nonstop crawl across the bottom of the screen and a prime topic for the cable news and news talk shows.

Eight o'clock in the morning, and Chestertown Police Chief Walter T. Coryell, a 37-year veteran of the Baltimore County Police Department who now heads the dozen-member force in this Eastern Shore town of 4,100, was steady, reassuring and succinct for a live interview on CNN.

Working on a few hours of sleep, Coryell had honed his media skills in dozens of interviews and an impromptu midnight news conference. He patiently explained the circumstances that had made his adopted home a backdrop for a story that caught the fleeting attention of reporters, editors and producers who are always anxious to fill a 24-hour news cycle, a tough order sometimes during the lull of summer.

The tale of Carlton Dotson Jr. and Patrick Dennehy, roommates in Waco, Texas, and former teammates there on an unheralded Baylor University basketball team, had all the hallmarks of a local or regional news story writ large for an electronic audience.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the story has much in common with cases such as the killing last winter of 27-year-old Lacy Peterson, a pregnant California woman, Her husband, Scott, is charged.

Another example, he says, is the kidnapping last year of teen-ager Elizabeth Smart, who was taken from her Salt Lake City home and held for nearly a year. A polygamist drifter and a woman are charged in that case. A staple for print and electronic tabloids is the unsolved 1996 killing of 6-year-old beauty princess JonBenet Ramsey.

Given the right elements - murder, mystery, athletes - a story that is the "bread and butter of The Sun or a local paper" often moves beyond relevance or perspective, taking on a life of its own, he says.

"It's a great yarn, a terrible tragedy, a story with identifiable characters, but by the standards of journalism of the last 50 years, it's not a national story," says Rosenstiel. "There's certainly an interest factor, but not a significance factor. It's almost a kind of reality TV as much as news."

A story worthy of the national spotlight it drew 16 years ago, Rosenstiel says, was the cocaine-induced death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, who died while celebrating his selection as the second pick in the National Basketball Association's draft. Coverage of that story today would be even more frantic, he says, with the advent of 24-hour sports channels and the addition of aggressive cable news operations.

A more recent case, says Rosenstiel, is continuing coverage of NBA all-star Kobe Bryant, who is accused of sexually assaulting a young woman this month at a Colorado resort. Bryant has been a national figure since he signed to play for the Los Angeles Lakers straight from high school.

Charles Eisendrath, who heads a prestigious journalism fellowship program at the Universtiy of Michigan, sees the Dotson-Dennehy story as classic for grabbing the interest of a nation that seems obsessed with sports.

Baylor might not be a national basketball power, but it is a Division I program, and there is a "predisposition" among the public and the media to look closely at athletes, he says.

"I'm a firm believer in what I call the news climate," says Eisendrath. "There's a background of high-level interest wherever sports, crime and money come together."

Dotson, 21, who had lost his scholarship at Baylor, was staying with relatives near Chestertown to avoid media scrutiny that had overtaken his hometown of Hurlock 50 miles away when police named him "a person of interest" in Dennehy's disappearance.

Last Sunday afternoon, Dotson made two 911 calls, apparently seeking psychiatric help. The calls drew two Chestertown police officers and a Kent County sheriff's deputy - the only three officers on duty in the rural county during the weekend shift.

After spending 24 hours at a hospital, apparently much of that time talking to FBI agents, Dotson was arrested Monday night and charged with killing Dennehy.

By Tuesday morning, more than a dozen television satellite trucks had encircled the 200-year-old brick courthouse, joined by reporters from several Texas newspapers, local and regional papers like The Sun and The Washington Post, as well as reporters from television stations, broadcast and cable networks.

This wasn't the first time in recent years that Chestertown has been center stage for a high-profile case.

Three years ago, Laurel resident Richard Spicknall, who was embroiled in a bitter divorce, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1999 shooting of his two small children as they sat in car safety seats. The case drew national attention, but nothing like this.

On Tuesday, Suzanne Hayman, Kent's former prosecutor and now the county attorney, heard from old friends from Chesterown who now live in Texas. They were stunned to see the familiar Kent County courthouse on the front page of their Dallas paper.

Sitting in a cramped second-floor courtroom last week, District Court Judge Floyd L. Parks cautioned lawyers that an extradition hearing to decide if Dotson will be returned to Texas to face trial could be scheduled only on a Tuesday or a Thursday - the days when he handles criminal cases or serious traffic offenses.

A few moments later, as Dotson was being led from the courthouse to a waiting van, reporters and photographers pressed in on the six-man security squad surrounding him, shouting questions.

One television photographer, pushed to the edge of the group, crashed through a tree on the courthouse lawn, ripping off a low-lying branch as he maneuvered for position to get the all-important shot of the silent Dotson, handcuffed and shackled.

"When something's already out there being discussed, it takes almost nothing to push it to the front," says Eisendrath. "I don't think it takes rocket science to understand this is news."

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