Towns measure media's wallet for sniper trials

Plenty of people in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, Va., worry about the sniper trials invading their towns this fall. The traffic, the commotion, the media. The horror!

But other, more opportunistic souls realize that reporters will come toting more than just notebooks and cameras. They'll also carry corporate credit cards - cards without pre-set spending limits. No hotel is too pricey and no dessert too decadent for those on the company's dime, they figure.


Using the freedom of information laws usually employed by reporters, several dozen savvy business owners have turned the tables and obtained the list of journalists who plan to cover the trials. And they've begun pitching their wares - by letter, phone and e-mail - hoping to turn handsome profits.

"I looked at it as an opportunity for us as well as an opportunity for someone who wanted a comfortable place they could stay," said Teresa Bonifant, who will open her new bed-and-breakfast in Virginia Beach in time for the trials this fall and who has been calling reporters this week.


"I figured the courthouses would have to know who's coming," Bonifant said. "I thought if they have to fill out a form, there's gotta be a record of it."

About 190 reporters and TV crews have registered for the John Allen Muhammad trial in Virginia Beach and about 200 for the Lee Boyd Malvo trial in Chesapeake. The lists of their names are public information.

"We were a little surprised, to be honest, that people wanted this list," said Diane Roche, head of communications for the Virginia Beach city manager.

"So we asked the city attorney's office to make sure it was a public document, and they said we would have to release it."

Officials in Chesapeake also checked with their attorneys and then gave the media a chance to opt out. Only a few people did.

The rest have received, in recent weeks, e-mail solicitations from hotel management companies and video production companies, phone calls from homeowners and, from Kinko's, an account application and a very nice pen.

"We were a little worried it wouldn't fit in the mail," said Anthony Willis, branch manager of the Chesapeake Kinko's, who sent out packets to 100 journalists. "Anybody who's trying to be of any benefit to these trials is going to try to get their name out there."

People living near the courthouses in the two towns also are looking to cash in. Several have hired real estate agents to offer their homes to the national news media. Four-bedroom houses are going for $4,000 to $6,000 a month.


One couple willing to move out temporarily is Anna and Paul Butler, who live two minutes from the Chesapeake courthouse.

Their four-bedroom, two-bath home comes equipped with two Jacuzzis and high-speed Internet access, and can be had for $4,000 a month.

Anna Butler says their profit - about $2,000 a month - would go toward their 1-year-old daughter's education.

"We would bank all the money," said Anna Butler, 27, who says she doesn't feel guilty about trying to take advantage of their location.

"It's a very serious trial, and we just want our daughter to be able to go to private school and have a good education. This would help us do that."

While many news organizations booked hotel rooms as soon as the judges announced they were relocating the trials from Northern Virginia, others have watched prices skyrocket. The Sun, for instance, considered reserving a two-bedroom condo that last month rented for $985 a month. Now it's up to $2,970.


Each trial is expected to last six weeks. But with Muhammad's starting in mid-October and Malvo's in mid-November, news organizations are looking at several months of rentals.

CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney said the network booked hotel rooms early for its staff and the solicitations haven't been much of a bother.

"We've received dozens of calls and e-mails from hotels, TV production services, people offering their homes and use of their driveways," she said.

Other reporters commended the businesses for taking advantage of the same public information laws used routinely by journalists.

"Good for them," said Matthew Barakat, who is covering both sniper cases for the Associated Press. "Our lodging plans aren't 100 percent settled, so I don't necessarily mind those people calling. At least I got a good pen out of it."

Charles Tudor, owner of Tudor Productions in Virginia Beach, sent an e-mail to journalists yesterday peddling his firm's broadcast services, including production space, tents and satellite feeds. The e-mail directs media to his Web site, which features photos of sniper suspects Muhammad and Malvo and the courthouses.


"Realizing that the media was being queried as to their interest in the trial, I knew there had to be some names and addresses somewhere," said Tudor, who has done broadcast work in Siberia, Angola and 30 other countries. Now the news is coming to him.

He was surprised to hear that so many others had also requested the media list. "Boy, they're giving that list to everybody and his brother!" he said. "That courthouse looks like the office of economic development here in Virginia Beach."

Bonifant, who is opening the B&B; in Virginia Beach and is offering a 10 percent discount for those who stay more than a month, says she has already received favorable responses from reporters. She said her home is ideal not only for its location but also because the big TV stars don't faze her.

"A lot of people are media hounds. They're like, 'Oh, my God! I have Joie Chen [of CBS] in my bedroom,'" Bonifant said. "That doesn't matter to us. This is the perfect opportunity."