Treatment by the Press

To the Editor:

Now that we are “old news,” I am writing to publicly object to the tactics of reporters from The Dartmouth, the Boston Globe and Herald who were seeking to sensationalize the Zantop tragedy. I speak specifically of the irresponsible speculation and innuendo associated with articles on the “Arizona professor” and his family.

On Jan. 28th my husband, Stanley Williams, called me from New Hampshire with tragic news: Half and Susanne Zantop had been found slain in their home. Stan was in Hanover to attend his Ph.D. advisor Dick Stoiber’s 90th birthday party. Half was my master’s thesis advisor and friend. Although I’d seen Half infrequently since I got my degree in 1984, Stan and I were both deeply saddened by their deaths. Stan delayed his trip home. On Monday night he took a moose stew to friends for dinner. He transported the stew pot in a cardboard box to avoid spills. On Wednesday Stan returned to Arizona, where he is a professor at Arizona State University. Thursday morning I read “The Dartmouth” online and discovered that a rental car, probably Stan’s, had been impounded. Stan then called the police and was told that they were checking all the rental cars for people leaving the area. They were interested in Stan’s car because the trunk contained a stained box. Meanwhile, someone at the car agency had found Stan’s business card in the car, and released his name to a reporter.

That weekend detectives came to question us. They were checking all avenues that could lead them to discover what had happened to the Zantops. The detectives were thorough, yet respectful and intelligent, and we cooperated fully. Soon the reporters began to call. A Boston Herald reporter began the pursuit. Although I told the reporter we had no comment, the reporter persisted, trying to coerce me into talking by telling me that the following morning the reporter’s newspaper would publish a story containing incriminating statements about Stan’s involvement in the murders. The reporter told me that “a bloodstain” had been found in the trunk of his rental car. This was an absolutely false, libelous statement, so I hung up. I hung up on Herald reporters five more times that night and our ASU colleagues were phoned at home as late as midnight.

It didn’t stop. Reporters from the Boston Globe and The Dartmouth, the Arizona Republic and local TV stations joined in; some even camped out in our driveway. The evening news showed footage of our house while we were at work, as if we were somehow “hiding out”. We were forced to disconnect our phones and consult an attorney, something we had not done during the investigation! Of course Stan’s explanation to the detectives checked out. The investigators were finished with us. But that wasn’t the end for the press! In the absence of other leads to follow, they found another angle on our story.

Stan (Dartmouth Ph.D., ’83) is a world expert in the study of active volcanoes. He has spent two decades studying dangerous, erupting volcanoes in hopes that one day scientists will be able to forecast eruptions. He has a long-standing record of publications, grants and honors in the geological community. In 1993 Stan was leading a field trip of scientists on the summit of Galeras Volcano in Colombia when it erupted. All of the scientists were volcano experts, yet none had predicted the eruption. Six of his colleagues died and Stan suffered long-term injuries. Stan has since written a book about his experiences.

A journalist, Vicky Bruce, has also written a book about the Galeras eruption, blaming Stan for the deaths and attempting to discredit him. You can figure out for yourselves the motives of her critical essay on Stan’s very important work. Yet on Feb. 15, The Dartmouth (following a Herald story) chose to headline her accusations. And that wasn’t even the end of it! After a week, the Boston Globe reported that a source close to the investigation called the murders a “crime of passion” prompted by an illicit love affair between Half and an unknown woman. Since the only name the press had was Stan’s, I was unjustly accused of being that woman. The Herald reporter called, this time interrupting me at work. She dug in hard, trying to find out when “my relationship” with Half had ended. My relationship was merely that of a student, nothing else. Nevertheless, I undoubtedly would have been the subject of yet another article if the arrest warrants in this case had not been served the same day. So the press has moved on. But look at what you have done to our lives. Because of a moose stew stain, you have slandered my husband’s work, insinuated he was a suspect in murder, and accused me of having an affair with my advisor. Your stories have sickened us and caused heartache for our teenaged children. There is no excuse.

Yet a retraction has not been published. The readers will only know of the accusations. They will never consider our innocence and the abuse that reporters inflicted on us and undoubtedly many others. The irony of this is that Stan has always championed speaking to the press as a necessity for our democracy. His professionalism has been attacked by those who revile scientists who talk to the press. Stan has always had faith that the public is intelligent and deserves to hear facts that could impact their lives. Yet now he has been brutalized by the abuse of the tool most valuable to democracy, a free press. Please consider what the media has done. We deserve better. The Zantop family and friends as well as the readers, deserve an apology.

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