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Controversy, awards follow Post reporter Carolyn Tuft.

Some Belleville readers have labeled Carolyn Tuft a "nigger lover." A black colleague at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has accused her of being a white racist. Two other reporters disagree with her current investigation. An editor took issue with how she wrote it. One state's attorney says he distrusts her. And her editor calls her the Post's number one investigative reporter.

Wherever Tuft goes, controversy follows.

Currently the controversy is over her first-person account of a murderer who twice physically threatened her and who, she argues, killed Audrey Cardenas, Tuft's former colleague at the Belleville News-Democrat.

Tuft argues that Dale Anderson, who is now serving time at Menard Correctional Center for the 1989 murders of a pregnant woman and her son, killed Cardenas in 1988, and that an innocent man, Rodney Woidtke, is serving 45 years for being a homeless mental patient discovered wandering near the Cardenas crime scene.

Her 15-part series, which began March 8, written along with reporter Bill Smith has drawn attention from Editor & Publisher and from NBC-TV's "Dateline," which is scheduled to broadcast an interview with Tuft during the November sweeps.

"I'm not intentionally controversial, but the very nature of investigative reporting is that you're unpopular with the people you expose," Tuft says.

For charging ahead, she has won a dozen awards including two from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in only 10 years.

Being an investigative reporter has been her goal since she was 11-years-old. "I think that you gotta want it real bad. I wanted it real bad. That's how I persevered. I'd taken a big risk quitting my job [to go to journalism school]. I didn't want to die like my brother without making my mark in the world. That mark is righting whatever wrongs I can. People tell me that's an unrealistic goal."

What makes Carolyn run?

Fueling her drive are years of being held back by poverty and of wanting to help the voiceless. If Tuft hadn't been fighting back since childhood, she could easily be prey: She looks delicate; small-boned, thin, with a delicately featured face and soft coloring - big green eyes and taffy-colored hair. Her demeanor can be quiet. But she's very forceful when she talks about her investigations and crusades.

Since sixth grade, Tuft, 39, has followed causes wherever they take her. She comes from a long line of steelworkers, yet threw an informational picket at Granite City Steel with her classmates at Niedringhaus Elementary School to shut down the plant. Their teacher, a refugee from Eastern Europe, told them, "One reason America won its freedom from England was that newspapers kept an informed public so we could rule ourselves. Tuft decided then to join the fourth estate: "I've wanted to right wrongs."

Carolyn Garner was the fifth of six children; her father drank and her mother divorced him when Carolyn was young. They moved around, often staying with her maternal grandparents for long periods. She worked on the Granite City High School South newspaper and yearbook, but didn't have the money to buy her own yearbook. She was in the college prep track, until her senior year when she dropped it to work part-time "to help feed the family."

Tuft planned on journalism school at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, but instead took a job at a jewelry store and started dating "the first boy who paid attention to me." They married, but he couldn't find work, so they moved to Houston. The Houston Chronicle offered her the job she wanted, as clerk, but Tenneco Oil Co. offered better benefits, so she went there. She was still poor. "A drunk totaled our car and I had to take the bus to work," she recalls. "My husband began drinking, although it was part of our marriage vows there be no liquor." They separated. She was 21.

Things became worse. "My best friend, my brother, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 25. He'd just given another cyclist a jump so his light wasn't working. It was dim. He signaled a left turn and the guy he'd just helped hit him." Seeing death so close so early in life propelled Tuft into focusing on what she wanted in life and going for it now.

She returned to her husband and became pregnant. "I wanted a baby to name after my brother," she says. Her husband beat her, she says. After her son was born, she left, leaving behind the furniture, the car, everything she'd worked for. She took only the baby and his furniture and moved back to Granite City.

Her grandmother, Francis Wilson, told her, "Be whatever you want to be. That's more important than making money."

SIU-E was out of the question, it was too far away to leave her son who suffered from asthma, nearly dying at age one.

With student loans, Tuft attended Belleville Area College, her grandmother giving her pep talks of, "You'll make it. I always know you'll make it." To help out, Mrs. Wilson watched the baby. While Tuft was taking her second semester finals, her grandmother had a heart attack and died a few days later.

Tuft considered quitting college. "I was very depressed. But I kept going because she wanted me to have a career in journalism."

Tuft feels no self-pity. "I was brought up Catholic and have a lot of guilt but not a lot of self-pity. The glory of being a reporter is finding a person who has it a lot worse than you. I'd have to go a long way to have it worse than the people I report about."

Tuft's father, Fred Garner, stepped in with emotional support. "He was my biggest fan," she says cheerfully. "He read every story I wrote. I knew if he couldn't tell what my opinion was, then I'd been fair."

After she collected her associate's degree at BAC, Tuft enrolled in SIU-E's j-school. To pay for tuition, she wrote for trade publications and the Collinsville Herald.

As a staff writer for the SIU-E student paper Alestle, she began wading into contentious water, then as news editor, dove in. "I tended to take the more controversial stories," she explains. Her voice brightens, "We had a scandal. A civil service employee put into our newsroom by the administration controlled our advertising money. We found we were in the red, that she wasn't depositing it. The administration did suspend her without pay but they tried to keep us from writing about it."

She graduated in 1987, aged 28. "Ten years after high school," she says chuckling in her throaty voice. Tuft likes to see patterns in things. She went to work at the Belleville News-Democrat.

For a late bloomer, she flowered into a red-hot: She was highly productive, churning out a story a day and one for Sunday, while doing investigations on the side.

What inspires her are the pleas of the disenfranchised, the silenced. "I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless, the person who has no other avenue to right whatever wrongs done to them," she says. "I always search for problems, like the blacks in Belleville."

The paper's editors told her she would have to find proof that police were discriminating against blacks by disproportionately giving them traffic tickets. Tuft spent four cold months in the unheated St. Clair County garage going through old traffic tickets, looking for "Black" scribbled on the top of the tickets." Once while she was combing through boxes piled 10-feet high in a parking space, the driver suddenly pulled up and yelled at her to move it. "I was so overwhelmed, I cried. I didn't think I'd make it through."

Today, she says, "If you're not obsessive, you won't go through the rough parts where you become frustrated."

Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts

Despite such miseries, Tuft likes the paper chase: "I let the facts tell the story. I always start with the records. People are fallible. I never let someone in a position of power tell me what the story is. I want to know for myself."

Her racist police series began running Mother's Day, 1991. After that, Belleville began hiring its first black employees, including police officers. Tuft was awarded by the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia University and IRE. Steve Kroft interviewed her in a "60 Minutes" piece, January, 1993.

No Mrs. Cop

A year after she arrived at the News-Democrat, Tuft became friends with a Belleville cop. Drinking one night in 1988, he introduced her to a detective with the Illinois State Police, Greg Fernandez, now a detective sergeant and Tuft's husband. She denies that gives her any advantage. Theirs is a "blended" family with three teenaged boys: Tuft's son nearly 16, and Fernandez's two, 14 and 17.

When Tuft and Fernandez returned from their honeymoon, the Post called for a job interview. Five years to the day after she was issued a press card at the News-Democrat, Tuft walked into the Post's Jefferson County bureau on September 28, 1992.

The I-Team

By February, Post management named her to its first I-team. She hadn't applied and didn't know she'd been picked until a male reporter who had and lost out called her with, "You know why you've been picked," implying that it was because she was female.

"I hope it's because I do good work. Gender shouldn't be a premier qualification," Tuft told SJR.

In any case, she joined four men. Tuft and others wrote:

* How homebuilders who contributed to the war chests of St. Louis County officials never completed work in new subdivisions nor were penalized.

* Big rigging in Rockwood School District.

* Licensing of improper paramedics and ambulances.

After the Post dismantled the I-Team, Tuft began the new year, 1995 at St. Louis City Hall writing front-page stories about:

* Violations in awarding minority contracts.

* The city assessor secretly taping meetings.

* City employees and cops who didn't pay city taxes.

Of all her controversial stories then, the next three involving then Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. were the most problematic: Bosley Sr.'s mattress factory paid no rent to the the Land Redevelopment Authority and no city taxes; misuse of Midnight Basketball funds; city officials, including the mayor's office, using city cell phones for personal business.

Another racist charge

Post reporter Yvonne Samuel, called Tuft a racist for going after the city's first black mayor.

Tuft says she was hurt: "I'd been called names in Belleville and then I do my job in City Hall and I'm called a racist. Busy minds don't have time for this," she says, her voice rising slightly. She speaks faster, "I'm used to fighting editors. I'm not used to fighting people who do the same job I do." Fearless, Tuft responded to Samuel with an open memo to the newsroom which, she says, garnered 100 letters of support.

In the midst of the Bosley investigations and Samuel's accusation, Tuft's father was diagnosed with cancer. Tuft took her turn caring of him. He died April 12, 1997. His death was all the more poignant because he'd recently remarried her mother in Tuft's living room.

"Now it's the story itself that keeps me going," Tuft says. "Even if it looks impossible."

Her next investigation was the most difficult to work up. "People didn't want to talk against Bertha Gilkey." Internationally renowned for originating tenant-managed housing projects at Cochran Gardens, Tuft found Gilkey was running her private business on a credit card issued by Cochran.

While Tuft was working this case, her husband's brother was murdered on Halloween, 1997, a victim of a car jacking.

The death of an intern

Wrapping up the Gilkey series, Tuft received a letter Christmas Eve, from Rodney Woidtke, the man convicted of killing Audrey Cardenas. "No one cares what happens to me," he wrote from solitary confinement after a suicide attempt.

"After reading his letter, I decided to start the new year pleading to the Post to let me do Woidtke's story."

Background: Audrey Cardenas, an intern at the News-Democrat, disappeared June 19, 1988. Her body was found a week later near a creek bed; cause of death undetermined. Tuft pushed to work on the case. "They [the News-Democrat] wouldn't let me jump in with both feet because of my prior involvement with Dale Anderson."

Anderson was a suspect in Canderas' murder and was later convicted of murdering two other people.

Tuft had signed a criminal complaint against Anderson for pulling a gun on her and impersonating a police officer during an interview in his home in which he said his three bosses at the Department of Public Aid had shoved him. Later, Anderson tried to lure Tuft into his car, but she fled.

Anderson liked to wear a St. Clair County deputy sheriff's badge; he had an FBI pin and a gun. He looked like a detective. Tuft questions why police didn't consider him a suspect in the Cardenas murder.

A forensic psychiatrist told Tuft she was the original target instead of Cardenas. Is she haunted more by Woidtke's possible innocence or Cardenas's death? Both, she explains. "Anderson was stalking other reporters and Audrey being new and not knowing many people and being alone a lot was a weak link. That's why I go back to the creek and pace it off. I try to figure it out how someone got Audrey to walk that way. She didn't know anybody." She may have thought Anderson was a cop.

"After Audrey's memorial service, four women reporters asked the police to look into Anderson. I had full faith in the police. All they wanted was a confession."

Rodney Woidtke gave them that. And now he's doing 45 years in the Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Illinois, Ronald Reagan's home town, about 90 miles west of Chicago. "When I'm there it's hard not to feel his pain," says Tuft. "He was completely shackled and sedated 24 hours a day in January. He blames himself that Audrey's mother can't confront Audrey's killer because he said something untrue."

Why did he confess if he didn't do it? Tuft explains: "He thought they'd kill him anyway. They called him a homosexual and he showed he wasn't by saying he had wanted to have sex with her [Audrey.]"

Respected Post veteran Robert Goodrich of the Belleville Bureau, disagrees. "I have high regard for Carolyn," he says, "but I sat through the entire trial and think Woidtke is good for it. I'm not rolled over by a single confession especially by a guy with mental problems, but Woidtke made three. Most persuasive was the testimony of the police woman who took the last one."

Having covered Anderson's trial, Goodrich says, "He's so despicable, everybody in Belleville wishes Anderson were good for Cardenas. But there is no solid evidence."

"The media tends to be pro-prosecution," rejoins Tuft.

She butted heads with another award-winning reporter, George Pawlacyzk, at the News-Democrat. He says, "I think Rodney probably did it. I don't see any evidence other than coincidence that ties Anderson to the murder." Tuft retorts, "But no one has looked at all the evidence like Bill [Smith] and I."

But John Baricevic has. St. Clair County State's Attorney until 1990 when he was elected chairman of the County Board, he says there is nothing to exonerate Woidtke. "The stuff she [Tuft] prints, we've known for years. I don't trust her. I'm not offended if someone has a different opinion. If there is any new evidence then we should look at it. But there isn't. I made the call after three other prosecutors reviewed this case. No one wants an innocent man to sit in jail."

A career prosecutor for 13 years when Woidtke confessed, Baricevic notes, "Absolutely, not all confessions are good. I turned down cases with confessions and charged cases when someone else confessed."

Tuft is so into this case she assumes you too are familiar with its intricacies, which makes it occasionally difficult to follow her. She loves facts and is very specific in conversation, eg., tell her she's thin and she'll report, "I'm five-six, one hundred and ten pounds."

Alone with the killer

Tuft is trying to entice Anderson into confessing or pointing to new evidence. She's been interviewing him in Menard where he's serving two life terms for murdering pregnant Jolaine Lanman and her three-year-old son. He killed them on the eve of Woidtke's sentencing in the Cardenas slaying. Anderson forced Lanman to write a note that his three bosses killed Cardenas, says Tuft.

Anderson likes Tuft to interview him without Smith. "Dale's infatuated with me," explains Tuft. "He's written me that if my husband dumps me, he'll be my knight in shining armor, he'll marry me, he'll get out."

A forensic psychiatrist told Tuft she was the original target for the Cardenas murder and that Anderson intended to kill her and frame his bosses. The doctor suggested Tuft visit Anderson alone because the killer likes to think he can manipulate women.

Is it scary being in a small room alone with Dale Anderson? Tuft doesn't act tough, she admits she's afraid but won't give in to it. "I try to face fear head on because when I hide, it gets worse," she says. "I think what's the worse that can happen and put it into perspective. My biggest fear is my son turning 16 and driving."

When she and Smith first interviewed Anderson, she was terrified. She'd heard he'd lost an eye so she practiced in the mirror talking to him without staring. It turned out he hadn't.

A new trial?

Tuft is waiting for the Sept. 4 hearing for Woidtke, now represented by the able Ron Jenkins, a Clayton defense attorney, a former assistant U.S. Attorney and formerly with the Justice Department's Criminal Division in Washington, D.C. Jenkins says, "Rodney was never good for it. His confession is a combination of horrible circumstances. Rodney had some sexual hang-ups in addition to mental instability and as many officers might do, police took advantage of the situation.

Jenkins says, "The light went on when I read the trial transcript." Woidtke's public defender waived a jury trial which is rare in a murder case; he failed to cross-examine about five state's witnesses and only minimally crossed the other eight; yet he was reappointed to handle Woidtke's appeal.

Tuft feels overwhelmed trying to free Woidtke. "It's very emotionally draining." But she won't give up: "I've been threatened with bodily harm to stop the stories I've worked on. I refused. If I stop, they win."

She can't stop thinking that Anderson intended to kill her not Cardenas; if he'd been arrested in 1988, he couldn't have murdered Lanman and her son in 1989.

"I don't leave this project at work. I'm thinking about it all the time. People ask me why I'm still working at 9:30 at night. It's because I haven't gotten the answers yet."

Ellen Harris is s St. Louis free-lance writer
COPYRIGHT 1998 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on controversy about her recent article; St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Author:Harris, Ellen
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Words:3159
Previous Article:Cohen forced to resign.
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