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The bulldog returns: George Pawlaczyk back at Belleville News-Democrat.

George Pawlaczyk is back on the job as gung-ho reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat. Yep, the guy with the bad-boy reputation is back in town after a stint at a paper in Florida.

It's bad news for certain locals Pawlaczyk has stalked--public officials and authority figures, drunk drivers and miscreants of various stripes.

He's the Pit Bull of Belleville, quick to pounce and take a bite out of crime, or at least his prey. You can almost see the hapless souls bleeding as they are put in the public stocks that is often the News-Democrats front page.

Coming up with a steady stream of corruption stories, as Pawlaczyk does, isn't easy. And some of his targets cry foul.

One is Bob Hurst, former police chief in Belleville who found himself labeled as a rape suspect in a story under Pawlaczyk's byline. Lucky for Hurst that he was able to show he was at work as a court bailiff at the time of the alleged rape of a schoolteacher. The paper is now fighting Hurst's damage suit.

Pawlaczyk returned to his job as the newspaper's attack dog after three months at the Tampa Tribune, a Knight Ridder sister paper of the News-Democrat. Things didn't go so well for him there.

Before he left Belleville for the sunshine state, he had told people: "Everybody hates me. I might as well leave." But, of course, not everyone in the Metro East hated him, especially his bosses. They were glad to have him back.

Another admirer is Kathie Morton, head of the local Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chapter. She loves the way Pawlaczyk pursues DUI offenders who insist on driving without a license. He followed one guy out of a bar, stopped his car at an intersection, took his picture, and chided him for driving when he shouldn't. Then he put him in the paper. He said he later granted reporter's immunity by letting him drive to work. "I said to his wife, OK, I'll let him go, if that's all he's doing."

"He's the best reporter I've ever dealt with. He has the DUI offenders in fear that he would follow them. He's doing a lot of good," Morton said. She lost two relatives to a drunken driver.

Pawlaczyk is not mild-mannered, unless he likes you. Colleagues say he is given to tantrums, slamming down phones and threatening to bring the power of the press down on people's heads. "He sets out to make your life miserable," said a fellow reporter. "He thinks it's funny, but it's not funny."

"He's a time bomb," said another reporter. But they marvel at the enthusiasm Pawlaczyk has for a 55-year-old reporter (who looks younger with his hair dyed black). He'll fly out of the office on a story, taking his camera with him. He'll work even on Sundays to finish stories.

He has two children by a former wife and was an alcoholic for years. He lives alone in a Belleville apartment above a store with sparse furnishings and a cat as companion, sometimes taking it to the office or for a ride on his motorcycle.

His friends, to counter claims that Pawlaczyk vilifies people, point to his big heart and how he spent $700 to restore a cat to health that was destined to be put to sleep at an animal shelter.

Because of his criminal record and eccentricities, people like to tell stories about him, which are often embellishments of things he tells about himself, such as how he once escaped from jail. He said he spent five years in 21 different jails and one prison.

But he says most of the stories are apocryphal. He jokes that everyone in East St. Louis has a copy of his rap sheet and "they even gave it to a baby."

Just before his return, colleagues at the News-Democrat were chuckling over a tale that Pawlaczyk was said to be dead. Of course, he wasn't.

As the story went, at least one. Person--the husband of a woman friend of Pawlaczyk's who also lived in Florida--had been told Pawlaczyk had 'died. But the husband, who lived in another city, discovered otherwise and the farce was up.

Pawlaczyk says that story was kicking around for months and is "absolutely untrue--a crazy story. Nobody knows how it got started."

He said the reason he left Florida was that he was working for "a weeny paper" where editors slashed his copy. He declined to do a story about enforcement of dog leash laws on the beach and called the News-Democrat to find they'd take him back. Then, he said, he told the Tribune "to take the job and shove it."

Other reporters say Pawlaczyk has free rein at the News-Democrat and are reluctant to be quoted about his aggressive style. But John Baricevic, the top elected official as chairman of the St. Clair County Board,. says he has put Pawlaczyk "off-limits" and ordered employees not to talk to him.

Baricevic said in a 1997 order that county employees "have received threats from Belleville News-Democrat reporter George Pawlaczyk. I am concerned for our employees' safety. Everyone should treat this reporter with caution."

He attached a two-page copy of Pawlaczyk's criminal sheet, dating to 1977 with a grand theft charge in Springfield, Ohio, which was dropped. Other arrests over the next few years, in Ohio and New York state, were for passing bad checks, resisting arrest and assault, burglary trespassing and grand larceny.

In New York, he pleaded guilty to petty larceny in 1982 and that same year got six-month sentences for criminal impersonation and possession of stolen property.

In 1987, in Oregon, he was arrested for theft, giving false information to police and being a fugitive from Washington. He was sentenced to five years in prison on two counts of theft but paroled after about a year. A few months later he was sentenced to three months in New Hampshire for felony theft and was ordered to restore a Russian Atlas he had stolen. The last arrest listed was in 1989 for disposing of stolen property.

Pawlaczyk talks openly of his past, which included stealing rare books from libraries and selling them as he traveled around on a motorcycle and lived like a hermit. He attributes it mainly to bouts of alcoholism and says he has been dry 13 years.

After he did a series on arson in East St. Louis, the Knight Ridder employee magazine lauded him, even mentioning his drinking and crime history. It said "he stole to survive" but finally a judge sent him to rehab and a newspaper in Troy, N.Y., took a chance on hiring him in 1992. He moved to Belleville in 1994.

He jokes about Baricevic's efforts to keep him at bay. "It hasn't hindered me a bit," he said, recalling how a judge showed him Baricevic's order and laughed about it.

Baricevic said Pawlaczyk is immature and his attitude as a reporter is, "I'm going to get you. You couldn't rely on him to put your quote in the paper correctly. At the News-Democrat they sit around and convince themselves that government is corrupt and they need to prove it."

Baricevic, a former prosecutor, said it does little good talking to the editors, or the publisher, Gary Berkley. "Berkley would say he can't interfere with the news side, talk to somebody else. They don't care if an editorial is based on wrong information from a news story. They'll never retract it."

"The paper hurts the county by presenting it as corrupt," Baricevic said. "But they are successful, from a financial standpoint."

He said the aggressive attacks on public officials haven't changed much since the 1980's when a News-Democrat editorial writer called Jerry Costello, then board chairman, a liar. A suit followed and the writer went to jail briefly for ref using to name his source. Costello went on to Congress.

Greg Edwards, the editor, said, "I'm not interested," when asked to respond to complaints in this story. Berkley said the paper publishes mostly positive news and called Pawlaczyk "a great reporter." He said Baricevic "is always welcome to put a guest viewpoint at the top of the editorial page."

The attorney for Bob Hurst is Bruce N. Cook, who has a reputation for winning large judgments in damage suits. He said the story about Hurst being a rape suspect "hurt him horribly and his family too. They hide behind the First Amendment after they ruin someone's life."

Hurst had been a target of the News-Democrat, but it was KMOV (Channel 4) which first reported him as a rape suspect. Hurst also sued the station, which settled out of court. Pawlaczyk said "there was never any question about the accuracy of my reporting. I reported that Channel 4 reported he was a suspect."

This defense is similar to one being used by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which was sued by Richard Jewell after he paper reported he was the suspect in the bombing at the Olympics. The paer says its reporting was accurate at the time, based on law enforcement sources, regardless of the fact that Jewell was later exonorated.

Pawlaczyk did not go across the street to talk to Hurst, who had been working at the courthouse at the time the rape was said to have happened. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch avoided smearing Hurst because its reporter, Bob Goodrich, went to the courthouse and confirmed Hurst's alibi.

Debra Powell, mayor of East St. Louis, is also' sorry to see Pawlaczyk back. She tried to get him charged for telephone harassment late last year. He was investigating her cell-telephone calls and the enrolling of her daughter in a pre-school program. She said he called her baby-sitter demanding to know when the daughter would be dropped off at a daycare center and it upset a lot of people.

"He threatened to kidnap a child," Powell said. "They should hire people who are of sound mind who don't go around intimidating people. He breaks all the rules." Police Lt. Rich Woods, who oversaw the investigation, sought charges against Pawlaczyk, but the state's attorney declined to prosecute.

Pawlaczyk denies he threatened anyone, but did threaten to sue the city for false arrest if Powell pressed the matter.

When Callie Mobley, longtime mayor of Alorton, was being investigated by the feds, and Pawlaczyk too, she said he pointed a finger at her and said she was going to prison. "I guess you know about that," she replied. Earlier this year Mobley was convicted of defrauding the village. "It all came out. My sources were impeccable," Pawlaczyk said.

When he wrote about the sheriff of Clinton County using a county-owned computer to correspond on the Internet with a teenager calling herself Rollerbabe, Pawlaczyk pressed hard to see that a state prosecutor filed charges. It never happened despite calls from Pawlaczyk which the prosecutor, Mike Vujovich, in Springfield, said were "intimidating, aggressive and mean-spirited." Vujovich said he then joined the sheriff as a target and was castigated in an editorial.

Vujovich, referring to Pawlaczyk's criminal record, said, "I wonder if he doesn't have a jaded view of government and public officials." Several others interviewed for this story say Pawlaczyk is having fun getting back at authority figures.

Percy McKinney, county assessor, was criticized in articles by Pawlaczyk about reassessment procedures. When Pawlaczyk thought Mokinney's driver's license was suspended, he called McKinney's home and spoke to his daughter. McKinney said his daughtey then called him and was crying about "the man who keeps calling." It turned out that the expired license was that of a different Percy McKinney. "He crosses the line in reporting. He got personal with me," McKinney said.

Pawlaczyk keeps a close eye on the work of Carolyn Tuft, a Post reporter. She preceded him as an investigative reporter at the News-Democrat. While she wrote stories trying to show Rodney Woidtke was wrongly convicted for the murder of a newspaper intern, Pawlaczyk's stories were along the line that Woidtke did it. Because of Tuft's stories, Woidtke has been granted a new trial.

When the "Dateline" television program and Editor & Publisher magazine were preparing pieces about Tuft's stories on Woidtke, Pawlaczyk contacted them to suggest she had a conflict of interest.

He also challenged Tuft's list of awards when she spoke at a meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He asked the group's board to make her apologize to the membership for having her bio read as if she had won many national awards. Tuft said it was an editing error done at IRE and no one except Pawlaczyk wanted an apology.

"He wants to compete with me, even though I never knew him. He's got this thing about me," she said. Pawlaczyk said it is simply a matter of reporters having differing views on a story. But he did say he had a spy at the Post who told him what Tuft was doing.

When first asked for an interview, Pawlaczyk said: "Ask me anything, I've got nothing to hide." He called back later to say no deal; he didn't trust SJR. He allowed this writer to take his picture and we did snippets of interviews over several days. Then he said no more questions.

He said he didn't want to discuss Baricevic's complaints because "it would be unprofessional of me.

"At times I have been rude and apologized," he conceded.

He said his return has "caused astir." As he sat at his desk, he leaned back and pointed to his telephone. "I don't care what they call me, as long as that phone keeps on ringing" with calls from his sources.

Roy Malone is a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Author:Malone, Roy
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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