By: Bob Brown
Local reporter working on a story on probe of sheriff’s department is himself interrogated and searched in incident cops dismiss as ‘joke’
A NORTHWEST INDIANA police reporter says he was strip-searched by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department last month when he went to interview the sheriff about suspected misuse of federal crime-fighting funds.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is investigating the treatment of Daniel Yovich, a reporter for the Times in Munster, Ind. Lake County Sheriff John Buncich contends the incident on Feb. 12 was a joke and has notified the newspaper of his intent to sue for libel over two stories about the incident.
When contacted at his office March 2, Yovich said he was instructed not to talk about the matter and referred questions to Times executive editor William Nangle.
“This was a very egregious incident,” Nangle said. “While the sheriff’s department typified it as a joke, it certainly was not carried out in that manner.”
“If what the reporter says is true, the police department’s actions are utterly indefensible,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va. “It’s not humorous. It’s threatening.” While there have been sporadic claims of reporters being manhandled by law enforcement officers during searches at jails and prisons, Kirtley had not heard of any other example of a reporter being strip-searched.
Yovich had arranged to speak to Buncich about allegations that federal money used by members of the Lake County Drug Task Force for undercover drug purchases was missing or misspent, Nangle said. After arriving at the task force’s headquarters, Yovich was asked by drug task force deputy commanders Ed Davies and Richard Borchert and Borchert’s brother, Lt. Ray Borchert, to accompany them into a washroom, according to the Times.
There, with country music blaring from a portable boom box, the three officers loudly and repeatedly demanded to know where and how Yovich got his information, Nangle said, adding that the officers also asked if Yovich was working for the FBI, which already had arrested a task force officer for allegedly taking $6,000 from a drug suspect to drop charges.
The trio also said they wanted to search Yovich for a listening device before he could meet with Buncich. Yovich was placed inside a shower stall, where he removed his jacket, shirt and pants, he told federal prosecutors. Nangle said Yovich submitted to the search because of the “extreme intimidation” by the officers.
“He felt he had nothing to hide,” Nangle said. “For his own personal safety, he felt it better to comply with their demands.”
Following the search, Buncich came into the washroom and asked about Yovich’s sources, Nangle said. Only after Yovich again refused to answer did the police say it was a joke, Nangle said.
While Yovich, a veteran reporter who covered the Bosnian conflict, wasn’t frightened, he did feel “victimized,” Nangle said. “He didn’t think it was funny.” Nangle said Buncich told him the incident was nothing more than a joke but offered no reasons for asking such pointed questions.
“He didn’t seem to want to discuss the specifics,” Nangle said.
Calls to Buncich and the three officers were not returned, but their attorney, John Bushemi, painted a starkly different ? and much more light-hearted ? version of the incident. Bushemi said Yovich has had a long-standing and friendly work relationship with the officers.
Knowing Yovich was coming to talk about the arrested officer, who allegedly was caught on tape extorting a government informant wearing a hidden microphone, Buncich and the officers “decided to play a practical joke on Yovich,” Bushemi said. They brought Yovich into the shower stall and told him to speak into the shower head, as though it was a microphone, Bushemi said. The whole thing lasted about a minute and Yovich took it as a joke, Bushemi insisted. Yovich even asked if another local police chief, whom Yovich allegedly said had frisked him for a listening device days prior, had put them up to it, the lawyer said.
“Yovich laughed about it and in fact thought it was funny,” Bushemi said. Afterward, the reporter spoke to the police for about 45 minutes for the story, Bushemi said, conceding that it would have been illegal for the officers to search Yovich, but emphatically denying any search ever was performed. He said he was unaware of what questions Yovich was asked in the washroom. The following day, when another Times reporter began calling the sheriff’s office about the incident, Deputy Commander Richard Borchert contacted Yovich, who said he was being forced to do the story and then refused to talk about it, according to a letter Bushemi sent to the Times.
Nangle said he knew nothing about that allegation.
The Times has requested investigations by the Indiana State Police and U.S. Attorney’s Office for northern Indiana.
Indiana State Police looked into the matter but “there were no state criminal violations we could find,” said First Sgt. Richard Ludlow, a district coordinator for the agency’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “We are not doing anything.”
Following a meeting with Nangle and Yovich on Feb. I7, U.S. Attorney Jon DeGuilio referred the matter to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department for potential criminal or civil violations.
?(Munster, Ind., Times reporter Daniel Yovich, left, says he was searched and grilled by officers whose unit was itself under
investigation. Executive editor William Nangle, right, has
complained to federal and state authorities and denies police
contentions that the incident was all in fun.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Brown is a freelance writer based in Westchester, Ill.) [Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 14, 1998)