Helping To Solve A Crime p. 17

By: DAVID NOACK FOR LEIGH HURSEY and Stephen Mellus it started out as a routine day.
Hursey, a reporter for the Middletown Times Herald Record, and Mellus, the newspaper's chief artist, were following up on the murder of a 12-year-old boy a few days earlier. He had been found near a path in the woods used as a shortcut between his home in a housing development and some local ball fields.
However, by the end of the day, the pair was being credited with helping to find the alleged killer of the youngster. The suspect is Juan Miguel Peinado, a Guatemalan native who attends the local high school and lives in a foster home. His real age has not been determined by authorities.
The discovery of Peinado was a classic case of a number of key ingredients falling into place: luck, timing and the competitive nature of the news business, which prompted editors to seek new angles and ways to tell this ongoing story to its readers.
Since the murder, the village of Maybrook in Orange County, N.Y., was in a state of shock and disbelief. In this rural area, big-city crimes of this nature are extremely rare. The community was stunned and frightened. State and local police were investigating the case. Suspects were few, anxiety was high. Residents were afraid that a killer was on the loose in their community.
Mark Pittman, the Record's metro editor, had been mulling over ways to freshen the story and decided that a map would be a good way to show readers the path the youth took and put the location of the crime into geographic context. He discussed the idea with Hursey and Mellus about trekking through the woods and coming up with some artwork.
"I'm trying to think about how to differentiate our coverage from everybody else's coverage. I really want to own this story. What can we do? We had the picture. We had a kind of retelling of the tale of what we know so far. I wanted something that would jazz this up, so what I was looking for was topography and I'm trying to make the woods a character. How can we do this? Pictures are not showing this," he said.
Mellus and Hursey made an initial trip through the wooded area in mid-morning, which took about an hour, and decided to make one last swing through the woods.
"We walked through the trail, which was meandering and had all sorts of subtrails which go off in different directions. We walked through the trail, about a half mile. We were looking for the obvious path for a kid to take from his home to the ball field. We walked through it once, nothing seemed logical. It seemed like a longer route than going out on the street," said Mellus, who admitted at first questioning the assignment.
While walking through the woods a second time, they came across someone hanging from a tree, his feet hovering above a small red bicycle which was leaning against the tree.
"Leigh was ahead of me, anywhere from five to 15 feet, on the second walk through. We got close to the end of the trail. We crested a small hill, we're in pretty deep woods here, near the opening to a clearing to a dirt road, she being ahead of me, she stops and gasps," said Mellus.
After cutting Peinado down, they both started asking questions. He claimed to have been the victim of a masked man dressed in black who sexually molested him.
"The rope was really wound tightly around his neck. Steve wasn't even able to get his finger underneath the rope. We got the rope off him and I started to ask him questions almost immediately. 'How did you get here, why are you here, don't you know what happened here over the weekend?' " said Hursey.
The location where they found him hanging in the woods was within yards of where the young boy's body was found.
Hursey continued to pepper Peinado with questions while on the way to a house to call the police. She said his story about what happened did not make sense. For example, he claimed to have been hanging for an hour, but the pair did not see him on their initial walk through the woods, which was no more than 30 minutes earlier.
"He seemed stunned, confused, evasive with his answers. I was immediately suspicious of this whole story," said Mellus.
Hursey said that when she asked Peinado his age, he gave conflicting answers from 43 to 23 to 20.
A police officer picked Peinado up and Hursey and Mellus headed back to the woods to take some photos. While they were there, a contingent of police arrived. The two were later questioned by the police for about three to four hours.
When they turned him over to the police, it was unclear whether Peinado was a suicide attempt, another victim or there was a new perpetrator on the loose.
Pittman said it was debated whether a combined account should be written, with Mellus and Hursey collaborating on the events that unfolded that day.
"I was going to have it done with a joint byline, with a 'we' and bring in his stuff. But it didn't seem to work. The 'we' part just didn't work. So I keep it as a first-person account and try to make Steve a character in it," said Pittman, who had Hursey write the first-person account.
Major William F. DeBlock, commander of Troop F of the New York State Police unit in Middletown, N.Y., said that Hursey and Mellus' discovery certainly helped the investigation.
"They were out there doing their job. They come across this individual who initially appears to be a victim of a crime and through our investigation of that matter and then subsequent investigation, we determine that not only isn't he a victim but he is the perpetrator of the murder we are investigating," said DeBlock.
DeBlock said that he sent the publisher of the Record a letter thanking them for their help and civic responsibility. "I can see some people maybe writing this guy off as unstable, cutting him loose and sending him on his way and we might not have ever come across him. They [Hursey and Mellus] sensed that something might not be right and saw that it got to the right people," said DeBlock.
?(How the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald Record played it.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Noack is a freelance writer.)[Caption]


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