By: Judith Wyatt Publisher of Wyoming bi-weekly paper has gun held to his head; Denver Post managing editor helps pursuade woman to surrender sp.
A SMALL-TOWN newspaper publisher in southwest Wyoming got a taste of big-city crime recently when a distraught woman put a gun to his head, held him hostage in his office and demanded he call a major Colorado newspaper to air her problems. Mike Jensen, publisher of the biweekly Uinta County Herald in Evanston, Wyo. (pop. 11,000), was held at gunpoint by a 26-year-old woman for 20 minutes until he and Denver Post managing editor Isabel Spencer persuaded her to surrender to police. "At first I thought it was a joke," the 34-year-old Jensen said. "I thought it was a pellet gun. It didn't take me long to realize she was serious, not because she was holding a pistol between my eyes, but she had a serious, determined look on her face." The woman, Melody Watson, an Evanston resident, entered the Herald office at about 1:30 on a Friday afternoon carrying a brown paper bag. She asked Jensen's receptionist to see the publisher and was shown in. Watson immediately closed and locked the office door, set the bag on the floor and pulled from it a .22 caliber handgun. She pointed the gun at Jensen's head, her hand shaking. "From what I remember, she never took the gun off my head," Jensen said. Jensen made eye-contact with his receptionist who called 911 before Watson ordered all nine staffers out of the building. Citing mistreatment from the Wyoming media, Watson demanded Jensen call a major Colorado newspaper so she could talk to a reporter. Watson told Jensen the Wyoming media had "screwed up my life." She later revealed she had lost a sexual harassment case in which she was the plaintiff in 1989 and claimed she had not been able to find a job or "have a life" since loosing the suit. Jensen called the Denver Post and asked for editor Neil Westergaard. "I didn't ask for a reporter," he said in an interview from his office. "I figured I'd go to the top. I told his secretary who I was, where I was calling from, that it wasn't a joke, I had a woman pointing a gun at my head, and please get me somebody to talk to." Westergaard wasn't in, but Spencer walked by and got wind of the call. "The secretary said something about a publisher in Wyoming and somebody having a gun," said Spencer. "I wasn't sure if the publisher had the gun or what the situation was, so I went into my office and picked up the phone." Jensen, with the gun between his eyes and thoughts of his wife, yet unborn son and one-year-old child racing through his head, put Spencer on a speaker phone. Both proceeded to talk Watson down for the next 20 minutes. "It was like coming in at the middle of a movie," said Spencer. "And you never know how paranoid the person is. A young woman with a gun on somebody is not your normal young woman. So you're trying to figure out how badly off she is. "But when she started to say things like 'my life is over, my life is ruined,' that was worrisome. When they say they have nothing to live for, sometimes they try to take other people with them." Although Spencer couldn't see what was going on, she knew from what she heard that the police were there and would not hesitate to shoot. "When someone's got a gun on somebody, the police can't afford to wait," she said. Spencer and Jensen assured Watson they would put a reporter on her story, that her life was not over, that she would get help. Watson finally handed Jensen the gun ? which was fully loaded ? and surrendered to the police gathered outside Jensen's office. Watson has been charged with aggravated assault and felonious restraint. Jensen, publisher of the 4,000-circulation Herald for the last year-and-a-half, said the news offices are in the Evanston town hall and easily entered by glass doors anyone can walk through. Open door policy p.
"We've always had an open door policy," said Jensen. "That might change at this point. We may now start greeting people at the counter before they come back." But Jensen won't opt for metal detectors. "I don't really have the money available to do that. But this was a little bit of a reality check. In this profession, there's always the potential something like this can happen. I didn't think it would happen at a small, bi-weekly newspaper in Wyoming. That's the stuff of major metropolitan newspapers." Although not immediately under the gun this time, Spencer has had her share of threatening newsroom situations. But she still maintains she'd rather keep newsroom doors open than beef up security. "There are far too many great stories that walk through the door," she said. "I have, however, had dangerous situations walk through the door, too." While at a paper in Trenton, N.J., Spencer recalled a man walking into the newsroom proclaiming the world was coming to an end, he would soon be dead and she would die two weeks later. "He was ranting and raving and talking about God. So I told him he should wait and talk with our religion editor," she said. Spencer talked with him herself for "quite a long while," while he continued his threats. The next day, the man was shot to death by police after he entered a bank brandishing a Molotov cocktail. "I'm not saying I'm going to hide in my corner office and let the reporters deal with the people with the lead pipes," Spencer added. "If I felt the reporters were in more danger than I am, I wouldn't say [don't increase security]. But we're all pretty much all right here." While working as city editor at the Wilmington, Del., News Journal, Spencer recalled a reporter approaching her and inquiring, quietly, "What is that guy with the lead pipe doing?" There was a man with a lead pipe in his hand wandering around the newsroom. "But is what we do in a newsroom more dangerous than working at a fast food outlet, or a convenience store," Spencer asked. Spencer referred to the Wyoming incident as a sad situation that could have had a terrible outcome. "I wasn't the one with the gun on me, so it wasn't so hard for me. It was much harder for Mike. But when things turn out well in the end, it's hard to realize that the effect on you is still very great. You get very jumpy. I was hold-up at knifepoint in a bank in New York City. After something like that, consciously, you're fine. Subconsciously you still don't want anyone too close to you. It shakes you up more than you know." ?(Wyatt is a free-lance writer in Denver) [Caption]