June: Crandon shooting: Secrecy leaves questions unanswered

2008 Columns

“Is this really news anymore?”

That was one of the anonymous comments posted on the Green Bay Press-Gazette Web site May 29 in reaction to an Associated Press story about what we’re told is the last release of documents related to the tragic shooting in Crandon more than eight months ago. The killing spree claimed seven lives, including the shooter, off-duty deputy Tyler Peterson.

On the surface, the comment makes sense. The story wasn’t particularly revealing and the records released that day by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office shed little light on some key questions that remain to this day:

1. Was there anything in Peterson’s past to indicate he was capable of such a horrendous act?

2. Should someone so young be a police officer?

3. Was the law enforcement response proper leading up to Peterson shooting himself after he took six lives and wounded another?

4. How is it possible for someone to shoot himself in the head three times after suffering a gunshot from a SWAT sniper?

The investigating agencies have said repeatedly the answer to the first question is no; the second and fourth, yes; and the third, absolutely yes.

But it’s fair to say that reporters covering this tragedy have been frustrated by the response to requests for open records. Real answers are hard to determine based on what has been made public. Officials have released documents replete with redactions, months after the fact, and asked us to trust that nothing incriminating has been removed.

Even more troubling, requests for Peterson’s autopsy, which might shed light on how he shot himself three times in the head, have been denied. The state Justice Department says it no longer has custody of the report. A staff member several months ago sent it to Forest County District Attorney Leon Stenz, who won’t allow its release.

The Associated Press and other news media requested Peterson’s autopsy and those of the victims immediately after the shooting and again in February. In a letter to the AP dated June 6, Stenz wrote that the request for autopsies was denied based on a court case that protects district attorney files from being open to public inspection.

“Weighing against disclosure would be the public interest in maintaining the dignity and privacy of the victims and their families and the need to prevent further suffering by them,” Stenz wrote. “I also believe that since the DCI reports were released which in part summarize the autopsy, the public interest in making the details of the investigation open to scrutiny has been satisfied.”

No one can argue that the families haven’t suffered greatly. Nevertheless, the questions that have been raised and remain unanswered are of great public interest. How else can our law-enforcement agencies be held accountable for the actions taken before, during and after the Crandon tragedy?

As for the autopsy summaries, they are merely interpretations of official documents and weren’t prepared by scientific experts. And as to whether this all is even news anymore, another anonymous comment that followed that posting should weigh heavily on those in authority.

“It’s news to the people who are affected by the case. I would want to know every single detail I could.”

Roger Schneider is news editor of The Associated Press, Wisconsin. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.