It was a chaotic couple of days at the Wallowa County Chieftain last week as anyone who tried to purchase a copy of the newspaper on Thursday might well imagine.
All of our in-store newsstands and outdoor news racks in Enterprise and Joseph were "sold out" by 8:05 a.m. on Thursday when we started getting a flood of calls from people wanting to know where to get their paper. The inquiries were the start of something extraordinary - in more than 120 years of publishing Wallowa County's community newspaper this is the first time that so many papers were gone so soon after they were printed.
It didn't take long to figure out who was behind the brisk sales or why. Several vendors reported that the vast majority of papers were sold to one man and one woman, who purchased them, in some cases, by the hundreds. What has yet to be determined for sure is who stole more than 200 papers out of our news racks in Enterprise and Joseph.
Sue Moffet, one of the owners of Wallowa Valley Lanes bowling alley in Joseph, later admitted - first to a reporter from the La Grande Observer and later to us - that she is the person who orchestrated the bulk purchases.
"We bought a ton of papers," Moffet told Observer reporter Gary Fletcher. Moffet also told The Observer reporter that she gave one of her employees more than $200 to go "get as many papers as you can." On Saturday, Steven Rogers, an employee of the bowling alley was arrested and charged with stealing papers from the Chieftain's Joseph news racks. On Monday, Moffet sent a box of 166 papers to our office with a note saying they were "newspapers for which we do not have receipts."
Apparently Moffet wanted to squelch a story on the front page of the Chieftain about the manager of her bowling alley, Landon Moore, who was thrown in jail after he was convicted of sexually abusing a teenage girl during a meeting he arranged over the Internet.
Moffet indicated that the Chieftain article connecting Moore to the bowling alley was gratuitous and unfair.
Moore, as the manager of the bowling alley, was in charge of the day-to-day operation of an establishment frequented by many people, including teenage girls. In his capacity as manager of the bowling alley he had ample opportunity to have contact with teenage girls. A sex offender running a business where young girls are known to hang out is, in our opinion, information the public has a right to know and probably wants to know. Therefore it is our duty as a public information provider to present that news accurately, objectively, and in a timely manner. Now a second employee has been charged with theft in connection with the story, and Moffet herself is the admitted kingpin in a botched "paper caper."
Moffet, a Portland lawyer, said that as a consumer she has a right to purchase every newspaper in town if she so chooses and can afford to do so. Technically, she may or may not have that right. Technicalities aside, it certainly was not the right thing to do in the eyes of hundreds of Chieftain readers who were denied access to local news and advertising. The incident was also extremely inconsiderate and unneighborly toward advertisers - Moffet's fellow business owners - who paid for space in the newspaper to promote their goods and services. These businesses had a right to expect their materials to be distributed to more than one or two people at the local bowling alley. Many local businesses are struggling as it is without having their promotional materials ripped from the shelves and trashed.
Fortunately, our able printing department in Pendleton still had negatives of the original Chieftain pages when this little caper was called to our attention. Thanks to some quick reshuffling on their part we were able to print and distribute an 1,000 copies by late Thursday afternoon. A lot of people went a lot of extra miles to make that happen.
It appears to us that Moffet's attempts to keep the people of Wallowa County in the dark was a pitiful exercise in futility, like trying to put a lid back on Pandora's box. Ironically, by trying to hush up the news about their manager's trouble with the law the owners of the bowling alley defeated their own purpose by calling more attention to the situation.
For our part, we regret the inconvenience to our readers and advertisers caused by this silly plot to stifle a free and responsible press. R.S.