What started as a daily news story turned into a multi-part, award-winning investigation thanks to a simple question: Was the incident an isolated occurrence, as officials claimed, or part of a pattern? Finding the answer uncovered a system failure that allowed thousands of accused felons to be deported rather than face criminal prosecution. The series won a 2010 Scripps Howard award for in-depth journalism.
Every station in Dallas covered the story of a man arrested for burglary who was linked to the rapes of two young girls. While awaiting trial, Jose Rico “disappeared” from the county jail. He paid his bond but couldn’t be set free because he was in the country illegally, so he was deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s when WFAA reporter David Schechter started asking questions.
“The official line from county officials was ‘isolated incident,'” Schechter told me in an email, “which, I think, is code for ‘we don’t really know what’s happening in our system.'” So using the the Texas Public Information Act, WFAA asked to see a list of all inmates released to ICE during the summer of 2009. Turned out there were tons of them.
Working with producer Mark Smith, Schechter sorted the list by severity of crime and then went to the court to look at each case— a time-consuming process. “We discovered that many of cases showed no disposition—meaning—the guys were gone so fast they hadn’t even been processed by the justice system.” After poring through the records and comparing them to the court’s bond schedule, they discovered others were released after paying a much lower bond than would typically be imposed for the crimes they were accused of.
Video and a victim
At that point, they knew they had a story but it wasn’t ready for television. They needed pictures of the inmates being deported and they needed someone to talk about how it felt to see a person accused of victimizing them avoid trial.
Getting video of the deportation bus wasn’t easy. “We were not sure where the buses left from or what time. And we were not welcome to spend any time on ICE property,” Schechter said. “We staked out that ICE office for several days trying to figure out when the buses left. When we figured it out, we had the photographer set up across the freeway—while Mark Smith and I set up at the back gate. We stayed in communication and were able to get shots from both angles and then follow the bus out.”
Finding a victim was even more difficult. Even when they were able to get contact information from court records, people either had moved or did not respond to calls or emails. “The story was on life support many times as we continually struck out (most victims were also illegal and itinerant).
“Honestly, just about everything about this story was a challenge. Which made the work enjoyable as we did it.”
The series triggered a number of policy changes, but for Schechter the most important came when local judges decided to create an automatic $100,000 bond for all jail inmates who faced possible deportation.
Schechter, Smith and editor/photographer Kraig Kirchem spent months putting the series together, while also covering other news. Schechter credits assistant news director Chris Berg and other managers for supporting in-depth work. “WFAA likes big stories and is patient in watching them develop,” he said. “If you use your time right you can work an ongoing investigation into the other things you’re doing. However, I must say, we were given ample time to work on this.”