Back in June, we told you about Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, a couple in Hardin whose rural farmhouse was raided after law enforcement got a hot tip from a psychic named "Angel" about a mass grave on the property. The mass grave didn't exist, Angel quickly made herself scarce, and the half-dozen media outlets who tagged along to report on the search, including Belo, The New York Times and Reuters, are being sued by the couple in Dallas County Court for libel and defamation. The pair is also suing the Liberty County Sheriff's Office for unreasonable search and seizure. Angel is also technically being sued, though the couple still doesn't know her real name or just where she might be.
In new affidavits released about 10 days ago, Bankston and Charlton, both truck drivers, say they were in a hotel in Lancaster when they started getting inundated with calls from reporters, telling them that the helicopters and police cars were circling their property. After the raid was over, they say they returned home to a house full of broken dishes, overturned furniture, and "animal urine and feces." Worse still, they say, some of their friends still won't talk to them.
The media outlets involved in the case have been working to get it dismissed, arguing that it's a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) case. Texas' anti-SLAPP laws allow for suits to be dismissed if they're based on communication relating to "matters of public concern" or about governmental proceedings. (A hearing on the motion to dismiss the lawsuit was set for September 10; we have calls in to see what the outcome was. At the moment, the case is still listed as open.)
In other words, the media outlets argue that they were simply reporting on the search for the bodies, not trying to spread a false picture of the couple as the type to bury dozens of bodies willy-nilly around the farm. All of the news outlets involved say that in first reporting the story, they were relying on local media reports and official statements from the Liberty County Sheriff's Office.
"As a matter of both statutory and common law, the news media are not responsible for proving the truth of underlying allegations that are the subject of an official investigation," attorneys for The New York Times wrote in a motion to dismiss. Reuters says they covered the story "exactly as news organizations ought to report such fast-moving stories -- by reporting information as it it becomes available and carefully attributing that information to the appropriate sources."
Bankson and Charlton see it differently. They accuse the media organizations of "attempting to rewrite the facts."
"The Media Defendants did not merely report that the Sheriff's office was investigating a report," their response reads. "Instead, each of the Media Defendants reported that bodies had actually been found where Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton lived, and thus, labeled them as mass murderers." They point to early headlines from places like KHOU-TV and CNN. CNN's original online headline, for example, read: "At least 20 bodies discovered at a home in Hardin, Texas, some are children's bodies. Developing story." Reuters too, wrote that "Texas authorities have found up to 30 dismembered bodies, including children."
It appears that most, if not all, of those media outlets corrected the original headline within an hour to reflect the lack of bodies at all anywhere. But Bankson and Charlton say the damage was already done.
Their affidavits say that at the time of the raid, Charlton was working as a driver for a frozen foods company. Bankson, who has a permanent neck injury, often rode shotgun with her. It sounds as though the couple were already having a rough couple of months. Bankson's daughter and her boyfriend were living at the house with them at the time; the month before, while the couple was in Georgia, they got a call from the sheriff's office saying that the boyfriend had attempted suicide by slashing his wrists in the house.
On that trip in June, the couple stopped in Lancaster to have a few repairs made to the truck. Around 2:30, Bankson got the first phone call, from a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, telling him there were helicopters and police cars circling his neighborhood. The reporter asked if Bankson knew what was going on. Bankson replied that he didn't.
Bankson says he then called his brother in Michigan and asked him to turn on the news. His brother told him that news agencies were reporting that police were about to break the door down to search the house for bodies. The Liberty County Sheriff's Office, Bankson says, never called him. He and Charlton claim that they called the sheriff's office seven times, trying to get answers, but never heard back from them. In the meantime, about 30 reporters called the couple. One even called Charlton's 82-year-old grandmother to ask what she thought about the bodies being found. The couple's friends began calling them too, asking what was going on.
Finally, Charlton says she found out from a news story online that the FBI was involved in the search. She called the FBI field office in Beaumont and spoke to an agent, and says she begged him not to break down their door. The couple finally got another call from the FBI a few hours later, saying nothing had been found and that "the house was secure."
When they returned home five days later, Bankson and Charlton say that most of the lights were on in the house, their dishes were broken, furniture was turned over, clothes were strewn everywhere and "animal urine and feces were throughout the house." They called the sheriff's office and the FBI, Bankson says. "Neither was cooperative in helping me clean the mess they left."
The couple says that they've faced "public ridicule and embarrassment" in Hardin, and that some of their friends will no longer speak to them. Charlton says her image at work was "tarnished" and that her boss suddenly began scheduling her for fewer trips. She claims she was eventually forced to leave that job and seek other employment. The couple still lives in the house.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.