“Clara, I need your help. Will you help me?"
The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Kathy Nelson, the director of audience/editor of the St. Augustine Record.
"I will if I can," Clara Waldhari responded. It was 10:59 a.m. on Sept. 9. The conversation lasted seven minutes and 23 seconds, according to Waldhari's phone records. Throughout, Waldhari took detailed notes — a habit she says she picked up many years ago while earning a master's degree in journalism. (She later worked as a book editor, and is now retired.)
Nelson, she says, told her she'd received a phone call early in the morning — 1 or 2 a.m. — from Robert L. "Mac" McLeod, the attorney for St. Johns Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Banks, whom Waldhari and many others believe killed his girlfriend Michelle O'Connell on Sept. 2, 2010. (O'Connell's death, caused by a bullet fired from Banks' gun, has been ruled a suicide.) McLeod was threatening to sue the Record unless Nelson reined in Waldhari's comments about Banks on the newspaper's website, Nelson told her. Nelson told Waldhari to never again use the words "Jeremy Banks," or "sick dog" or "murderer" in reference to Jeremy Banks. If she violated these rules, her posts would be unpublished and she would be banned.
"I don't want any more calls from a lawyer at two in the morning," Waldhari says Nelson told her.
That afternoon, Waldhari
fired off an email to Nelson:
"Mac MacLeod [sic] is advocating for his client. Why would The Record fold? Don't you see? They are trying to shut up ANOTHER woman." Still, she promised to abide by Nelson's edict. "I intend to write advocacy pieces that support drawing attention to Michelle's death, not as a challenge to you or Mac or anyone else, but because this is important. … I believe, according to your rules of posting, that I get three warnings. This is number one. I heard you loud and clear."
Waldhari says Nelson never responded.
Waldhari then shared her story with fellow activist Ed Slavin, who posted it on his blog, www.cleanupcityofstauagustine.blogspot.com. "A member of the [Florida] Bar calling a party represented by corporate counsel at two in the morning is unethical," Slavin wrote.
Slavin says he called Nelson and left a detailed message, then sent her a letter to the editor. Nelson never got back to him to dispute Waldhari's story, which he took as an "admission of silence," he says.
That same day, the Record posted a rote story about Gov. Rick Scott's campaign visit to Fruit Cove, omitting the part where he dodged Michelle O'Connell's sister, who was waiting in line to speak with the governor about her family's demand for a coroner's inquest into Michelle's death. Waldhari posted a comment asking why the Record had ignored what other media outlets had highlighted. Within an hour, she says, the story had vanished from the home page, relegated to a nether region accessible only by the website's search bar. She assumed the paper was trying to silence her voice. And that was when she decided she'd had enough.
On Sept. 10, she wrote an email asking the paper to delete her account. On Sept. 11, a Record staffer responded, "I will have them remove your account."
"There are things that are right, and there are things that are wrong," Waldhari says. "The stance the paper is taking — it's not journalism, it's propaganda."
If her story is correct, it indeed paints the Record in a less-than-positive light — cowed by flimsy legal threats (Banks is, after all, a public figure), or perhaps overly deferential to the official narrative. (Just last year, in fact, Nelson drew national ridicule when she answered The New York Times' deeply researched story that laid bare the problems with the investigation into O'Connell's death with a page one article suggesting that St. Augustine was "a victim of big media parachuting into a small town.")
But the Record isn't conceding her veracity.
"There was no middle-of-the-night phone call," says St. Augustine Record publisher Delinda Fogel. "That is simply not true. It simply did not happen."
"I have never called or spoken to Kathy Nelson and have no clue as to why or how this allegation could have started or gained any traction," McLeod wrote in an email. "Anyone that says I have called her or made any complaints about their postings is either wholly ignorant or duplicitous. … I cannot recall the last time I was awake at 2 a.m., much less making phone calls."
Nelson did not respond to a voice mail or email seeking comment. (Fogel called on her behalf.) She did, however, respond to an email McLeod sent after he was contacted by Folio Weekly, in which he asked her to "confirm to others that I have never met, phoned or in any other way communicated with you about any subject, much less the Banks case."
"I can confirm that I never told anyone that and am just as annoyed as you that Clara W. and Ed Slavin have put this misinformation out in the community," Nelson replied. "Clara was warned and then banned from commenting on our website because she continually violated its terms of service."
The commenting rules the Record outlines on its website are fairly boilerplate: Don't use profane or racist language; don't defame or threaten anyone; don't post anything fraudulent or grossly inflammatory. Nelson did not specify which term of service Waldhari had allegedly violated. (A review of Waldhari's comments on the Record's website reveals nothing particularly incendiary, though it's possible those posts were deleted.) Nelson's statement that Waldhari was banned does seem at odds with the email exchange in which Waldhari asked the Record to delete her account.
After learning that the Record was, in essence, calling her a liar, Waldhari told Folio Weekly that she stands by what she said. "I know what I heard. I know what I discussed."