By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Former Houston Chronicle reporter Geoff Davidian's work at the paper early this decade -- particularly his pieces on slave women held at a local hotel by visiting Saudis -- often seemed like Technicolor clips in the daily's otherwise black-and-white local coverage. Now Davidian has taken to the Internet as a municipal muckraker and his former employers are finding out his resume has a bit more color than they were aware of, including a three-year prison sentence for hashish-smuggling in the late sixties.
In his latest journalistic incarnation, the tall, silver-haired single father of two is the Los Angeles-based producer of the Putnam Pits web page (www.Putnampit.com) and newspaper. It tracks governmental wrongdoing and corruption in the fevered Tennessee county of Putnam, particularly in the county seat of Cookeville.
In "The Cookie Monster of Putnam Pit," a recent feature in the Internet newsmagazine Salon, Davidian comes across as an intellectual Matt Drudge on a mission to show the powers that be what can be accomplished by a real crusading journalist.
"My God, you've got the fucking New York Times, you got the L.A. Times, they're all sitting around doing thumbsuckers about where the economy's going to go," he told Salon writer Matt Welch. "May they ROT in HELL for every story they could have done that rectified some injustice!"
Davidian's web page does not resemble his work at the Houston Chronicle. It is a series of cartoons, sketches and editorials with links to highly opinionated stories lampooning local officials. Couched in insider terms and references, the pieces are often difficult for an unschooled reader to decipher. Last week the page opened with a photograph of the Three Stooges with imaginary dialogue attributed to county officials. A Cookeville journalist who refused to be quoted by name described Davidian's efforts as "shitty." "I wouldn't even dignify it by calling it journalism," he added. "It's trivial -- something a child would put out."
Davidian's interest in Cookeville began in 1995 during his chance conversation with a woman on a bus in Portland, Maine. Claudia Eldridge told Davidian her daughter had been murdered in a fire in Cookeville, and that local authorities with ties to the murderer covered up the killing by calling it an accident. Since his two children were living in Knoxville, Davidian took a side trip to Cookeville and became convinced he had discovered a police state run by Putnam County District Attorney Bill Gibson with the acquiescence of a cabal of city officials and a compliant local newspaper.
According to Davidian the murder of Eldridge's daughter was just a starting point on an exploration of official malfeasance and a community terrified of its own politicians. "These guys go after their enemies," claims the reporter. "It's politically motivated; it is the state police apparatus in the hands of a politician. Man, that's why I don't spend the night in Cookeville -- I always go somewhere else." (Gibson and other officials denied any complicity in the death of Eldridge's daughter or a welter of other fraud and official misconduct claims made by Davidian.)
Exxon geologist Darrel Norman, a Houstonian who grew up in Cookeville, provides Davidian with satirical cartoons for the Putnam Pits. He agrees with Davidian that under a veneer of normalcy, something is terribly wrong in Putnam County.
"The daughter of the county judge died in a fire several years ago. A couple of people from Ukraine died in a fire. These sorts of things just tend to happen," observes Norman. "A lot of unsolved murders, and nothing seems to be done about it."
Since launching his newspaper and then a web page dedicated to exposing the hidden evils of Putnam County, Davidian has fought a sporadic legal battle with the Cookeville city government over access to municipal computer records, called cookies (hence the title of the Salon article). Davidian says he will appeal a district court judgment denying him the files.
Davidian's obsession with the area's politics suddenly made a lot more sense on the morning of October 19, the same day the Salon article appeared on the Internet. A gunman stalked and killed Democratic state Senator Tommy Burks with a single shot to the forehead as Burks drove a pickup truck across his property outside Cookeville. Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron "Low Tax" Looper, Burks's election opponent for the Senate seat, disappeared for several days, then was arrested at his home and charged with murder.
With the possible assassination of a public official by a challenger, Putnam County politics became a national news story. With Burks's murder, the concept of negative campaigning took on a whole new dimension.
"Dateline was out there last week, and The New York Times," says Davidian. "I'd been writing about what a wacky place Cookeville is -- it's beyond what straight journalism can deal with. In that Salon article I said there are people dying there, and the next thing the guy dies there," marvels Davidian. "The law doesn't apply in Cookeville. It's just a real frightening place."
While national media coverage left the impression that, because of the evidence, the case against Looper was open and shut, Davidian has his doubts.