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.
"I'm not saying that he didn't do it," explains Davidian, "but I'm saying it's so tainted and the personalities [are] so corrupt that I wouldn't be surprised if he was set up." Davidian claims he has proof that D.A. Gibson tried to set up Looper last year on criminal charges, but failed when a potential witness revealed his role in the scheme. "Then the D.A. goes to the Burks crime scene and miraculously finds a witness," reasons Davidian. "When you have prosecutors that are out to get somebody, then they go to the crime scene -- I think everything after that point is tainted." The reporter believes Gibson should be replaced by a neutral prosecutor as head of the investigation.
Looper, the lone Republican official in the county, is hardly an angel in Davidian's eyes, but at least he was shaking up the Cookeville establishment. While the tax assessor rarely showed up for work and seemed to spend most of his time figuring out how to gig political opponents, Davidian doesn't think he's a killer.
"The Democrats hate Looper because he broke into their little club, and I think there's a real motive," says Davidian. "He gets in their face; he just messes with them all the time and what bothers me is they are using the state police apparatus and possibly the electric chair to possibly perpetuate their own party in power.... I think it's more likely the D.A. would set him up than he would kill [Burks.]"
Cookeville city officials have dismissed Davidian as an eccentric outside agitator, a role for which his rather unusual career has prepared him well. A former musician and one-time road manager for the rock band Canned Heat in the sixties, he claims he was busted in Lebanon in 1969 while smuggling hashish and spent the next three years in a Lebanese prison. He eventually returned to the states and earned a masters in journalism from Marquette.
Davidian's first journalism gig was in a location with an eerie mystique of its own -- Roswell, New Mexico, the world capital for flying saucer conspiracists. He later worked for the Milwaukee Journal and the Arizona Republic before joining the Houston Chronicle reporting staff in 1990.
Davidian has nothing but fond memories of his stint at the Chronicle, describing it as the best place he ever worked. "They were very good to me there. They let me go after the Saudi slavery story and they never tried to muzzle me at all," he added. One of his last major assignments for the paper was the Gulf War in 1991.
Asked whether Chronicle editors were aware that the reporter they dispatched to the Middle East had previously done prison time in the Levant, a management source replies "absolutely not, and frankly, I'm not sure I believe it."
"Geoff had a way of embellishing his past life. I can't imagine what the incentive would be to make that up, but we certainly never knew it," the source adds.
The 54-year-old Davidian says he indeed served his time in Lebanon from 1969 to 1972, and did not tell his employers when he applied for a job. After all, the paper's management seemed lenient enough on the issue of drug use.
"I remember they called me and said, 'You've got the job, but you've got to come in for a drug test,' " Davidian says with a laugh. He recalls that an editor then assured him the test was not a problem: "He said, 'We can give you a couple of weeks if you need it.' They were very cool."
Davidian was not so cool during an encounter at the Chronicle offices with the Israeli consul in Houston after he returned from reporting on the war. The reporter was still fuming about an incident at a military checkpoint in Israel several months before. A guard tried to search Davidian's locked computer case and when he couldn't open it, the guard proceeded to blow it up.
When the consul apologized for the incident, Davidian forcefully demanded that the Israeli government pay for the computer -- reparations of a sort.
"I said, 'You have the money?' And he says, 'I don't have it on me,' " recalls Davidian. "I said, 'Go get the money and then come back and say you're sorry.' I was pretty pissed off. Some government asshole blows up your computer when you're out there covering the war. It's not a very nice thing to do." Even though the payback was not going to him personally, Davidian was insistent. "I just couldn't stand it," he admits. A fistfight was averted when Chronicle managing editor Tommy Miller inserted himself between the two.
Davidian is also remembered by co-workers for running a travel agency out of the newsroom during his tenure at the Chronicle. He says the description is a bit overblown. "That's a fancy characterization," chuckles Davidian. "I used to get a commission on getting tickets for people and that let me get cheap hotels. I was affiliated with a travel agency."
"He was just a wild hare," says a former supervisor of Davidian's. Another reporter remembers Davidian fondly as a boon companion -- intellectually sharp and a good reporter. Another colleague recalls that when Davidian left in 1993, some editors expressed relief and that a later overture from the reporter to return to the paper was not accepted.
Davidian now resides in a cheap Beverly Hills apartment, working on a book about Cookeville, which he hopes will provide a future payoff and serve as the basis for a movie script. Between visits to Tennessee, he gathers his material on Cookeville, much in the same fashion as the West Coast-based Drudge covers the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
"I do it by telephone, and I get a lot of references when I'm there [in Cookeville]," says Davidian. "I go through them, and little by little I get the stuff sorted out and posted. And every month or so, I put out a paper. It's been getting less and less frequent, the more trouble I have with the government." Davidian estimates he works 16 hours a day on the project.
"It's not easy," says the reporter, who figures he's spent $50,000 on his Tennessee media campaign while bringing in very little income. Still, he's uncertain when he'll drop the Putnam County crusade and move on.
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"Cookeville's my responsibility," vows the reporter. "They started to mess with me, and I'm not going to let them beat the media. City Hall cannot just lie and withhold documents. I figure if I leave now, it's a victory for the dark side."
Davidian pauses to catch another breath. "Believe me, man, I wish I could go, but it just sends the wrong message to punks in power everywhere that they can just do that."
It's a good thing Davidian isn't still at the Chronicle. It's hard to imagine that medium letting him transmit his message to the power punks of this town.
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