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A High-Wire Fall in the Media Circus

Two Salt Lake Tribune reporters are fired, the editor quits after a deal to give information on the Smart kidnapping to a tabloid is revealed.

May 12, 2003|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — After Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom here last June, hordes of media -- as has become common in such incidents -- descended to pick over every detail of the Smarts' existence.

Her family was distressed by some of the coverage, especially a July 2 article in a supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer, with the headline: "Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring."

The Smarts put aside their anger over the coverage and focused on the more immediate task of getting Elizabeth back. After she was found in March in the company of a self-proclaimed prophet and his wife, the Enquirer ran stories disclosing the assaults she endured during captivity -- without attribution to official sources. This time the Smarts decided they could not ignore the stories because the disclosures, accurate or not, could jeopardize the abductors' trials.

They hired a lawyer to investigate. What Randy Dryer found -- although not of the scale or gravity of Elizabeth's ordeal -- was a scandal in its own right: The sources of the Enquirer stories turned out to be two crime reporters for the Salt Lake Tribune. They admitted they sold information from their police sources to the Enquirer, which paid each of them $10,000. One later admitted he had fabricated the existence of the diary.

As a result, the two reporters were fired, their editor resigned, the Enquirer apologized to the family and retracted its sex ring story, and law enforcement officials are under scrutiny.

Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera had covered the police beat for several years. Considered spark plugs in a lethargic newsroom, the two were widely respected as aggressive reporters, Tribune staff members said. Their early work on the Smart kidnapping won them appearances on national news programs.

Some of their Tribune stories, citing unnamed law enforcement sources about evidence and other issues, caused the Smart family to wince, but they paled to the National Enquirer sex ring story.

After Dryer confronted the tabloid, the Enquirer settled with the family by apologizing and revealing its primary sources -- Vigh and Cantera.

"Imagine my surprise that it wasn't law enforcement, but two Tribune reporters," Dryer said.

He took his discovery to Tribune Editor James E. Shelledy, who didn't know the reporters had done work for the Enquirer. When confronted, Vigh and Cantera said they agreed to provide background information to the Enquirer nine days after Elizabeth was kidnapped, Shelledy said.

In a column April 27, 10 days after learning of his reporters' work for the Enquirer, Shelledy chastised Vigh and Cantera, disclosing their work for the tabloid. He said it was "baloney" that the pair fed information for the tabloid's July 2 article.

Shelledy put Vigh, 32, and Cantera, 34, on probation for a year and removed them from the Smart story, but kept them on the police beat.

The Enquirer swiftly threatened to sue Shelledy because it said his column downplayed his two reporters' role in the tabloid's retracted article. The Enquirer reporter had taped a conversation with Cantera that proved the Tribune reporters were the primary sources of the July 2 article and that Cantera had vouched for its veracity, Dryer said.

A day after Shelledy's column, the Enquirer reporter played parts of that tape for the Tribune's rival, the Deseret News, which printed excerpts in its April 29 edition.

After Shelledy read the excerpts in the competing paper, he immediately fired the two reporters. Before the firings, Cantera had admitted to Dryer that he made up the existence of a "sex ring diary" -- a tantalizing detail because of Mormons' propensity to keep daily journals. The Smarts belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In an e-mail to the Tribune staff, Cantera said he made a "horrible mistake. I have no excuse for giving in to my baser instincts, except to say that the only thing more overpowering than my own ugly greed was my naivete."

The Tribune staff was embarrassed and frustrated by Shelledy's tepid response to the growing scandal. "There was an explosion in the newsroom," said Tom Harvey, a midlevel editor.

With the growing furor, Shelledy, 60, resigned May 1 and, in his final column after 12 years as editor, apologized for not resolving the situation more aggressively.

"The end was at hand," Shelledy said later from home. "We had a community that was polarized by this, and a good chunk of the newsroom thought I hadn't handled this properly. I didn't have their confidence that I could pull us out of this."

Shelledy said no Tribune stories written by Vigh and Cantera have needed to be corrected or retracted, and that he expects the Tribune's reputation will rebound.

To avoid being sued by the Smart family, Vigh and Cantera told Dryer that their sources were from the FBI, the Secret Service, the Utah state police and the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Dryer turned the names over to U.S., state and local prosecutors.

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