I have compiled what I believe to the 10 most captivating local crime stories of the last year. These are the crime stories that got our readership talking. This time around I have enlisted the aid of my fellow reporters who covered the stories as they unfolded.
Military reporter Hope Hodge recalls how reports of water contamination at Camp Lejeune ended up on President Barack Obama’s desk. And columnist Mike McHugh recalls how research uncovered an ugly truth about dead babies and military housing.
The saga of water contamination aboard Camp Lejeune seems to produce ground shaking revelations at least once every few months. In my humble opinion, one of the most significant and emotional of these was unearthed by JDN’s own Lindell Kay,Â Mike McHugh and Francine Wood. It took hours of painstaking and tedious searching through books of public records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, to find a pattern that had eluded even dedicated advocates of water contamination victims: the bizarre and horrifyingly high number of babies who had died during the years of contamination–many of them on just one Midway Park street.
The revelations are not over: in the coming year, I believe we’ll learn more about the contaminants, especially gasoline and benzene, that remain under the ground aboard Camp Lejeune. And keep an eye out for CDC reports on benzene at Lejeune and EPA conclusions about the hazards connected to the solvent TCE. With new legislation to aid water survivors in the just-passed defense bill and the VA beginning to consolidate and track water-specific claims, I predict that 2011 will be a landmark year for all who were affected by exposure to the contaminated drinking water.
The genesis of The Daily News’ three-part series into infant mortality aboard Camp Lejeune during the period 1953 through 1990 stemmed from a story I wrote with Lindell Kay about Adolph Wetherington, a Swansboro resident who was employed in the water works aboard Camp Lejeune from 1963 – 1974. Wetherington is suffering from many maladies among which is Leukemia he believes he contracted from his exposure to contaminated water.
We became aware of Wetherington from an opinion piece he submitted to The Tideland News, a weekly newspaper circulated in Swansboro.On a whim one Friday evening we decided to pay a visit to Adolph. Through the course of our interview, he ticked off other coworkers who worked at the base water plant.
After his story published on March 19, Francine K. Wood and I found ourselves near the Onslow County Register of Deeds office with a few moments of time to kill and a nagging curiosity about the fate of the five or six names Wetherington mentioned during his interview.We researched the names in the database and found the years in which they died. Fran and I did not realize the project on which we were about to embark until we came to the last name – a man who died in 1952. The red case bound books in which all recorded death certificates are filed are housed on shelves inside the Register’s office in chronological order. The death certificates for each year are placed in the book in alphabetical order and stamped one through how many deaths occurred during that year.The book for 1952 was approximately one inch in width.
Perhaps it was the slimness of the 1952 and the thickness of the 1953 book — more than three times the size of the previous year — and the fact that they were side-by-side that triggered our curiosity. Francine cracked the cover of the 1953 death certificate book and for the first dozen pages we flipped over were recorded deaths of babies whose mothers delivered at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune.
The magnitude of what we found was reinforced when we reviewed the 1952 book and found less than 30 dead babies recorded for that year compared to more than 90 in 1953.
Subsequent government and military studies have shown that Camp Lejeune’s water woes began sometime around 1953.
This simple 5-minute action to track down a coworker of former water plant operator had quickly turned into a mammoth research undertaking consuming more than two weeks and reviewing every death certificate recorded in Onslow County from 1950 through 1990.
One article published as a result of this research was the story of Nancy Daniels, a Marine wife who delivered three baby girls: Suzy in 1963, Lucy in 1966 and Judy in 1970. None made it home alive.
We found their graves in the Jacksonville Cemetery adorned with a stuff cat. We tracked down Mrs. Daniels who now resided outside Myrtle Beach.Nancy Daniels came to the newspaper’s office over the summer and met with Fran and I. Her story, like the other 2,000 plus families who lost babies during this period is beyond words.