In December, members of the Kitsap Sun staff got an assignment: share the most memorable, enjoyable or most impactful reporting assignment of the year.
Here, they share the assignments that stood out for them in 2021.
Something I consider to be a “perk” as a journalist is the chance to explore unfamiliar territory with stories. Working in this field for 20 years now, mostly as a sports reporter, it’s not every day that I find myself covering new ground. Yet 2021 provided some of those opportunities as I added some education reporting responsibilities to my plate.
I do find it interesting that two stories that stick in my mind from the past year don’t really fit in the sports or schools categories. The stories focused on the lives of two people, one of whom I never had a chance to meet.
In the summer, I attended a vigil of 400 people who gathered in Port Orchard to remember the life of 17-year-old Will Huck, who drowned at Horseshoe Lake while trying to find relief during a late June heatwave. Pulling into the parking lot at Whisky Gulch CoffeePub, the Bay Street restaurant owned by Will’s father, I juggled with conflicting emotions: sadness over having to tackle a story about the death of a teenager, but happy to be able to speak with vigil attendees as they dealt with feelings of fresh grief.
To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever cried on the job before, but I came close after interviewing one of Will’s friends and coworkers, Katie O’Rourke.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with a person who’s just the most amazing kid you would ever meet,” O’Rourke told me. “I have an 18-month-old son. I would be so lucky if my son was just like Will.”
Another story I wrote came during the final preparations being made by Bremerton hiker Kevin Koski, who set out in March to try to establish a new National Scenic Trail route called the Four Corners Loop. The route involved hiking in four states: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona.
Koski hiked 2,485 miles over the course of six months, leaving his skin well-tanned and body lighter (he lost 42 pounds during the trip). He skipped the Grand Canyon and a small portion of the trail near the Utah border in order to be with his mother, who died in Colorado.
“I was glad to be able to be with my mom Margaret during her passing,” Koski told me in a recent email.
I remember Koski telling me during our interview in the spring that he wasn’t much of a writer, but that he hoped to take detailed notes during his trip and keep people updated on his progress. This week, he informed me that he’s working on a book about his journey.
“Every day I was amazed at the scenery that was all around me: the sunrises, the sunsets, the Aspen leaves fluttering in a breeze, the echoes in a sandstone canyon,” Koski said. “The flowers bloomed and gave me joy. The colors of the rock let my mind wander into geologic processes. Most of all, the people I met along the way absolutely amazed me with their spirit and kindness, rejuvenating my view that people are awesome. The people, coupled with the natural environment I immersed myself in, created a hard-to-explain spirit of the trail that I never expected to receive.”
It may not be the most hard-hitting news, but stories that peek into the inspiring corners of our county seem to be my favorite to write. After a year without their beloved visitors, senior residents at Crista Shores were once again able to pet their favorite pooches.
People were wearing masks, but I could still see the smiles beaming from underneath them when the dogs approached to get their ears scratched.
Katha Miller-Winder began a chapter of Therapy Dogs International in Kitsap about a decade ago, which now has about 40 members who take their dogs to visit healthcare and living facilities. But because of the pandemic, the dogs and their owners weren’t able to make their typical visits.
When the pandemic slowed a bit, the dogs and their handlers were able to come for an outdoor visit in May and show off what they’d been hard at work on while away. The dogs had created their own painted masterpieces, using a technique Miller-Winder found online. The dogs would use their tongues over plastic to spread paint on a canvas, creating an abstract swirl of colors. A meet-and-greet with the canine artists was held so residents could see what the dogs had been painting while getting to pet them for the first time in months.
“That ability to spread joy in a time when everybody is uncertain, and unsettled, and uncomfortable, and unhappy, and lonely, and coming out of a year’s long depression has meant a lot to everybody,” Miller-Winder said.
Watching the residents at Crista Shores reconnect with their favorite pups was heartwarming, and I could tell how excited both the people and the dogs were to be there. I liked that this story took a break from the COVID-19 chaos to take a peek at something positive and light in our community. Plus, days spent working on stories where I get to pet dogs are always good days.
Ten years ago, the Navy finally integrated its submarine force, granting women the chance to serve in the silent service for the first time. I was looking for a way to document this momentous progress by checking in with the first females who’d earned their dolphin pins and how it had affected their lives — as well as the service itself.
Little did I know it would lead to my first interview with an astronaut in space.
I quickly learned Kayla Barron, a veteran engineering officer aboard the Bangor-based USS Maine, had not only been selected in 2017 to be a part of NASA’s latest class but that she was due to travel to the International Space Station this past fall.
I figured there might be a chance to interview Kayla, and after I battered NASA’s public affairs office with repeated calls and emails, I got a 10-minute window to talk with her on Dec. 13.
“How are things on the Kitsap Peninsula?” asked Barron, as her hair floated in the weightlessness of space that reminded me of something out of Greek mythology.
I talked to her not long after she’d completed her first spacewalk, repairing a damaged antenna outside the station. As an avid space enthusiast since I was a child, it is an experience I will never forget.
“Sometimes you get the sensation that you’re just hanging off the edge of the cliff, at the highest height you’ve ever been at,” she told me.
As part of Project Artemis, Barron could very well become the first woman to walk on the moon. And who knows? Maybe Mars as well. Her colleagues in the submarine force said she left the impression on them as someone who is destined for big things — maybe even stories for our history books.
As a newcomer to the newsroom, I was excited to join the Kitsap Sun in July and cover a variety of important issues for the community.
Probably because of my experience in different countries before coming to the U.S. (to study journalism in 2019), stories that reflect how the community is affected by international affairs generally are my favorites.
In July, I produced a time-lapse video of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was once deployed at the South China Sea near my hometown Taipei, arriving in Bremerton. In August, as the U.S. retreated from its long battle in Afghanistan, I documented how Kitsap County residents with Middle East ties helped Afghan people during the crisis.
In time for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gold Star family member Sandy Kottre shared with me her memories about her son, Adam Patton, 21, a South Kitsap High graduate and Army specialist killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2011.
In October, when a missionary group from a U.S. nonprofit was kidnapped by a local gang in Haiti, I interviewed the Silverdale-based group Children of the Nations, members of which shared the difficulties humanitarian aid workers have been facing amid Haiti’s political turmoil and natural disasters. When the holiday season approached, I wrote about how the global supply chain shortage has affected local bookstores in Kitsap County.
As a reporter from Taiwan, I appreciate the opportunity to bring diversity to the Kitsap Sun and look forward to writing more stories with global views in 2022.
Two of my favorite stories this year involved the Kraken’s arrival on the local sports scene, and both of these pieces were welcome breaks from coronavirus stories and other daily coverage. I love hockey, and even though the Kraken aren’t my team, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the appearance of NHL hockey in my backyard. It’s been fun seeing the team’s new traditions and the presence of more and more Kraken shirts and hats at the grocery store and out on the streets as the season has rolled along.
I had a chance to chat with local hockey fans about their love of the sport and their anticipation for the team’s inaugural season in October. William Pedelaborde and Temperance “T” Mayo, two local youth hockey players, helped to explain the sport to newer fans in a “Hockey 101” explainer video you can see on our website. They were great additions to the coverage and perfect ambassadors for the sport. I hope having a local team inspires other kids like them to lace up some skates and give hockey a try.
And then, just this month, I finally had the opportunity to share a story that I’d been looking forward to for more than a year. I’d heard through the grapevine last year that Seattle’s then-nameless NHL franchise was interested in using a ferry whistle as the team’s goal horn, and it eventually became apparent that the team was getting whistles off the retired state ferry Hyak, which, in my mind, was a great way to pay homage to Puget Sound’s ferry history.
The team figured out how to make one of the whistles work in Climate Pledge Arena, and the story eventually came together earlier this month. I had a chance to catch up with Dave Knutsen, a longtime Washington State Ferries employee who worked on the vessel and retired alongside it in 2019, for the story.
“The Hyak lives on, thank goodness,” he said of the new goal horn. “(Hyak) died a premature death in my opinion. It would still be running if they had the funding available, but they decided otherwise. I’m glad that it’s able to still make noise in a positive way.”
Me too. I think the Hyak, with its retro feel, was special to many people in our area. Now, the vessel will live on long after it’s turned to scrap.
Amina Kocer-Bowman did not die at age 8, on Feb. 22, 2012, but it was close. The pistol a fellow third-grader brought to school in his book bag discharged, sending a .45 caliber bullet into Amina’s slight frame, ripping her apart. She endured five surgeries and spent six weeks in the hospital.
When asked by police, the boy said he brought the pistol because he was frightened of other students. He was able to get his hands on the loaded gun because it was unsecured, left out by his mother’s boyfriend.
The boy’s fear and what happened next could have overwhelmed Amina. She could have completely shied away from school after being shot inside Natalie Poss’ classroom at Armin Jahr Elementary in Bremerton, no longer trusting that it was a safe place, but she didn’t. She didn’t give up.
In 2021, nine years later, Amina graduated from high school. Not only that, she was accepted to an elite private school, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. A lover of video games, she planned to study computer science.
Since being shot, Amina’s family moved away from Bremerton. She went to high school in Las Vegas. Why Mount Holyoke? Because she wanted a change from the west coast.
“I wanted to go east,” she told me during a June phone interview.
Her parents still worry about her, typical when a kid leaves home, but they try not to dwell on the shooting.
“For a long time it was a central theme in our lives, now it’s simply something in the background,” Amina’s dad, John Bowman said during the interview. “It’s in the rearview mirror, and that mirror is small. You have to look at what’s in front of you.”
The year was unusually violent and tragic for children in Kitsap County, from the beginning to the end.
At the start of the year, In January, Syanna Puryear-Tucker, 16, was stabbed to death by Lola Luna, also 16, during a fight in the front yard of Luna’s parents’ house in Bremerton. Puryear-Tucker left behind an infant daughter. Luna said she was defending herself against Puryear-Tucker. Prosecutors rejected the claim and charged her as an adult. Luna awaits trial for murder while on house arrest.
At the end of the year, in December, authorities accused a Port Orchard mother of smoking counterfeit percocet pills with her daughter, Riley Melton, 11, leading to Riley’s fatal fentanyl overdose in May.
Adding to the horror, days after she pleaded not guilty, Stephanie Melton, 40, died while in custody of the Kitsap County Jail. The county coroner ruled her death “natural.” The charges were dismissed.
One veteran prosecutor reached out to me to say that, despite their office filing the controlled substance homicide charge against Stephanie Melton, signifying attorneys were confident they could prove the case at trial, they struggled to accept the facts as marshaled for the indictment. How could a parent do such a thing? With Stephanie Melton dead, there will never be a verdict or a finding.
While writing about Riley and her mother – during which I set a personal record for the number of times I broke into tears while typing – I kept thinking of the disgraced reporter Janet Cooke, whose bogus Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy won her, temporarily, a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Twenty years ago, Cooke’s treachery was taught to me in an undergraduate journalism class as a caution that lying to readers is unforgivable, that a reporter’s duty to the truth is sacred.
Cooke’s tale also impressed upon me that just because something is possible, just because something could happen, means nothing. Let novelists wonder about what’s possible, let us worry ourselves with facts.
I remember feeling comforted by this. Looking back, I must have understood Cooke’s damnation as proof of a just world. Not only did the lying reporter get caught, but it was also proof that a parent would never lead a child by the hand into the curse of opioid addiction. That could only happen in fiction.
“I have trouble accepting what the police allege, what they quote you as saying,” I wrote in a message to the witness cited by Port Orchard police in their investigation of Riley’s death, rehashing details detectives included in charging documents. “This is not to suggest anything about you or the police, but can you tell me is that true?”
“Yes,” they responded. “It’s true.”
The pictures Riley’s family gave us showed a little girl with a smile so big it barely fit in the photo. A colleague wrote to me to say he couldn’t look at our homepage while her story and photo was posted so prominently. He’s a father to a little girl. It was just too much.
I’ve covered more cases than I can remember where people murdered children, raped children, beaten them in a rage. Riley’s death is different.
In 2012, when Amina was shot, the Kitsap Sun ran a photo of her smiling face. For the story in June, we ran new photos, graduation photos. Same smile as the little girl, but now it belongs to a young woman.
Graduating from high school and going off to college isn’t usually newsworthy. For Amina, it’s different.
The future is unknowable, but I took it as a reason for hope. This one, this little girl, who suffered so much, is going to be OK.
In the darkness of a pandemic, where children are bearing the brunt of the disruption, Amina’s story of perseverance was a ray of light for me. I hope it was for you as well.
As local news editor, I manage the staff of reporters that brings you the news each day on our website and the print edition. Every day, we collaborate, deciding which stories to pursue. On a particular day, we may have to choose among light-hearted features that depict a slice of life in our community, breaking news such as a fatal car crash, or following a tip that requires investigative work by our reporters.
I can’t pick a favorite story (that would be showing favorites, right?) And, though I’ve had my own bylines this year, that’s often a result of me pitching in to share the load during busy news days.
But what I’ve noticed this year (particularly during this stretch of record-breaking cold weather that has made for hazardous traveling conditions) is how our role in our community has changed. A decade ago, our weather stories would have been announcing closures and tidbits unavailable anywhere else save public agencies’ websites. Today, most of our agencies, governments and entities we cover are able to communicate directly with you via numerous social media feeds.
Today, you’re likely to find out about a serious crime or major arrest on a law enforcement agency’s Facebook page. So, our role has evolved to be more than solely transmitting that information to readers, but to add to it. I’m constantly asking myself “What new information can our trained journalists bring?” During a cold weather snap, it’s actually getting a source on the phone instead of simply sharing information found in a social media post update. In the case of a crime, it’s making phone calls to law enforcement agencies, attorneys, victims and more to provide more context beyond what police share.
I’m proud of all the work our reporters have done this year to ask the tough questions and to provide information not available anywhere else. We’ll continue to do so in 2022.
In December, members of the Kitsap Sun staff got an assignment: share the most memorable, enjoyable or most impactful reporting assignment of the year.