Media Quickly Jump on Case of Missing Letters

Originally posted: July 28, 2006

My town of Greencastle made international news this week for a teenage crime spree that newspapers, radio, television and Web sites found irresistible. Some kids stole the letter “R” from the signs of a couple dozen Greencastle businesses. News of the missing “R’s” was featured in The Star and on National Public Radio and the Canadian and British Broadcasting systems. Adam Coates, the Banner Graphic reporter who broke the story locally, found himself being interviewed on a talk show from England.

Last time Greencastle crime was in the news really big time was in 1896 when a local girl, Pearl Bryan, was drugged, beheaded and abandoned in a Kentucky farm field. This brutality was billed “the crime of the century,” and graphic details were published worldwide. A Kentucky detective traced Pearl’s shoes to a Greencastle cobbler, and the two medical students who did the dire deed were hanged before a crowd of a more than a thousand. It seems that crime in Greencastle becomes a big deal about once every other century.

Today’s Great Consonant Caper began about midnight when Michael White, 19, and Jessica Winings, 18, went out to filch the “R’s” from local businesses to fill in Jessica’s letter collection. It was entirely spontaneous, says Michael. They began on the east side of town with Extreme Tanning. And worked their way west, hitting restaurants, medical offices, gas stations, motels, repair shops and the National Guard Armory. In an hour’s work the two grabbed more than 100 “Rs.”

Headley Hardware lost five “Rs,” and when the boss, Randall Jones, arrived at work the next morning he put a nose to the problem. On a Missing-letters-2.jpghunch. Jones sent a couple of his young workers to check other business signs. They reported that the thefts were widespread, so Jones drove the route himself, then called the Banner Graphic and the cops.

Soon everyone was checking out the missing letters. By now you could probably Mapquest the robbery route. Meanwhile, ignorant of the gathering storm, Jessica and Michael were inhaling the ambrosia of a perfect crime.

Acknowledging he didn’t think to check the statute book before heisting the letters, Michael was enjoying a concert in Indianapolis when he learned that news of the “Rs” was Page One locally, also on radio and TV news in Indy. The next day, to his astonishment, the story was on NPR, the BBC and CBC. Reading the clippings, he learned that a Class A misdemeanor for theft carries a possible year in jail and $5,000 fine. Yikes!

All of this has folks in Greencastle scratching their heads. Why? Isn’t it a little over the top that something this inconsequential should become such big news?

Probably there are two reasons. First, the worldwide explosion of media: cable TV, radio talk shows and Internet blogs, all with an insatiable appetite for the inconsequential. The second reason comes with a clue from the NPR reporter who told Randall Jones there is always an appetite for “feel-good stories.” People say there is too much bad news in the media, thus we get the incessant happy-talk television chatter known so well to all. Find a story about a baby or a puppy or an off-the-wall teenage crime caper and it’s news everywhere.

So, how did the Greencastle police fill in the blanks of the missing letters case? Well, Jessica’s mother drove to the police station at 6:30 in the morning and snuck a box full of “R’s” onto the steps. An amateur at crime, she did it right in front of the surveillance cameras. In no time the cops identified the mother and she turned over the kids. Now the missing “R’s” are spread across five tables at police headquarters waiting to be claimed by the victims, and Michael is making appointments to apologize to the businesses he pilfered.

What we have here is the perfect copycat crime, easy to replicate. With all the international publicity, don’t be surprised if the “Ls” begin disappearing in Liverpool or the “Cs” in Caracas. That’s if the culprits stick only to consonants.

Meanwhile, going back to our 1800s crime of the century, the lamentable Pearl Bryan remains buried, headless, in the Greencastle cemetery. For years the trains paused nearby so passengers could visit her gravesite and knock a souvenir chip off the headstone. According to the cemetery superintendent, some still come. You never know what stuff people will collect, do you?

(photo of recovered letters, above right, by Adam Coates of the Banner Graphic)

Last Friday, Ken Bode — former CNN senior political analyst — recommended two museums that “bring American history indoors and under one roof.” You’ll find details in this previous story.

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