It happened in the wee hours of Election Day last November, as the local candidates tossed in their beds waiting for dawn to come and the polls to open.
Around midnight, four of the sheriff's best men stole into the chilly night on a clandestine mission that has come to be known in these parts as "the newspaper caper."
Equipped with pocketfuls of jingling quarters, the deputies drove the byways of rural St. Mary's County, clearing out newspaper racks and throwing $20 bills at sleepy-eyed 7-Eleven clerks. Their goal: Buy up all the copies they could find of a controversial newspaper called St. Mary's Today. The tabloid had waited until Election Day to resurrect the decades-old statutory rape conviction of the local Republican candidate for state's attorney in an edition with the banner headline "Fritz Guilty of Rape." By dawn, the cops had bought nearly all 1,700 newsstand copies. The candidate, Richard Fritz, went on to win the election; he'd been the favorite, anyway. Some folks in the county thought the St. Mary's Today publisher, who has a reputation for using his paper to go after personal foes, got exactly what he deserved.
But then several things happened.
First, the newspaper publisher complained to the FBI, and the Bureau took the complaint seriously. A grand jury was convened to examine whether the police had committed civil rights violations during their moonlight escapade.
Then the victim in the age-old statutory rape case broke her 34-year silence to tell her story, a version disturbingly at odds with what Fritz had always said had happened that November afternoon when he was 18 years old.
The newspaper caper was just supposed to be a prank. A final, madcap kiss-off from the cops to the tabloid and their political enemies. But instead it ripped open a window on a Gothic Southern tale of secrets and recriminations. Suddenly, it didn't seem quite so funny.
"There is no story here," says Richard Fritz.
Fritz, 52, is sitting in his office in downtown Leonardtown, the sleepy seat of St. Mary's County, some 70 miles south of the District line. He is in his shirt sleeves in honor of the warm weather, feet up on the desk. Across the street is the old county courthouse, under renovation now, with its big "hanging" tree, in the yard where lynchings once took place. "I'm just a small county prosecutor," Fritz says.
Not worthy, he means, of any undue attention outside the county that has been his home since the fifth grade. Certainly not deserving of a dissection of his behavior as Ricky Fritz, an 18-year-old boy from Great Mills High School, Class of '65.
He certainly looks like a small-town prosecutor right out of a Southern courtroom drama. His mustache hints at the walrus. He wears seersucker suits into colder weather. He hunts bear in his spare time and collects antique swords.
Colorful and dramatic in the courtroom, up close and under fire he gives off a charmingly wounded air.
"I don't know how many ways I can answer [these charges]," Fritz says, a little wearily, in his distinctive down-home drawl. "It's becoming irritating. I have an office to run."
Indeed, it is a little difficult to understand how it got to this: Fritz's 18-year-old sexual self laid bare to public scrutiny, the screaming headlines, the FBI involvement, the grand jury.
To make sense of it all, one must first understand St. Mary's County, this place relatively near D.C. that can seem remote in many ways. The county has had a population boom in recent years, due mostly to growth around the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, but it still has a rural flavor, with lush farmland and dazzling water, populated by watermen and tobacco farmers and the Amish, whose buggies careen up and down state Route 5.
There is still something a little wild, a little dark, a little hidden about the place. Like Fritz, nearly everybody has a past. Blood feuds among neighbors and families, many of whom have lived in the county for generations, run deep. Not long ago, tobacco farmers in the county's 7th District burned down each other's barns to settle scores.
Into this mix, then, came Kenneth C. Rossignol, a Montgomery County transplant who moved south in the 1970s and started up three giveaway newspapers filled with recipes and stories about fishing and boating. He gave those up in 1990 to start St. Mary's Today, after he discovered it was more fun needling the local politicians than writing about the week's big bass catch.
Rossignol runs his newspaper, known in these parts as "the rag," out of a cluttered office in a Great Mills strip mall. Each week the colorful front cover of the tabloid spotlights the most sensational local car wreck, drug bust or sordid domestic dispute.
He styles himself as a crusading small-town journalist but exhibits naked bias against certain local officials.
In recent months Fritz has been Rossignol's favorite whipping boy. "I Screamed the Whole Time," the St. Mary's Today headline read on April 27 when Fritz's victim finally broke her silence. "Fritz, 2 Others, Raped Her, Says Woman."
Fritz thinks that everything that has happened can be explained by Rossignol and his "bull." The FBI is looking into his buddies because of Rossignol's complaint. He hints darkly that Rossignol may even have coerced the victim into coming forward after all this time.
"I think Ken Rossignol is seriously disturbed," Fritz says. "What is that movie where that blond girl is chasing after that guy? 'Fatal Attraction'? He's focused on me and I can't shake the man. I don't know what to do. I'll get caught tying my shoe next time and I'll be accused of mooning someone."
Shaking Things Up
Rossignol is lunching at Linda's Cafe in Lexington Park. After he walked in, Linda herself came out of the kitchen to give a cheery welcome. "Hey, Ken!" she said, wrapping her arms around Rossignol's head to hug him.
Today, Linda's Cafe is buzzing with the talk from Rossignol's recent coup, the interview with the rape victim. Rossignol basks in the praise.
"She deserves to have her story told just as much as Mr. Fritz," Rossignol says. "Fritz can get up there and say this was consensual sex. Then people can make up their own minds."
Rossignol, 51, is a hulking guy who is a familiar face to many locals. He frequently shows up at county commission hearings and at local crime scenes, wearing wild, colorful ties and toting his own camera for on-the-scene photos.
He downplays any notion of a blood feud between himself and Fritz, pointing out that he used to be one of Fritz's most ardent supporters. Back when Fritz was deputy prosecutor, Rossignol gave him lavish coverage for his policy of riding along on drug raids with the local narcotics squad. Rossignol even endorsed him in his failed bid to become state's attorney in 1994.
"I've had admiration for this guy," Rossignol says. "When I thought this guy was the best crime fighter around, I told our readers that." But Rossignol says he began to become disillusioned with his performance.
Nonsense, say Fritz's supporters, who believe Rossignol turned on Fritz to please one of his major advertisers, a longtime political opponent of Fritz's.
"What a bunch of crap," Rossignol says in response. "If I was concerned about money, would I be doing this newspaper?"
To be sure, his enterprise, which he runs nearly single-handedly, is frequently in the red. His strip-mall office is just one large room, cluttered but cozy; Rossignol's elderly mother sometimes answers the phones, and his 19-year-old son, Andrew, helps him out by taking photographs and doing paste-up. Otherwise Rossignol is St. Mary's Today's chief cameraman, writer, editor and front-page paste-up guy all in one.
He was born in Rockville and moved south after dropping out of Montgomery College. After migrating to St. Mary's in 1973, he ran a pizza shop, sold real estate and finally bought a printing business. Everything he knows about newspapering is self-taught, Rossignol says. He learned paste-up by producing his monthly giveaway papers; later, he looked to the racy New York Post for inspiration after seeing the tabloid on a trip with his son to New York to see the Statue of Liberty.
Rossignol revels in his role as county gadfly. In part he uses the paper as a platform from which he can speak out against the evils of drunken driving. ("Farmer Killed by Boozing Driver" reads one headline.) Rossignol's own brother, Jack, died with two of his friends on his way back to the local college after a party in 1975. Jack wasn't the driver, but Rossignol believes all three had been drinking. He now tries to publish the name of every DWI offender in the tri-county area each week, and public officials caught drinking and driving merit a front-page headline.
Rossignol can be cruel. He once ran a story about a woman whose son had been murdered by her boyfriend. The woman hadn't been home to protect her son, Rossignol wrote, because she was out all night, shacked up with another man.
And sometimes he breaks news, as in 1997 when he wrote about a hepatitis outbreak at a local restaurant.
Rossignol makes no apologies.
"More than anything else I think community newspapers should be right in the middle of issues, advocating one position or another. Not sitting back with zebra shirts on being the referee," he says.
"The drunk drivers can't stand his guts, the lawyers can't stand him, and the cops that get caught don't like him," says former county commissioner Larry Jarboe, one of Rossignol's regular columnists. But, Jarboe continued, "everybody reads St. Mary's Today. He will print things people can't find out about any other place."
He was at war with the local sheriff's office long before he began picking on Fritz, writing columns often full of rumor and innuendo denouncing the sheriff's staff as liars, drunkards and thieves. (One story about police pursuing a suspect was headlined "Detectives Work Off Doughnuts in Foot Chase.")
The county commissioners also draw Rossignol's fire; he recently ran a picture of one well-heeled commissioner picking her nose.
Needless to say, his take-no-prisoners style has not won him many friends around St. Mary's County. "If Kenny was murdered, the phone book would be the suspect list," cracked one local wag.
That might not be such a joke. Rossignol claims that the FBI (which won't comment) uncovered a murder plot against him motivated by a series of unflattering stories he ran about a trade school.
But like it or not, Rossignol's complaint that his freedom of the press was seriously infringed is being taken seriously by legitimate media and civil libertarians.
"The mere fact that someone would actually use or think about using their influence as an elected official to stop or prevent the free flow of information scares the hell out of me," says Ron Walton, the co-owner of a local radio and cable television station, Bay Vision Channel 10. "If these current allegations are true, and everything I have seen and heard to this point says they are, then Ken should be screaming. But he's screamed so much that it will be difficult to get people to listen, and that's a shame because maybe, for once, he has something to scream about."
A Terrifying Secret
Rossignol's Election Day headline was not the first time Fritz had been forced to publicly discuss the statutory rape conviction. It has haunted him ever since political opponents made it an issue during his unsuccessful bid for state's attorney in 1994. In fact, Rossignol claims, his Election Day story was merely reacting to a comment Fritz made about the incident on the radio, in response to a hostile questioner a week before the election. On that and other occasions, Fritz blandly described the assault as an episode of youthful misadventure or, alternatively, blamed it on "raging hormones." When asked, Fritz simply said that he and the victim had "consensual sex."
Fritz won his election with 54 percent of the vote.
By January, around the time that Fritz was making his jubilant inaugural speech--in which he said he beat not only his Democratic opponent but St. Mary's Today--to 200 supporters in a packed room in the St. Mary's County courthouse, a woman in a Pennsylvania hill town finally got wind of how St. Mary's County State's Attorney Richard Fritz had been describing their shared history. Her friends from high school who had stayed local reluctantly broke the news.
That is why Carla Bailey--Carla Henning Bailey, she stresses, saying she doesn't want to hide behind her married name--is sitting in a diner a few blocks from her home near Scranton, talking about what happened to her. She still can't quite believe that the fuzzy-around-the-edges, traumatic encounter from her distant past has become a major political issue in her home county.
"It's hard to explain," she says of her reaction to the news, relayed in a call from childhood friends. Her emotions swirled. She was shocked to have the most terrifying and secret event of her life rear up out of nowhere. There was something almost like relief that it was finally in the open. And she was furious. She was suddenly being victimized again. "He was lying and saying I consented and that's not true."
She was 15 then. She is 50 now, her blond hair dyed red and permed into curls as tightly wound as herself. She is a small fireball of a person, ferociously smoking cigarettes and occasionally succumbing to wet-eyed emotion. She has brought her boyfriend of nine years along for moral support.
After that fateful phone call, Bailey says, she walked in circles around her tiny home. She smoked. She did not feel agitated, but rather "drained."
She had known that Fritz had received only probation for the statutory rape conviction, and that he had gone on to become a prominent person. She was content to hold her tongue through those years when he had been assistant prosecutor. But then he became state's attorney and--as she saw it--publicly attacked her by claiming the incident was a consensual indiscretion, and nothing more.
It took her two weeks to decide what to do. Finally, she e-mailed Rossignol.
"In a way I thought I might be sorry [for speaking out]," Bailey says now. "But again, it happened. It is a long time after. I'm an adult now and I feel like I can handle it."
She says she never would have come forward if Fritz had owned up.
"That's what aggravated me the most," she says. "Him lying about it after all these years. . . . If he had told the truth, I would have said, 'Fine, now it's over.' "
A few weeks later, pressed to consider the same question, she says that maybe her motive had been "to get back at him for doing what he did to me in the first place."
It was 1964, November.
Fritz was a senior at Great Mills High School. He was small and not much of an athlete, but popular, a real ladies' man, fellow graduates have said.
Fritz and his best friend, a 17-year-old pimply-faced football player, were mainstays in a crowd that hung out around Piney Point and St. George Island, a lonely little windswept place out on the Potomac.
Bailey was also in that crowd. She had a steady boyfriend. She was on the drill team. She, too, was popular.
That day, a Sunday, Bailey and her girlfriend tagged along with Fritz and his buddy, who wanted to take target practice with some beer bottles. At some point, they met up with an older man who ultimately pleaded guilty in the assault.
The next thing Bailey remembers is standing at the bottom of a long, narrow staircase that led upstairs to a small efficiency apartment. Perhaps it was the older man's apartment; perhaps it was a vacant summer home--Bailey isn't sure.
Some of the details of the time before and after the assault are lost to her, Bailey says. Where, for instance, was her girlfriend? How did Bailey get into that little room with the plain, single bed and the one bright window? Afterward, how did she get out of there and make it home? Bailey doesn't remember.
But she does remember the worst part.
She remembers the older man, the fat one, began taking off his pants. She was already pinned on the bed by the two boys. She began to struggle and kick. She screamed to be let go. Then a thought came: She was menstruating. Bailey begged the youths to remove her tampon, afraid it would further injure her. One of her assailants pulled it out and threw it on the windowsill.
The fat one went first. Then Fritz. Then the burly, acne-faced football player.
"I screamed the whole time," Bailey says. "It seemed like it lasted forever. They just held me down. I was just screaming, 'Help me.' "
Apparently, no one heard. Bailey never discussed the incident with her girlfriend. She was the sister of one of her attackers. They avoided each other at school and for years afterward until their two little girls became playmates. The subject has still never come up between them. The woman, who still lives in St. Mary's County, declined to comment on the case.
Bailey's 69-year-old mother, Doris Henning, says that she remembers Bailey returning to the house that day and, uncharacteristically, going into her room and shutting the door without speaking.
"It sounded like Carla was crying, and I knew something wasn't right," Henning remembers. But Carla didn't want to talk about it. Doris Henning didn't get the news until the next day. Bailey says she was still in a state of shock until a kid teased her on the school bus. She broke down. Henning was summoned to school for the news.
"I almost fell over. I never thought of three guys," Henning says.
Despite the apparently heinous nature of the crime, Henning says, "we were told at one point it would be a losing battle for us to press charges." All the men involved were from prominent local families, and "we were considered outsiders. We were Navy."
But she pressed forward, determined that her daughter's attackers be punished.
The case never went to trial. Bailey was questioned by the local state's attorney, Charles A. Norris, whom she told that she was violently attacked.
Norris later charged Fritz and the other two assailants with "carnal knowledge of a female child between the ages of 14 and 16," a misdemeanor and the equivalent in those days of statutory rape. Fritz was sentenced to 18 months in prison; the judge then suspended the sentence in lieu of a period of extended probation.
Norris says that he has "no independent recollection of that case" and cannot say whether he disbelieved Bailey's version of the assault or simply felt he did not have enough evidence to charge the assailants with felony rape.
But Norris says he feels sure that he would have charged the youths with rape rather than "carnal knowledge" if the sex had been forced and he had compelling physical evidence.
"I didn't know Rick at the time. I had no interest one way or another," Norris says.
Norris made headlines of his own shortly after he was elected in 1962. His political career was ruined after he became the first sitting state's attorney in Maryland to be indicted while in office, on charges of withholding testimony from a grand jury. He was later acquitted. As a lawyer in private practice in 1992, he was indicted on charges of stealing over $30,000 from his clients. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
The truth, according to Fritz, was that he and three young friends, who may have been drinking beer at the time, got carried away in their teenage emotion. He does not want to dignify what he calls scurrilous charges published by a reprehensible tabloid with a detailed response. He does not want to provide a specific narrative of that day's events.
"It was an 18-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old who was a month too young," Fritz says. The matter only reached the hands of the authorities after Henning's parents--her strict father, a Navy enlisted man, and exacting mother--became upset to learn their daughter had consensual premarital sex, Fritz says. There was no forced rape, as Bailey suggests.
"That's crazy," he says. "That's absolutely insane."
Who is telling the truth?
It appears that whichever party is lying changed the story in the hours after the attack and has stuck to it for 34 years.
The records have been destroyed. The other teen involved in the assault angrily declined to comment; his court records were sealed long ago. The Washington Post was unable to locate the third assailant on any computer database or via telephone.
Even their fellow classmates at the time never knew for sure what happened, and their comments 34 years later reflect that. Wild rumors spread around the school--that Carla had been gang-raped. Or, alternatively, that she had been secretly seeing Fritz and made up the story about rape to cover herself with her steady boyfriend.
The idea that a 15-year-old drill team member with a steady boyfriend and a good reputation would have consensual sex with three men at once was bewildering to small-town high school students, to say the least. "Carla wasn't the type of girl who gave her body away," points out one former classmate.
What was clear to Bailey's friends was that their bubbly, popular friend had changed utterly.
"When Carla came back to school she wasn't the same person anymore," remembers Kathy, Bailey's best friend from the time who did not want her last name used because her family members are political supporters of Fritz. "She was quiet. She was afraid. Everyone treated her with kid gloves. . . . Carla became a lot less Carla after that. She's never gotten over it, ever."
Bailey now feels that the assault--and her desire to escape its aftermath--may have explained why she married so early, in her junior year of high school, a year and a half after it happened. She finished high school and went on to have three children with her husband before divorcing in 1987.
She says she has always been upfront with her children and her current boyfriend, telling them that she was the victim of a rape long before they had ever heard of Richard Fritz. She has never been through rape counseling or counseling of any kind, even after the end of her troubled marriage. Shortly after the marriage dissolved, she left St. Mary's County for Pennsylvania, and now lives in a cheerfully cluttered house in a northeastern hill town with several cats and dogs and her 22-year-old son. She spends much of her spare time with her boyfriend, when she's not at work pulling auto parts for shipping orders at a large auto supply warehouse.
She has never really left St. Mary's County behind, however, returning for a long stint when her daughter's baby was born last year. On the rare occasions she has seen Fritz since the assault, she turns and walks the other way.
Fritz claims she came to him and asked him to represent him in her divorce--which, he feels, shows she had a certain amount of trust in him. Bailey says she never asked him anything of the kind: "That is a baldfaced lie."
A Popular Guy
Fritz's first wife, Sheila Hare Presley, tells a different story of those days. Presley, 52, a government computer specialist who now lives in Virginia Beach, says Fritz didn't have it in him to force a girl to have sex, and, further, women were throwing themselves at him constantly.
"There was no reason for Rick to have done something like that," Presley says. "Rick was a very popular guy in high school down there. The girls would line up and take numbers."
Presley claims that she remembers sitting in a car with Fritz several days after the assault and hearing his version of what happened. She says he told her, "I can't believe that Carla did that. She got scared. . . . Her mother found out and she got scared and she had to holler rape." Presley does not remember being terribly angry with Fritz for cheating on her, although the two were dating seriously at the time. "It caused a problem," she says, "but not that big a one."
Presley and Fritz got married a year and a half after the incident, after Presley had become pregnant. The marriage lasted just 18 days. When his first child was born in November 1966, the couple were already estranged. Presley says Fritz has had no contact with his daughter, now 32. At the time of the divorce, Fritz was a student at St. Mary's College, trying to get his life together. He later graduated from American University and went on to attend the University of Baltimore Law School, earning his degree in 1976.
A second marriage, to Lynda Ann Fritz, also ended in divorce but produced two girls, now ages 27 and 22. Fritz has been married to his current wife, Betsy, for 14 years and has two young children.
Fritz was a well-respected deputy prosecutor for 10 years until 1992, when he had an acrimonious parting of the ways with his former boss, former state's attorney Walter B. Dorsey, over Fritz's handling of a narcotics seizure account. He then went into private practice and was widely considered one of Southern Maryland's ablest defense attorneys.
These days, the subject of Carla Bailey brings a pained expression to his face.
"I swear to God. I have to shake my head," he says. "I find it amazing that somebody like Ken Rossignol hammers so hard at all this crap, solely for the purpose of besmirching me."
Fritz and his supporters say they have found it difficult to combat Rossignol's continued vicious attacks. Suing him would appear futile--the courthouse has a long list of creditors who have sued Rossignol for unpaid bills over the years, so what good would a judgment do them?
Last November, in the early hours of Election Day, Fritz and his political supporters tried to exact what they thought would be the perfect act of revenge, a practical joke of sorts. The day the rape story appeared, four deputies from the sheriff's office who are buddies of Fritz went on their newspaper-buying spree--spending a total of $2,300. The deputies--a powerful lieutenant, two of the sheriff's best detectives and the department's internal affairs investigator--videotaped themselves as they made their rounds and subsequently turned copies of the tapes over to the Maryland State Police, in an apparent attempt to prove that all the papers were legally bought, even those from vending boxes. They wore no badges or guns or uniforms.
The officers have declined to comment; the sheriff has said only that his men broke no laws.
When pressed about details of his knowledge or whether the deputies were acting on his direct orders, Frits says only that the caper was not an officially sanctioned campaign event, nor was it paid for by campaign funds.
"I was aware it was going to happen. I knew that some newspapers were going to be purchased. . . . There was very little planning that went into this. It was everybody's idea," Fritz says.
He adds that he and his supporters were protesting irresponsible journalism.
Rossignol was not pleased.
"It's really distressing to me how little law enforcement officers and Mr. Fritz understand about the First Amendment freedoms," Rossignol says. "It's a compliment to me that they'd fear an article that much on Election Day. What they should respect more is the people's right to make up their own minds."
He complained to whoever would listen: Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's staff, the state police, the Maryland attorney general's office.
The FBI got wind of the case and has spent the last several weeks in the county investigating. In addition, the attorney general's office is determining whether the officers violated the state's newspaper theft law. Around 180 of the papers that disappeared in the confusion on Election Day have not been accounted for, according to the state police.
The FBI is focusing on whether the officers abused the power of their official position to commit civil rights violations. If it is discovered that they used their status as police officers to pressure the clerks into selling the papers, or intimidated them in any way, then the FBI could refer the matter to the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office for possible prosecution.
The situation becomes less clear if they simply bought the newspapers as private citizens in an orderly, nonthreatening way.
Jane Kirtley, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, believes that even in that case the officers would have violated Rossignol's civil rights, as well as the right of the public to have access to information.
"Any individual has a right to buy a newspaper. But when there is a conspiracy among [the police] to make sure that nobody else can read them . . . that's as classic an example of a civil rights violation you can conceive of or imagine," says Kirtley.
Prominent media attorney Floyd Abrams disagrees. The key, he says, is that the papers seemed to have been legally purchased.
"It doesn't sound like a First Amendment violation," Abrams says. "It sounds more like a frolic."
Fritz can see now that the newspaper caper might have not been such a good idea. In retrospect, he says, he realizes that having those papers on the street probably wouldn't have cost a single vote. And if those deputies had stayed home, Fritz would most likely not have to be here, trying to explain a 34-year-old mistake to a reporter, and the world.
But he can't bring himself to condemn the men who grabbed up all those nasty headlines. He hates Rossignol that much.
"I applaud them," Fritz drawled, leaning back in his chair. "I think it's great."
CAPTION: Carla Henning Bailey at her home in Pennsylvania. "If he had told the truth, I would have said, 'Fine, now it's over.' " Instead, she called the St. Mary's tabloid.
CAPTION: St. Mary's County State's Attorney Richard Fritz says he's a victim of a sleazy, vindictive newspaper publisher who distorted a 34-year-old case.
CAPTION: Ken Rossignol, editor of St. Mary's Today, has a take-no-prisoners editing style that prompted one local wag to comment, "If Kenny was murdered, the phone book would be the suspect list."
CAPTION: The ladies' man, the girl from the strict family: 1965 yearbook photos of Richard Fritz and Carla Henning.