In last week's Virginia Weekly, a photo caption and a story about a local Prince William County newspaper reporter convicted of impersonating an officer contained incorrect information. The County Sheriff's Department was never involved in any aspect of the case.
When a representative for F. Lee Bailey contacted Potomac News reporter David Roman, it was not because the famed attorney wanted to represent the journalist in his appeal of a conviction for impersonating an officer.
Rather, the caller wanted Roman, who had passed himself off as a sheriff sergeant to interview a convicted murderer in prison, to appear on Bailey's television show "Lie Detector" and undergo a polygraph test. It would supposedly determine whether Roman had lied when he testified he believed he was a legally sworn jail sergeant when he entered the Mecklenburg Detention Center earlier this year to get the interview.
While Roman hasn't decided whether he will appear on the show, he insists he sees the issue in a somewhat different light than do the show's producers:
"Basically, I was convicted of trusting a law enforcement official," said Roman, who impersonated an officer only after he was offered a badge by a county sheriff. "I thought this was the way I was going to get the story."
The interview Roman was trying to get was with John LeVasseur, who is on death row for the brutal slaying of a Woodbridge woman in 1982. LeVasseur claimed he had been raped in prison, and that was enough for Roman to decide there was a story there somewhere.
According to Roman, 37, he learned about LeVasseur's claims from William Britton, then superintendent for the Prince William-Manassas Regional Jail. Originally, Britton was to go on the the Jan. 4 Mecklenburg trip, but he had to cancel at the last minute, Roman said. So Deputy Dell Audry went in Britton's place.
Just before they left, Roman said, Britton gave Roman a sergeant's badge.
"Britton went into another office, rummaged through a box and pulled out a badge. He pinned it on my belt loop, said, 'You're a deputy for the day,' and the rest is history," Roman said. "When we got down there, I sat in the car and asked myself, 'Is this okay?' And I said Britton had said I was a sergeant and I felt like I was and that I was okay."
Such was not to be the case in the eyes of the law, however, for Roman, Britton and Audry were subsequently arrested in connection with Roman's trip to the Mecklenburg prison. While charges against Britton and Audry were eventually dismissed, Roman was convicted in Mecklenburg County General District Court of impersonating an officer. Judge Robert T. Vaughan gave him a six-month suspended jail sentence and ordered him to pay a fine of $500 plus court costs.
Britton resigned because of the case and Audrey was suspended. However, Audry has asked to be reinstated to her position at the jail.
Vaughan had some harsh words for Roman at the time, saying he believed the reporter knew he had improperly impersonated an officer.
"After the hearing was over, I went over to the judge and said, 'You may not have believed me, but I believed Britton,' " Roman said.
Roman, who is still with the newspaper, makes no bones about his having made a mistake, however: "Oh, I concede that I made a mistake, and I definitely learned a lesson: to question authority. I certainly feel like I've made a mistake, but I feel like I've paid for it, too."
Potomac News publisher Paul Muse said Roman, who earns $320 a week as a News staff writer, is an aggressive reporter who has used unorthodox means to get a story before.
In April 1982, he said, Roman posed as an arrested pot dealer to go undercover in the county jail. Another story he planned to do before the Mecklenburg incident would have returned Roman to the jail posed as a guard.
The newspaper did not support Roman in his defense of the Mecklenburg story, Muse said, because it did not concern a First Amendment or press rights issue and because "We couldn't say, 'No, he didn't do it.' " The publisher said Roman had "erred in judgment" and should have followed prison procedure in arranging for the interview.
Roman argued that had he asked LeVasseur ahead of time for an interview, the inmate would not have agreed. Roman also said his supervisors at the newspaper gave him "conflicting signals" as to whether he would be supported if he decided to write the story after having obtained the interview.
"I was told by prosecuting attorneys that if I didn't write the story, nothing would happen," Roman said. He said the newspaper was aware of how he got the information, and wanted him to go ahead and write the story.
"To give Muse credit, he said up front he couldn't support me," Roman said. "But at the same time, managing editor Mike Pomper said, 'I can't believe we can't support you. We've always supported everybody.' "
Pomper disagrees, however. "I never said that," he said. "It's not true . . . . You don't make blanket statements like that. I indicated that the paper might support Roman , but I was wrong."
Roman said, however, he should have realized Muse, as publisher, would have the last word.
"We don't think Roman went down there with any improper intent," Muse said. "But the professional way of doing things nowadays is once you get the information from your source, you pursue a story independently and you do not carry the source the sheriff's department in this case along."
The publisher says the newspaper had received a "smattering of response" on the incident: about six letters to the editor, all suggesting the paper should have supported Roman. Muse said two other staff reporters have started a campaign to help Roman pay his legal bills.
Roman said citizens have so far contributed about $1,000 toward his total legal bill of about $2,500. But out of one problem involving ethics came another ethical dilemma for Roman. He noted local businessmen contributed to his defense fund, as have some members of the Manassas Park City Council.
"How could I not feel indebted to them ? That I owe something to these people who have spent their money to help me. That's the whole tragedy of the paper not supporting me," he said.
Roman said that, while he would not receive any money if he decides to appear on "Lie Detector," he would get two free trips to California where his two children live and where he tried to find a reporting job before he started working in Prince William County.
Roman, a Southern Californian, was primarily a freelance writer until 1978, shortly after he teamed up with another freelancer to write a story in Penthouse magazine about alleged links between the CIA and Copley News Service. He first tried to land a job on a big city daily newspaper, he said, but was told to lower his sights.
So, in 1978, he ended up as a sportswriter at the Manassas Journal Messenger, the Potomac News' county rival. Eventually, he became a reporter there until 1980, when he was lured away by the News.
Roman believes his three years at the Potomac News is long enough. "It was time to leave, before this happened," he said, adding he will start looking for a new job later this month.
"That's what I'm worried about. I don't know how other papers will see this," said Roman, who maintained he is pleased his codefendants were exonerated. "If nothing else, it shows I'm aggressive, I go after stories."