A nasty newspaper war -- the kind rarely seen in cutthroat metro media markets -- is raging among two small weeklies and a city-subsidized newsletter in this Campbell County, Ky., community of 6,000 people.
The dust-up involves accusations of pedophilia, secret meetings, retaliatory fire inspections, sexual harassment and gunshots.
The feud has puzzled residents of this working-class town in the shadow of Cincinnati. Even the president of the Kentucky Press Association said he has never heard of such a strange fight.
"It is really just a weird, screwy situation with those papers," Dayton Mayor Ken Rankle said.
The pugnacious River Cities Beacon, written by a Cincinnati secretary and a retired bus driver, is suing the former publishers of the town's two other news publications: the Dayton Dispatch News, a taxpayer-financed newsletter known to congratulate the high school football team after wins; and the River Cities Star, edited by the Beacon's former editor, who abruptly quit -- or was fired, depending on whom you believe -- in January.
The Beacon, a weekly paper that was distributed at local businesses, is also suing the city of Dayton, its mayor and police chief on allegations they violated its First Amendment rights because it criticized the city.
Like many community papers, the Beacon often acts as a cheerleader for the community. It documents the town's happenings and publishes a yard of the week, recipes, jokes and a puzzle. The paper says it has a circulation of 1,000.
But it also responds to criticism and perceived wrongdoing with aggressive coverage.
"People don't like us -- they either love us or hate us," said Tom McQueen, husband of Beacon publisher Valerie McQueen.
After a city council member questioned the Beacon's accuracy in a letter to the Kentucky Post, the smaller paper published a front-page headline calling her "unprofessional and irresponsible." In a news article, it accused Rankle, the mayor, of telling businesses not to advertise in the paper, which it called "a display of supreme arrogance, public corruption and anti-Americanism."
Such hyperbole has rankled some locals who view the paper's publishers as outsiders hell-bent on picking fights. The McQueens live in nearby Newport.
"People just don't want to sit around and read that," said Cindy Norman, an attendant at a local coin-operated laundry.
The McQueens say it was never their intention to pursue negative stories. They started the paper in April 2004 because they saw a void in community news coverage.
As the paper began to draw advertisers away from the city newsletter, officials began to retaliate, the McQueens said. They said city officials have refused to be interviewed and have rejected open-records requests.
In a 17-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Covington, Ky., the Beacon seeks injunctive relief prohibiting the city from blocking city services, and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also lays out a list of accusations against city officials and Ron and Carla Woods, who used to publish the city newsletter, the Dayton Dispatch News.
"I know first impression, you read this stuff and think, 'No way, I can't believe people do this crap,' " said the Beacon's attorney, Shane Sidebottom. "And they do."
City attorneys have not yet filed a response, and officials have declined to comment on the case.
The suit alleges:
* That in August 2004, Carla Woods posted messages on a Yahoo discussion board insinuating that Tom McQueen is a pedophile who makes teenagers call him "Uncle Charlie" at his skateboard shop, Urban Myths in Dayton. McQueen denies the allegations.
Sidebottom said the discussion board is managed by the city, but city officials say it is moderated by neighborhood groups. Woods did not return numerous messages from a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter seeking comment.
The skateboard shop has since closed because parents stopped letting their children go there, Sidebottom said.
* That City Attorney John Fischer and Rankle threatened businesses that distributed the Beacon. Both Fischer and Rankle declined to discuss the lawsuit's allegations, but City Councilman Dennis Ashford said some city officials told businesses they would stop patronizing them as individuals.
"That is my right as a consumer," Ashford said. "That has nothing to do with city business."
* That city officials held an illegal meeting to plot ways to shut down the paper. Sidebottom said that because a quorum of the six-member council was present, it qualifies as a public meeting and minutes should have been recorded.
But Ashford described the meeting as a community-led forum about the Beacon that three council members and the mayor happened to attend. He said the discussion attracted more than 50 people.
* That the day after the meeting, fire inspectors searched all of McQueen's properties. One firefighter allegedly said he had been told to cite him for anything he could, the suit states.
"If there was any fire inspections the following day, it was strictly coincidental," said Ashford, who also sits on the fire department's board.
In addition to facing conflict from the outside, the Beacon has dealt with problems from within.
In January, editor John M. Spafford -- who writes under the name Ian A. Montgomery -- left the paper. A week later, he began printing the River Cities Star with a masthead that the McQueens say is similar to the Beacon's.
That prompted a lawsuit in Campbell Circuit Court alleging trademark infringement. Valerie McQueen's attorney, Adam Bleile, said Spafford told the Beacon's advertisers that the paper had merely changed names and said that he also stole advertisers and computer files.
A judge ordered Spafford to temporarily stop printing in February. The McQueens also have temporarily ceased publication because of health problems, they said. Rankle said that the Woodses are no longer publishing the newsletter, and that another couple started printing it under a different name, the Dayton Community News.
In a lengthy response to McQueen's lawsuit, Spafford wrote in court documents that he was fired because he refused to have sex with Valerie and Tom McQueen.
"He is grasping at straws," Bleile said in refuting the allegation. "He is alleging everything he possibly can, even if it contradicts itself."
Spafford, who lives in Indiana and commutes to Dayton, could not be reached to comment.
The small-town newspaper war is unusual, said David T. Thompson, president of the Kentucky Press Association.
Not only is it strange to see so many news publications, including one receiving government subsidies, but the extent of the allegations is bizarre, he said.
"I have never heard of anything like this," Thompson said. "There have been people upset with their local newspaper, and they cancel their subscription. Or they start a little campaign asking businessmen not to advertise because they don't like the newspaper reporting on some of the city business. But nothing going this far."