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How local journalists proved a 10-year-old’s abortion wasn’t a hoax

Many doubted the story of a young rape victim who had to cross state lines for an abortion. But journalists on the ground kept reporting.

From left, Indianapolis Star health and medicine reporter Shari Rudavsky, Executive Editor Bro Krift and general assignment reporter Rachel Fradette on July 25 in Indianapolis. (Max Gersh/Indianapolis Star)

It felt like half the country doubted the case existed. The Indianapolis Star had published a story July 1 about a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio who was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion because of new restrictions in her home state. An indignant President Biden cited the story a week later as an example of extreme abortion laws, and his political opponents pounced. They suggested it was a lie or a hoax. A national newspaper’s editorial board concluded it was “too good to confirm.” Even Ohio’s attorney general called it a “fabrication.”

Bethany Bruner paid that all little mind. Instead, she went looking.

The Columbus Dispatch public safety reporter and her colleagues spent days studying public records and calling sources, painstakingly narrowing their search for the girl’s attacker to central Ohio. Then Bruner spotted an entry on the July 13 local court docket and learned a man would be arraigned that morning for the rape of a 10-year-old. She quickly hoofed the half-mile from her office to the courthouse.

Inside the courtroom, Bruner kept glancing at the door, expecting to see another reporter enter. None did as the judge called up the case. “I guess it’s going to be me,” Bruner thought. “I guess I’m going to be the one.”

Within hours, the Dispatch and its sister paper, the Star, had locked down one of the first major stories of the post-Roe v. Wade era: Contra the talking heads, police had indeed investigated and charged an Ohio man with impregnating a 10-year-old girl, who had to cross state lines for an abortion after the Supreme Court’s ruling allowed new Ohio restrictions to take effect. Their reporting demonstrated that the girl’s horrifying situation was not as rare as many had assumed. It also showed why the public rarely hears of such abortion stories — and why they will need local journalists to inform them of the impacts of Roe’s demise.

“We weren’t thinking of it as a political football that people like to toss back and forth,” said Bro Krift, executive editor of the Star. “We were just trying to tell a story to make people understand. To report the news, to make people understand the consequences.”

Soon after the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling that overturned Roe and revoked the constitutional right to abortion, Krift directed his staff to find stories that showed the immediate impact on people in Indiana, which was considering new restrictions.

“We have to make this real,” Krift thought. “This just can’t be a number.”

Their first story — by Shari Rudavsky, a Star health reporter of 17 years, and Rachel Fradette — included an anecdote from a trusted source: Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist Caitlin Bernard said she had just performed an abortion for a 10-year-old girl who had to travel from Ohio, where a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy became law soon after the Roe decision. The girl was a few days over that limit.

Eight days after the story was published, President Biden highlighted the girl’s situation as he decried state abortion restrictions. “This isn’t some imagined horror,” he said from the White House. “Imagine being that little girl.”

His mention kicked off a frenzied reaction. Some outlets expressed skepticism of the Star’s account because it relied entirely on one doctor, Bernard, who would not share more details about the anonymous girl. “This is a very difficult story to check,” wrote The Post’s Fact Checker. Snopes.com said it had “not been able to independently corroborate the abortion claim.”

Others went much further. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said the “story was not true.” Jesse Watters devoted an entire segment to whether it was a hoax, saying his staff had found no evidence of the case’s existence. “Shame on the Indianapolis paper that ran this thing on a single source who has an obvious ax to grind,” Dave Yost, the Ohio attorney general, told USA Today. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, tweeting a skeptical article, wrote, “Another lie. Anyone surprised?”

Meanwhile, local journalists kept digging.

The weekend after Biden’s Friday speech, Star investigations editor Tim Evans started searching Ohio’s public records to see if he could find the related assault case. Evans had experience on stories like this — in 2016, he helped expose Larry Nassar’s abuse of young gymnasts — and he quickly turned up five Ohio cases involving sexual assault of children.

The Star didn’t doubt the veracity of its initial story — Bernard had spoken on the record — but it wanted to learn more. By Monday, journalists there had turned to their sister paper in Ohio, the Dispatch. Both newsrooms belong to Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, which has more than 100 daily publications, including USA Today. Gannett papers often collaborate because the news doesn’t always abide by strict geographic boundaries, said Amalie Nash, the company’s senior vice president of local news. “We’re configured that way,” she said. “It was very easy for our newsrooms who already know each other to mobilize quickly.”

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As the team dug in, it experienced firsthand the difficulty of reporting on abortion. By definition, such stories involve a medical procedure, and physicians are bound by the law to protect patient privacy. Moreover, this one involved a child victim, meaning agencies such as child services have restrictions on what they can share publicly. “It’s going to be a very sensitive case where not a lot of people are going to have access to it, including people in the police department,” Krift said.

The Star’s journalists nevertheless managed to find public documents showing that 50 reports of sex abuse involving girls under 15 had been filed to Columbus police since May 9. They didn’t find the 10-year-old victim among them, but suspected there were more out there because confidentiality restrictions keep certain complaints off public databases. After a long process of scouring files, they started to zero in on central Ohio.

That’s when Bruner was asked to start making calls.

The 32-year-old had learned to navigate court systems during a decade reporting on police and crime. She starts every day by checking the Franklin County Municipal Court docket around 7:30 a.m. “You want to talk about shoe-leather journalism,” Krift said. “That girl is hooked up, and has relationships, and knows how to work [sparse] documents to figure out things.”

Bruner tried her law enforcement contacts all over Franklin County as she searched for which agency might be investigating the rape. “And what I was getting was a lot of is, ‘It’s not us,’ ” she said. “That process of elimination, we were getting down to just a few that I hadn’t heard back from when I saw the arraignment list on Wednesday morning.”

That list was 49 pages long. About halfway down, Bruner spotted an entry for an arrestee — Gerson Fuentes, 27, of Ohio. And a charge: “Rape — under 13.”

Bruner called the court clerk, who scanned the affidavit and emailed it to her. The victim was 10. Bruner figured, this might be it.

She wasn’t entirely surprised that Ohio’s attorney general didn’t know about this investigation, knowing that Columbus has its own crime lab and doesn’t rely on the state’s. And Bruner would soon learn that even within the Columbus Police Department, many didn’t know about the investigation until the suspect’s arrest.

“From my experience, these cases, detectives like to play them very close to the vest,” Bruner said. “They want to protect these children just as much as anybody else does in terms of making sure their identity is kept private.”

“And she’s 10, you know,” Bruner added. “I think that gets lost sometimes in the shuffle, that she’s 10.”

On July 13 — the same morning the Journal published its “too good to confirm” editorial — Bruner arrived at the Franklin County courtroom a few minutes before the doors opened. The judge was running late.

She found the courtroom partially filled with attorneys, detectives and spectators for the long list of cases that day. Bruner was shocked she was the only reporter in the room. She sat through an hour of arraignments before the one that brought her there was called.

With spotty wireless service, she sent updates to her team’s group chat as she listened to Columbus police detective Jeffrey Huhn’s stunning testimony: On June 22, Franklin County Children’s Services had notified Columbus police of a pregnant 10-year-old. On June 30, the girl had a medical abortion in Indianapolis. She identified her attacker in an interview with police. Police arrested that man July 12 — the same day Yost told Gannett’s Ohio bureau, “I know the cops and prosecutors in this state” and “there is not a damn scintilla of evidence” the investigation existed.

While talking heads and politicians continued to question the case’s existence, Bruner listened as police confirmed everything. Back in the newsroom, Krift took about 30 seconds to mentally process her messages.

“Holy crap,” he thought. “She’s got it.”

The subsequent story, which Bruner wrote with the Dispatch’s Monroe Trombly and the Star’s Tony Cook, was viewed 1.5 million times within 24 hours, Nash said. It was a major scoop. But few apologies followed.

Yost said he was “grateful” to police for “getting a rapist off the street.” Watters wondered whether the girl actually needed to cross state lines for an abortion. Jordan quietly deleted his “another lie” tweet.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and The Post’s Fact Checker updated their pieces with the details of the investigation, confirming its existence.

For Krift, it was textbook local journalism. Reporters methodically tracked down the facts while tuning out the national noise. “This whole story is an example of something happening too fast in terms of reaction,” he said.

Still, he’s left with concerns. Krift worries that doctors will become more reluctant to speak to journalists in light of what happened to Bernard, the Indianapolis doctor who first brought the girl’s story to the public. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is investigating whether Bernard failed to report the abortion to state officials, as required, despite public records showing she notified relevant state agencies and her employer concluding she did not violate privacy laws. The physician has taken a legal step toward suing Rokita for defamation.

Meanwhile, the nation’s local press corps is dwindling. “People only know this happened and that this is one of the outcomes of what the Supreme Court decision was because of the reporting and the fact that someone was on the ground,” said Nash, the Gannett head of local news. But one-third of American newspapers that existed two decades ago will be out of business by 2025, one study found. Many remaining papers have a fraction of the staff they once did.

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Gannett itself has gone through cutbacks, layoffs and furloughs, including after its merger with GateHouse in 2019 and after the coronavirus pandemic began. By the end of 2021, the company employed 4,300 fewer people than a year prior, though it’s unclear how many of those were journalism jobs and how much of the reduction came from layoffs vs. attrition or other causes. Nash said staff reductions are “indicative of what’s happening in the industry as a whole,” and her company is subject to the same forces plaguing all newspapers.

The company says it remains committed to covering the aftermath of Roe’s fall. It has reporters in nearly half of the country’s statehouses, which are expected to be ground zero for many abortion policy fights in the coming months and years.

As for Bruner, she’s still on the public safety beat, writing about house fires, car crashes and homicides while keeping up with the rape case. She reported this week that Fuentes pleaded not guilty on two counts of rape — which she noted is standard practice at arraignments so defense attorneys can get more materials.

“To me, it’s just an everyday story. This is the kind of stuff I report on day in and day out,” she said. “So I was just doing my job.”

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