Paper Tiger

The 'Tombstone Tumbleweed' Is A Feisty Little Weekly That Takes On All Comers

By Leo W. Banks

LESS THAN A month after he bought the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, Bob Candland was sitting at his desk when a bolt of lightning struck outside on Toughnut Street, blowing the innards out of his computer. The former San Diego cop didn't take it as a sign from above that he should saddle up and beat it to less hostile ground. But maybe it was.

Since that hot afternoon in August 1993, Candland's aggressive coverage of local news has placed his paper at the center of a bonfire so hot it seems almost eerie in a community of only 1,350 people.

But this is Tombstone, a town that earned its permanent dot on the map because of hostilities that erupted at the OK Corral in 1881. The Earps and the Clantons are long gone, but their imitators have continued the tradition in a series of attacks on Candland and the Tumbleweed.

Feature Anonymous flyers posted around town have accused him of murder and threatened him with lynching. At one public meeting, an angry woman rose and called him "a lying coyote sonofabitch." At another, his wife, Pat Koester, a reporter for the paper, was slugged while trying to take pictures, and the couple discovered a 9 mm slug imbedded in the gate outside their home near town.

Candland's critics hold little back in blasting him, his wife and their newspaper.

"People turn green when they read the Tumbleweed and want to throw up," says Bev Black, a retired secretary. "It's a dirty rotten shame these people had to move here and start this awful fighting. We had a nice little town before that newspaper started up."

Candland says he's only reporting what's there. "When we came here we thought we'd be writing mostly about Norman Rockwell kind of stuff--high school kids getting scholarships, getting married, local sports," he says. "We had no idea the stories would be of this magnitude. But we just kept stumbling into things."

The Tumbleweed, a weekly with a press run of 2,000 copies, has covered a number of nuts and bolts issues: The town's decaying infrastructure, the fire threat, the need for a new water supply, the discovery that the security of town files was virtually nonexistent. The paper reported that pages of important town documents had been stolen, and files dating to the 1890s, stored in the leaking basement of Town Hall, had been rifled by souvenir hunters.

The Tumbleweed also has reported on more uncomfortable issues, such as a request by the Town Council that the Arizona Attorney General's office investigate an alleged relationship between the Town Clerk and a prison inmate working at Town Hall on the DUI work program. That and other matters eventually forced the clerk's resignation.

But most of the controversy has swirled around a series of stories on the Tombstone Marshal's Office. They include Marshal Bobby Gerencser's refusal to release public documents, the possible use of excessive force by deputies, the lack of a Town Council-approved manual and no central evidence log.

The paper also revealed the questionable activities and backgrounds of several deputies. Among them:

• Charles Curry, an off-duty reserve deputy, was discovered drinking beer in the walk-in cooler of the local Circle K. He resigned after the story ran.

• Deputy Danny Romero received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Navy for drug abuse and was indicted for vehicular homicide in 1987. In the second incident, an accident on State Route 186 near Willcox, a teenage girl was thrown from Romero's truck and killed. Police reports say Romero had been drinking, but refused to submit to a blood test. The charge against him was later dropped for lack of evidence.

• Dawn Stanley, another of the Marshal's hires, had been fired by Arizona Game & Fish following a series of allegations, including lying and failing to do assigned tasks, according to a nine-page termination memo prepared by the agency. The background investigation prior to her hiring was done by Danny Romero. He gave her a good recommendation.

• Deputy Will Russell was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in January 1993, before joining the Marshal's Office. Russell was pulled over near Sierra Vista after a woman spotted a passenger in Russell's jeep wearing a ski mask and screwing a black silencer onto a rifle. Cops found a loaded .357 Magnum under Russell's shirt, and two semi-automatic weapons in a briefcase.

Russell also carried a store-bought badge identifying him as an agent of U.S. Army intelligence. After the Tumbleweed published an account of the incident, Russell wrote to the paper acknowledging that he was carrying a concealed weapon, but said his "military supervisors encouraged this."

In the Army, Russell said he'd been a counter-intelligence agent investigating spies and terrorists, but he was limited in what he could say about his work. "I'm bound by law not to speak about what I did for the government," Russell wrote, adding that he was on his way to trade the weapons for scuba gear. But one investigator suspected Russell of being an illegal gun dealer. He plead guilty and was fined $240.

Two months before the Tumbleweed's stories on Russell, the paper reported on an incident in a Bisbee courtroom in which Russell's mace canister accidentally discharged. The defense attorney, in the midst of arguing his motion, suddenly began gagging an coughing. The courtroom had to be evacuated. Russell explained that he'd sprayed a dog that day and forgot to replace the safety. Russell, who is suing Candland for defamation, has resigned from the department and is taking a similar job in northern Arizona.

The Tumbleweed's reporting so angered Gerencser that last September he allegedly threatened two of the Tumbleweed's employees. The paper wrote about that, too. In the story, Jim Kidd and Pat Kelly said they were told by Gerencser that they "ask too many questions that are none of our business, and had better watch out."

But suspicions that the Marshal's Office might be badly run and possibly corrupt were not confirmed by the state Department of Public Safety. Two investigators from that agency looked at the Marshal's operation, and with the exception of some minor problems, delivered a clean bill of health.

The DPS report, issued last March, did nothing to quell the fighting, name-calling and back-stabbing.

At a raucous Town Council meeting last September, former mayoral candidate Judy Heiser read a statement denouncing the Tumbleweed and Candland. As she departed Schieffelin Hall, Heiser gave Pat Koester the finger and shoved Koester's camera against her forehead. Heiser then walked to the front of the room, hollering, "Arrest me! Arrest me!"

The Tumbleweed's headline read, "Defeated Candidate Batters Reporter. City Marshal & Deputies Do Nothing But Laugh." Koester pressed charges. More than a dozen witnesses testified that they saw clearly what happened. But three employees of the Marshal's Office, including Gerencser, said they were looking away or the view was obstructed at the time. Heiser was convicted of disorderly conduct.

OTHERS HAVE CHOSEN to fight the Tumbleweed through anonymous flyers. For almost a year, they've been turning up in the paper's vending boxes and at other locations around town, threatening consequences to any business that supports or sells the Tumbleweed, calling it "a disgrace and a blight on society."

Another flyer accused Candland of a conspiracy to get the Marshal tossed out so he can take over the job. But it claimed he backed away out of fear that the background check would reveal his allegedly dark past in San Diego.

"Candland Named in San Diego Murder Spree!" blares one flyer.

Another states: "Speaking of having to run from the past: Bob Candland, do the words, 'mouthful of rocks' mean anything to you? We haven't forgotten."

The reference is to Donna Gentile, one of a series of San Diego prostitutes found murdered in San Diego in the 1980s. Gentile's mouth had been stuffed with rocks, presumably a sign that she'd been killed to keep her quiet.

Candland, a cop at the time, was under orders from his bosses to ticket streetwalkers as part of a campaign to clean up the town. Before her death in June 1985, Gentile filed a claim against the town alleging the ticketing was harassment. Candland was one of seven cops named in her claim.

Tom Streed, head of a police task force charged with finding the prostitute killer or killers, suspected that one or more San Diego cops might be involved. But Streed was transferred back to homicide and no killer has ever been found.

Now retired from the force and a private consultant, Streed says the suggestion that Candland was involved in Gentile's murder, or any other, is preposterous. "If the cowardly piss-ants making these allegations have any evidence about an open homicide, why don't they come forward?" says Streed. "It's despicable."

Of all the mud that has been hurled at him, Candland finds the murder smear particularly painful. "It's crap," he says angrily. "What am I supposed to say, I'm not a murderer? I was a knuckle-dragging street cop trying to do a job, that's all."

Now he's a keyboard-pounding publisher watching his back. Last October, after Gerencser's reported remarks to Kidd and Kelly, Candland decided enough was enough and filed a defamation and racketeering claim against the Town of Tombstone and Gerencser asking for $10 million in damages.

The claim alleges that Gerencser is behind the rumors about Candland's past in San Diego, that he attempted to organize a boycott of the Tumbleweed, and that Gerencser and his deputies stood by and did nothing while Koester was assaulted at the Town Council meeting.

Because the town did not respond to the claim, Candland can file a lawsuit in either state or federal court. But he hasn't decided how he will proceed and refuses to discuss the matter in detail. "My lawyer and I are still investigating," he says. "It's expanding, and that's all I'm going to say right now.

"I know journalists aren't supposed to be the news, but when this stuff started escalating, I thought somebody was going to get hurt. I had to do something to try to chill things. It's settled down somewhat since then."

But you'd never know it from the Council meeting June 16. After the majority voted to place Gerencser on administrative leave and asked him to turn in his badge, the Marshal refused to budge from his seat. When his supporters realized they'd lost a round, they stormed from the building shouting, "Seig heil! Seig heil!"

Obscenities and recall petitions flew on the sidewalk outside Schieffelin Hall, even as the meeting continued inside. One Council member quit in protest over the way the Gerencser matter has been handled, and just as quickly un-resigned, and the anonymous flyers are back in circulation.

The most recent: "Listen to our warnings. Can you not hear the approaching thunder? Believe us when we tell you--no one is too tough to die." The Tumbleweed reported that a forensics expert will examine the flyers to determine the identity of the author or authors. But no source for the statement was given and Candland would not elaborate

Joel Borowiec, Gerencser's lawyer, advised him not comment for this article. The marshal has since been fired and is fighting to get his job back. But Joe Hinton, a reporter who has covered the Tombstone wars for the Sierra Vista Herald, believes Candland and Koester have been out to get Gerencser since they came to town.

"I think it's professional contempt," says Hinton. "Candland is a former cop from a big city who's breathing down the neck of a small-town marshal. If you ask me, he and his wife have a superiority complex."

What is it about Tombstone that creates such bitterness?

"There's an anger in that town that goes back to the 1880s. Just ask John Clum," says Bob Burton, a nationally-known bounty hunter and former Tombstone resident. Clum, the founding editor of the legendary Tombstone Epitaph, survived an assassination attempt as he fought battles similar to what the Tumbleweed is now engaged in. "I think Bob Candland is fair," says Burton. "He always gives people a chance to respond, including the Marshal. But Gerencser won't talk."

Robert Devere, owner of Territorial Book Traders and head of the Chamber of Commerce, is a lifelong resident who says fighting is Tombstone's favorite hobby. But he quit reading the Tumbleweed's coverage of the Marshal's Office because, in his view, the fight has become personal. "I think most people have stopped reading it. I like the sports news."

CANDLAND IS A former Navy man who did two tours in Vietnam, a high-strung 50-year-old who sprints from one conversational topic to another, only taking a breather to sip coffee from his Rush Limbaugh mug, or express amazement by exclaiming, "Holy catfish!"

He and Koester first saw Tombstone on Christmas vacation in 1988. They moved there the following year and opened a leather shop. Candland made saddles. When the Tumbleweed, which started as an insert to the Bisbee Gazette, came up for sale, he and Koester bought it.

Candland's journalism experience was limited. He'd done some writing and photography in the Navy, and during an 18-month stint at the La Jolla Light newspaper in the late '70s. Koester had worked as a training manager for a computer software company, in retail sales, as an English teacher and freelance writer.

Neither expected the buzz saw they've run into in Tombstone. "This isn't something we do for the fun of it," says Koester. "Citizens have come to us and said these are problems, and we've followed up."

"I've chased bad guys down alleys," says Candland, who has a staff of four, plus one part-time reporter, and who works seven days a week. "I thought, 'How hard could journalism be?' "

Candland brings to his newspapering a cop's eye for investigations, coupled with heavy use of tips and public documents. The combination is especially galling to a town that hasn't had a regular newspaper, with the exception of the student-run Epitaph, since 1975, and many of whose citizens view any public airing of civic issues as damaging.

"I don't consider the Tumbleweed a hometown paper because it's created so many divisions," says Bill Hunley, owner of the Bird Cage Theater. "He presents a very negative view of Tombstone and the people here. It could be more uplifting."

Bev Black charges that the problem is more basic--the Tumbleweed slants its coverage. 'If they like you, it's all hearts and flowers, and if they don't you're the devil in the deep blue sea," she says, citing the paper's coverage of the recent recall of Councilwoman Rose Iachetti. "They made her out to be an awful witch," says Black. "They don't print both sides, and that's what people get angry about."

Hinton says he'd rather not cover events in Tombstone, but he has to because his boss gets so many calls from residents asking the Herald to send a reporter who'll give the news an unbiased look.

As an example of the Tumbleweed's slant, he cites a headline in the paper's June 19 edition: "Citizens Turn out in Overwhelming Support of Mayor Harper & Council." The story reported on the June 16 council meeting at which the Mayor asked Gerencser to turn in his badge.

"Where the hell did they get that?" asked Hinton, referring to the headline. "I was at that meeting, and I'll tell you where they got it. They made it up."

Hinton cited another incident that occurred the afternoon of June 16 at the Superior Court in Bisbee. Hinton says that while he was interviewing Mayor Harper about his reasons for trying to fire Gerencser, Koester, who was sitting next to the Mayor, kept leaning over and whispering to the Mayor. Hinton claims he heard Koester say, "You don't want to be talking about that right now."

"Does that sound like an unbiased reporter to you?" asked Hinton.

Koester refused to confirm the remark. "Whatever I said to the Mayor is none of his business," she said. "Read my articles and read Joe's and decide who is accurate and balanced. This doesn't require a denial. It's ridiculous."

The polarization on Allen Street is so deep that many refused comment out of fear that it would brand them as friendly with the Tumbleweed. Most of those who did ripped the paper. One vicious sidewalk partisan referred to Candland and Koester as "Candy-ass and the pig-eyed bitch."

Another observer, carpenter Richard Meatte, says, "Candland reminds me of those company clerks you see in the military who get a little power. He's a private who thinks he's a first sergeant."

In Johnny Ringo's saloon, Ed Doherty, decked out in Stetson and spurs, reared up from his afternoon bracer and barked, "I shot a guy here a few years back and the Tumbleweed got the story all backward."

Reminded that the incident occurred shortly before Candland and Koester bought the paper, Doherty said, "Ah, that ain't the only complaint I have." But he was unable to produce any specifics.

Retired banker Bud Dingley chimed in, "Look, what else do we have to do in a little town like this, but drink our beer and talk about each other. But when we do, he puts it in the paper."

Many residents still talk about a story from last year that they believe damaged Tombstone more than any of the Tumbleweed's other reporting--the suggestion of a town councilwoman that horses traveling on town streets wear diapers. The story was picked up by the Associated Press and shipped around the world. In many minds, it made Tombstone a laughingstock.

But Herb Stanwood, general manager of Spangenberg's Gun Shop, says it isn't the Tumbleweed that drags Tombstone through the mud, it's the people running the town.

"If somebody is doing something stupid, no matter what branch of government they're in, it should be reported," says Stanwood. "Just because it goes across the country doesn't mean he should sugar it up. He's not causing controversy, he's just reporting what's going on."

That's the legacy Candland would like to take to his grave, although not for a while yet. In the meantime, he and Koester continue to poke around and publish, believing that the majority of Tombstone's residents understand the need for a strong newspaper as a window into the community.

He cites the example of an unnamed 80-year-old man who walked into the Tumbleweed's office not long ago and declared, "I know what you're trying to do with the stories you're printing. Keep it up." He turned and walked out, and made Candland's day.

"We could've closed our eyes to what was going on here," says Candland. "We could've become a pabulum press and printed rip-and-read stuff. But this is too important. We're doing what we're supposed to do. We're watching the government." TW

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