Stories

My Weird, Ethically Murky Adventure With Louie the Clown

By Whitney Pipkin August 11th, 2016

I was an intern at The Wichita Eagle when Louie the Clown went missing.

The life-sized wooden doll, which earned its fame as an automated Wulitzer piano player at the now-defunct amusement park Joyland, was a mainstay of growing up in Wichita, Kansas. With a mirror in front of his swaying head so visitors could view his painted, grinning face, Louie the Clown both haunted and amused nearly every schoolchild that visited the park—and there were a lot, since Joyland was a popular destination for field trips and summer vacations.

His mysterious disappearance in 2008, just as the park was beginning to crumble under new ownership, made great writing fodder for my summer internship at the city newspaper, and readers devoured every story we wrote on the subject.

But I never thought that Louie would come back to haunt me.

A call to testify

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the Kansas District Attorney’s Office asking if I’d testify in a trial. Louie the Clown, I was told, was found last year in the home of someone I’d interviewed eight years ago.

I graduated from journalism school at the University of Oklahoma. I know that newspaper-employed reporters are expected to decline such requests to testify—after all, people talk to us for a story, not to have what they say used against them in a court of law. Plus, reporters are protected by many states’ shield laws from having to testify in legal cases.

But I wasn’t sure what this meant for me as a now-freelance journalist, especially since this was not your run-of-the-mill legal case. I also had no sources to protect, since I had left Kansas—and the story—years ago. I was intrigued enough to hear them out.

Apparently, Louie the Clown had been found in the home of a man I’d interviewed for this story about his disappearance. He was a caretaker at the park who had a “passion” for the clown and said he was concerned about its disappearance. That man, I learned from reading the latest coverage of the case, was now in jail for “indecent liberties with a child and aggravated criminal sodomy,”and not eligible for parole until 2028. (Never mind that I had been in his house alone for that interview eight years ago at the ripe age of 21.)

According to recent articles in the Eagle, a local historic society had taken up the hunt for the long-gone clown, which had obtained “urban legend status.” Facebook posts—yes, people were still posting about the clown 10 years later—and tips from relatives who thought they’d seen something clown-like in the man’s house led officials there. The historic clown is valued at $10,000, the Eagle reported, and the man was charged this February with two counts of theft.

Apparently, the prospect of my testimony was enough to get the judge to rule against dismissing the case on the grounds of it being too long ago, the prosecutor told me. My testimony about what the man told me that day, particularly about the clown and whether I saw it, was key.

A unique case

I know this might all sound comical to someone who’s not from Wichita and doesn’t really get the whole clown thing. As one commenter on a Gawker article about the clown’s recovery wrote, “I am baffled by how excited Wichita locals are to find this creepy clown in the home of a sex offender.”

But, to Wichitans, the clown is an icon, a symbol of the city’s past and of the amusement park that opened in 1949. I still remember the ominous creak of its wooden, paint-chipped roller coaster, which was one of a few like it left in the nation until it was dismantled last year. Wichitans have watched the park decay for the past 15 years. Getting the clown back was a last hurrah for those memories, even if Louie is the part we only recall in our nightmares.

Still, I didn’t want nostalgia to lead me into a legal case that could in any way mar my reputation as a journalist. I called up the Eagle and was put in touch with the newspaper’s attorney.

He explained that he usually advises their reporters not to get involved. We also talked about the uniqueness of this case: I don’t still work at the paper. I don’t have any sources I’m protecting or relying on for ongoing coverage. Nothing was told to me off the record. And I don’t have a habit of writing about clowns or criminals these days.

But I still felt nervous testifying about an interaction that occurred so long ago. It had been eight years; I’d moved a half-dozen times and had a baby. Could I really rely on my brain to recall the details of that day?

What are freelancers to do?

The larger question for me to address before anything else, however, was whether testifying was ethical. What should a freelancer do when an old story comes back to haunt her—or invites her to participate in its next iteration?

I called Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies who said she’s been subpoenaed, or compelled to testify, three times about stories she’s written.

“What I generally recommend is that you look very closely at why they are asking you to testify,” she said. “Question whether there’s any other way they can establish whatever fact it is without a reporter testifying, because it is not good for reporters to be testifying in court.”

That’s true for freelancers, too. Even if a reporter’s testimony seems harmless under the circumstances, it can create an appearance that journalists are an extension of law enforcement, McBride said. That can have “a chilling effect” on other peoples’ willingness to participate in journalism stories.

“That said,” she added, “if the lawyer can make a good argument that this information can be gotten in no other way, and if the reporter did not promise any sort of confidentiality, then I think it’s part of your obligation as a citizen and a member of the community to then testify.”

McBride said journalists or their lawyers should be able to ask the prosecution or defense details about how the journalist’s testimony helps their legal case, because “you’re sacrificing the possibility that your credibility will be harmed.”

The Eagle’s attorney told me that, in this unique case, the decision of whether to participate is up to me—that no one there would look down on me for my decision. He said he’d represent me if I decided to invoke Kansas’ shield law and not be required to testify.

The thought that someone could consider questioning my journalistic ethics if I did willingly participate in this trial, though, was enough to cause me pause. I was not on trial—did I really want to enter into one for the sake of nostalgia and curiosity?

A day later, I told the attorney that I did not want to testify, and he relayed the message. He reported back the next day that the prosecution said they planned to subpoena me anyway. I’m still waiting for that to happen. I’m now sure how far the shield laws of various states might protect me from that requirement, or whether they might be bluffing.

But, just in case, don’t tell them—or the clown—where I live.

Image by YouTube
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