Checking It Out to Avoid Hidden Surprises

Nellie Bagley reads to her son Jose Pequeno at their Tampa home. Credit: Daniel Zwerdling, NPR.

hide captionNellie Bagley (right) reads to her son Jose Pequeno at their Tampa home.

Daniel Zwerdling/NPR

One extra phone call might have made all the difference.

NPR recently ran a profile of a mother who has spent years fighting the Veteran's Administration (VA) to get equipment she needs for her son, Staff Sgt. Jose Pequeno, who lost almost half his brain in 2006 when a grenade was thrown into his Humvee in Iraq.

The piece portrayed Pequeno's mother, Nellie Bagley, as a once-meek, selfless woman who gave up everything and moved to Tampa, FL to care full-time for her son, who can't talk, walk or do anything alone.

"Doctors say he might not perceive or understand the world any more than a baby," said the story. "But Jose has surprised the doctors just by living. And Bagley has surprised just about everybody."

She also surprised NPR listeners and Daniel Zwerdling, who did the story for All Things Considered on Nov. 30.

Not five minutes after the unusually long, 13-minute piece aired, my phone rang with a tip that Bagley has not always been the hero she now seems.

What Zwerdling didn't know was that Bagley had a criminal record.

She served two years in a New Hampshire prison for "theft by deception" in 1996, according to court records. She "created an impression" that her daughter had cancer and raised $2,000 from co-workers to care for her.

Her daughter did not have cancer.

In 1989, Bagley also pleaded guilty to stealing money from a Cumberland Farms in Littleton, N.H., where she worked.

Bagley's name rang a bell because I'd read about her prison time in June on the PBS Ombudsman blog. My office verified Bagley's criminal record and within hours of the story running, NPR noted the omission online and again in the next day's edition of ATC.

There was nothing inaccurate as the story ran nor does her jail time take away from anything she's accomplished in fighting the VA. But it needed to be mentioned because anyone who later found out might feel as though NPR had tried to hide it. The reality is her criminal record was a long time ago; what she's doing now adds a redemption angle.

Zwerdling is a longtime, award-winning investigative reporter and one of the best and most admired journalists at NPR. In recent years he has filed numerous, compelling stories about the military's failure to care for soldiers who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. He recently broke some key stories about Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged Ft. Hood shooter, winning Zwerdling acclaim across the media.

And yet, much to Zwerdling's chagrin and embarrassment, he missed Bagley's crimes.

"It just makes me furious at myself that I didn't know," said Zwerdling, who joined NPR in 1980. "I interviewed so many frigging people. I've been talking to her for over a year." Among the people he interviewed was Pequeno's court-appointed guardian, who never mentioned to Zwerdling that Bagley had served time.

In this case, had Zwerdling called Pequeno's wife, Kelley, he might well have discovered Bagley's criminal record - largely because Kelley Pequeno is estranged from her mother-in-law. She also is upset that media attention has focused so much on Bagley and has ignored Pequeno's children.

Zwerdling did mention in his story that Pequeno had a wife and three children, who continue to live in New Hampshire, near Sugar Hill where he once was police chief.

But as in other media portrayals, Kelley Pequeno, who married Jose in 1997, and the kids are only briefly mentioned.

Kelley Pequeno and Bagley both filed for guardianship of Jose, but according to Kelley, her mother-in-law won. "I was ordered by a judge to go home and raise our children in a stable environment," said Kelley. She has children, 11 and 12, and Jose has another child from a previous relationship.

"Everyone is always saying, 'Oh Nellie. You are such a good mom,'" said Kelley Pequeno. "But I hope someone is looking into all the money she [Bagley] is getting. I know she's doing a good job. Yes, she did her time, but that information is still relevant because this whole thing with the Veteran's Administration is all about the money."

Other than Kelley Pequeno's concerns about her mother-in-law, there is no evidence or allegation that Bagley has misappropriated money slated for her son's care. A court-appointed guardian oversees how money is spent for Pequeno's care.

Zwerdling told me he had intended to call Kelley Pequeno but was about to go on vacation and ran out of time.

"Right when I was going to call the wife, the Hasan story came up," explained Zwerdling. "So I put the Bagley story on hold. Hasan took so long that I crashed on finishing the mother story and decided I didn't need to call the wife since I had already interviewed the court-appointed guardian. I figured he was a more neutral source. Plus, the court had decided the mother would be the better guardian."

Yes, it would have been better if Zwerdling had made that extra call. But reporters are human and even great reporters make mistakes. Zwerdling is by no means a lazy reporter.

But there are lessons to learn from this. NPR editors and Zwerdling recently sat down to dissect what happened and how it could have been avoided.

"We didn't get anything wrong in this piece. But this knowledge [of Bagley's criminal record] certainly would have added another dimension," said Steven Drummond, national editor. "Danny is a veteran investigative reporter and he uses the NPR library and the Internet aggressively to vet his stories. And we went through four or five edits on this piece and talked it over pretty thoroughly."

And yet it still happened, which speaks to how imperfect the reporting process can be.

One of the things that Zwerdling has vowed to do in the future is to interview a profile subject's antagonists, and to check court records to see if he or she has been convicted of a crime. Another step is to carefully comb through Google and the Nexis database one last time to see if anything new has popped up on the person.

When reporters make errors of this dimension, they feel awful. Zwerdling has beat himself up plenty. But it's to NPR's credit that Zwerdling and his editors analyzed the problem to try to prevent something like this from happening again.

As the old journalism saying goes: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

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