An interview with a rat — and other reporters' tales | News | Palo Alto Online |

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An interview with a rat — and other reporters' tales

An inside look at what Weekly reporters did to get a few of this year's stories

What does it take for journalists to get the story? Sometimes a little luck; sometimes courage. Sometimes it requires extraordinary patience. But always, it takes passion and a drive to make sure our readers get the full story. Here are a few of their tales.

My interview with a giant rat

Sue Dremann

I've had many encounters while covering plane crashes, murders, trials and fires during nearly 20 years of reporting. But a humongous rat promising a scoop? I definitely did not see that coming.

In June 2018, 35-year-old San Francisco computer programmer Ross Colby was convicted of the September 2015 hack of Palo Alto Online and its sister websites.

But after the trial, prosecutors informed Embarcadero Media, the Weekly's parent company, that Colby had implicated another person in the crime — a convicted felon and former Menlo Park resident who allegedly wanted Colby to remove two stories written about him from The Almanac website. The jury never heard that information because FBI investigators were unable to corroborate his claim. Colby also told outlandish stories about the man, including that the person shot an AK-47 over Colby's head. Colby and his friends were terrified, he later told me during a jail interview.

On Oct. 31, 2018, I received an email with the benign subject line: "Ross Colby."

Hi Sue,

If you would like to get some dots connected about this story, please meet me to talk off record. No phone or recording, just yourself and a notepad. I'll recognize you. Go to the San Jose Doubletree on Saturday 11/3 at 3 p.m. sharp, and hang around inside the lobby in sight of the main entrance. I'll be there with info.

Hmm. The email was not signed and the address was not traceable. Going to a meeting alone and standing in sight of the lobby's main entrance seemed risky considering some of Colby's claims. Still, I wanted to know more.

I arrived at the DoubleTree at the appointed hour. People in elaborate costumes roamed the halls: deer with giant antlers, bears, foxes, wolves, cats, a raccoon. A belated Halloween party? Maybe, I thought.

Peter Beller, Embarcadero Media's more-than-6-foot-tall chief financial officer, arrived to keep a discreet eye on me when I met with the informant. We sat at a cafe table adjacent to the lobby. I sipped my coffee and nervously checked the time on my smartphone. I glanced toward the glass double doors. The minutes were drawing near for the encounter.

More animals paraded past. Then seemingly coming from nowhere, a man in a giant rodent costume, greater than 6 feet tall, approached. The rat sported a gnawed ear and a punk mohawk.

"Are you Sue?" he asked.

It took about 30 seconds to register; I was laughing.

Peter looked confused.

"This is our contact," I said.

"Deep Rat," as we came to call him, took us to a quiet nook on the second floor. The rat trap attached to his long tail bumped along the stairs.

"What's with all of the animals?" I asked.

A Furries convention, a group of fans of media featuring anthropomorphic animals, he said.

"This is perfect," I thought, admiring the genius of his disguise.

Deep Rat rubbed his whiskers pensively as we asked questions. He seemed youngish; he was intelligent and creative; he had an obvious sense of humor. We talked for a long time; he was a friend of Colby and wanted to make sure I had certain information.

Privately, I wondered how he could stand being in that costume. There wasn't much ventilation except around his eyes. I pictured him returning to his hotel room and peeling off that hot rat suit, drenched in sweat. Would he be relieved?

Deep Rat finally took his leave. We watched silently until he disappeared. Peter was the first to speak.

"You know, that was pretty brilliant," he said.

As for the promised scoop, the rat didn't provide information that I hadn't already unearthed. On June 12, 2019, a federal judge sentenced Colby to time served for the two felonies and three misdemeanors.

A moment with Rowena Chiu

Elena Kadvany

I read Rowena Chiu's powerful New York Times op-ed, "Harvey Weinstein Told Me He Liked Chinese Girls," immediately the day it came out in October. As a reporter who has covered sexual violence extensively, from the Brock Turner case to sexual misconduct in Palo Alto schools, I'm drawn to any and all #MeToo stories. Chiu was the latest woman to accuse Hollywood producer Weinstein of sexual assault. She said that he attempted to rape her in a hotel room in Venice while she was working as his assistant in 1998. She was 24 years old.

A particular paragraph in her piece caught my eye: "Then, in September 2018, I watched another woman, Christine Blasey Ford, speak up about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Coincidentally, only a few minutes from my house she was living the very existence I'd feared — getting death threats and leaving her home to take refuge in hotel rooms."

I knew Blasey Ford, of course, lived in Palo Alto. Did that mean Chiu was also a Palo Alto resident and thus there was a local significance to this high-profile national story? After some quick Googling indicated she did live in this area, I sent a text to a well-connected Palo Alto parent I thought might know Chiu. The parent did and connected me with Chiu, a Palo Alto resident.

Given it took Chiu two decades to share what happened to her — not only publicly, but with her husband and loved ones — I wasn't sure what kind of interview subject she would be. I found her to be an earnest, thoughtful, willing participant who had given much consideration (probably more than I can ever imagine) to talking about this publicly. She seriously considered the ramifications for her young children and how she would explain to them what had happened to her. Her youngest, a 2-year-old boy, crawled into her lap as she recounted to me how she decided to go public after years of fear, silence and emotional trauma.

"There's a public duty, a civic good in speaking out," she said she had ultimately realized. It was also important to her to speak out as an Asian woman, a culture in which talking about sexual violence is still taboo for many, she said.

Two things about Chiu's story really stuck with me. One was coincidental: the fact that she was the third Palo Alto woman to be vaulted to the national front of the #MeToo movement. In addition to Ford, there's Chanel Miller, the Palo Alto native and Gunn High School graduate who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner at Stanford University.

The second thing was something Chiu said after appearing on our webcast, "Behind the Headlines." It was so compelling I asked our staff to make sure it made it into the full video that we later posted online.

"In speaking out, people talk a lot about your courage and your bravery, but the people who haven't yet spoken out are listening. It makes them think, 'Have I not been brave? Have I not been courageous because I've been silent?'" she said. "Everybody processes things differently. They in their own way have been brave and courageous because they're still on earth and they've had something super traumatic happen to them and they've had to process it in their own way. One shouldn't diminish the people that are silent by giving the people that are speaking out too much accolade."

She articulated the complexity of the assault survivor's decision to speak up in a way I hadn't heard before. It also made me think more deeply about my role as a journalist in telling these stories.

The waiting game

Gennady Sheyner

When news breaks at odd hours, reporters in newsrooms that aren't staffed 24/7 often have to rely on news releases and follow-up interviews to get the story. And that's what I figured would happen on Friday, Aug. 2, after an armed 29-year-old man named Adam Smith allegedly tried to strangle his girlfriend and — once she escaped through a bathroom window — holed himself up in a house in the Charleston Meadow neighborhood. The standoff extended throughout the day, into the night and into Saturday morning.

I was the reporter responsible for keeping tabs on breaking news on Saturday, so I arrived at the scene around 9 a.m. When I drove up, most of the roads in and out of the area were closed, so I walked around the neighborhood looking for a suitable observation point. Along the way, I chatted with a few police officers and paramedics in hopes of getting some basic information. But while everyone was courteous, it was clear they were not authorized to talk to the press.

I then drove to the neighborhood behind the crime scene, parked and walked over to where most of the police officers appeared to be heading. I spoke to several neighbors. One told me that Smith had fired a gun in the middle of the night to disable a robot that was sent inside the house. Another resident, whose backyard connects with the backyard of the house where Smith was holed up, told me that the police had commandeered his home and told him to leave. He was bicycling back to the house to see if he could get his clean laundry.

Continuing on, I saw SWAT team members positioning themselves on the roof and crisis negotiators with bullhorns repeatedly telling Smith to get out of the house while canine units stood by and a drone hovered overhead. It was a major law enforcement operation. After hours of fruitless coaxing, officers began discharging tear gas, which filled the block and irritated the eyes of passing pedestrians. Fifteen minutes after the gas canisters were fired, I heard a commotion as Smith walked out of the house and into the backyard and an officer fired a "non-lethal" shot into his stomach.

Police then apprehended Smith, who was sweaty, puffy-eyed and seemingly exhausted, and led him into an awaiting police SUV.

Twenty-nine hours after it began, the standoff was over. I went home shortly after 3 p.m. and wrote my story.

Related content:

• Weekly journalists recap the biggest news and surprising trends of the year on an episode of Behind the Headlines, now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page

Palo Alto's biggest, weirdest and wildest stories of 2019

News that made the decade: Recapping the defining moments of the 2010s

A year in Shop Talk: The openings and closings of 2019

In Memoriam: A tribute to remarkable figures of the Midpeninsula

Rising to the occasion: Photos illustrate how Palo Alto persevered in 2019

Odd stories from 2019 we wish came straight from our imaginations

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 27, 2019 at 5:20 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Excellent article about the reporting adventures of our intrepid local press. I feel very grateful to have such fine reporters here in Palo Alto. I get the Daily Express email and have SO enjoyed the reporting of each of these three.


4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 27, 2019 at 8:00 pm

^ I'll second that motion.


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