Newspaper publisher Larry Dobson crawled through brush last month to get three photos of Dodge County officials investigating the drowning death of a 7-year-old boy, but his newspaper never published the photos.
Instead, Dobson, 75, has been thrust into a First Amendment controversy after the Sheriff's Office confiscated the memory card from his camera and held onto it for more than a week while Dobson's actions were scrutinized for possible criminal violations.
The resulting brouhaha has become big news in farm communities west of Rochester, where the publisher of three weeklies and the sheriff have been trading barbs over whose rights may have been trampled in the wake of a small-town tragedy.
In an editorial published July 25, Dobson blasted Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose for "spreading lies" about him and prompting social media attacks aimed at destroying his reputation. "I did nothing wrong, but the sheriff sure did," Dobson wrote, noting in the headline that the sheriff must learn that "like us, he has to obey the law."
In response, the sheriff posted a lengthy rebuttal on the agency's Facebook page last week. While announcing that his office would not pursue criminal charges against Dobson, the sheriff maintained that the journalist intruded on a potential crime scene, which was "upsetting to those conducting the highly stressful work of recovering a deceased child, near the child's family members, while knowing they are being photographed."
Rose said the issue was simple: "If you stay out of a law enforcement-controlled scene, you will have no issues. If you attempt or do enter a controlled scene to get a better photo to help increase your circulation, expect there to be consequences."
On Saturday, Rose declined an interview request through a spokesperson.
The dispute started in the early evening hours of July 17, when one of Dobson's reporters called him while he was gardening at home to alert him to a possible story developing at Naylor's Pond in Claremont Township. The reporter didn't know why police were converging on the scene, but Dobson suspected it was to investigate a possible drowning.
When he got to the pond, he found the east entrance closed and clogged with emergency vehicles. So he decided to try the west entrance. He walked a mile back through the woods, crawling at times through heavy brush, and emerged back on the scene, where he snapped three quick photographs. He said he then walked into a crowd of first-responders, where officials told him they were about to hold a news conference to announce they had found the body of a 7-year-old boy in the pond.
The boy was later identified as Gabriel Kuhlman.
In his Facebook post, the sheriff accused Dobson of "hiding in the brush," taking photos without anyone else's knowledge during a critical point in the investigation. Rose said one of his investigators noticed Dobson in the trees with a camera and confronted him.
"I was doing my job as a journalist," said Dobson, who started out as a freelancer in the 1970s. "I was not sneaking around. I did not try to hide at all."
Dobson said he cooperated when county officials asked him to leave the scene, but he balked when they asked for his camera. Instead, he offered them his memory chip, figuring he would get it back promptly once officials realized his photos contained no grisly images.
"I lost a 2-year-old brother when I was 5. I have a daughter who was injured in an auto accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. I know from personal experience what something like this does to a family," Dobson said. "There is no way I would have taken pictures of a body or done anything like Scott is trying to infer."
In his statement, Rose said he wanted to review the photos to see if they were "inappropriate" or contained evidence of criminal behavior. He said he obtained a search warrant signed by a judge to review the contents of the memory card, which contained more than 8,000 photo files, largely of Dobson's family.
Rose said the photos show that Dobson was "knowingly in a controlled scene, but he said he elected not to pursue criminal charges because Dobson "has been very supportive of our office and local law enforcement" and he hopes their relationship "can continue to grow."
Minneapolis attorney Mark Anfinson, who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the sheriff's conduct is troubling because he obtained a search warrant that allowed him to review thousands of photographs that had nothing to do with the drowning investigation.
"I don't place too much blame on the sheriff's deputies for what they did initially," Anfinson said. "It was a perfectly understandable overreaction from people in a difficult emotional position. But I am troubled by the refusal to return the data card promptly. I personally think there was a pretty serious violation of the First Amendment that occurred, based on what we know today."