For more than 20 years, WIVB viewers have seen reporter Al Vaughters investigate consumer complaints about fraudulent practices across Western New York.
That's what he was trying to do several weeks ago when he interviewed a home improvement contractor who had previous problems not living up to promises he made to customers and now was being accused of scamming a customer out of $3,500.
Vaughters interviewed the man, who asked him not to air the story and to give him two weeks to make good on his deals. Vaughters refused.
After the story ran, Vaughters received an alarming call: The contractor had committed suicide.
“That was devastating news,” Vaughters explained softly, the pain in his voice and eyes apparent. “Because it was against everything I do these stories for. I do these stories to help people. I don't do the stories to hurt anybody.”
Suicides following the airing or publication of a story in the media are rare, but not unheard of. Joel Rose, a Cleveland TV personality killed himself in 2000 after seeing a front-page story in The Plain Dealer that said he was under investigation for mailing packages containing underwear and pornography to more than a dozen women. In 2012, a woman who had been featured in a Tampa Bay Times story on a rare sexual disorder committed suicide.
In those cases, as in this one, the victim's surviving family members have blamed the media for pushing the person into the suicide, which in turn leads to widespread media attention of the death. But mental health experts say the majority of suicides are not caused by a single incident, but rather as a result of a mental illness or a substance abuse problem.
For his part, Vaughters said he wouldn't do anything differently.
“I didn't know the guy was unstable,” said Vaughters. “I knew he had his issues. This has never happened to me before. And believe me, I've been in tougher situations with people who have done a lot worse and did not have that kind of outcome.”
'He was defeated'
Vaughters had done a story on the same man five years earlier for keeping the money for items he sold in an auction business in a case that eventually resulted in a five-year prison sentence. So he remembered the man's name when he received complaints from people claiming to be ripped off. He interviewed two customers who couldn't find the contractor after he stopped working on their projects.
In the story that aired, the man said he would pay customers back in two weeks if the story didn't air. Vaughters wasn't buying it.
“It is going to be on the news,” Vaughters said. “Because what you have done to these folks is really unforgivable.”
Vaughters later learned the man killed himself after the interview, but before the story had aired. The night before the suicide was confirmed by police, Vaughters had trouble sleeping. He didn't tell his wife Michele – a former reporter and the mother of their two children – until the next day. By that time, some people claiming to be relatives of the man had contacted the station.
“We sat and talked for a very long time,” Vaughters said. “My wife has done her best to try to keep me from feeling guilty or responsible. When something like that happens, you feel some sense of responsibility.”
The man's family members believe Vaughters should feel responsible. They said he attacked and bullied the contractor into talking when he should have been able to see, as they had, that the man was troubled.
“There was a point he just should have been professional enough to turn around and walk away,” the man's brother said of Vaughters. “My brother was done. He had given up. I could tell in his voice he had enough. He was defeated.”
The Buffalo News is not naming the man because it generally does not name suicide victims.
His family said he was bipolar and on medication since he came out of prison about a year ago.
Asked whether the contractor's mental state was deteriorating, his brother said: “I think it started to get to him. He violated his parole and he knew he was going to go back. He wasn't supposed to go in business with roofing again. It would have been a long time. It would have been his fourth time.”
“To be honest, he probably did rip those people off. His whole life was like that. But he's my brother. No matter what he's done, he is still our brother. Even though we were against what he's done, he's still our brother.”
The wife of the man who committed suicide defended her husband's claims that a bad back and his wife's surgery were reasons the roofing work wasn't completed.
“There is one thing I would like to say,” the wife wrote in the email. “(He) did not tell that woman 'excuses.' He really did hurt his back, and I really did have surgery – investigate those truths. He also was paying her back. After the first occurrence of him being in jail, he tried so hard to get his life back together. This is the saddest thing that has ever happened. Al Vaughters attacking him the way he did, must have made him so scared and afraid. Afraid that he was going to let his family down and afraid that this woman would take him back to court. He begged for a few more weeks!!! And Al turned on him. It's disgusting!! News people really should take a step back and realize how your cut-throat ambush style of reporting hurts others.”
Jessica Pirro, the chief executive officer of Crisis Services, did not know of this case until she was told about it, but she said people who commit suicide often are dealing with underlying health or mental health issues or other stress in their lives that are risk factors.
“The choice to die by suicide for a lot of people is just to stop the pain they are suffering from,” she said. “A lot of people don't want to die; they just want the pain to stop.”
Although she was not familiar with this case, she theorized that a person who feels like there is no way to get out from under the problems he had created might come to believe that suicide is the answer so their surviving loved ones will not have deal with the ramifications of the behavior.
Pirro also said there is no way to tie this suicide directly to an interview.
“The reality is this person was in a struggling and challenging situation and usually people think of suicide a few times before they decide to actually act. So it is not like they put the thought of this in their heads or anything like that. We're always looking for answers after a suicide. What could have changed it? Was the stress of this interview kind of added to maybe an already stressful situation for this person? But we can't … make that direct correlation.”
A tragic outcome
Vaughters, 64, a 6-foot 3-inch, 260-pound former football player at Ball State University, is known for a reassuring broadcasting style. He called the man's suicide the most disturbing thing to happen in his almost 40-year broadcasting career. Before this, the worst professional day in his life came in Chicago when he had to cover the accidental deaths of two people in separate accidents, including a 9-year-old girl who ran in front of a city bus.
After stints in Fort Wayne, Ind., Dayton, Providence and the country's third largest market, Chicago, Vaughters arrived at WIVB-TV in Buffalo in 1994. He didn't expect it would be his final career stop but stayed for the same reason many in broadcasting do.
“Buffalo is a great family town for raising your kids,” the father of two said.
His Channel 4 career changed in the late 1990s when he noticed that the station's building had an area where volunteers were taking phone calls. He was told they help consumers.
At the time, Channel 4's owner, King World, wasn't interested in doing news stories that could trouble advertisers. It changed in the late 1990s when LIN TV took over and research showed consumer stories ranked high with viewers.
Vaughters now estimates that he devotes 70 percent of his time to Call 4 Action stories. The goals are simple.
“When bad things are happening to you, we show how to deal with them and how to take remedial action to get things done,” explained Vaughters. “A lot of times when someone is an untenable position, people say, 'I will help.' We also show how to avoid getting into a particular situation. We also show the consumer isn't always right.”
His stories often lead to positive conclusions. The story with the greatest impact came in 1999 when a woman, Rosa Gibson, noticed that the Family Dollar stores on the East Side wouldn't accept personal checks from customers but other Family Dollar stores would accept them in other city areas and the suburbs.
“I said, 'This is 1999, I can't believe this is happening,' ” recalled Vaughters.
He confirmed it was happening here and in other Family Dollar stores around the country. Family Dollar changed its policy.
The Call 4 Action success stories encourage Vaughters even as he continues to struggle over the tragic one a few weeks ago.
“A guy that I met, a human being – I don't know what else he has done for this world, for this earth – killed himself,” said Vaughters. “I am one of the last people on earth that he saw and talked to. So that's why I am not over it. I don't have a crystal ball, but this is going to be with me for a very long time.”