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Former Times reporter toiled to get the whole story

The first Florida journalist to go to jail for protecting a source dies Friday after suffering strokes last week.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published September 9, 2006


Timothy Roche, a dogged reporter whose jail term for protecting a source led to a change in state law and who later distinguished himself at the St. Petersburg Times and Time magazine, died Friday (Sept. 8, 2006) after suffering multiple strokes. He was 38.

Mr. Roche became ill last week while visiting friends in the Tampa Bay area. He was treated for several days at St. Joseph's Hospital before transferring to LifePath Hospice in Temple Terrace.

Mr. Roche began writing for newspapers while he was still in high school, and by 2002 he was Time's bureau chief in Atlanta, supervising a dozen other writers. He was known as a journalist's journalist - hard working, thorough and caring.

"He was our best investigative reporter," said Howard Chua-Eoan, news director at Time. "He had a way of sticking to a story almost obsessively."

Alta Chenault, Mr. Roche's mother, said he took a serious approach to life soon after entering school in Hobbs, N.M., a small town close to the Texas border.

When he was 7 or 8, he set up a pretend office in his bedroom, with a big table, a phone that didn't work and invoices and other office supplies he bought with his allowance. He wanted to be a lawyer - until an uncle told him all lawyers were crooks.

At 16, Mr. Roche began freelancing for the American in Odessa, Texas, and KOAT-Ch. 7 in Albuquerque, N.M. One big story he covered for the TV station concerned a local rancher who was starving his cattle, his mother said. Mr. Roche wasn't driving yet, so his stepfather drove him to the interview.

Despite his age, he was not afraid to talk to anyone he needed for a story.

"I remember one time I went into his room to talk to him," his mother recalled, "and he said, "Not now, mother, I'm talking to the governor.' "

After high school, Mr. Roche worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KMID-Ch. 2 in Midland, Texas, the Hollywood Sun-Tattler in South Florida and then the Stuart News.

Mr. Roche had a knack for persuading people to talk to him. He knew how to get nearly anyone, from public officials to everyday citizens suddenly thrust into the limelight, to open up.

In 1990, while working at the Stuart paper, Mr. Roche wrote stories about a 3-year-old girl named Crystal McGrath who was beaten to death. Five months before her death, state social workers opened an investigation into possible abuse, but no state worker ever saw the girl. Roche's stories cast a glaring light on the system's failures.

When the girl's mother got out of jail, she sought to regain custody of the girl's infant sister, Charlotte May Puffinberger. In a closed hearing, a judge terminated the mother's rights and allowed the infant to be adopted, then sealed the order from public view. But someone showed it to Mr. Roche, who wrote a story quoting parts of the order.

Although the infant's former foster mother and court-appointed guardian said Mr. Roche's coverage of the case may have saved Charlotte's life, prosecutors went after him. When he refused to name who gave him the sealed order, he was found in contempt of court and sentenced to jail.

After he was sentenced, fingerprinted, photographed and bailed out pending appeal, he went straight back to work.

By 1993, though, he had exhausted his appeals, and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles refused a request for clemency, so off to jail he went.

"I'm not trying to be a hero," Roche said at the time. "I was just doing my damn job."

Mr. Roche served 18 days of his 30-day sentence, which remains the longest jail term ever served by a Florida reporter protecting a source. In 1983 reporters for the Tampa Tribune and the Brooksville Sun-Journal were jailed for 90 minutes, and in 1996 a Miami Herald reporter served 14 days.

The Legislature later passed a law in Mr. Roche's honor, giving reporters some protection in such cases.

Just before he was jailed, Mr. Roche was hired by the St. Petersburg Times. He worked there from 1993 through 1998, at first covering Tarpon Springs and later the St. Petersburg police beat.

After a 1996 police shooting during a traffic stop led to widespread racial disturbances, Mr. Roche analyzed 9,000 police records and showed that police were three times as likely to stop black residents than white residents for random questioning. He also worked with another reporter to carefully reconstruct how the shooting occurred, poring over witness statements, firing an identical gun and even sitting in the car seat where the victim was killed.

His longtime fascination with a murder victim known only as "Jane Doe I-275" finally culminated in a story identifying a woman who had been missing for eight years.

Among his Times colleagues, Mr. Roche is probably best remembered for the Question. The newspaper got a tip that there was something suspicious about a fire at a luxury waterfront home in Tierra Verde owned by Rev. Henry Lyons, who was president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

Roche called the minister's wife, Deborah Lyons, who told him she started the fire accidentally when she dropped a match while lighting a cigarette.

Mr. Roche, ever a stickler for detail, asked: "What brand were you smoking?"

When Mrs. Lyons couldn't answer, Mr. Roche knew he was on to a story. Mrs. Lyons really had set the fire in a jealous rage when she learned her husband was having an affair with a staffer of the National Baptist Convention. Subsequent reporting by Mr. Roche and other Times staffers revealed that Lyons and his mistress were involved in numerous financial irregularities involving the convention.

Lyons was eventually sentenced to five years in prison for racketeering and grand theft. His mistress, Bernice Edwards, pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to report more than $500,000 in income and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. The Times' staff was selected as a finalist for investigative reporting in the Pulitzer Prize competition.

Mr. Roche sometimes butted heads with editors over how to write and pursue stories he cared about, but his dedication to getting the most accurate story was never in question.

"He would just dig, dig, dig for answers and try to do the right thing," recalled Times lifestyles editor Sherry Robinson, who was Roche's editor 10 years ago. "I think that's what you are looking for in a good reporter and a good person."

After leaving the Times, Mr. Roche became a magazine reporter known for landing major scoops. After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Mr. Roche persuaded a Colorado sheriff to let him view homemade videotapes in which the two teenage shooters described their plans and motivations. His story made the cover of Time.

After Houston's Andrea Yates drowned her five children, Mr. Roche persuaded her husband to talk for hours about their marriage, which provided early insight into her psyche.

In his last story for Time in 2002, Mr. Roche painstakingly recreated the life of John Lindh, an American arrested for fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"It showed (Lindh's) life in San Francisco and how he met up with the Muslims who converted him," Chua-Eoan said. "It was an amazing story."

Although he had become Time's southern bureau chief in Atlanta, a visit to San Francisco while researching the Lindh story persuaded him to move there and work on a book. He resigned from Time in 2002, and most recently was running a social advocacy group for people in need.

His closest companion was Jake, an Irish setter mix who traveled everywhere with his master. A friend from San Francisco will now care for Jake. Mr. Roche is survived by his mother and sister Neda Burrows, both of Hobbs; half brothers Jeff, Joe and Mark Roche, all of Florida; and half sister Lisa Roche of Florida. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts and Craig Pittman contributed to this story.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 10:25:15]


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