Part 1: Dark cloud over Block Island Residents grapple with rumors that town official is suspect in rape
Oct. 13, 1996
It's gossip, but it's all they've got.
"I'm just guessing now . . . "
"This is what I've heard . . . "
". . . but it may not be true."
These are the sounds of Block Island - a 10-square-mile outpost of beaches, bluffs, ponds and fields - as it teeters on the edge of autumn.
By now, Columbus Day weekend, the roads are reclaimed from the mopeds, hotels and shops are ready to call it a season. And though the leaves haven't turned, a cold wind is urging the island into hibernation.
Despite all this winding down, the island's 700 or so residents are obsessed with a question: Did a politician and two of his buddies rape a 21-year-old waitress last Sunday?
Islanders are chilled to think that men they've lived among for years - including such a prominent man - may be rapists. Everyone is restless for official information but has no idea when it will come.
Local police called the state police for help investigating the case to avoid the appearance of a coverup. State police detectives have interviewed the victim and other residents, but as of late yesterday, had made no arrests. They are mum about the case, leaving the island awash in rumors.
The politician declined to comment last week on the advice of his lawyers.
Instinctively, people turn to one another for stories, shreds of stories. They mine old anecdotes for clues to the rumored suspects' character and piece together the latest details, however unreliable, to figure out what happened.
"There's a lot of things that go around," says Gail Nivers, 54, "but you have to kind of keep quiet, because half the time, it's not true. People babble on, and this one misses it and adds a little more . . ."
"Unfortunately," says Todd Corayer, 30, "in a small community like this, everybody knows everything, whether they really know it or not."
THE RAPE ALLEGEDLY occurred in a bar on Corn Neck Road with the innocent name Yellow Kittens.
According to one woman in her 50s, the Kittens, as it is known, attracts "the younger set." Its music, she says, can be heard "across the pond."
On Saturday night, Oct. 5, the bar was reportedly thick with guests of hotel wedding receptions who were looking to continue the revelry.
The crime is said to have happened at 1 a.m. on Sunday.
The woman went home from the bar, called the police and was flown to Westerly Hospital, where she was evaluated and released. The next day, the bar was briefly closed. Suspects were questioned. And the case was turned over to the state police.
On Wednesday, Channel 10, citing unnamed sources, said the politician is a suspect in the crime.
It was an unusual move. Typically, news organizations refrain from identifying criminal suspects until they are arrested and charged with a crime. (Because that is the Journal-Bulletin's policy, except in extraordinary cases, the suspects are not named in this story.)
Channel 10 news director Dan Salamone said last week the station identified the politician by name because he is a well-known public official, identified by four sources close to the investigation.
THE RESTLESSNESS on the island broke out into the open Thursday at the Block Island Residents Association's annual candidates forum. The politician was slated to speak.
More than 150 people crammed into the gymnasium of the Block Island School, so many that extra folding chairs were retrieved from a nearby church, and still people had to stand.
"I'm in a state of disbelief," said Lee Cushman, 58, as islanders socialized before the forum began, talking about the Channel 10 story and watching for the politician's arrival. "We all know him. My whole family knows him. Gotta be a dream, a bad dream, a nightmare. He does all kinds of things for charity, he's a strong promoter of good things on the island. He's a leader of the community."
Todd Corayer, who'd worked with him before becoming an oyster farmer, was also incredulous that his friend is a suspect in a rape. "I've known him too long," he said. "He's too good a person."
But Cathy Payne, 44, was of a different mind.
"They're shocked?" she said. Then "they're in total denial."
Payne, a cab driver and farmer, is a personage on Block Island, known for her strong views and blunt speech. Everyone knows her and seems to view her with a mixture of affection and exasperation.
Though a child of the '60s, Payne is a traditionalist when it comes to her hometown and blames politicians for how it has changed since she was a girl. She especially dislikes the politician accused of rape. She came to the forum to make sure he was questioned about it.
But he never showed up.
Instead, he phoned in a statement, which was read aloud: "I wanted to come here tonight, but did not want to distract from the purpose of this meeting, which is important to the town."
The audience murmured and accepted it, then settled back to hear the candidates hash out the local issues: What should be done about traffic congestion? About noise? About restroom facilities for tourists? About the expanding deer herd?
It may be characteristic of Block Island politics that the forum was relatively free of hot air.
One candidate, asked what it costs to educate students compared to the state average, said simply, "I don't have a clue."
Another, asked whether a golf course should be built in town, announced, "I don't play golf."
People laughed, but Payne was not amused. She stood, arms folded over her chest, in the back of the gymnasium, or else paced restlessly through the corridors.
Finally, she couldn't take it, anymore.
"You need to listen to the people]" she called out. "The issue isn't buses and bathrooms."
"Excuse me, Cathy," said the moderator. "Please respect the people who are here."
"I saw it on Channel 10 News] Twice]"
"We're here," said a Town Councilwoman. "We're your town leaders and we're addressing the issues.
"The real issue is" - and she named the politician. "Everybody is in denial]"
When she refused to stop shouting, someone ran to call 911, but by then, the forum was pretty much over, so everybody went home.
BLOCK ISLAND IS such a small, cohesive place, residents refer to the rest of Rhode Island as "America." They call their police chief Billy. And they give out their phone numbers using only the last four digits.
For many on the mainland, the island represents an escape. But for all but the wealthy residents, life there is work; it is the rare islander who has only one job.
One person drives a taxi, paints houses and puts in a few hours at the airport desk. Another owns a print shop, drives a schoolbus and leads island tours.
Because residents ply so many trades, they share that bond known by people who work alongside one another - something that explains why a crime like rape cuts so deeply. It's easy to find people who've worked with either the suspects or the victim.
She is a summer resident, who also worked two jobs - one at Yellow Kittens and the other next-door at Capizzano's, a pizza parlor.
People describe her as a hard worker, someone very level-headed and responsible, and also "sweet." Once, when a local man complimented her on her nice legs, she reportedly blushed so deeply that he apologized.
"We'd just like her to know how badly we feel for her," said a waitress who asked only to be identified as Skippy. "We don't want her to stand with her face to the wall. She's done nothing wrong."
THE BLOCK ISLAND Times came out on Friday.
"Although police have not identified the suspects or the location," the lead story on the front page said, "Channel 10-WJAR, an NBC affiliate, reported the widely held rumor that one of the suspects is . . . "
And it named the politician.
Peter Wood, the paper's 65-year-old publisher and editor, said he and managing editor Katie Mulvaney, who wrote the story, had no choice but to name him.
"We thought it would be journalistically wrong not to," said Wood, interviewed on Friday afternoon in his late 19th-century home on Old Mill Road, with its views of the ocean to the west.
The biggest factor in their thinking, they said, was "the smallness of Block Island," the fact that everyone in town has heard that the politician is somehow involved.
"It would've been very peculiar," said Wood, "given what's known out here, not to implicate him."
The Times has supported the man strongly in its editorial columns, he said, so "not to use the name in the story would've appeared to some or to many as a cover-up."
Earlier in the week, Mulvaney called the Reporters' Committee, a Washington D.C. organization that offers legal advice to the press. She described her situation - what she had and didn't have - and was advised that being first with the story could open the paper up to a libel suit.
But then Channel 10 aired its report and paved the way.
If the TV station had not named the man first, Wood said, the Times would not have done so. Why hurry, he said, since the paper has no competition, and thus "no strong drive to beat out some rival."
Wood understands the ethics behind not using a name - that the named person might not be charged at all, or that "you could be doing damage to this person, that, if you didn't use his name, wouldn't otherwise occur."
But this is Block Island.
"I mean, the damage has been done."