With little evidence and apparently relying on recent on-air speculation by a radio talk show and a pair of websites, two Maine advocacy groups for the prevention of suicide and sexual assault are attempting to connect a television weatherman’s suicide to an active sexual assault investigation.
The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Maine’s National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a joint public statement on Tuesday that said the WCSH-TV meteorologist, Tom Johnston, was “being investigated for a reported sexual assault.”
But the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, which is handling the sexual assault case, won’t confirm Johnston was a suspect and says it is still investigating.
“We have to make sure in any type of case that we’re getting factual information from our suspects and victims as well,” Oxford County Sheriff Wayne J. Gallant said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the advocacy groups said they based their statement on “information reported in the media” and gave conflicting accounts of whether they were in contact with the victim. The groups said they wanted to explain the possible repercussions of such a link and offer support for those affected by the issues.
“When the victim of the suicide is being investigated for a reported sexual assault, it greatly complicates the reactions of those whose lives are impacted by his passing,” Greg Marley, clinical director of NAMI Maine, said in the joint statement. “This is especially true for the death of a celebrity or other well-known person. Suicide is often a preventable loss when the person at risk takes steps to access help, or if those who know them intervene to get help.”
Two Portland talk radio hosts, Matthew Gagnon and Ken Altshuler, co-hosts of WGAN Morning News, on Friday criticized the news media for not looking hard enough into why Johnston took his own life, citing an Oxford County Sheriff’s Office report that the agency later said mistakenly contained too much information.
“I think the story deserves some attention,” Gagnon said on air.
Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and an expert on media ethics, said based on the information she saw in the case, it wasn’t enough for WGAN to draw the line connecting Johnston to the alleged assault.
“That’s so dangerous. Unless you have a source saying it’s this guy, you can’t just string facts together and implicate him,” she said. “It doesn’t establish truth. It establishes speculation, and it’s dangerous to speculate on something that grave.”
According to the report from the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, a woman at Bridgton Hospital reported early on April 2 that she had been sexually assaulted at a residence in Newry. The suspect fled the scene in Newry and was identified later as a missing person, the report states.
The police report was released initially to a few media outlets but mistakenly included what the department considers too much case information, Oxford County Chief Deputy Hart L. Daley said. When the Morning Sentinel requested a copy of the report, which began circulating to other media and groups in Maine, the sheriff’s office issued a news release that did not include mention of a suspect fleeing the scene or being reported missing later. The sheriff’s office did, however, confirm the veracity of the original police report.
Daley explained the difference in the two documents by saying the revised news release is consistent with the department’s policy to remove information that “may potentially reveal the identity of a suspect, or lead to mere speculation, since we do not routinely release information that would positively identify a suspect before we determine whether or not they are the actual perpetrator.” The original police report that was released should not have included mention of a suspect, he said.
Although Gagnon and Altshuler stressed that they were not reporting facts, they drew a clear connection between that active investigation and Johnston’s suicide.
“The only missing person report from Oxford County around that time was Tom Johnston,” Altshuler said on the air. “So the speculation of course is that Tom Johnston was the perpetrator of a sexual assault on Saturday night.”
Johnston, 46, of Old Orchard Beach, was reported missing by his girlfriend April 3 after failing to return from an appearance at the Springfest event at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, which is in Oxford County. Police found his body April 6 in a remote location in Auburn, a death apparently resulting from suicide.
Johnston, who had been a meteorologist at WCSH since 2014, was a popular on-air personality who embraced the nickname “TJ Thunder.” He left behind his girlfriend and three children.
Attempts on Tuesday to reach Johnston’s girlfriend and other relatives for comment were not successful.
In an interview Friday morning after his show ended, Gagnon didn’t appear to regret what he said on the radio show. He said he and Altshuler made clear that they were not directly accusing Johnston of anything but merely raising questions.
“I think as commentators about current events it’s appropriate to talk about issues the way that our audience does,” he said. “When there are questions, it’s important for us to raise those questions.”
That on-air speculation, in turn, apparently prompted reporting by at least two other media outlets — FTVLive.com and NH1.com, both of which referenced the Oxford County police report.
Following those reports, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and NAMI Maine issued a joint public statement Tuesday to statewide news media and sexual assault support center officials, repeating the speculation that Johnston has been “linked” to a reported sexual assault. The coalition originally contacted NAMI Maine about issuing a statement, according to the spokeswomen for both groups.
The Portland Press Herald and the Morning Sentinel have been looking into the circumstances of Johnston’s death for more than a week but had yet to report on any speculation because there isn’t conclusive evidence that Johnston was a suspect in the reported assault.
The newspapers “decided to publish a story after two state organizations advocating for suicide prevention, for families of those affected by mental illness and sexual assault victims made this a matter of public concern,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor.
Cara Courchesne, communications director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in an interview Tuesday that they had heard about a possible link between Johnston and a sexual assault at least a week ago, even before WGAN speculated about it on the air. She described it as an “open secret.”
“We had seen reports and we wanted to get out in front of the issue because it’s an important issue to talk about,” Courchesne said. “It’s also an issue that has been historically not very well reported on in the past and we wanted to make sure that the media had our perspective should it get to be a larger story.”
Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, said in an interview Tuesday that the coalition against sexual assault was in touch with the woman identified as the victim, but Courchesne denied that in an interview.
Both said they released the joint statement on Tuesday in response to — and in order to get ahead of — future media coverage.
“We don’t ever want to be the reason a story breaks,” Mehnert said in an interview. “We don’t make news. That’s not what we do.”
The groups went on to say the case “is devastating and the repercussions may resonate throughout the communities impacted for some time.”
“It’s important … for victims of sexual violence to know that someone else’s violent actions or suicide is not their fault, and that help is available,” Courchesne said in the statement.
Bob Carolla, spokesman for the national NAMI organization, based in Arlington, Virginia, said via email Wednesday that the group relies “on NAMI state organizations and affiliates to report factual information. We also encourage all media to observe national ‘Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.'”
Oxford County sheriff officials refuse to identify Johnston as a suspect in the case, which they say is still being actively investigated.
Gallant, the county sheriff, said that the only person reported missing in Oxford County within the time frame of April 2 to 6 in the department’s jurisdiction was Johnston, whose last known whereabouts at the time was the Sunday River resort. Johnston was the only missing person in his hometown, Old Orchard Beach, during that period as well.
The one-page Oxford County police report states that the sexual assault was reported at 1:25 a.m. April 2 in Newry. Deputy Josh Aylward arrived at Bridgton Hospital about 2:30 a.m. and met with a woman about a possible gross sexual assault that occurred at a residence in Newry, the report states without providing any further detail.
Old Orchard Beach police requested at 1 a.m. April 3 that Oxford County do a welfare check on Johnston, asking them to look for him at the ski resort. When the TV weatherman could not be found there, Old Orchard Beach police issued a missing-person report about him. That information was added later to the Oxford County police report about the alleged sexual assault, according to Daley, the chief deputy.
Even though Johnston is the only person who could have been the “missing person” referenced in the original Oxford County police report, Gallant refused to identify Johnston as the suspect in the case, saying police still are investigating the allegation.
Old Orchard Beach police have said people notified Auburn police the night of Thursday, April 6, that they came across an unoccupied vehicle in a remote area near Lewiston Junction Road and Cascade Drive. The car turned out to be Johnston’s 2017 Subaru Forester. Auburn police officers and game wardens found Johnston’s body in a wooded area nearby.
WCSH-TV in Portland declined to comment Friday on the Oxford County police report, but General Manager Brian Cliffe said in a statement Wednesday that “we’ve had a reporter on the story but we are awaiting the results of the police investigation. We’re letting them do their jobs and until we have more information it’s premature to comment.”
Altshuler said Friday that he and Gagnon debated for a couple of days about whether to bring up the possible connection on the air. He said they wanted to be sensitive both to the assault victim and Johnston’s family.
“But the complete silence on this after his death was deafening,” he said.
Altshuler said the Oxford County sheriff’s report, coupled with the fact that Johnston was the only missing person reported, was enough to bring it up, although he acknowledged it was still “speculation.”
“I knew many in the media didn’t have enough. We were trying to do them a favor by pushing this,” he said.
In his comments on the radio, as well as on his Twitter account, Gagnon said he believed that the assault victim deserves to have the story come out.
McBride, of Poynter, said if Johnston was a suspect in a crime, it would be in the public’s interest to know. But she said police need to name him directly as a suspect or that information would need to come from other sources.
Morning Sentinel staff writer Kate McCormick and Portland Press Herald staff writer Eric Russell contributed reporting.