Case of the phantom protester

by David Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. Oct. 8, 2005

 The story of Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson and the anti-abortion picketer is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

On July 20, Johnson wrote "The woman from Fullerton Road in Southern California is here this week. At least I am almost certain it is her. I used to pass her every morning on my way to work, a woman who stood on a street corner outside an abortion clinic virtually in the shadows of Disneyland holding high these same pictures of aborted fetuses."

Johnson told about interviewing her in California, and said that she verbally threatened him.

He continued: "When I wrote of her then, of her threat, in my column, she hounded me for two years with similar threats. I know that was her on the 16th Street Mall. A decade of living changes facial features, but I am certain it was her. She spoke the same Jesus-loving lines. And she stared at me with the same thinly veiled malice. It was her."

A reader wrote to me (and others) to complain that Johnson had never written about the lady "then" - that is, when Johnson was a columnist for The Orange County Register.

I queried several online databases, and also spoke with the Register's archivist, who checked the paper's proprietary electronic archives. We found no record of Johnson ever writing about the woman, although the archivist explained that, very occasionally, the electronic archives fail to include something that was printed in the paper.

On Sept. 2, Johnson wrote a correction, explaining that his July 20 column had involved a Denver woman who "closely resembled a woman I had encountered some 13 years ago in California." He told readers: "I mistakenly wrote six weeks ago that I had written of that long ago episode in another newspaper. If that column does exist, I cannot find it."

Westword media critic Michael Roberts took up the matter in a Sept. 15 column ("Unknowns," The Message), pointing out that "Fullerton Road" is in La Habra, two suburbs north of Anaheim, not "in the shadows of Disneyland." According to Roberts, Johnson "was unable" to track down the clinic's location.

However, I found that Old Fullerton Road in La Habra is more commonly known as Harbor Boulevard. Harbor Boulevard runs from La Habra into Anaheim. Planned Parenthood's Anaheim clinic is about 500 feet from Harbor/Fullerton. Johnson told me that he lived in the town of Fullerton (just north of Anaheim) from 1994 to 1996. Accordingly, it is completely plausible that as he drove south from Fullerton on Harbor Boulevard, on his way further south to the Orange County Register office in Santa Ana, he would have passed the corner of Harbor Boulevard (aka Old Fullerton Road) and Lincoln, and seen the Planned Parenthood office a few hundred feet away on Lincoln.

Johnson's indefatigable reader-critic wrote me (and others) to point out that if Johnson had not written about the woman in The Orange County Register, then his 2005 claim that the woman stalked him ("When I wrote of her then") makes no sense. The reader also pointed out a June 2, 2000, column by Johnson, in which Johnson wrote about the same woman:

"Some five years ago, when on my way to work, curiosity took hold. I decided to ask a woman I passed every morning, who stood on the sidewalk outside a clinic with a sign in her hands. I simply asked if she really thought she was making a difference. She hit me with her sign."

So in the 2000 version of Johnson's story, the encounter took place in 1995.

In the 2005 version, the encounter took place in 1992.

In the 2000 version, the woman hit Johnson the instant he asked her a question.

But in the July 2005 version, " 'Jesus loves you,' she told me when I approached and asked about her dedication to the street corner and her message. She repeated this with every question I would pose. Finally, though, she'd had enough. It was, maybe, after the eighth question I asked that she softly intoned that she would 'kill' me if I didn't get away from her."

Johnson's 2000 version (that he met the lady in 1995) is much more plausible than his 2005 version (that he met the lady in 1992). In 1995, his commute took him right by the Planned Parenthood clinic. In 1992, he lived in South Central Los Angeles, and a commute from there to Santa Ana would not create an opportunity to see the clinic.

The same day Johnson published his mea culpa about the missing Orange County Register article, he slammed the allegedly callous views of three talk radio hosts about the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The hosts were "A man on the radio the other day" and "two other radio yakkers, another one in Denver and the other broadcasting on a Colorado Springs station."

There is no good reason why Johnson should not have named all three of the radio hosts so that readers could consider whether Johnson had characterized their positions accurately.

Johnson can be a compelling columnist when he writes about named people whom he has interviewed recently. Otherwise, caveat lector(let the reader beware).  

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