Toni Riley was packing up snacks for a bonfire late last month when her cell phone rang. She answered, and it was Stephen Baxter, a reporter from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, working on a story about the one-year anniversary of the slaying of 8-year-old Tannery resident Maddy Middleton, who was a family friend of Riley. At the beginning of what would be a strange series of events, Riley says she told Baxter that if Laura Jordan—Middleton’s mom—wanted to comment, she would let him know and hung up the phone.
When Baxter called back immediately after, Riley let it go to voicemail and Baxter left her a message.
“I just wanted to let you know that you’re a terrible person,” he said in the message, which Riley says left her completely shocked when she listened to it on the way to the bonfire. “You’re an awful person, and I have heard so much between last year and this year about the things that you’ve done.”
Baxter made a few accusations in his message—that Riley’s family was involved in a fight outside Middleton’s memorial, that she may have had something to do with a mismanaged fundraiser, and that she has enabled a close friend’s supposed “drinking problem”—all of which Riley denies. Riley says, for instance, that she’s sober. “How am I enabling someone if I don’t even drink?” she asks.
A recording of the voicemail, left on July 26, has made the rounds on social media, and Baxter has since resigned from the Sentinel. Though he declined to address the specifics of his accusations, he says the voicemail came out of his frustration and anger with a lack of cooperation from community members as he covered the story.
“I’m not shy to controversy and I’m always working in the public interest. I’ve been fair, accurate and professional in my reporting,” says Baxter, a five-time California Newspaper Publishers Association award-winning reporter. “I’m also human.”
The voicemail post has garnered more than 4,000 views and 100 shares on Facebook. Baxter says he had already been thinking about leaving the paper and looking for other jobs for about a year.
“In this case, Mr. Baxter himself acknowledged that it was inappropriate what he did, and we would never encourage anyone to lose their objectivity in a case,” says Santa Cruz Sentinel Editor Don Miller, who stresses that it was Baxter’s decision to step down. “I think Stephen was a good reporter here, and it was an unfortunate incident, but he chose to resign,” Miller says.
As they sat around the bonfire that night, Riley says that she played the voicemail for her friends, and everyone there was “appalled.”
“We got that there was going to be a story, and people want to know what happened. But there is a right way and a wrong way,” says Riley. “This isn’t a black-and-white issue—it’s super gray, and you have to have a bit of finesse to go into a place where something horrible happened and people are picking up the broken pieces of their life.”
In addition, says Riley, “there’s another level to this story. My father shot himself while I was at the bonfire that day.”
Baxter notes that he apologized four days later, although he says Riley didn’t feel his apology sounded sincere.
Riley and one of her friends also criticized Baxter’s reporting and the Santa Cruz Sentinel more generally, especially for how they handled the tragedy at the Tannery Arts Center.
“Santa Cruz can do better. We can do better if we demand more of the people who are serving us and giving us our news. You have to demand more of that,” says Facebook user Raggedy Andey, who posted the video and performs as a slam poet under the same name. “You aren’t allowed to create more pain in the wake of pain. We can demand better as a community, as a people, as a whole.”
Andey, who hoped to shine a more public light on what she sees as Baxter’s transgressions in the public eye, has asked us not to use her real name. Andey and Riley make numerous claims about Baxter’s reporting, including that he is loose with his facts.
In his coverage of the Middleton tragedy, Baxter did misreport the exact date of Middleton’s death, although the Sentinel article has since been corrected. In his most recent story on the series, he reported that defendant Adrian Gonzalez’s preliminary hearing will be Feb. 28, although it’s actually scheduled for Feb. 21, and that Middleton went missing July 25. She was, in fact, last seen the afternoon of July 26.
“We ran 25 stories, or something, on the murder, so, on one of them it had the day of the murder wrong then it got corrected,” Baxter says, who adds that there’s no excuse for wrong dates and that people should expect accuracy from reporters. “But is that the one thing I did? OK, I’ll take it. There are thousands of facts in there, so, if I had one date of one thing wrong, I’ll accept that.”
Now that he’s left the Sentinel, Baxter says he hopes to freelance and work on stories outside of the Santa Cruz area. He also hopes to write about his experiences as a reporter, and the “moral quandaries” reporters face, like weighing what to do with off-the-record information and the struggle of trying to write a long slate of well-rounded stories in a tight turnaround.
“The amount of work you do and the extent you go to to get interviews and get ahold of people, just to get someone on the phone or in person, all of the reporting that goes into the two or three stories that I am writing per day … It’s never enough,” Baxter says. “No matter what you do.”