My best work (in progress)

 Firefighter recovery

An Upstate firefighter vacationing with his family in Florida went down in a fiery plane crash. He survived — barely — but his mother, aunt and nephew were killed on impact. I chronicled this firefighter’s long road to recovery and will to live despite tragic circumstances. The culmination of my coverage was a trip to Augusta, Ga. to capture his experience in rehab at the country’s largest burn unit. That following weekend, he was released to outpatient care. The story came full circle when he came home to his wife, children and firefighter family that had been supporting him along the way.

Long road to recovery for Upstate firefighter in plane crash

Upstate firefighter Patrick Schultz spent weeks at the nation's largest burn unit recovering from a fiery crash that killed three family members. (Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal)

Upstate firefighter Patrick Schultz spent weeks at the nation’s largest burn unit recovering from a fiery crash that killed three family members. (Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal)

AUGUSTA, Ga. — No one should have survived.

Patrick Schultz’ wife, Jessica, recently stood in a rehabilitation room explaining the horrors surrounding a fiery plane crash that killed three family members in Bay County, Fla., May 25.

“If you saw pictures you would understand why I say that. Nobody should have walked out of that,” his wife said.

What went wrong, how it happened and why he was the only one to walk away from the wreckage are no longer questions that cloud their minds.

For Schultz, it’s a matter of moving forward.

The Upstate firefighter was severely injured when a small Piper PA-28 airplane he was piloting crashed near Panama City, Fla. Among the passengers: his mother, Kathleen Schultz, aunt Nancy Moore and 13-year-old nephew Nicholas Hoang, who were all pronounced dead at the scene.

Patrick Schultz was rushed to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta, Ga. where he spent the next nine weeks being sedated, undergoing surgeries, grappling with the events that unfurled and fighting through recovery and rehabilitation.

Read the full article here.

Mental Health

This was an enterprise reporting project co-written with Herald-Journal county government reporter Felicia Kitzmiller. It all began with an anonymous call from a disgruntled mental health patient who suffers from bipolar disorder. The story exposed key problems and setbacks of the Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center, a government funded agency. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed the center’s counselors are taking on double the amount of cases than the state recommends, causing patients with mental health concerns to wait longer for adequate care. 

Looking for Help: Budget cuts, caseloads cause problems for mental health providers
(Illustration by Keith Hatchell/Herald-Journal)

(Illustration by Keith Hatchell/Herald-Journal)

Some people who need help are having more trouble getting it when it comes to mental health — and a series of setbacks for the Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center has left counselors with billowing caseloads.

A drastically cut budget paired with an influx in people seeking help has pushed the mental health center to find ways to provide adequate services for clients, while other agencies are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Most counselors at the Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center are taking on 100 to 150 clients suffering from mental health issues — almost double the state’s suggested limit for appropriate caseloads.

Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the mental health center accepted 2,348 new clients in fiscal 2014, an amount that’s nearly tripled from previous years, officials say. Meanwhile, the staff size in recent years has been considerably reduced.

The mental health center is a division of the S.C. Department of Mental Health that serves Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties.

Assistant Director Elizabeth Boaze said the division’s operating budget from the state was reduced by nearly 40 percent around 2007 after the agency had already gone into a deficit when a new facility was built in 2001 off Dewey Street in Spartanburg. In addition, health care coverage changes had made Medicaid a smaller revenue source for the agency, Boaze said.

Positions went unfilled to cut expenses, resulting in a smaller staff of clinical, medical and support personnel to handle caseloads, she said.

Read the full article here.

Living among sex offenders

This First Place award winner in the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association (2012) went deep into the Maryland Sex Offender Registry. The three-piece project analyzed how the registry is kept, how offenders are managed and the struggles residents face with living among offenders — all encapsulated by the story of a local man whose two young children were sexually assaulted by their entrusted neighbor for years.

Residents struggle with living among sex offenders
More than one-tenth of sex offenders statewide reside in Prince George’s County, Md.

Daniel J. Gross/The Gazette

The drive home from the police station after his two sons alleged that a longtime neighbor had molested them sparked many questions for a Bowie man.

How would he handle seeing the person in the community while awaiting an arrest? Would his family be safe while he was at work? How would knowing the man was not in jail yet affect his 6- and 10-year-old sons?

But one of the biggest questions remained, how could he have overlooked the signs of abuse?

“I want to say it’s shocking, but it isn’t, because I’ve always had my suspicions,” said the parent, who asked not to be named to protect the identity of his children. “When they’re trying to be your friend to get to your kids, you really feel like you’ve been used. It makes you doubt your instincts as a parent.”

For parents going through such incidents — and residents living nearby — learning there might be a pedophile in the community can raise questions of security.

According to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Prince George’s County is home to the second-highest number of sex offenders in the state, with about 800 of the state’s 8,151 offenders, which includes about 1,500 offenders who are incarcerated or currently not in the state. Baltimore city has the highest amount, with more than 1,600 offenders.

Read the full article here.

War on heroin

Another First Place winner in the MDDC Press Association (2013), this enterprise story followed a narcotics unit through a significant heroin seizure inside a motel room, peeling the layers back on the growing “war on heroin” in rural Maryland and detailing how law enforcement is grappling with the fatal, violence-laced trend.

Law enforcement shines light on drug’s spike in Frederick County, Md.

Families with young children and other guests casually walked in and out of their rooms Wednesday at the Motel 6 on West Patrick Street.


Bill Green/The Frederick News-Post

Meanwhile, a team of narcotics police officers flipped mattresses and rummaged through clothing on the motel’s third floor. Heroin suspects had been dealing out of room 331 for two weeks, police said.

Officers linked seven people to the operation. Two were found inside the room.

One man, referred to as a “middleman, street-level dealer,” was still high on heroin when handcuffed, said Officer First Class Pete Genovese, of the Frederick Police Department Drug Enforcement Unit.

About a dozen drug vials and capsules of heroin and cocaine, syringes, cotton swabs and metal spoons used in drug use were scattered about the room, but to officers, the chilling scene is not unusual.

Wednesday’s findings are becoming common in a billowing war on heroin in Frederick County, police said.

Law enforcement agencies across the county are grappling with a rise in heroin use, distribution and overdoses.

Statistics have spurred an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality to solve the problems associated with a narcotic that’s growing in popularity, law enforcement officials said.

Genovese was one of several officers leading the motel search-and-seizure Wednesday.

“This is common for us to find,” said Genovese pointing to a stash of vials, syringes and spoons coated in residue. “This type of vial, we’ve seen before. That’s typical of Baltimore.”

Read the full article here.

Price of Patrol

This in-depth, data-focused enterprise story dives into the very real cost of law enforcement vehicle fleets including purchases, upfitting and maintenance and exposes striking differences in how records are kept between various law enforcement agencies.

Millions spent on local law enforcement vehicle fleets
Sam Yu/The Frederick News-Post

Sam Yu/The Frederick News-Post

The Frederick County Sheriff Office’s mobile command bus was staged at the county fairgrounds during The Great Frederick Fair to ensure the safety of fair-goers.

Deputies used the 35-foot, customized 1989 Thomas bus as a staging area for security operations, said Capt. Troy Barrick of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.

The bus that cost more than $47,000 to purchase and maintain doesn’t get much use — it has clocked about 14,000 miles since 2004 — but it is one of the many sheriff’s office vehicles that officials say are necessary for effective law enforcement.

The fleets used to police the streets of Frederick and Frederick County come at a price.

Between purchasing, customization, replacement and repairs, costs can be substantial, according to city and county officials, and budgeting and record-keeping is an ever-fluid process.

The county has spent more than $4.8 million to acquire 213 vehicles for the sheriff’s office.

Frederick has spent $2.8 million for the city’s fleet of 144 law enforcement vehicles.

Inventory databases on these fleets obtained from Frederick County and the Frederick Police Department illustrate the costs and show how vehicles are acquired, maintained and accounted for.

Read the full article here.

University of Maryland murder-suicide

This series provided eye-opening accounts of a high-profile murder-suicide near the University of Maryland. The articles detailed the events leading up to the tragedy and what came about in the aftermath, shining light on firearm accessibility as it relates to mental illnesses. I became a guest-speaker on Baltimore’s NPR affiliate radio station to talk about this developing story and my reporting.

Off-campus shooting in College Park puts spotlight on gun control
Daniel J. Gross/The Gazette About 200 University of Maryland students and community members attended a memorial for those slain and injured in a murder-suicide in College Park Tuesday morning.

Daniel J. Gross/The Gazette
About 200 University of Maryland students and community members attended a memorial for those slain and injured in a murder-suicide in College Park Tuesday morning.

Prince George’s County police say a University of Maryland, College Park, student believed to have killed his roommate and then himself Tuesday morning was mentally ill, and officials are questioning how he was able to legally purchase firearms.

Dayvon Maurice Green, 23, is suspected of killing roommate Stephen Alex Rane, 22, and non-fatally shooting another roommate outside their off-campus rental home in College Park before turning the 9 mm handgun on himself, according to police.

Police said Green had been suffering from a mental illness for the past year and was on medication, though they would not give details about the illness or medication.

A source with knowledge of the investigation said Green was self-admitted to a mental facility in 2009 and had a history of Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The source said county officials are now trying to determine whether Green was admitted in the institution for more than 30 consecutive days, which would have legally disqualified him from purchasing and owning firearms based on Maryland law.

About 200 people attended a memorial Tuesday evening at the university’s Memorial Chapel, where many questioned what could be done to prevent similar tragedies.

Read the full article here.

Path to Priesthood

This First Place winner in the MDDC Press Association contest (2013) was a long-form journalism piece that stemmed from a 30-hour embed at one of the nation’s oldest and largest Catholic seminaries. I dove into the life and calling of seminarians who are each on “The Path to Priesthood.”

Seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s value spiritual growth, fraternity
Photo by Graham Cullen

Photo by Graham Cullen

It’s 4 a.m.

The room is quiet. A small fan’s hum makes the only sound, and a desk lamp provides the only light. A crucifix hangs above.

Matthew Hoelscher begins each morning in this small, dark and simple bedroom, the setting for his favorite time of day: morning prayer.

“Lord, open my lips. Lord, send your mercy and your truth to rescue us from the snares of the devil, and we will praise you among the peoples and proclaim you to the nation,” he reads silently from the Liturgy of the Hours, a Catholic book of prayers, hymns and psalms that leaders in the faith are tasked to read daily.

“It’s cyclical. It always repeats,” he said with hands folded on a recent Thursday morning. “It keeps us in line with the thought and mind of the church.”

Texas native Hoelscher, 31, is a Catholic deacon and one of about 3,700 men enrolled in a seminary in the U.S., according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

He helps make up the body of 165 seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, the country’s second-largest Catholic theologate, and its oldest, founded in 1808.

The seminary sits on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University, a Catholic liberal arts college, so seminarians are free to use the college’s facilities such as the library or gymnasium.

Aspiring priests come from 28 different dioceses from around the country to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

It’s a place to mold their spiritual fervor and determine whether the priesthood is God’s plan for them, said Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, the seminary’s rector.

Read the full article here.