WIVB (Buffalo) Consumer Reporter Al Vaughters did a story on home improvement contractor who had previous problems not living up to promises he made to customers and now was being accused of scamming a customer out of $3,500.
It is the same type of story that Consumer Reporter's do all over the country. But, this one turned out a bit different.
After Vaughters interviewed the contractor, the guy asked him not to air the story and to give him two weeks to make good on his deals. Vaughters refused.
After the story ran, Vaughters received a call: The contractor had committed suicide.
“That was devastating news,” Vaughters explained softly, the pain in his voice and eyes apparent. “Because it was against everything I do these stories for. I do these stories to help people. I don't do the stories to hurt anybody.”
The victim's surviving family members have blamed the media for pushing the person into the suicide, which in turn leads to widespread media attention of the death. But mental health experts say the majority of suicides are not caused by a single incident, but rather as a result of a mental illness or a substance abuse problem.
For his part, Vaughters said he wouldn't do anything differently.
“I didn't know the guy was unstable,” said Vaughters. “I knew he had his issues. This has never happened to me before. And believe me, I've been in tougher situations with people who have done a lot worse and did not have that kind of outcome.”
Vaughters had done a story on the same man five years earlier for keeping the money for items he sold in an auction business in a case that eventually resulted in a five-year prison sentence. So he remembered the man's name when he received complaints from people claiming to be ripped off. He interviewed two customers who couldn't find the contractor after he stopped working on their projects.
In the story that aired, the man said he would pay customers back in two weeks if the story didn't air. Vaughters wasn't buying it.
“It is going to be on the news,” Vaughters said. “Because what you have done to these folks is really unforgivable.”
Vaughters later learned the man killed himself after the interview, but before the story had aired. The night before the suicide was confirmed by police, Vaughters had trouble sleeping. He didn't tell his wife Michele – a former reporter and the mother of their two children – until the next day. By that time, some people claiming to be relatives of the man had contacted the station.
“We sat and talked for a very long time,” Vaughters said. “My wife has done her best to try to keep me from feeling guilty or responsible. When something like that happens, you feel some sense of responsibility.”
The man's family members believe Vaughters should feel responsible. They said he attacked and bullied the contractor into talking when he should have been able to see, as they had, that the man was troubled.
“There was a point he just should have been professional enough to turn around and walk away,” the man's brother said of Vaughters. “My brother was done. He had given up. I could tell in his voice he had enough. He was defeated.”
“A guy that I met, a human being – I don't know what else he has done for this world, for this earth – killed himself,” said Vaughters. “I am one of the last people on earth that he saw and talked to. So that's why I am not over it. I don't have a crystal ball, but this is going to be with me for a very long time.”
H/T Buffalo News