By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Oak Ridge resident Andrew Howe did something he believes no journalist in Tennessee has done — he visited the scene of Alex Heitman’s death.
Howe has talked to various city officials about the case, including Oak Ridge’s police chief and city manager — that’s pretty good detective work for someone who, by trade, is a software engineer.
Heitman died in nearby Cocke County a few months later, reportedly by his own hand. More and more people in Oak Ridge, however, are doubting the official conclusion.
Oak Ridge natives Kristy Herron and Susie Taylor don’t have formal journalism backgrounds, either, but that hasn’t stopped them from allowing others to post new information about the case on their Oak Ridge-centered Facebook pages.
While some newspaper outlets have indeed covered the Heitman case to a limited extent, these three people say they’re serving the public interests way better than their local media outlets.
Tennessee Watchdog left messages Monday and Tuesday seeking comment with the editors of the Oak Ridger and Knoxville News Sentinel newspapers, but none immediately returned our requests for comment.
All three bloggers told Tennessee Watchdog they did not know Alex when he was alive.
“The lack of media coverage has a lot to do with money,” said Herron, whose closed Facebook page, Oak Ridge Raw, has more than 5,000 followers.
“If anything is exposed or if any negative attention is brought to this area then people won’t come here. The city is so desperate to bring people here, and if there is any kind of large negative attraction to this area, all deals are off,” she said.
Herron said she started the page one year ago to give Oak Ridge residents a way to get around the fluff and to discuss what she calls Oak Ridge’s many problems, in a candid civil manner.
When it comes to the Heitman story, Herron, though, does not participate in the discussion.
“I don’t trust a lot of people around here, including city officials and the school system. I don’t ask a lot of questions that haven’t already been discussed in order to cover my backside,” Herron said.
“There are a lot of people in Oak Ridge who won’t speak out because they’re afraid.”
Howe, meanwhile, said the Heitman case interests him as a concerned citizen.
“What can I say, I’m a big fan of justice and open government,” Howe told Tennessee Watchdog.
“The initial interest was among the people who worked with Alex and knew him when he died. There’s interest and there’s general sadness.But the newspaper just wrote it off as a suicide and few people really questioned it. There are people here who really doubted suicide was really in his nature.”
Susie Taylor, administrator of a Facebook page that has more than 1,200 followers, remembers the city’s history — and its famous involvement in World War II’s Manhattan Project — very well.
She lives in Georgia but returns to the town frequently.
“This town has a rich history, but it also has a very dark side to it,” Taylor said.
“It’s just one huge corrupt mess, and it’s sickening,” she added.
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