The case of the Northbridge intruder plays out exactly as you might have imagined

WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reports that the formerly unidentified 26-year-old man who walked into an unlocked house in Northbridge on Sunday has turned himself in. His story is exactly what you might have imagined it to be: “Esteban De Jesus Fonfrias-Soto told police he was led to the home in Northbridge, Massachusetts, by someone he believed to be female that he recently met on the social media app Snapchat.”

Fonfrias-Soto has been charged with breaking and entering in the daytime, a felony. Let’s hope that law enforcement quickly verifies his claims and drops the case.

Previous coverage.

A mysterious intruder sets off a scramble among local TV newscasts

It was a story made for local TV news. An unidentified man walked into an unlocked home in Northbridge on Sunday afternoon, sauntered around for 16 minutes while young children were inside, and then left without taking or disturbing anything. Video of him entering and then leaving was captured by a Ring home security camera.

The story also raises some questions about tone and emphasis. The man was a person of color in a community that’s more than 90% white. Did that contribute to the sense of alarm that some of the news reports conveyed?

Alerted to the story by George Chidi, a Northbridge native who now writes a Substack newsletter called the The Atlanta Objective, I watched reports on WBZ-TV (Channel 4), WCVB-TV (Channel 5), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), NBC10/NECN and WFXT-TV (Channel 25). In most of them, you had a sense that danger lurked, and that it is of paramount importance that the police identify the person.

Several, though, raised the possibility that the man had simply walked into the wrong house — and, based on video from around the neighborhood, the extent to which many of the houses looked alike was striking.

Channel 25 gave the story a whopping three minutes. But reporter Wale Aliyu, one of two Black journalists to cover the story (the other was Todd Kazakiewich of Channel 5), made the most of it, offering context that wasn’t available elsewhere. He opened by describing just how weird the story was. “I’ve never left an interview scratching my head the way I was tonight,” he said. The homeowner, Tarah Martell Schweitzer, who came across mainly as frightened in the other reports, offered comments that were more nuanced in Aliyu’s story:

I really am trying to see the good here and that it really was an honest mistake, because it doesn’t make sense to me in any other way. I don’t think somebody would case somebody’s house in the middle of broad daylight on a Sunday with people home. There were two motorcycles and a car in the driveway.

She even joked about asking the intruder to come back and help her and her husband finish assembling the swing set they were putting together.

Chidi told me via Facebook Messenger that he was troubled by the alarmist tone that he detected in the NBC10 coverage and on social media. “I’m sensitive to this because I grew up here. Literally,” he said. “That house is in the back yard of where I grew up.”

To be fair, no one wants to find out that a stranger has been walking around the inside of their home while their kids are inside and they’re out back unaware of what’s going on. And, since home video was available, it’s the sort of fare that’s irresistible for TV news directors.

The trick is to offer the right perspective. It was a strange story, not especially scary, that almost certainly was about a guy who walked into the wrong house by mistake. Indeed, as he is walking up to the door, he is staring intently at his smartphone, probably trying to figure out if he was at the right address.

Neither The Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published anything about it, though the Globe’s free website, Boston.com, had a brief item. This was a pure made-for-television diversion, more entertainment than news, and that’s the way it should have been played. Kudos to Aliyu and Channel 25 for getting it right.

The Post’s data on hospice care should spur local editors

Click on image for interactive map at washingtonpost.com
Click on image for interactive map at washingtonpost.com

If I were running a news organization that covered Sudbury, Bedford, Amherst, Worcester, Northbridge, Taunton or Fall River, I’d be taking a close look at a database published on Sunday by The Washington Post.

According to an investigation by the Post, one in six hospices in the United States did not provide crisis care to their dying patients in 2012. “The absence of such care,” wrote Post reporters Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating, “suggests that some hospice outfits are stinting on nursing attention, according to hospice experts. Inspection and complaint records, meanwhile, depict the anguish of patients who have been left without care.”

And, indeed, Whoriskey and Keating offer some horror stories, starting with 85-year-old Ying Tai Choi, a Tampa, Florida, woman whose nurse abandoned her an hour before she died.

What gives the Post’s investigation value beyond its immediate impact, though, is that the paper uploaded the database it used to carry out its reporting. The Post says it analyzed Medicare billing records for more than 2,500 hospice organizations as well as “an internal Medicare tally of nursing care in patients near death and reviewed complaint records at hundreds of hospices.”

By showing its work, the paper has provided valuable leads for follow-up stories by news organizations across the country.

According to the database, 16 percent of 43 hospice facilities serving 22,865 patients in Massachusetts reported providing no crisis care in 2012. That percentage is right around the national average, though it is higher than any other New England state.

Under Medicare rules, a hospice must be able to provide crisis care to its terminally ill patients, which the Post tells us is “either continuous nursing care at home or an inpatient bed at a medical facility.” The Post is careful to point out that the mere fact that a facility did not provide crisis care in a given year is not evidence that there’s anything wrong. It’s possible that none of its patients needed it. A further explanation:

The absence of crisis care does not necessarily indicate a violation of the rules. But hospice experts say it is unlikely that larger hospices had no patients who required such care.

In other words, the database provides questions, not answers — precisely the information news organizations need for follow-up reports at the local level. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-intensive. The Post’s hospice story provides journalists with a great head start.