BURDEN OF PROOF: The Death of Manuel Ramirez

November 27, 2012

Having returned from Europe 2.5 months ago, I’ve taken a new leap in my career – trying my hand at investigative reporting. I did a three-part series about child sex abuse in northwest Iowa back in August, before this experience, and tonight my second foray – this time looking into the death of a 6-year-old boy in Sioux City and what’s now a murder investigation – aired on Siouxland News.

The complete written story is posted on our station’s website and you can access the video directly through my professional Facebook page. You can also watch the three-part child sex abuse investigation by looking under the videos section of my profile.

With the guidance, help and support of my news director, I spent 4 months investigating the death of Manuel Ramirez and it was heart-wrenching work. I can only say I hope something good can be learned from his death so other children can avoid the same fate. We may never really know what happened or exactly how he died but we have to start the conversation and I believe this story does just that.

I hope to bring you updates on this story and future stories – when those air, I will share them here as well.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter!


Fall 2012 RIAS Berlin Kommission Final Report

Friday, November 16, 2012

Here is the final report I emailed to the RIAS Berlin Kommission and RTDNF summarizing what I learned during this amazing, life-changing experience:

When I first received word I had been chosen to participate in the Fall 2012 RIAS Berlin Kommission Fellowship, I made a promise to myself – I would document my entire experience while abroad. They say hindsight is 20/20 but I didn’t want my moments from this trip distorted by a glossy recollection of what happened. I wanted to be in the moment and capture those moments in words and pictures. And I did just that, blogging the entire two weeks, even if it meant staying up until 2 AM when we had an early morning ahead. Looking back, I am happy I did because every time I reread those genuine reactions, it brings me back all over again.

Two things struck me in thinking back on my time abroad – the first is perspective and the second is dichotomy. Let’s start with perspective: this program did an excellent job of changing our perspectives as journalists. When we started, we looked at Europe from the perspective of an American. When we left, we looked at Europe from a world perspective. On one of our final days, we visited the European Commission in Brussels and this change of perspective was beautifully illustrated in a sculpture there.

In the lobby, there’s a display of all 27 “member states” (countries) in the EU based on population size all lined up in a row. But when you stand at the end and look through a peephole, you see them all as one cohesive unit. It was a great visual for what the EU really is – a collection of sovereign nations that act together in the best interest of the collective. It’s also a great illustration for what I learned on this trip – what you see and how you interpret it depends on your perspective – both physically and mentally. Every person, every meeting we had, helped develop, shift and grow my perspective. Living in the United States is privilege, for sure, but I think sometimes it can be limiting because we aren’t just an hour away from another country that speaks another language and is run by its own government. Being in an environment like that forces you to be more open-minded because diversity is all around you and I learned more than ever to appreciate, not fear, something I may not at first understand.

The other thing that struck me was dichotomy: the dichotomy between old and new, historical and modern, past and present, East and West, cohesiveness and independence, assimilation and diversity.

To quote my own reactions from my blog while in Berlin on our first full day, it was interesting to “witness what really is a sprawling city with lots of construction and innovation alongside all the history and classic architecture. All you can hope is that the history isn’t lost as progress is made.”

When I stood on either side of the plaque that marked where the Berlin Wall stood less than 25 years ago, it really hit home that what is now history is only our recent past and we best not forget what got us to that point because the moment we do, it can happen all over again. It’s just another example of how your perspective can change – in the United States, we aren’t surrounded by 500-year-old churches or palaces. When you see these majestic structures in person, in the midst of modern architecture popping up, you experience that dichotomy every day.

Having the honor of participating in this program changed my life. I met some amazing people with whom I traveled Europe and others who are leaders in their respective fields taught me professional and lifelong lessons along the way. I took home with me an experience no book or website can ever come close to matching. On top of it all, I grew as an individual: “I’ve always known I’m German but being here in this capacity, it’s really hit home for me that this is my heritage and I just feel it here.” I feel privileged to have taken part in this amazing opportunity and urge other journalists to learn all they can from meeting such a diverse and knowledgeable group of individuals at home and abroad.

Follow Me on Social Media

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If I learned anything from this trip, it’s how important social media is to the jobs we do as journalists. I’ve been on Facebook professionally for nearly 3 years but now it’s finally time to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, thanks to fellow RIAS alum Derrall Stalvey. So make sure to friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter!

Not Quite There Yet

Monday, September 17, 2012

At this point, I anticipated being home, sleeping in my own bed, recovering from a 2-week European adventure and then heading off back to work. Unfortunately, I’m sitting in the lobby of the O’Hare Hilton Hotel, waiting for an evening flight to Omaha, instead of Sioux City. My international flight from London came in late so I missed my Sioux City connection on Sunday night, forcing an overnight stay in Chicago and missing work today. But I did sleep 9 hours and feel pretty well-rested, all things considered.
It’ll be nice to get home tonight, settle in and get back into a routine. While waiting, I updated my Blind Date Night & Concentration Camp blogs with picture. I also plan on writing a wrap-up entry in the days to come so stay tuned!

By the way, we are unveiling Siouxland News today! The website is already up and we’re launching the new set and graphics today. Make sure to watch my colleagues tonight at 5, 9 & 10 and I’ll be back on Tuesday.

RIAS Fall 2012 Farewell Dinner

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Our amazing group of fellows said goodbye tonight for the last time. Besides Sonia, who had to leave earlier this week to start her reporting, we’ve been together for two weeks straight and now this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is coming to an end. It’s really incredible how much we packed into this experience and yet how quickly it went. I plan to keep in touch with everyone in the group, personally and professionally, and we were all discussing tonight how great all 12 of us got along and interacted together. With a group of journalists from across the country, with different experiences, backgrounds and ages, you never know, so I think we lucked out! As part of our farewell dinner, we had some delicious food so I have to share one more time:

Cheese-filled ravioli in a creamy sauce with lettuce and peppers, topped with slices of parmigiano reggiano

This looks simple but it was delicious – vanilla bean and coffee ice cream with whipped cream

The last fruit beer I’ll have in a long while (this time, cherry-flavored)

Our amazing host, Rainer, along with his cohorts Isabell and Lisa, made this an incredible experience
He’s the executive director of the RIAS Berlin Kommission

We all got a kick out of this at dinner: John Branch has a number of different nicknames, including Horse (for eating horse at dinner on Thursday night in Brussels), but some people confuse him for Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay. I think he pulls it off pretty well!

I didn’t get the entire group picture on my camera but I did get the guys’ shot, posing like models on the streets of Brussels
From left: Derrall, Beau, John, Robert & Rainer

I still can’t believe this is over and I’ll be home in 24 hours! Even though it’s really sad to leave it all behind, this is an experience you know can never be repeated and all 12 of us have that special bond of something that will never be the same. I think we had a great group dynamic and I will sincerely miss every person I got to know this week. But I am looking forward to going home, resting my feet, decompressing and then reading through my notes to look for story ideas and continue to better myself as a journalist. Bon voyage to all my new friends who were strangers just two weeks ago!

The Little Venice of the North

Saturday, September 15, 2012

We spent our final day together as a group in the small town of Brugge, Belgium, about an hour train ride from Brussels. The community of about 20,000 welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. We took an hour-long boat ride along the canal (the city used to be a bustling port town centuries ago) and saw the sights. I’m going to show a sample of my pictures with captions, instead of writing long paragraphs about the day. We went sight-seeing, shopping and ate Belgian food!

Welcome to Brugge!

It’s an hour-long train ride from Brussels to Brugge but totally worth it

The canal that encircles Brugge includes many low bridges, hence the “Little Venice” nickname

We saw a lot of horse-drawn carriages, mainly carrying tourists on a sight-seeing trip of the city

The “Madonna and Child” statue by Michelangelo is believed to be the only one to leave Italy in his lifetime; this is a replica that sits outside the church but the real one is inside – I just liked this view and picture better

The beautiful flowers along the river bed

Our amazing RIAS Berlin Kommission hosts – Lisa Ziss, Rainer Hasters & Isabell Hoffmann

I’m on a boat, the encore!

Azadeh taking some amazing photos while we’re traveling along the water

The most photographed dog in Brugge

The view from on the water heading toward another low bridge

Hanging out on the water on a perfect day!

Trying to be artistic with my camera and the macro focus on this spiderweb

What a beautiful community

Lunch included traditional Belgian fries (mine were topped with a very spicy “samurai” sauce – one of 10 choices) and a Belgian waffle topped with caramel (not pictured here, yet – the photo is on another camera) 

We shopped around this square and another square in Brugge for postcards, lace (which the community is well-known for) and Belgian chocolate and yes, I got some of all of that!

It was an amazing day and tonight, we have our farewell dinner with everyone from the program (except Sonia, who left us earlier this week). I’ll update about that later, followed by a wrap-up post in the days to come. Farewell from Europe!

NATO & Belgian Nightlife

Friday, September 14, 2012

Welcome to NATO! Our very last meeting of this entire trip was spent in Brussels at the world headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I really didn’t know a lot about NATO going into the day and came out with a wealth of knowledge. I really enjoyed our time there. Unfortunately, they have a strict no-picture policy inside so I only got a few exteriors of the building but they’re building a new site across the street and will be moving in a few years anyway.
Our day consisted of three different sessions, followed by an amazing lunch (which I couldn’t photograph!) and informal Q&A with a NATO official. We discussed NATO’s current agenda, NATO’s enduring commitment in Afghanistan and the US perspective on NATO & Partnerships.

Our first session was hosted by one of NATO’s press officer who’s one of 5 below the top 3 ranking officials in the press and media section. He explained that since he’s not one of those top 3 people, he can be quoted but only as “a NATO official,” hence the reason I’m not sharing his name. I just thought that was interesting because they only want to have a few official names out in the public and not every NATO employee being quoted, which I definitely understand.

We talked about the history of NATO and what the organization is, operations, Afghanistan, military capabilities and partnerships. It was all incredibly fascinating. NATO’s main priority right now is Afghanistan and we got into more detail about that mission in our second meeting. But here’s what you may not know about NATO:

  • The organization basically is involved in 5 missions right now: Afghanistan, Kosovo, two maritime endeavors dealing with counter-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts and the Libyan operation in 2011
  • Every decision is taken by consensus so no weight is given to larger nations – all 28 member states must agree and there is officially a silence rule where instead of voting for something, you have to speak out against it, otherwise it goes into effect
  • The purpose of NATO is to protect the sovereignty of individual nations in the alliance
  • NATO was formed in 1949
  • The logo for the organization includes the acronyms NATO and OTAN (which is NATO backwards) – it is only coincidence that the French translation of NATO (the other official language of the agency) is a mirror image of NATO


Our second speaker of the day was Daniele Riggio, who specifically works as information officer for Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Iraq & Mongolia. He lives in Afghanistan and travels to Brussels every 4-5 months for meetings. He actually told us that he was in Afghanistan during 9/11 and we talked a bit about that as well.

In terms of the mission in Afghanistan, we discussed the context of the mission, rebooting of the campaign 2009-2010, and the impact of the NATO summits in Lisbon and Chicago in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

As he explained, there is a misconception as to why NATO is in Afghanistan. The reason troops are there is because of a UN Security Council mandate and by request of the Afghan people to make the country no longer a safe haven for terrorists. In his opinion, it is in NATO’s best interest and NATO’s 22 partners (50 countries in total – a quarter of international countries) to stabilize Afghanistan. The end goal is not open-ended assistance but rather a self-sustainable government with aid and training coming from the next mission.

Right now, the end of 2014 is cast in stone when it comes to ending the combat mission in Afghanistan. Right now, troops are working on transitioning by training Afghan forces to securely patrol their own country. Since 2009, nearly 350,000 Afghan army and police have been trained. After 2014, NATO will not withdraw all troops but instead transition from a combat mission to a non-combat mission, through assistance and training to help support a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

Daniele made a point to explain how Afghans have felt betrayed in the past after the Gulf War and during other conflicts and that this is the first time they haven’t felt that way, hence why it’s important for NATO to not just pack up and leave in 2015. He explained that change must happen through them, not on their behalf.

Our final speaker was David Gehrenbeck, deputy political advisor for the US mission to NATO. He is specifically in charge of partnerships so we discussed how NATO works with its partners and how it gains new ones. At its summits in 2011 & 2012, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to partnerships with countries outside Europe. Right now, 22 countries are official partnerships with more in the process. The 4 current aspirant countries are Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro & Georgia. He told us it can take 15-20 years for aspirant countries to become partners and the fastest transition was about 10 years.

After our three meetings, we went to lunch at the NATO restaurant where I had a delicious salad, pilaf and vegetables and crème brûlée. It was fantastic! Belgians definitely know how to make a good meal. We talked over lunch with one of NATO’s public diplomacy employees who is an American but lives here in Brussels working for NATO. It was really interesting to get her perspective as a young adult from the US.

All in all, I feel like my understanding of NATO went from a 1 to a 9 on a scale of 10 in just those few hours.

After we returned from NATO, we were free to explore Brussels on our own for the afternoon and evening. A group of us went chocolate shopping, including stopping at the famous Pierre Marcolini shop. It’s very expensive Belgian chocolate and the store is set up more like a jewelry store than a chocolate shop. I didn’t purchase anything there but the building was so beautiful, I wanted to share the picture. I bought other Belgian chocolate to bring home at a less expensive location.

Chocolate shopping then transitioned into dinner and a group of us made our way to Lola, a really nice – and slightly more up-scale – restaurant near the grand square. The vegetarian options were limited but I really enjoyed what I ordered:

Angel hair pasta with basil and fresh tomatoes in a tomato sauce with olives and cheese

My cherry beer from the outside cafe we grabbed a drink at before dinner (I’m going to miss fruit beers!)

After dinner, we made our way back toward the hotel and along the way, came across police and blocked traffic. When we asked, we found out that every Friday night, hundreds of people gather for an inline-skating parade about 25 km around the city. They had a portable DJ in the back of a pick-up truck leading the group and they had seemed to be having a great time!

Now normally I don’t share many details about my evenings out on the town but I just had to give a few details about how we wrapped up tonight. We got local recommendations from two different people to find Spirito Nightclub. We made it and it was worth it! The building is an old CHURCH that’s been renovated into a dance club and bar and is stunning! We walked up to a red carpet and 4 guys in all black wearing earpieces. The atmosphere inside was electric and exclusive and even though we felt slightly out of place, we had an amazing time. Take a look at the pictures:

We have one last full day in Belgium before heading home on Sunday and it’s amazing to think about how fast the time as gone. Tomorrow we’re going to the small, historic port town of Brugge for a day trip and it’s supposed to be gorgeous so I’m really looking forward to it. Don’t miss tomorrow’s post for some more great pictures!

RIAS Fellows at the Pleasure Palace

RIAS Berlin Kommission Fall 2012 Fellows
Pleasure Palace, Dresden, Germany

Left to Right: Sonia Narang (Los Angeles, CA), Azadeh Ansari (Atlanta, GA), Erika Thomas (Sioux City, IA), Derrall Stalvey (Chattanooga, TN), Beau Berman (Hartford, CT), John Branch (Atlanta, GA), Tonya Papanikolas (Salt Lake City, UT), Waliya Lari (Houston, TX), Shoshana Rubin (New York City, NY), Robert Horton (Seattle, WA), Shanda Sundstrom (Fort Smith, AR), Heather Staggers (Kansas City, MO)

I just wanted to share this picture because I realized I hadn’t posted any picture of the entire group yet. This was taken at the beginning of the week in Dresden while we toured the city with Tom the tour guide. This was the royal bathhouse inside the Pleasure Palace.

The DC of Europe

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Today was a very busy day devoted completely to learning about the European Commission and the European Union. Since most of our meetings were in a conference room except for lunch and the press briefing, I’m actually going to organize this post by location instead of chronologically so bear with me.

Let’s start with first impressions. The European Commission building is gorgeous. There’s actually quite a bit of construction going on in downtown Brussels around it and on the building itself but inside was amazing. Since it houses one of the governing bodies of the EU (the commission is the executive branch, so to speak), people really call Brussels the DC of Europe. In the lobby, there’s a display of all 27 “member states” (countries) in the EU based on population size all lined up in a row. But when you stand at the end and look through a peephole, you see them all as one cohesive unit and to me, this was a great visual for what the EU really is – a collection of sovereign nations that act together in the best interest of the collective.
Without going into too many specifics about our 6 different sessions, I’ll give a brief description of the EU and then mention the area of expertise from each of our guests. The EU is an international organization made for and by sovereign states by signing a treaty. Everyone has to agree for a decision to be made at the EU level, otherwise each country makes its own decision. Not all legislation is decided on unanimously but all countries must abide by it. But there are 5 areas of power exclusive to the EU, where countries do NOT have a choice: monetary policy, international trade, competition policy, fisheries, space and natural resources. The government structure consists of the European Commission (the “executive branch”), the European Council (similar to the US Senate if it were made up of state governors) and the Euro Parliament (similar to the US House of Representatives). Only 17 of the 27 member countries are members of the Euro Zone, which includes using the Euro as currency. In summer 2013, Croatia will be the 28th country to join the EU.

Besides some background information on the EU, we met with a number of commission employees who discussed the EU today, the future of the EU, the European External Action Service and its foreign policy, EU-US relations and the financial policy of the EU. We basically covered the gamut when it comes to subject matter inside this international organization.

We also attended the daily European Commission press briefing with dozens of other journalists from across the globe. It was an impressive room and with three languages being spoken, headsets were provided where interpreters would translate – in real time – what the speaker was saying. It was fantastic to watch and be part of a multi-lingual press conference. One of the other fellows actually used Face Time during the conference to communicate with his family and show them what it was like – another impressive piece of technology that turns this big world into a smaller world in a very good way.
Our lunch meeting was with Mr. Gerhard Sabathil, the Director for Northeast Asia and the Pacific for the European External Action Service. We talked about foreign policy over a three-course meal that I just have to share. Before the food, though, information is important. He shared with us the 5 pillars of EU foreign policy and I was intrigued by them so I’m posting them here:

  1. Human Rights Policy – most important
  2. Global Governance – UN, G8, G20; we can always do better
  3. Relationships with Strategic Partners – 10 or so, including: US, China, Russia, Japan, Canada, Korea, Mexico, South Africa
  4. Neighborhood Policy – includes 17 countries; important to have a positive, neighborly relationship but this is not a door to membership in the EU
  5. Development Policy – interactions with developing countries; EU is the biggest donor worldwide to these locations, spending about 12 billion Euros/year

Now getting back to the food, some of the other fellows said it was in their list of top 5 meals of all time and even though I had the vegetarian option, I have to agree:

If you can’t tell just by looking at the pictures, it was amazing. It was probably one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten (and for a vegetarian, that’s saying a lot), a “vegetable schnitzel” as Lisa described it with homemade pasta, tomato sauce and cheese, and panna cotta with a red fruit coulis for dessert. The restaurant, service and the company were all 5-star! And this is what I said when I left (the one French word I know, but if I had forgotten, I could say it in 20 other languages):
After wrapping up our day at the commission, we gathered as a group to walk through Brussels and grab a really Belgian meal. It was really nice to walk around and see some of the old part of town and the historical buildings because from our hotel, we can’t really see any of those.

We also walked by the historical Manneken Pis statue that Brussels is known for but since, for some people, it may be considered graphic, you can click on the link to check out the Wikipedia article instead. Suffice it to say, it’s much smaller in person that you’d imagine. The entire statue is only 18 inches tall maybe.

As expected, dinner was amazing, even after our great lunch. Our entire group came together, along with Rainer, Isabell and Lisa for a traditional Belgian meal including mussels, frites with sauce and fruit beers. I haven’t had a waffle yet but I’m planning on getting one tomorrow and chocolate will be the gift I bring home!

Leek pie with frites and a pepper-cream sauce plus a raspberry beer

Tomorrow we head to NATO for our final day of meetings on this trip! I can’t believe this experience is almost over. Time goes by so fast yet two weeks ago when we all met feels like a year ago. Now it’s time to catch up on my sleep so, as you say in French here in Belgium, bonne nuit.

Goodbye Prague, Hello Brussels

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Even though today was mostly a travel day, I am exhausted and think my feet are really screaming back at me for not having proper support while walking on these beautiful, old cobblestone streets. But I’m not going to let a little aching get in my way! We started the day in the Czech Republic and I’m writing this to you from Belgium and it was a busy day in between. I will warn you though, because we only had one session and some free time in Prague before our flight to Brussels and dinner here, this blog will be more about food than journalism.

We started our first really rainy morning by taking the Prague subway to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It was started in the 1950s and is actually funded by the US Congress. Unfortunately, the annual budget has dropped to less than 40% of what it once was 50 years ago. The international news organization has 2000 employees who speak 28 languages in 21 different countries so it’s completely diverse and multicultural. It used to be based in Munich but now resides in Prague and focuses on working in and broadcasting to countries where free press is not allowed. It serves as a “surrogate media” for local coverage in those regions.

We spoke with a number of managers and correspondents who cover Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and even the small country of Azerbaijan. They talked about the challenges of broadcasting to some of the 28 countries, especially in places where radio and TV signals are jammed. Some have to rely solely on the internet and maybe short-wave radio to get their message into the area. Even though funding comes from the US government, RFE/RL maintains editorial control with an independent editorial policy. It was fascinating to talk with these journalists who are not only working as a career but to change the lives of people living in these countries.
After our midday meeting, we had a few hours to spare in Prague before heading to the airport. A group of us followed Robert who had read an article in the New York Times recommending a new restaurant in the city. We decided to check it out and even though it was a pretty good hike from where we were (due in part to a mix-up on the map), it was well worth it. It’s a small, local restaurant that’s fairly new and serves fresh, local food, so much so that when our group of 6 walked in at 1 PM, the waiter told us that half of the menu was gone and all he had left was 4-5 items. Thankfully, that included vegetarian options:

I had a delicious Czech potato & mushroom soup with some spices I didn’t fully recognize but thoroughly enjoyed and a salad with fresh zucchini and tomatoes plus lots of free bread (we figured that was the consolation for a lacking menu). Everything was really fresh and flavorful so the lack of choices didn’t really matter in the end. If you head to Prague and want to try it, look for this logo or Google the restaurant:
After lunch, our group headed back toward the hotel and we did a little shopping along the way. From my childhood, I remember having these nesting dolls that I think my father brought back for me from a trip to Europe (I don’t know if it was the Czech Republic or somewhere else). In moving out of my parents’ house and their eventual move away from my hometown, I’m pretty sure those dolls got lost in translation so I figured what a great way to remember Prague and replace an old friend:
Azadeh and I also walked around the mall with “200 shops” briefly and stopped to chat over coffee and cake. I had a Czech version of tiramisu and basically finished using my Korunas:
We all met up at the hotel in the afternoon to get ready to head to the airport. A few of us had to reorganize our luggage to make sure our checked bags weren’t more than 50 pounds. It was an adventure! Then we boarded a Czech Airlines flight for the hour-long flight to Brussels. Once we got checked in, most of us went out for a late dinner and fruit beers, which Belgium is known for. I had cheese croquettes and peach beer:

My RIAS blind date partner Marius sent me an email with great suggestions on how to enjoy Brussels so I’m looking forward to trying some of those. Now I can check fruit beer off my list! We only have four nights left, including tonight, and two more full days of meetings before a tourism day on Saturday and a flight home Sunday. When I get back, I plan to get an hour-long foot massage. But I still don’t want this experience to end, it’s been so amazing!