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Meet Todd Wellington, Northeast Kingdom Crime Reporter And Former Professional Clown

A man looking in a rearview mirror.
Erica Heilman
/
VPR
Caledonian Record crime reporter Todd Wellington recently drove Erica Heilman around St. Johnsbury to talk about journalism, crime in a close region, and his past as a professional clown.

Independent producer Erica Heilman recently spent time with reporter Todd Wellington, who covers crime for the Caledonian Record.

Todd: "Some people like to be liked. I’m not like that. I’m totally comfortable not being popular."

Todd Wellington is unpopular because he’s the crime reporter for the Caledonian Record in the Northeast Kingdom. Mostly people don’t have a reason to celebrate crime stories in the paper. It’s never good news. And when you’re the crime reporter in a town the size of St. Johnsbury, everyone knows who you are.

Todd took me for a drive to some of the scenes of crimes he’s covered, and he talked about what it’s like to do this job.

Covering "hummus-related violence"

Todd: “Everybody you cover, you run into. If you cover their arrest you see them in court. You probably see them at the prison when you go down there to interview someone. More than that you’re going to see them in the grocery store. You’re going to see them on the ball field where their kids are playing ball with your kids.

“You’re going to see their mom in the grocery store. That’s always a fun one. So you just have to be that guy for whom that doesn’t really matter.

“OK this building right here, there was a fight that started in one of these rooms, but it started with an argument over hummus. People were, I think they were drinking, they were going from room to room and there was an argument about who had hummus and who didn’t have hummus and they wanted some hummus and then somebody started fighting and somebody else started fighting and then someone got assaulted and the cops came. And my suggested headline was: ‘Police respond to hummus-related violence.'"

Networking at Maplefields

Me: “Do you get called out in the middle of the night? How does crime reporting work?”

Todd: “Sure, that can happen. You just can’t know what’s going on just by showing up to work. You have to have someone helping you out, or a network. And that’s what I have… and I think this is probably the reason I still have a job, is because I do have my little black book of connections, my cell phone.

“You need someone to tell you, and you need a network for what’s coming up and when, because even if something happens, oftentimes the police won’t tell you. You need to find out what happened off-the-record so you can take that information and leverage it and say, ‘Hey. I know this happened. Tell me what happened.’ You can’t do it if you have nothing.

A man drives a car.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Todd Wellington says his reporting relies heavily on networking with local lawyers and law enforcement.

“Even with lawyers. They won’t tell you nothing unless you prove you got something. So how do you get something? Well, this is Maplefields. It’s really quite the hotspot. I don’t know if you’ve ever been here, but they have little tables in there. I found out if I have lunch here every day, I almost never ate alone and I always had people who wanted to sit down and talk to me. And they always give me more than I take.”

Me: “So who might you be running into?”

Todd: “Cops are regulars here. Lawyers from the courthouse are regulars here. People from the schools and the hospital, they all come here for lunch. This is a very popular place.”

Me: “Maplefields? Really.”

Todd: “Yes! So you have to understand what they can tell you. And so you know a judge or a lawyer or a clerk or someone with responsibility that you see at a store, they can’t tell you what’s going on. But every one of them probably has something they could probably tell you. You know a lawyer could tell you, ‘Well yeah. I did file this motion.’ And then get the motion and you backtrack with the police and go to the cops and they can’t tell you what the lawyer knows, but they can tell you when they cited the guy. Right? And so that’s how you put stuff together.”

Knowing your sources

Me: “Do you have relationships with the people who you cover?”

Todd: “Absolutely. You see them so much. Like you see them at arraignment, you see them at arrest, and you see them down at the prison and you see them on the street. You develop a relationship. You know them all. You know their parents. They’re not just separate in some faraway world, they live down the street from you and they play with your kid. And you know them from baseball or from something, and that’s the fabric of the community, that sort of inherent trust that goes on for most people that ties it all together.

“And that’s why the Melissa Jenkins murder was so traumatizing for this area. She was a teacher at the academy here and she was killed by people who had been stalking her. And she was killed because they called her up and said, ‘Our car’s broke down, would you come help us.’ So she put her 2-year-old in the car and went down because that’s what you do here. That’s what neighbors do for neighbors. It was a horrible crime. And the way they did it was using the inherent trust that exists here.”

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Career change: From clown to journalist

Me: “Have you ever gotten a story wrong?”

Todd: “You get something wrong on a crime story, you got lawyers on the other end going, ‘That is wrong.’ Right? So you’re really accountable, and I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even have a college degree.

“I’m a total walk-on in the game of journalism. I mean, I literally showed up here as a clown, realized I couldn’t make any money here, and answered an ad for stringers for the newspaper.

Me: “You started as a clown?”

Todd: “Yeah. I was a professional clown for many years before I moved here.”

Me: “Is there any crossover between being a clown and being a crime reporter?”

Todd: “Absolutely. They’re both people businesses. It’s you, and it’s them. I just applied my clown skills—my ability to relate to anyone—into reporting. But it also makes me … so here’s what being a clown is. You’re a total outsider. Well, there is no better quality for being a reporter than being comfortable being an outsider. What else is a reporter supposed to be?”

On being an outsider

Our last stop was outside a house where Todd had covered a brutal assault that happened in the basement years ago. It was a lovely, quiet place, with windchimes.

Me: “Would you ever want your kid to do this job?”

A man in a black shirt.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Todd Wellington admits - he wouldn't want his kid doing his job.

Todd: “Wow. I guess I’m not ready for that question.

“If someone’s house burns down and the fire department comes, the house is on fire. The fire department’s there, and you’re there to document that there’s a fire, a news event. And also because the fire department’s there and public taxpayers pay for it. So you’re taking pictures of that house that’s on fire. So I had that happen one time early on, at night, up in one of the smaller towns and a guy picked up a Louisville Slugger—not a Louisville Slugger, an aluminum baseball bat.  He started running after me. I was taking pictures of the house.

“Two rather large firefighters got in the guy’s way and stopped him. I ran ‘cause I had gotten my picture and I was gone. I’m there to do my job, to take the picture. But he’s a guy whose house is burning down. Right? He lost everything. So would you want your kid to do it? No. Because you have to go through everybody’s worst moment with them. And I don’t want my son to do that.”

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