The Sun Herald staff wins a lot of awards every year, and this year is no different.
The Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors awards ceremony was Saturday night in Jackson. For those awards, the Sun Herald competes with all the major papers in both states, including The Clarion-Ledger, The Advocate and The Times-Picayune/Nola.com.
Here are our winners:
▪ Wesley Muller, John Fitzhugh and Christopher Bostick won third place in the multimedia package category for the “Fostering Secrets” series about the foster care and youth court system in Hancock County, which had the Mississippi’s highest percentage of children in state care.
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Muller began an 18-month investigation in January 2015 when a woman approached him with a handful of documents. She said a child-services caseworker had forged her signature on a document to take away her child. After the first stories broke, more residents came forward with allegations.
Muller and Fitzhugh traveled the state, speaking to parents who said the agency had taken their kids without proper cause. They interviewed state and court officials. They spotlighted the struggles of the parents to get their kids back.
Because of the state’s confidentiality laws, Muller and Fitzhugh relied on traditional news-gathering techniques, spending months cultivating sources for confidential records and other evidence. Records requests netted a box of files from a law enforcement investigation into alleged forgeries by DHS workers.
Bostick prepared the online presentation, giving readers access to all chapters on one landing page in an easy-to-navigate layout.
▪ Margaret Baker won second place in the continuing coverage category for her coverage of the teen murdered in George County, which helped prompt the first United States prosecution of a federal hate crime against a transgender person.
In 2015, Latin Kings street gang member Josh Vallum of Mississippi killed a transgender teen from Alabama. Authorities initially identified the victim as Michael Christopher Wilkins, 17. Baker got a tip and started digging until she confirmed the victim identified herself as Mercedes Williamson. Baker broke the story and followed up, assembling hundreds of documents. She interviewed law enforcement officers, gang members, family members and friends of both the victim and the killer.
Her reporting led her out of state to Williamson’s home, in a high-crime area where drugs and prostitution thrive and Latin Kings street gang members rule.
Baker was the first journalist to tell readers Vallum’s gang prohibited homosexuality and issued orders to kill any transgressors. That insight would later explain why Vallum murdered the one person he said he truly loved.
Baker also sifted through psychological reports and school records to learn about the killer. She developed sources in the Justice Department and learned her reporting was assisting in the federal probe. Investigators called her for contact information on witnesses she had identified and tracked down.
Vallum was serving a life sentence on a state murder charge when federal authorities in 2016 filed against him the first federal hate-crime charge of killing a transgender person. Baker’s reporting included an exclusive jailhouse interview with the killer, in a small room in a Mississippi jail.
▪ Justin Vicory won second place in the business category for his coverage of what new federal overtime regulations will mean to Mississippi workers. The regulations were struck down by a Texas judge just before they were to take effect, but most companies had already made changes to comply.
▪ John Fitzhugh won third place in the photo features category for capturing a delightful image of an ecstatic child at a Mardi Gras parade.
▪ Politics editor Paul Hampton won second place in the personal columns category for a three-column entry: “Hard to say bye when the dog just won’t leave,” “A coal-fired future would be pretty bleak” and “Asses are plentiful, but they’re not cheap.”