What Rick Swart Failed to Tell Us About This Week's Cover Story (UPDATE)

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This week's cover story, written by Rick Swart, is about true-crime author Ann Rule, and the facts he claims she didn't get right in her book Heart Full of Lies, an account of the 2000 shooting death of Oregon pilot Chris Northon. In Swart's telling, Northon's wife Liysa, who is currently serving a 12-year sentence for the murder, was failed by her original lawyer, an overzealous district attorney, and Rule, who claimed that Liysa was not the battered wife she'd portrayed herself to be, but rather a sociopath who'd concocted tales of abuse as a justification for shooting her husband.

What Swart failed to reveal to us is that he's now engaged to Liysa. Here's how we found out.

Yesterday, at 2:36 p.m., Rule wrote a note to her fans about the article. She described it as "deliberately mean" and "full of inaccuracies." She also wrote this: "There is a back story concerning the article's author that I cannot reveal at the moment--it will knock your socks off when my lawyer allows me to tell you about it."

Seeing as how I had edited Swart's piece, I wasn't surprised by Rule's response. But I did want to know what Swart thought Rule's big reveal might be. So at 3:52 p.m. that same afternoon, I e-mailed him and asked if there was anything he hadn't told us about the story.

It wasn't until 1:21 a.m. this morning that Swart returned my e-mail and told me what he thought Rule might be hinting at: "What she'll probably say is I'm in love with Liysa Northon (which is true)."

By 7 a.m. this morning, after I'd read Swart's e-mail, Rule's readers had already found out about Swart's love affair. They pointed to a new post on Liysa's web site, where a just-posted picture showed the inmate and Swart in an embrace with the caption "This is my fiance' [sic] Rick Swart." (Note: This picture wasn't uploaded until after the story came out. Hence, there was no way of knowing of the relationship unless Swart had informed us, which he did not.)

Here's where we need to backtrack for a second. Swart is a former third-generation publisher and editor of a small-town newspaper in Oregon. He grew up in the business. He had 25 years of experience as a journalist. But he was still unknown to us when he first pitched Liysa's story.

What we found out about Swart was that he was as controversial as you might expect the guy in charge of a small-town newspaper to be. He'd once been sued for defamation by a U.S. Senate candidate for an unflattering editorial, a case that was dismissed and a ruling that was upheld on appeal by the Oregon Supreme Court. He'd also been pilloried for taking the side of loggers over environmentalists, and waging a one-man campaign to get a local high school to stop using a mascot that was offensive to Native Americans. He'd made friends. He'd made enemies. But he appeared to have a long history of telling the truth.

When Swart turned in his first revised draft, it was 12,000 words long. He and I had hours of phone conversations and exchanged many e-mails in order to get the beast down to a manageable size. All along, he swore to the veracity of the facts his article contained--facts that were backed up by primary documents and interviews--and his true reason for writing Liysa's story: He was just a curious journalist who'd found a great yarn.

Had we known, as we now know, that Swart and Liysa were engaged, that disclosure would have been made explicit in the story. This morning I contacted Swart by phone to ask him why he didn't tell me about the enormous conflict of interest. This is how he explained his decision to withhold that information from us:

It's a freelance piece first of all. I'm selling you a product. So it's not like you're my boss and you need to know my personal life. My background is in community newspapers where we write about people we know, people we have relationships with, all the time. We don't have the luxury of big staffs. So we're not as able to have those arms-lengths relationships I guess . . . I'm willing to have all this fall squarely on my shoulder.

It should go without saying that this is not a satisfactory response. If you're writing about your fiancee, or anyone with whom you have a relationship, you tell the reader. Community newspaper, national newspaper, alt-weekly. It doesn't matter.

As for the salient facts of the story, Swart says those haven't changed.

The story is true. I turned over every rock. I was as diligent as I could be to make sure it was factual, true, and even fair. I've been doing this for 25 years. And it's not the first time I've had to write about someone I known or people I care about. I don't get as hung up about that as a lot of people do. I understand why they do, but I don't necessarily agree with that philosophy. It's my personal life and I'd like to think I'm able to separate that from my craft.

Needless to say, it's now clear that our philosophy and Swart's differ. As a result, we'll be double and triple-checking the facts he first provided us--facts that were obtained, as we said, from court documents and interviews Swart says he conducted.

We will, of course, let you know what we find out as soon as we find it out. Thanks for your patience.

UPDATE: Swart admitted to an extraordinary omission. But he swore to the accuracy of the facts on which his story was based. Obviously, knowing he hadn't told the full truth once before, we weren't just going to take his word for it. So over the weekend and throughout the first part of this week, we checked them once more, this time with the knowledge that with his relationship would come some amount of bias.

So far we have found the following errors. In Swart's story, he referred to Liysa's dad as Wayne; his name is Wayland. He claimed that the staff at the prison where Liysa was held had eavesdropped on her second lawyer; it was actually her first. Swart wrote that after the shooting Liysa had bathed at her brother's home; she actually took the bath at another friend's, although she'd been at her brother's house too. He said that Liysa was a certified yoga instructor; in reality, she teaches but isn't yet certified. He said that the restraining order on her ex-husband was taken out a year prior to the shooting; it was actually 18 months. He also said that one of the witnesses who could testify to the abuse Liysa had suffered was the former Ambassador to Belgium; as the former head of the international division of General Mills, the man conducted business in Belgium, but there's no evidence to suggest he was ever an ambassador.

We do our best to avoid getting even one detail wrong. So it's with no great pride that we have to list these half-dozen that are either incorrect or misleading. Yet in double-checking Swart's story, we were able to at least confirm the accuracy of some of the facts supporting his main argument.

In the following pages, you'll see a ruling from a judge, findings from a custody specialist and multiple mental-health professionals, and interviews with Liysa's own son that suggest she was abused.

Liysa's aunt, mother, and brother also continue to insist that Rule didn't attempt to interview them. Her father, Wayland DeWitt, the former president of Walla Walla Community College, even says he went out of his way to make himself available to the author but never had his calls or e-mails returned. (Our attempts to reach Rule to give her a chance to respond to these and other statements have thus far been unsuccessful.)

These omissions count for something. But just what isn't clear, given all that Swart omitted himself.

Liysa's first attorney Pat Birmingham, whom she accused of providing an inadequate defense, refused to comment for Swart's story. But he was more than happy to talk to us about what the author got wrong.

"I read the article and it's the same thing that she has been claiming for nearly a decade," he says.

Birmingham says that he's spent the past nine years successfully defending himself against Liysa's claims to the Oregon State Bar. He also says his patience has run out: "I'm seriously considering filing a libel or slander lawsuit against Swart and Liysa."

Birmingham says that what Swart accused Rule of doing (ignoring contradictory evidence) is exactly what Swart did too. He says he has thousands of pages of documents that paint a very different picture of Liysa, a picture that looks very similar to the sociopath portrayed by Rule.

Birmingham says that Liysa's m.o. is to cobble together only the scant details that support her side: "She'll take the third paragraph on page three of a 10-page report and cite that as authority." He also says that if Swart had been the objective journalist with a quarter century of experience he claimed to be, rather than Liysa's lovestruck fianc? it's unlikely he would have ever written such a selectively sourced story.

"What it appears to me," says Birmingham, "is that he just took what she fed him at face value."

The police report for Chris Northon's Feb. 8, 1999 arrest on charges of assault.

Chris Northon Assault Arrest

An interview with Liysa's oldest son a few days after the shooting. In it, the boy, 9 at the time, tells a police officer that Chris would "keep choking my mom until she quit fighting." He also said that Chris was "always mean unless other people were around," got "even meaner" when he was drinking and/or taking pills, and often told the boys and Liysa that he would kill them and burn the house down or kill them and eat them.

Detective Interview Oldest Son

A copy of the custody evaluation written by Billie Bell, the guardian ad litem in Liysa's custody hearing. Bell concludes that Chris Northon had a substance-abuse problem and that there was domestic violence in the Northon home.

Billie Bell Excerpts

During the custody trial involving Chris and Liysa Northon's younger son, two anonymous letters were sent. One went to Bell, the guardian ad litem, while the other went to Julianne King, the wife of Don King, Liysa's first husband.

The letter to Bell accused Don King of being a pedophile. The letter to Julianne King was full of vague threats about what might happen to her family should she try to pursue custody of the Northon's son. (A pursuit that was endorsed by Liysa and ultimately successful.)

Below are copies of both letters. Also included are the results of polygraph tests administered to Liysa, Don, and Richard and Jeanne Northon, Chris' parents. Liysa and Don were determined to be answering truthfully when they said they had nothing to do with the letters. In the opinion of the person administering the tests, the Northons were "deceptive."

Threatening Letters

In Bell's analysis of the letters, she relates how the Northons faxed her a letter after failing their test in which they accused the polygraph administrator of being "bullying and accusatory." Bell says the Northons continued to maintain that Liysa had been the one behind the threatening letters, and may have even had a hand in picking the polygraph expert so that she could find someone who was sympathetic to her. Bell squashed that theory by saying it was she who picked the expert.

Billie Bell Explains Threat Letters

Judge Stephen Tiktin's ruling that Liysa and Chris' youngest son would live with the Kings includes his comment that "it is more likely than not . . . that father used alcohol to excess and mother was a victim of domestic violence."

Judge Tiktin's Ruling

In an interview with the private investigator hired by Liysa's first lawyer, her therapist Ilana Fernandez said that Liysa was scared that if she testified against Chris he would kill her. Fernandez also called Liysa's older son "one of the most interesting children I have ever seen." Only 7 at the time, Fernandez described him as a "parentized child," saying he lived in a "war zone" and took care of his mother and brother. Fernandez also said that the boy had a plan should Chris ever attack his mother again--he was going to hit him over the head with a frying pan.

Family Therapist

An evaluation from Dr. Jerry Larsen, saying Liysa displays "the signs and the symptoms of a battered woman." "She is a very bright individual who could effectively plan and carry out the death of her husband," wrote Larsen. "If this were true, she is not a person who would drive to a friend, tell them, or call others and describe the events. She would not then go to a hospital and give an account to a physician, and later to a police officer."

Dr Jerry Larson Eval

A copy of lawyer Pat Birmingham's witness list doesn't list Larsen. Liysa claimed that she was under the impression Larsen would be called to testify. Birmingham says that's not true.

"We decided not to call him," he says. "We decided to go on a straight self defense."

Birmingham says he has a copy of a different, earlier witness list that includes Larsen's name. He's promised to provide it later this week.

Defense Witness Summaries

A treatment summary in which a licensed psychologist writes that Liysa has "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder...related to...severe domestic violence in her marriage."

Jolie Krechman PhD PTSD

A counselor at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility writes that Liysa is "about as far from it [a sociopath] as one can be."

Gabe Gitness Not a Sociopath

The affidavit for Amy Portillo, a witness for the prosecution against Liysa Northon, who said she overheard Liysa's lawyer Pat Birmingham yelling at his client to take a plea bargain or he was walking off her case. Birmingham says he's never seen this affidavit and never heard of Portillo (we sent him a copy so he could take a look). He also says that while he never yelled at Liysa, he certainly did everything he could to convince her to take the plea.

"We were doing really well in trial after two days," he says. "And then the computer showed up [a reference to a computer Liysa allegedly sold to a friend which included incriminating e-mails suggesting she planned Chris' death well in advance, a detail included in Rule's book] . . . and then there was another piece of evidence that showed up that was even worse."

Amy Portillo Affidavit

Affidavits from two corrections deputies who swore that they were under orders to copy and record any correspondence between Liysa and her attorney while she was awaiting trial, orders given to them by District Attorney Dan Ousley.

 

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