Lyons: Things that go bump in plain, white envelopes

It’s Halloween, so perhaps I’m moved by unseen spirits, but I’m compelled to address a ghost, poltergeist or a supernatural pest who’s tried to haunt me for several years.

Nearly once a week, this apparition writes an anonymous letter complaining about things that usually have to do with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office. They all have various haunting themes – mostly stories told many times or bits of information that aren’t useful.

But the spectral author doesn’t just haunt me. Although the letters always address me, the mysterious missives are sent to my bosses, fellow members on the editorial board and, occasionally, our corporate office.

Usually, the underlying theme is that we’re not hard enough on the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office because I hang out with either Sheriff Keith Nygren, Undersheriff Andrew Zinke, unnamed sheriff’s office members or some other goblins.

Boo! Except no one cares. All the chain rattling and moaning in the night go for naught. It’s a complete waste of paper and plain white envelopes. You just feel sad that the phantom’s efforts are all in vain.

It’s all easy to dismiss because it’s false. And who would know it’s false better than me? Perhaps that’s why the letters are addressed to my superiors and dismissed by them.

There have been exactly zero occasions where the sheriff or the undersheriff and I have gathered for a meal or drinks except at a public event with dozens of others. No one has been to anyone’s home. I once met Zinke for coffee to discuss business. When invited by sources, I often make time.

As would anyone who attends events or leaves his home, I occasionally see them in public. That’s as social as we’ve gotten. Friendly, cordial as most adults are.

Of course, I’ve spoken with them many, many times. It’s my job to speak with them. I covered the sheriff’s office for years since around the time Nygren began. There have been routine conversations, pleasant conversations and angry discussions with each.

Having spent many years in the courthouse, there are people whom I consider friends and say hello to when I bump into them who work at the sheriff’s office – in probation, in the public defender’s office, at other police departments or private law firms. At least one friend is a judge.

There also are people whom I consider friends working at hospitals, schools, construction companies and other random places. We sometimes conspire in such unethical undertakings as coaching a youth sports team or helping a charity. Sometimes we plot missions of political intrigue, but such discussions are often derailed by a distracted 6-year-old on the offensive line or a shortstop’s bloody nose.

It’s true that journalists walk among the rest of us – prey like anyone else to the insurmountable persuasion of a guy who drives a police cruiser or the impenetrable wisdom of a friend who writes up housing contracts or pleads out domestic battery cases – an intellectual tightrope few dare to tread.

I’m predisposed to dislike people upon introduction, but, unfortunately, many have proven me wrong by being pretty decent human beings despite my nature. Can’t win ‘em all.

Until they make journalism robots, this phenomenon is unavoidable. Meanwhile, what journalists try to do is be fair to everyone, whether an acquaintance or not. What we try to do is look at facts instead of conjecture. It’s not always simple, but it isn’t rocket science either.

But what’s easy for journalists to do is to ignore the petty gripes of the anonymous specter letter writer who’s best scare tactics are ad hominem attacks.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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