Journalists in Colorado have a really hard, hard religion-related story on their hands. At the heart of it is the question of what to do when you are dealing with inflammatory, even terrifying quotations and they are, to pour gasoline on the fire, second-hand quotes. What am I talking about? Here is the top of the main Rocky Mountain News report. We'll get to the religion hook in a moment.
NEDERLAND -- Authorities believe the gunman who killed the general manager at Eldora Mountain Resort Tuesday morning also killed his cat before embarking on a deadly rampage.
The gunman, Derik A. Bonestroo, 24, of Nederland, died during a standoff with a sheriff's deputy on a scenic highway several miles away not long after the shooting at Eldora.
OK, that sets the scene. Here's the hot stuff.
Bonestroo, who was not well-known in the laid-back mountain community and had worked only this season as a lift operator, fired a bullet into the ceiling of the resort's locker room after saying something along the lines of: "I'm a Christian and if you're not a Christian I'm here to convert you."
... Bonestroo asked resort manager Brian Mahon about his own beliefs. Mahon told the gunman he was Catholic before being shot to death. ... Witnesses told conflicting accounts about what Bonestroo's exact words were.
Well now, "something along the lines of" is an interesting phrase.
This is one of those cases, I think, where you simply have to let the readers see the conflicting quotations for themselves. The defining quote begs for more information, to say the least: "I'm a Christian and if you're not a Christian I'm here to convert you."
This is not a common form of evangelism, to say the least, in the modern church. But if this is what the man said -- and the hellish content of the fatal face-off with Mahon seems clear enough -- then that's what the story needs to say. But you have to keeping ask: What did Bonestroo actually say?
The next hard question flows out of that: Why did he say it? Boulder Sheriff Cmdr. Phil West and other quoted authorities may, literally, not have a clue about that. I also know that this kind of detail is hard to find on deadline. So what could reporters look for?
In the follow-up reports, it's pretty clear that people still don't know. Unless I have missed something (since I am still on the road, far from my office and a steady dose of wifi), it does not seem like the gunman was a pioneer in some form of strange, violent form of evangelism.
Frankly, it sounds like he was struggling with anger, anxiety and mental illness. Later in the story, readers are told that Bonestroo had been "experiencing some emotional crisis," but details of that part of the investigation were not made public. Here's another section of the basic story:
The trouble apparently started in town a little before 7 a.m. when Cynthia Davis, an employee at the local newspaper, the Nederland Mountain Ear, awakened to someone pounding on her front door. After Davis answered, she was confronted by a tall, slender man with a pistol strapped to his right thigh and dressed in black.
The man, whom Davis described as "very agitated and angry," was looking for some former neighbors of hers who worked at the ski area. ...
Five miles west of town, at the Eldora ski area, lift operators trickled into the locker room in the pump house near the base for their regular morning meeting. Outside, bitter winds howled through the valleys.
Shortly after 7 a.m., between 15 and 20 workers were in the room when Bonestroo entered. Rob Linde, spokesman for the resort, said the man was a lift operator who had been hired for this ski season.
Bonestroo spewed something religious -- a statement that was heard differently by witnesses.
"There are various interpretations of what was said," Cmdr. West said.
Meanwhile, a sidebar reached for yet another religious image in its lede:
The Derik Bonestroo who came to Eldora Mountain Resort on Tuesday morning packing a gun is as much a mystery to his old friends as are the demons propelling him to a violent end.
They couldn't relate to the ski-lift operator who declared his intent to convert non-Christians then gunned down the resort's popular general manager.
This leads to a very sad and familiar story about the shy, smart, nice guy who, for some unknown reason, had turned to violence. A friend of the young gunman named Brent Hammans later offers a crucial quote in this section of the sidebar:
At a community meeting Tuesday evening, Sheriff Joe Pelle said that Bonestroo's mental health had deteriorated in recent days and that he had become "fixated with religion," according to the Longmont Times-Call. That stunned his old friends, who don't recall Bonestroo being particularly religious.
"I don't remember hearing about any religion from him," Hammans said.
So here is a question for the journalists who are, I hope, still working on follow stories: If the gunman was driven by religion, where did he go to church? Where did he get his rather unorthodox religious views, if they drove this crime? Was he really, as the stories seem to say, a killer Christian?
These are hard questions to answer on deadline. However, I am sure that readers would be interested in knowing some answers in later reports.