Anatomy of a Poorly Written Conspiracy Theory

Photo illustration of Karen Velie (left) by Aaron Ochs. Velie photo courtesy of San Luis Obispo Police Dept.

Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community and Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction detailing the false, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.

CalCoastNews is back in the headlines again. This time, they’re in the spotlight for accusing San Luis Obispo police chief Deanna Cantrell of “covering up” her stolen gun. The accusations led to a sharp rebuke by the City of San Luis Obispo and San Luis Obispo Police Dept. The rebuke was published widely among local news outlets.

I have intimate knowledge of how CalCoastNews operates and how they conjure conspiracy theories for clickbait. They take a controversial news story with enough factual information to sustain a legitimate debate and supplement it with conspiracy theories that — as history shows — are not backed with evidence.

In this case, there are valid arguments that can be made about whether or not Chief Cantrell should be fired for accidentally leaving behind a lethal weapon that could’ve been picked up by someone who could misuse it. There are conversations to be had about whether or not her punishment fit the circumstances or whether those circumstances constitute a crime. Here, the problem is a “cover-up” conspiracy was alleged by a source that’s accused other public officials of “cover ups” without evidence. Additionally, the allegation is also being reported by someone with a clear bias against the SLO Police Dept.

I’ve done preliminary research into the allegations and reached out to my sources, but before I go any further with discussing the case itself, let’s deconstruct CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie’s article.

From Velie’s original July 25 article:

“The search for the pistol that San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell lost in a bathroom stall resulted in an apparently illegal search of a home without a warrant and the arrest of a couple on charges of child neglect for having a messy house. And, new information points to Cantrell’s efforts to keep the news of her loss quiet despite her claim that she immediately reported the stolen gun.”

In the very first paragraph, Velie makes a biased determination that the search for Chief Cantrell’s missing firearm resulted in a “apparently illegal search.” It was Velie who determined the search was illegal. She also indicates “new information” points to Cantrell “keeping the news of her loss quiet.” That’s apparently false because Cantrell released a video admitting to her mistake on Facebook on the day she lost her firearm.

It’s not accurate to report the Chief “covered up” the incident. Rather, the question is whether or not she reported the missing firearm immediately.

What Velie did here — and what she’s done in the past — is state a biased conclusion before the reader could read the rest of the article. She takes away the ability for readers to decide for themselves what’s true, what isn’t, what should or shouldn’t be investigated. This is a clear violation of journalism ethics and we haven’t even reviewed the rest of the article.

“In contrast to Cantrell’s claim that she immediately reported her gun stolen, several officers said her attempt to cover-up the theft of her gun risked officer safety and led to the search of the home of a man incorrectly identified as the person suspected of taking the chief’s gun.”

Velie has a tendency to exaggerate and invent her sourcing. The sources she does rely on are basing their statements on speculation or hearsay. When she was sued for defamation and went to trial in 2017, Velie revealed she had no verifiable data or contemporaneous notes from her “several sources” who claimed a local businessman illegally transported hazardous waste, was fired from a previous job and encouraged others to skirt regulations. The sources she relied on were two individuals who were deceased. While there was evidence she reached out to both of them prior to being deceased, a unanimous jury ruled she did not have enough evidence to outright accuse the plaintiff of illegality.

In 2013, Velie accused a former Homeless Services Coordinator for non-profit organization CAPSLO of “pocketing donations” and stealing donated gift cards. In her article, Velie alleged the accusation came from “a number of former homeless services employees” and “ex-boyfriends.” According to pro-bono investigatory work from CalCoastNews surrogate and private investigator Mike Brennler, Velie relied on one ex-boyfriend, a domestic violence suspect who was the recipient of a restraining order that the former Homeless Services Coordinator filed against him. The ex-boyfriend failed to disclose in his declaration against his ex-girlfriend that the restraining order affected his ability to travel abroad for his job. The other source was a former employee who speculated that the former coordinator may have stolen gift cards.

In the case of Cantrell, Velie cited an anonymous officer — suddenly no longer “several” — who claimed Chief Cantrell called police department employee Christine Steeb about the missing firearm and that Cantrell called her back “cell phone to cell phone in an apparent attempt to keep the call from being recorded.” However, Steeb denied Velie’s recollection of these events, noting the call between her and Cantrell dropped. The conversation between Cantrell and Steeb was logged per dispatch procedure.

Given her history of deceptive sourcing attribution and the circumstances in this case, it’s more likely than not that Velie is embellishing as a way to sensationalize the story.

“A call of lost property is listed in the dispatch log at 2:09 p.m.”

Cantrell claimed she placed a call to dispatch at 1:07 p.m. The dispatch log record indicates this to be the case. When she was unable to sustain a connection between her phone and dispatch, she contacted dispatch supervisor Steeb for a more reliable line of communication. Here, the issue is the discrepancy between her claim that she reported the missing firearm “immediately” and when she called dispatch, but it’s unclear what specifically was “covering up” beside the time of her missing firearm report. Again, she already admitted to the firearm being missing and that she was responsible.

“Shortly before 7 p.m. [on July 10], a group of five detectives were dispatched to a home on O’Connor Way after an officer said a man who lived in the home resembled the man in the video. However, the dispatch log shows the officers were sent to El Pollo Loco on Los Osos Valley Road for a lost property report.”

That’s factually inaccurate. According to The Tribune, the Morro Bay Police Dept., not an “officer” from the SLO Police Dept., contacted the SLOPD and claimed the suspect resembled a probationer they were familiar with. The MBPD has corroborated this account along with Cantrell and SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick. This mishap from Velie indicates she’s actually unfamiliar with the intricacies of this case.

Then Velie writes about the detectives showing up at the man’s house, reportedly insisting he was the one responsible for stealing Chief Cantrell’s firearm. The detectives reportedly searched the home unlawfully, kicked down his bedroom door, and arrested him and his wife for “child neglect” after reportedly determining they had an “unclean,” “messy” home. Velie also reported the children were taken into custody until 2 a.m. the next day.

However, police records indicate one parent was arrested for felony child endangerment and the children were returned to the home the same evening. Velie failed to disclose that one of the homeowners has an active searchable bench probation and the home was searched while the Probation Department was at the scene at the time of contact. This account was confirmed by three neighbors who witnessed the scene unfold. This appears Velie incorrectly if not maliciously claimed illegality.

According to one former SLO County Social Services employee and two current employees, having a “messy” home alone is not justification for the removal of children from parental custody. Appearing as an anonymous pseudonym (“PaulJones”) she previously identified as herself, Velie had this to say about the case underneath her own article:

“It is clear this was a bad entry into the family’s home, and the rule is evidence of the poisonous tree is non-admissible. Even if the family’s house was dirty enough to take the children from their parents, it does not count because it is fruit of the poisonous tree, a bad entry into the home.

Will they admit a wrongful entry, or will officers like Suzie Walsh, known for lying and violating rules to take children, work with county social workers and prosecutors to fabricate a case.”

Except nothing in the article actually states a poisonous tree was the cause for County Social Services to take the man’s children into protective custody. It’s especially odd for an anonymous pseudonym to outright reveal case information that’s not available for public consumption. But when you take a step back and look at the historical context to Velie’s remarks, her clear prejudice becomes obvious.

In Nov. 2013, CalCoastNews reported that Velie’s grandchildren were taken into Child Welfare Services because the home was reportedly “dirty.” Velie was reportedly unable to take the grandchildren into her personal custody because of her DUI arrest. In Aug. 2013, Velie was arrested for suspicion of DUI in San Luis Obispo. Her arresting officer was Joshua Walsh. Velie contested her arrest in a jury trial, claiming she was arrested because of who she is. Velie was ultimately found guilty.

Officer Walsh and Detective Walsh both serve together on Police and Community Together (PACT), a group designed “to develop and preserve community partnership, increase awareness and acceptance of diversity in the San Luis Obispo Police Department and community through inclusion, education and collaboration.” It’s unclear if the two Walsh’s are related — or whether Velie believes they are related — but there’s reason to believe there’s a connection between Velie’s remarks and the contentious nature of her arrest and subsequent, temporary confiscation of her grandchildren.

CalCoastNews and Velie also questioned why a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) alert was not sent out immediately to other law enforcement agencies. According to the City of SLO, there was an internal miscommunication that led to a lack of a BOLO alert and that no one was directed by Chief Cantrell to withhold the alert. Cantrell admitted BOLO should have gone out earlier, but evidence provided by the City shows she approved the BOLO. There is no independently verifiable evidence to show she willingly delayed the BOLO alert.

Let’s be clear on this. There needs to be a distinction made between the allegations of a “cover-up” and the debate on the missing firearm report’s timing. Though there’s a valid discussion to be had about the timing, Velie clearly failed to cross the threshold of showing any intent on the Chief’s part to willfully cover up a serious mistake she willingly owned up to. There’s a strong likelihood the allegations are based on personal issues she’s had with the SLOPD and Child Welfare Services. To take this conspiracy theory seriously would be a mistake.

Time and time again, Velie has proven to be unreliable. I would even go as far as to say that Velie does not have the capacity to investigate responsibly unless she is handed source documentation she can readily cite, such as controversy that she first reported on surrounding former Atascadero developer Kelly Gearhart’s investment schemes. Without that documentation, Velie routinely reports speculation and hearsay as fact without making any attempt to validate. Coincidentally, her controversial reporting practices cost her $1.1 million in libel damages.

Consider the source.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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