St. Mary’s Weekly: Black and White and Dread All Over

St. Mary’s Weekly: Black and White and Dread All Over
 
[FINAL Edition] The Washington Post  – Washington, D.C.
 
Author: Eugene L. Meyer
 
Apr 8, 1991   Page A-1
 
The owner of an auto cleaning and detailing shop used to be an avid reader of and advertiser in the weekly tabloid that some people here in St. Mary’s County affectionately call “the rag.”

But then Ron MacRea’s name and picture appeared in a report that the newspaper, St. Mary’s Today, published about his arrest on a charge of drunken driving. He cut off his advertising and stopped reading the paper.

“I wish him nothing but the worst of luck,” said MacRea, referring to editor and publisher Ken Rossignol, whose sensationalist publication is the paper that folks in these parts love to hate.

Rossignol, 43, regularly prints the names of those arrested on drunken driving charges in a “DWI Hit Parade” column. Since July 31, when he started the paper, Rossignol has run the photographs of 149 people arrested on charges of drunken driving, some of them on the front page. His paper, with a claimed weekly circulation of 7,000, regularly splashes photographs of mangled wreckage, the bitter fruits of driving under the influence, across its pages.

“We’re accused of being a single-dimension paper,” said Rossignol, whose younger brother was killed while hitchhiking in 1972 when a drunk driver picked him up and later drove off the road.

But he also runs stories about drug arrests under the heading, “St. Mary’s Today Hit Parade on Drugs.” Another column, “Breaking and Enterings This Week,” catalogues other affronts to the public peace and tranquillity in a county of 76,000 located an hour’s drive southeast of Washington.

Rossignol reserves some of his most pungent descriptions for common criminals who prey upon the innocent.

In his pages, they are “dirtbags,” “low-life creeps,” “local scumbags,” “evildoers” and “heathens.”

“Showing the true colors of a coward,” he wrote in the March 26 edition, “local county dirtbags again picked on an elderly citizen and broke into their home, damaged appliances, furniture and floor coverings, leaving over $4,000 in losses for the 74-year-old resident . . . . Anyone who would like to rat on these low-life creeps can call 475-8008,” the county sheriff’s office.

Rossignol is a Rockville native and Montgomery College dropout who migrated to St. Mary’s in 1974 to run a pizza shop and be close to the Chesapeake Bay. He later sold real estate and owned a printing business. He had no newspaper experience when he began publishing light fare in free advertisers.

With his brother’s death in mind, his tone and mission changed last year after a drunk driver killed a pedestrian in Solomons, across the Patuxent River from St. Mary’s, and his own car was rear-ended there by another drunk driver. St. Mary’s Today hit the newsstands as a free, full-sized tabloid. In December, Rossignol started charging 35 cents a copy; recently, he raised it to 50 cents.

In the months since, the paper has stirred hornet’s nests of controversy with its flamboyant style. It has attacked entrenched politicians and embarrassed lesser lights caught in various police enforcement efforts.

Lt. Leonard A. Potts, commander of the Leonardtown state police barracks, said he believes Rossignol’s listings of accused drunk drivers serve as a deterrent to others. But Sheriff Wayne Petit, whose re-election Rossignol opposed last year, sees little value in the listings or the paper.

“His causes are completely just,” said Larry Millison, a former county commissioner who has quarrelled with the chain-owned biweekly, St. Mary’s Enterprise. Millison also has been a target of Rossignol’s editorial wrath, but defends him nonetheless. “He talks about DWI and drugs and waste in government. Regardless of who’s involved, he tells it like it is.”

Back in January, Rossignol stripped across the top of his front page the news that the county’s chief prosecutor had dropped drunken driving charges against the daughter of a former county commissioner. “My boss swears he didn’t know it was George Aud’s daughter,” said Florence Ballengee, a legal assistant to the prosecutor, State’s Attorney Walter Dorsey. “She has a different name.”

Ballengee added: “It’s the paper you love to hate. We call it `the rag,’ and we half kill each other to get to it. It’s all editorial, from cover to cover.”

Rossignol seems to relish all of the controversy, but adds nervously: “I never know when it’s going to be the last issue of the paper.” Rossignol said he’s never been sued, and said he follows the cases of the people whose arrests he spotlights and reports the disposition of the charges.

Rossignol runs the paper with the help of his 73-year-old mother, who answers the phones and sells ads. Two former base commanders at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station write regular columns, for free. The paper also runs articles about local and state government written by two stringers. Two others help with distribution and take pictures at accident scenes.

To spend an evening with Rossignol is to turn the clock back to the down-and-dirty days of police beat reporting when “legmen” chased ambulances to accidents and fires and police cruisers to the scenes of crimes.

In a Ford LTD with 151,000 miles on the odometer, Rossignol cruises the county nightly until around 4 a.m. each morning, listening to a police scanner and decoding 1029s (background check requested) and 1074s (not wanted) crackling over the radio.

One night last week, Rossignol arrived at the scene of a house break-in. The elderly occupants’ home had been ransacked while they were in church. Rossignol and Hung Dang, 31, his sometime photographer and sidekick, snapped pictures of the sheriff’s deputy emerging from the house.

“Hey, how come my juvenile {arrest} wasn’t in the paper this week, man?” the officer asked. “I was damn proud of that.”

Replied Rossignol: “My reason is, I didn’t know about it until now.”

The paper is printed in Waldorf on Monday, dropped off to 130 vendors Monday night and sold on Tuesday. Last week, it was late.

“You lost a lot of sales,” said Tina Reeder, cashier at the Hollywood Burchmart convenience store, when Rossignol finally delivered his bundle of newspapers there Tuesday afternoon. “It’s been aggravating us all day long. Some people said they’d been to three or four places” looking for it.

At the Liberty Full Service Car Wash, five employees each grabbed a copy and stood there transfixed by its contents. “This paper’s just become a habit,” said Patrick Dorsey. “It keeps me informed, because I don’t go out on the street.” Said Gloria Michaux: “It’s a Tuesday morning ritual around here.”

“This is the `St. Mary’s Enquirer,’ ” said Ben Greenwell, whose Sign of the Whale liquor store made the paper when a clerk allegedly sold alcohol to a minor. Printing such news is “the job of the newspaper, I guess,” said Greenwell, who was still advertising in it “for a couple more hours, anyway.”

(Editor’s Note: Ironically, Ben Greenwell, the father of seven, was killed on Dec. 9, 2000 when his vehicle was rear-ended by a drunk driver on Maryland Rt. 5 at Mohawk Drive as he waited at red light.  He and his family were on the way home from Washington, D.C. after attending a Christmas event.)

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