It was the kind of case one might expect to find in Philadelphia to the south or New York to the north, but the slayings of four young men over a few sweltering days in July became one of the biggest and most tragic stories to come out of the bucolic Bucks County suburbs in years.
It began when Thomas Meo, 21, Mark Sturgis, 22, and Jimi Patrick and Dean Finocchiaro, both 19, vanished seemingly without a trace in early July. Cops arrested Cosmo DiNardo, a hulking 20-year-old with a history of bizarre behavior, and searchers started combing a tract of farmland owned by DiNardo’s parents in the sleepy town of Solebury.
Soon enough, police found four bodies, and DiNardo and another man, Sean Kratz, 20, were charged with gunning their victims down in cold blood, the possible motive being a dispute over drug deals.
The case drew a swarm of big-league media outlets and resulted in network TV reports and headlines splashed across papers and websites nationwide.
Locally, three young reporters who did top-notch coverage of the story – Michele Haddon of the Doylestown Intelligencer, and Tom Sofield and Erich Martin of the news sites LevittownNow.com and NewtownPaNow.com – were all alums of the journalism program at Bucks County Community College.
It was an experience they won’t soon forget.
Sofield, founder and publisher of LevittownNow and NewtownPaNow, recalls that the case began as a fairly routine missing persons story. Then he got a tip from a firefighter that authorities were using a helicopter to search the DiNardo’s farm.
TV crews were gathering at a press staging area, but Sofield’s reporter instincts told him to head to the search site.
“Right after I got out of my car, two huge black county detectives trucks came over the hill and headed to a large farm a short distance away,” Sofield says. “Based on my experience covering crime in Bucks County, I knew they didn’t break those trucks out unless there was something big happened. A few minutes later I learned the district attorney was heading home from a vacation he just started. At that point, I knew this story was big.”
Sofield mobilized his small staff, including Martin and reporter Amanda Burg. He and Martin interviewed neighbors and friends of the victims, while Burg scoured their social media accounts and public records. “We were hearing whispers of what happened to these four young men. We pretty much cleared our schedules and moved content around so we could throw ourselves into this story,” Sofield says.
As the story went viral on social media, rumors and bad information started to fly. One example: A TV station reported that the bodies had been found when they hadn’t. “We heard the same information but held off on publishing it until we had three sources confirm it,” Sofield says. “And three of our sources got back to us and said ‘no,’ and one called and said two words – ‘That’s bulls–t.’”
“We made sure our coverage was factual and we independently confirmed every detail before publication,” Sofield says. “In some cases, we didn’t have the information first, but we also were told by law enforcement our stories were spot on.”
Sofield said as local journalists, “we had a different perspective than some of the regional outlets and national media. They could be quick, get some facts wrong and slap ‘breaking’ on their live hits. For us, we had to be right and treat this story delicately.”
Haddon, working for the Intelligencer, says, “it was all hands on deck with several reporters, photojournalists, the video team, copy desk and our editors working long hours. Information came at us from all angles, from press briefings to submitted news tips, and we had to work quickly to discern the truth from the many rumors and theories that were tossed our way.”
Haddon was tasked with covering press conferences and waiting along the roadside across the street from the DiNardo’s farm. “You couldn’t see much from where I stood, just a view of a long driveway that stretched its way between trees to the rest of the farm which was out of view,” she recalls. “But in those hours watching the driveway, I was able to report on and photograph everything and everyone coming in and out of there.”
For Martin, the DiNardo case was the biggest breaking news story he’d ever covered. “It acted as a wake up call to what a true media circus can end up looking like, between the crowds at press conferences to the mad rush to the DiNardo arraignment, the entire case was a strong example of a groundswell of journalists collecting on one scene for one story.”
Martin says the training he received from Bucks’ journalism program, and experience working on the Centurion student newspaper, was invaluable, particularly what he learned in a feature writing course about putting a human face on stories.
“A lot of the information that we could write about came from press conferences and other standardized sources. I believe our coverage stood out as humanizing for the victims and really told the story of what we know to be the truth of the case. This wouldn’t have been possible without the feature writing class,” he says.
He adds: “Teamwork played a huge role in our coverage. Bouncing ideas off of other people, as is common in the Centurion newsroom at Bucks, helped us to clearly define our coverage goals and standards.”
Veteran reporters often speak of the exuberance of covering a big story, and it’s a truism that journalists often do their best work writing about the most desperate human tragedies.
But for these three reporters, what lingers is the senseless loss of four young lives.
“It was a tragedy that touched so many lives in Bucks County as the entire country followed along,” Haddon says. “I was grateful to be part of a team of such dedicated journalists working on this story.”
Sofield adds, “In the end, we have to tell the story of the four young men who were murdered, report on the alleged killers and live in the same towns as their families. Knowing that some of the families were reading our coverage really put the story in perspective for me.”
Top photo: Reporters covering the DiNardo case
All news photos courtesy Tom Sofield/LevittownNow.com