Tip pays off for Richmond student journalists

VIRGINIA — As journalists will tell you, anonymous emails often don’t lead to good stories. As University of Richmond students Katie Conklin and Richard Arnett will tell you, this one did.

The Collegian reporters started digging into the past of a law school student when they got a tip that he was a sex offender. Turns out he had served time in prison for aggravated sexual battery.

He had also been ordered to withdraw from the University of Virginia, according to the story Conklin and Arnett published earlier this month. At Richmond, he was the recipient of one of the law school’s most prestigious scholarships and a member of its Honor Council.

“It is unclear why a registered sex offender was admitted on scholarship to the law school when it is unlikely that someone with that offense would be allowed to practice law in Virginia,” Conklin and Arnett wrote.

Zachary Jesse’s listing on the sex offender database gave the reporters at least one lead: his address. Arnett said they staked it out for hours, over the course of several days, before they caught him at home.

“It was really nice to be able to talk to him, finally,” Arnett said. “He was very nice and hospitable” but said he needed to talk to his lawyer first.

Arnett and Conklin spent a long time trying to get in touch with Jesse’s lawyer as well as those involved in his original rape case, with varying success.

“Since we couldn’t get people to talk to us, a lot of (the reporting) was using online resources,” Conklin said. She and Arnett utilized court documents, such as witness testimony and plea agreements, as well as social media sources like Facebook and LinkedIn.

“We did a Google search of him and none of his stuff was fully public online,” Arnett said. “(But) we pieced all of that together, then, to verify the stuff we had learned.”

Conklin said one challenge they faced was getting officials to talk. One law professor they talked to questioned the story’s news value and implied that they weren’t respecting Jesse’s privacy.

“He was not happy,” Conklin said of the interview. “So that was over pretty quickly.”

They did have some success getting experts to talk in general terms, rather than about Jesse’s case specifically. They questioned the law school’s dean about the application process.

“I think the big thing we were looking to find out was, ‘Did Mr. Jesse make it apparent on his application?’” Conklin said. Another sticking point, she said, was how Jesse won a $30,000-a-year scholarship.

Conklin said she’s received emails from readers who are concerned that their donated money landed in the hands of this student. Overall, though, she said reaction to the story has been “mixed.”

“A lot of people didn’t see why it was necessary,” she said. “(But) at the same time I’ve gotten a lot of positive emails.”

The article has garnered almost 70 comments so far, running the gamut from appreciative to derogatory.

“I found your recent story about Zachary Jesse’s admission distasteful,” wrote a commenter who identified herself as a current Richmond law student. “Acting under the auspices of attacking an admissions decision, the staff chose to vindictively humiliate Jesse for a horrible mistake he made 8 years ago.”=”#comment-1113470081″>

“Sexual assault isn’t a horrible mistake,” replied another commenter. “These writers deserve applause for bringing this issue to light to the rest of the undergraduate and graduate students who are struggling their way through repaying student debt.”=”#comment-1117407958″>

Arnett said the controversy has helped to convince The Collegian to write follow-up stories. “It’s really a love or hate story,” he said.

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.