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The Wrong Way to Get Screwed

Marlboro County, South Carolina, is a poor, rural swath of land where cotton is king and scandals are few and far between. Driving south on the highway out of Bennettsville, a passerby might not notice a quiet old motel with half a dozen trucks and pickups in the parking lot. But according to the online World Sex Guide, the Trucker's Motel is an "excellent old-time whorehouse" where rednecks routinely size up the girls at the bar and arrange to meet privately in the bungalows out back.

A lucky trucker might hook up with Kelly, a "beautiful, olive-skinned brunette" with a "hard body" and "36 C or D breasts," according to a 1997 contribution to the World Sex Guide. The writer lovingly recalled a trip to the bungalow, where Kelly explained the rules in a "sweet Southern accent," washed his dick, and proceeded to kiss, touch, and suck him, even playing with his balls during sex.

Tim Bullard sought a different kind of gratification when he investigated the Trucker's Motel for the local Florence Morning News in the fall of 1994. Based on interviews with local, state, and federal agents, Bullard alleged that the motel had been operating as a brothel for 30 years, and suggested that the owner or owners would never be prosecuted because Southern justice has limited funds and a soft spot for prostitution.

South Carolina is well-known for corruption; video gambling flourished there in the 1990s. But Bullard could not have guessed how much trouble he'd get into for exposing the alleged whorehouse. In the course of a year, Florence Morning News managing editor Frank Sayles killed the story, an anonymous caller told Bullard, "You're a dead man," and the newspaper sent him packing.

According to the state employment commission, the News fired Bullard for good cause. In 1995, the writer took the whorehouse story, which he had reported on their dime, and published it in the Point, an alternative newspaper based in Columbia, S.C.

Getting fired was "devastating," according to Bullard. "Some people said I brought it on myself. But I don't ever step on a news story. That's my reputation."

No one doubts that Bullard wrote the truth. But he paid a high price for it, losing his health insurance and remaining unemployed for months. His reputation limped until 1998, when the state legislature gave him awards for investigative reporting. Even in his current job as reporter and columnist for the North Myrtle Beach Times, he remains obsessed with events of the past.

Bullard recalls that at a recent cop funeral, he asked some Marlboro County deputy sheriffs about the Trucker's Motel. They just smiled, laughed, and told him it's "still open" for business.

Since Bullard's story was spiked, the Florence Morning News has changed hands, and most of the editorial staff have moved on. Former managing editor Sayles did not return repeated calls for comment. But Glenn Puit, a former crime reporter for the News who is now with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, remembers the incident well. While Puit cannot vouch for Bullard's reporting, he believes "it was a legitimate news story. There was a house of prostitution out there. Everybody knew about it, but nobody did anything about it." Both Puit and Bullard praise Sayles as a skilled editor.

After he filed the story, Bullard says, various editors read it and it "came back to me a couple times" with questions. But when it was time to give it to the company lawyer, he says, Sayles "began to drag his feet." One step Bullard took to confirm the story was visiting the motel with Puit. But when they started taking pictures, Bullard says, "Some guy ran outside, and we had to hit the road pretty quick." He also tracked down the owner and talked to him.

Eugene Zeigler, who is local counsel for the Florence Morning News, recently told me that while the story "may have been absolutely true," in his opinion "there was a substantial risk of being sued" by some of the people who were allegedly involved. One of them was a former Marlboro County sheriff whose alleged links to the business have never been proved. Moreover, the paper was battling a $1.5 million libel case on appeal, "so we weren't anxious to start in with another one," says Zeigler. (The libel suit was subsequently settled.)

By November 1994, Bullard says, the story was "set up for page one" on a Sunday. When the reporter heard a group of gubernatorial candidates on a local TV talk show, he called the show, announced that he was investigating a bordello in Marlboro County, and asked the candidates what they would do about it.

According to a former colleague, "That's when the shit hit the fan." Editorial page editor Richard Whiting gave a copy of the tape to Sayles, who was furious, apparently because Bullard had gone public with a proprietary scoop. In a written account, Bullard described sitting in Sayles's office, watching "his jowls flapping like the mast of a catamaran in a raging nor'easter."

"You're off the whorehouse story," raged Sayles, according to Bullard. "I'm assigning it to someone else, [and] from here on, you are to make no more telephone calls and ask no more questions about the Trucker's Motel. You got it?"

After that, Bullard says, he got a message on his answering machine from a man with a Southern accent. "You're dead," said the voice. "You hear me? You're a dead man." Bullard wrote a column mentioning the spiked story, but it never ran either, and another editor warned him to hush up. The publisher had told the writer not to claim expenses on the story, adding, "The unemployment line is full of comedians."

Instead of participating in an act of "censorship," Bullard sent the story to the Point, which published it in February 1995. Point publisher Brett Bursey told me he was "satisfied that there was enough substance" to the story—and that he never received a complaint about it. A few days after the story was published, Bullard was fired.

In 1995, Bullard says, he sent the Point story to then governor David Beasley, after which state police busted the place twice, netting a total of nine prostitution-related arrests. The local papers dutifully reported on the busts. According to Joe Younginer, a retired FBI agent who arrested an America's Most Wanted suspect at the Trucker's Motel in 1989, the former sheriff may not have wanted any publicity on the place, because it "was in the town where he lived, and he never did anything about it."

The current sheriff of Marlboro County, William Simon, says that after Bullard complained, "about two" years ago, the state conducted another undercover raid at the Trucker's Motel, and they made no arrests.

But Hugh Munn, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division, was unable to confirm the sheriff's account. "I have not been able to get any replies from our people on whether that is still in operation," he explained a week after my first inquiry. Then he stopped returning my calls.


ccotts@villagevoice.com


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