For all the buzz in media circles about the importance of hyper-local news, some of the best coverage of the biggest story in the city, the Kensington Strangler, is being churned out by an underemployed cake-maker single mom and a crane operator out on disability.
Two months ago, 38-year-old mother of three Heather Barton and 38-year-old Richie Antipuna could not have predicted that they would not only generate some of the most eye-opening reporting on the Strangler to date, but also become ensnared in national headlines courtesy of the now- infamous Facebook fiasco—a debacle that earned them death threats.
“We can’t even go to Kensington right now because there are people out to kill us,” she says. “I didn’t ask for all this.”
How did Barton and Antipuna go from regular civilians to hyperlocal reporters to death-threat targets in less than two months?
Well, there’s the situation and then there’s the story. The situation, as Barton sees it, traces back to Kensington’s lack of one cohesive newspaper.
“I’ll keep saying that over and over. [Kensington residents] don’t have a local newspaper to … find out where services are, where to go, how to volunteer,” she says. “Without a newspaper it’s hard for people to network.”
To be sure, there are solid community newspapers working beats defined by ZIP codes that extend into Kensington, but both the coverage and circulation of the weeklies are patchwork. For example, the Fishtown Star and the clumsily named Star of Bridesburg, Juniata and Harrowgate cover parts of Kensington while the North Star and Port Richmond Star are available in some spots. Kensington is hard to cover—it’s huge and bilingual.
Worse, it seems its already-spotty online presence via Philly.com will now be even spottier since the recent sale of the whole Star lot to Broad Street Media LLC.
“My grandmother has lived [in Kensington] for 78 years, she gets no newspaper,” says Barton. “Sometimes when my aunt goes shopping she’ll bring the Star from Port Richmond.”
So that’s the situation. Then there’s the story.
Two months ago, the longtime friends decided to launch a local TV show through PhillyCAM (Philadelphia Community Access Media) called the Richie Antipuna Show. Their goal was to focus on positive stories in Kensington because as self-identified “Kenzos,” they have fond memories of growing up there.
“The rule of a Kenzo was to stick together and protect one another. We didn’t hurt one another. We just had this bad reputation because of the poverty level I guess,” says Barton. “But there are plenty of people there working hard to be part of their community.”
They intended to showcase all kinds of arts and culture. The first interview was with an opera singer; Barton already interviewed Danny Bonaduce. But the vacuum created by combining the threat of a serial killer and a lack of a one-stop community news source sucked Barton and Antipuna into reporting on how the community is struggling with the Strangler.
The afternoon before the first episode even aired, organizers of the Dec. 10 vigil for victims of the Strangler called and asked them to “cover” the event.
“We were like, ‘We’re not the media [and] how did she even find out about our show?’” asks Barton. Hesitant, they agreed.
After Barton met the mother of the first confirmed Strangler victim at the vigil, finding and airing the Kensington perspective, nonexistent in network and national coverage, went from a civic duty to something personal.
“When I met Darrah Goldberg … that’s when it hit me. She said, ‘I’ll never see her get married.’ I’m a mother too.”
Then the duo was asked to cover the Dec. 18 community meeting at Cardinal Bevilacqua Center on Kensington Avenue and they did that, too. They also conducted renegade person-on-the-street interviews for Special Report: Broken Silence. The interviews had an insider edge, revealing the neighborhood dynamics that enable a perp like the Kensington Strangler to roam free for three months.
In the video, Barton interviewed a woman who claimed that she and the third victim, Casey Mahoney, had encountered the Strangler the week before he choked Mahoney to death. “A guy identical to the guy in the picture ... approached me and asked if I could do a date with him for like $20,” she said. The woman says she walked with the guy and told her friend to call the police. “[Mahoney] ran across to the pharmacy down the street and they ... wouldn’t let her use the phone,” she says. “[Mahoney] goes across to the beer distributor and they said no.” Desperate, Mahoney asked to borrow the phone of a family standing outside but they also refused. “The attitude ... is that what happens to us, addicts or prostitutes, is on us,” she shrugs. “Kind of, we deserve it.”