Larry Winget, a reporter for Alamosa's Valley Courier newspaper, has seen a lot of things during his five years as a journalist. But last week, he experienced something new: He says he was attacked while trying to take a photo of a minor traffic accident involving a vintage train.
On June 10, as detailed in an article headlined "Reporter Assaulted Wed.," a flatbed trailer tangled with a train owned by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad at the summit of Cumbres Pass where the tracks intersect Colorado Highway 17. When Winget arrived at the scene, two railroad employees initially denied that anything untoward had taken place -- and when he began taking photos, someone later identified as Michelle Martin shoved the camera into his face and punched him in the stomach.
Winget wasn't hurt: "It was a pretty wimpy punch," he concedes. However, at the urging of Valley Courier publisher Keith Cerny, he reported the incident to the Conejos County Sheriff's Office due in part to what it symbolized. "It was an assault against newspapers and the freedom of the press," he said. Moreover, Cumbres & Toltec is a public, not private, enterprise, as is explained in the following passage from the railroad's website:
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The States of New Mexico and Colorado joined together and purchased the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in 1970. In 1977, the bi-state agency, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, was created to act on behalf of the two states in overseeing the operation of the C&TSRR. The Commission is composed of four members, two from each state, appointed by their respective state Governor. The Commission sets the policies for the management of the C&TSRR. The Commission has contracted with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Management, Corp. to handle the daily operation of the Railroad and be the project manager on Capital Improvement Projects.
Elmer Salazar, who's on the board of Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Management Co., the firm that holds the railroad's operating contract, met with Winget and his editor yesterday, and he made it clear that the dust-up as described in the article linked above doesn't represent the firm's policy. Still, he isn't ready to cast aspersions. "The crew, understandably, was under stress, having had the locomotive hit a guy's trailer -- and the guy was cited," he says. "But I just don't have the facts yet. So my mission is to do a thorough review, listen to both sides, and hopefully report back to the president of the company and the board and then find out what the next options are." Salazar hopes to have this goal accomplished by June 23, after which he'll check back in with the folks at the Valley Courier with an eye toward finding "a path forward."
Salazar would like to maintain what's been a positive association with the Valley Courier, and that's fine by Winget. "I've had good relations with them for years," he notes. "The people there are honest and hardworking. So I think this was an aberration."
Thus far, no arrests have been made, and Winget expects that if one is, the charge will be harassment, not assault. If that happens, such a bust will no doubt net another story about a minor matter that quickly grew larger than it needed to be.