Matthew Brown had his doubts about Ray Dolin’s story while he was reporting it. An Associated Press reporter based in Montana, Brown had noticed a brief on June 11 saying Dolin had been shot by the side of the road while hitchhiking; he’d told police he was writing a book about kindness in America. An arrest had been made and a suspect charged.
“I talked to my bureau in Helena and we decided that’s definitely a story that’d get a lot of play,” he said in a telephone interview. “So we got our own story out there with that pretty quickly.”
Out there it got. The delicious headline traveled widely. The Guardian wrote an editorial based on it: “We wish Dolin well with the rest of his travels and writing. Although he might tweak that title: The Kindness of America, Most of the Time,” it read.
As it turned out, no such edit would be necessary: Police say Dolin admitted a few days later that he’d shot himself.
Here’s how Brown reported a story whose details never quite felt right to him.
Dolin was being treated at a local hospital when Brown wrote the first of five stories he’d file about the weird case. Dolin wouldn’t talk on the phone. (Brown is based in Billings, five hours away, and he necessarily does much of his reporting by phone.) But he was able to find his father in West Virginia, who spoke carefully about his son’s purported memoir.
“Quite frankly, it sounded like a father who didn’t put too much stock in his son’s ambitions,” Brown said.
And then there was what Brown called “Red flag No. 2″: The splash page on the site for Dolin’s photography business, OneShot Impressions, features its logo within a rifle scope’s crosshairs.
But Dolin’s Facebook wall had posts about his travels, and the arrest of the supposed shooter fit a larger Montana narrative: random crime connected to an oil boom in Montana, North Dakota and Canada.
Dolin’s shooting followed a killing that, Brown wrote in his first story, “has stoked worries that a once-quiet corner of Montana has been irreversibly altered by the oil boom. Crime rates across western North Dakota and eastern Montana have spiked as thousands of workers flock to a region that has become one of the top-oil producing areas of the country.”
According to police, the man arrested in connection with the shooting was on his way to Williston, N.D., for oilfield-related work.
Brown wasn’t the only AP’er with doubts about Dolin’s story. Editors in Phoenix and New York had raised their eyebrows at it, too.
On June 12, the day after his first story, Brown called Valley County Sheriff Glen Meier “to see if they thought there was anything awry.” The sheriff, Brown said, repeatedly told him, “We are seekers of the truth.”
Also that morning, Brown pulled the 911 log from Dolin’s call and tracked down the woman who took him to the hospital. She told him she’d visited Dolin there and his story was the same as he’d told the cops.
A couple days later, the police told Brown that they had released the man they had arrested. They promised a “major breakthrough” in the next 24 hours.
Within minutes, Ray Dolin finally called Brown. And he wanted to talk — about his memoir. “Here I am, I’ve been trying to reach this guy for a few days, obviously I’m calling about the fact that he got shot,” Brown said.
Dolin took him through his creative process and told Brown “a few different stories about different acts of kindness that he’d witnessed” on his trip. He then repeated the story he’d told police and told Brown there was “a lot of irony” to the fact that his company was named OneShot Impressions and he had been shot.
When Brown told Dolin that police had released the man charged with the shooting, he “went right back into talking about kindness,” the reporter said. “He didn’t seem to want to talk too much about the guy who supposedly shot him.”
Brown asked Dolin if he planned to continue his trip, and Dolin said he hoped to soon. “I’ve proved my point that there’s more good in America than people think,” Dolin told Brown.
“I didn’t really think he had proved his point, quite frankly, because he’d gotten shot,” Brown said.
For Brown’s third story, published June 14, he carefully chose quotes from his interview with Dolin: “I tried to pick the choice ones so people could read between the lines.”
He discussed his worries about Dolin’s credibility with his editor over instant-message. The editor said he hadn’t noticed Brown’s artful curation of quotes, but after Brown asked, he “could see it as a possibility” that Dolin was telling a grand tale. “So maybe those quotes weren’t so choice,” Brown said in retrospect. He also dropped the context of other oilfield crimes.
While he was talking to Dolin, Brown said, investigators were on their way to confront the hitchhiker. Friday morning, they announced that he had confessed to shooting himself. “We let the air out of his balloon,” the sheriff told a TV station.
Brown and Dolin “were gonna talk the next morning,” Brown said. His calls have gone to Dolin’s voice mail ever since.