This week Salem Reporter published a story about Alexandria Tereshka and the years leading up to her death last November, after she cycled through systems of law enforcement and treatment in Polk County.
In the days since I have received a lot feedback from readers, acquaintances and the family who all expressed that the article was heartbreaking, even painful, but important.
Most of Salem Reporter’s readers are voters and taxpayers who haven’t seen a loved one go through the system. Many don’t know how some of these systems work, and whether they are effective for everyone.
I have to admit that the article almost wasn’t written.
It would not have been without the help of Tereshka’s family – her brother and aunts and uncle -- who shared my sense that if we followed her life carefully enough, as painful as the facts may be, we could put a face to the system.
After news broke of Tereshka’s death, after the Salem Police Department issued a press release one day in November, Salem Reporter started wondering how something so jarring could even occur. Was there more to this?
I looked at records. I sought out Salem police’s death investigation, and asked law enforcement agencies to run her name though their database of crime reports.
Eventually, I found my way to her address at a mobile home park in Dallas where I talked with a property manager, her neighbors and her boyfriend. They gave me a rough picture of her life, highlighting her personal tragedies before she ever even moved to town.
Combined with the incident reports, it was clear she had a few bad months living there. Those at the park said she had seemed to lose control of herself and they didn’t know why.
I just wanted to learn more – even though I wasn’t sure where it was heading.
This all occurred in November and December and I soon ran into dead ends in the story.
Neighbors and her boyfriend did not want to talk, for their own reasons. Meanwhile, it was a hunt to track down family members – even Salem police said they initially struggled to find “next of kin” after her death.
At one point, I called a funeral home where she was taken and asked if they had talked with the family. They said they would call the family on my behalf. They weren’t even sure if they had the best contact for the family either. Weeks went by before the funeral home said the family didn’t want to talk.
It was a similar story from government workers in her orbit. Court records led to her probation officer and Polk County counselors, but they said they couldn’t talk without breaking county policy.
Knowing that even police struggled to find Tereshka’s closest family, I wasn’t sure anyone had really talked with them. I wanted to make sure I heard them say “No.”
Some records gave us an address, phone number and email for her brother. I tried the number a few times, left several voicemails, before I finally heard back that it was the wrong number. Emails, also, did not get responses.
It was mid-February, with months gone by of my boss asking if there was ever going to be anything to come out of the work, that I printed a typed letter to send by mail to the brother’s listed address in Cascade Locks.
Then an email came in. Her brother – who had moved to Portland -- said he was willing to talk with me.
It was a February night when I drove to Portland and met with him and his two aunts and an uncle, who no doubt wanted to see why I had been asking around so much. I wasn’t sure I had a perfect reason.
I told them that I didn’t know where this story was going, but it felt important to look.
To my surprise, they said they were just as in the dark as I was. They were barely contacted about the death, they said. They wanted to learn more, too, but they didn’t know how.
They agreed to talk with me, sharing intimate details and photos and helped me stitch together the loose names and events I’d been hearing about from others. I spent a few hours with all three of them on weeknights or weekends.
There was a huge gap missing in Tereshka’s story. The family couldn’t account for her time living in Salem or Dallas. She had ostensibly disappeared from their lives, save for a few sudden appearances.
They agreed to give me consent to access Tereshka’s health records, but the files wouldn’t come easy.
Polk County initially charged $250 for them – the cost of printing and reviewing a stack of 798 health records. Even with family permission, the county insisted an attorney must review them, although the records were ultimately provided with zero redactions.
Eventually I landed the records, which provided the clearest look at her life in Dallas. She visited counselors several times a week, working with multiple counselors who filed forms about those interactions.
The next step was to sift through the stack. It didn’t take as long as it might sound. Many of the records were forms, and after the first 100 pages or so I understood what I was looking at.
All the while, I entered the records’ dates and events into a spreadsheet. Many of the records plainly repeated the same comments, but there were occasional anecdotes and slivers of Tereshka’s personality.
Once it was all in order, combined with the police reports and interviews with family, her story came into focus – for better or worse.
Experts advise journalists that when reporting on suicide it’s best practice to focus on hope and healing. This story could not get there. I wondered if it was possible any good come from an article like this.
Profiles in journalism have always been a way to help readers put a face to an issue, to humanize a problem. Oregon is reckoning right now with a mental health crisis. Separately, methamphetamine is the leading cause of drug-related deaths in the state.
After talking more with the family, I felt assured that Tereshka’s story could remind readers of these major issues.
I pressed on. I talked with Polk County officials at the courts and at the district attorney’s office, with the latter speaking surprisingly candidly about how wrenching it was. I reviewed court records with them to ensure I was accurately reading the chain of events of her final arrests and releases.
Ahead of finally publishing, I sent the family a draft. Normally we don’t share whole drafts but I felt this was an extraordinary case.
We also shared a draft with Lines for Life, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing substance abuse and suicide, and who recently helped spearhead a statewide suicide reporting effort called “Breaking the Silence.”
In the sake of disclosure, representatives for Lines for Life said the story was mostly compelling but they asked we change the beginning of the story and the details of Tereshka’s death. We ultimately decided that the information was already publicized and too important to the rest of the article, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t knot my stomach.
A day after the article published, family members texted to say they are meeting with state lawmakers soon to try and talk about ways in which Tereshka’s story could prompt changes in policies to better connect people with crisis services.
At least that was good to hear.
In journalism, however, the work never stops. Usually a reporter turns right to the next topic. I’m hopeful to keep in touch with the family to see what, if anything, comes of the reporting.
But I also know that the article was the hardest I’ve done and it’s stuck with me more than others. On Thursday, I saw a woman crossing the street near the new police headquarters. I mistook her Tereshka. Then I realized how strange it is to mistake someone for another person you’ve never met even once.
Thanks for reading.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.