HILLSDALE, Mo. — A Hillsdale, Missouri, employee was recently arrested after a photojournalist at sister station FOX 2 was run over with the village’s top leader in the passenger seat.
The incident happened in August as Fox Files investigators were looking into the village’s threat to tow multiple cars for code violations.
After our colleague’s injury, FOX 2 made the editorial decision not to air any of the footage from that day until police had the opportunity to investigate.
As journalists, we never try to become the story, but what happened is best told chronologically: From how the Fox Files ended up in Hillsdale to the photographer being rushed to the hospital.
Donisha Rayner woke up on Aug. 11 to a bright sticker on her car.
“Every car on the block had an orange sticker on the car,” Rayner said.
The Village of Hillsdale threatened to tow her car and several other vehicles in 24 hours for various reasons.
Rayner’s car had the tow warning because she did not have a valid village permit sticker.
“They did this a couple of months ago. They were telling everybody they were going to tow their cars,” Rayner said.
“If you don’t have this or that, if someone is visiting you and they don’t get a village sticker, they’re going to tow the car.”
Rayner had seen recent Fox Files investigations into municipalities towing cars for code violations. She thought the Village of Hillsdale had overstepped, so she called FOX 2 for help.
“They’re trying to find ways to get money, and this is a way,” Rayner said.
Rayner’s vehicle is not the only one that had the sticker.
Shavon Kirkman said her mother’s truck had a tow warning on it for not having a village permit sticker on the windshield.
“She’s going to have her car towed in 24 hours,” Kirkman said. “We come out of the house, and we see a sticker. My mom is just visiting, that’s not even my car.”
Looking for answers
The Fox Files went to Village Hall, wanting answers for Kirkman and Rayner.
The doors were locked because of lunch hours, but Hillsdale Police Chief John Bernsen came around the corner and said vehicles may get 24-hour tow warnings for various reasons.
“Expired temp tags, no village sticker, expired plates, wrong plates, counterfeit tags, all kinds of stuff,” Bernsen said.
Bernsen said he did not know how many vehicles got the sticker or how many cars had been towed.
“Don’t know. We do it for a long time, been doing it for years,” Bernsen said.
But, what would the chief’s boss say about the towing of cars? The Fox Files saw Dorothy Moore’s vehicle parked in front of Village Hall. Moore is the mayor, or her official title, the Chair of the Board of Trustees.
Mitch McCoy: Is the mayor here?
Chief Bernsen: She’s at her — whatcha call it? Her store.
Mitch McCoy: But she parks her car here?
Chief Bernsen: She was here but she went back to her store.
The conversation ended after that, and the chief went back inside Village Hall.
Moor inside Village Hall
The Fox Files heard Moore, the chief’s boss and the one supposedly at the corner store, inside asking him why FOX 2 was there.
The Fox Files knocked on the backdoor, asking the mayor to do an interview, but no response.
After waiting about an hour and for the Village Hall to reopen, the Fox Files went inside the main entrance, asking Moore to do an interview. After all, multiple cars could be towed in 24 hours.
While talking with the village clerk and police chief, Moore went out the backdoor.
“There she goes,” FOX 2 photojournalist Wade Smith said.
Moore climbed into the public works truck as the Fox Files tried to ask questions.
Mitch McCoy: “Mayor, mayor. Why are you avoiding us? People want to know what’s going on with these tickets. Mayor? Why are you avoiding us?”
Moore slid into the passenger seat of the truck while a Hillsdale employee got behind the wheel.
As questions were asked, the village worker put the truck into drive and started to drive away.
Photographer run over
Smith was run over by the trailer attached to the truck, and the camera hit the ground. An accident report obtained by the Fox Files alleges Moore told the Hillsdale employee to drive away.
An ambulance took Smith to the hospital for emergency surgery.
According to the accident report, Smith had serious injuries to his leg, and the Hillsdale worker saw the photographer on the ground in his rearview mirror, but told police he was unaware the FOX 2 employee had been hit.
“After being contacted by police, driver 1 [Hillsdale employee] and Occupant 1 [Moore] returned to the scene to make voluntary written statements,” according to the accident report.
The Velda City Police Department was called to investigate the incident because it involved a Hillsdale employee.
Velda City’s police chief confirmed the driver, a Hillsdale employee, was arrested earlier this week, but he has been released pending a prosecutor’s review to decide if charges will be filed.
It’s FOX 2’s policy not to name a person until charges are filed, which is why we have not identified the Hillsdale employee.
As for our colleague, he’s at home recovering.