NEW ORLEANS — In March 2022, Eyewitness Investigative Reporter David Hammer and Photojournalist TJ Pipitone were tracking down a convicted child molester in Tangipahoa Parish who had been mistakenly released from prison early, when a family member came at them.
Hammer and Pipitone wanted the attention to be on the story they were covering, not on them. They went through the legal process and now a year later, their attacker was sentenced.
With the recent attacks on journalists in America, including Orlando about two weeks ago, Hammer shared their story after sharing his victim impact statement in court. He shared why they were covering the story in the first place.
Convicted sex offender, Brian Matherne was mistakenly released early from a 30-year sentence after only serving 22 years. Hammer reached out to the state to find out why, but after days of not hearing back, he decided to go to the address listed on Matherne's sex offender registry to give him a chance to speak.
When he and Pipitone arrived, they parked on the side of the highway to make sure they were not on private property, but they were confronted by the owner of the neighboring property. That person, Bruce Verdin, turned out to be Matherne's brother-in-law.
Hammer said Verdin swung a wrench at them and tried to hit Pipitone with his truck.
"I never would have expected that notifying the community a child molester was out free too early would get us attacked," Hammer said Monday after Verdin's sentencing.
Verdin was arrested on three felony aggravated battery counts and a count of aggravated damage to property. Represented by attorney Garrison Jordan, Verdin pleaded no contest to the charges Monday.
"Which is not an admission of guilt. It just means I'm not going to fight the charges anymore in exchange for a probated sentence," Jordan said.
Hammer and Pipitone shared victim impact statements in the courtroom.
"We need to hold people accountable for these open attacks on journalists. We had a journalist murdered and another one shot recently in Orlando just for doing their job," Hammer said after the hearing.
Verdin was shaking his head during victim impact statements, then laughed when Hammer said they are lucky to have not been seriously hurt.
Pipitone said to Verdin, "I'm glad you find it funny."
Verdin replied, "I don't find it funny, I just disagree."
"There's a dispute or disagreement as to what actually happened," Jordan said.
For the aggravated battery charges, Verdin was sentenced to a three-year suspended sentence with a two-year probation. For the property damage charge, he was sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence and two-year probation
"Those will run concurrently which means at the same time," Jordan said.
That means Verdin, a now convicted felon, won’t face jail time, but will be on probation for three years unless he violates terms which include no contact with the victims or posts about the incident on social media. He was also ordered to pay $1,100 to WWL-TV in restitution for damages to a microphone and Hammer's cell phone.
"Attacking someone with a moving vehicle at a high rate of speed and a metal wrench that can cause serious damage and we're lucky we didn't have more serious injuries."
As for convicted sex offender Brian Matherne, as Hammer was investigating his early release, he was arrested again and returned to prison.
David Hammer agreed to share his full victim impact statement here:
"I've been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. And I've had the honor and privilege to be an investigative reporter for the last 17 years here in southeast Louisiana, the place where I grew up and love so much.
I've investigated crooked politicians, corporate greed and serial child molesters, and my reporting has helped put many criminals behind bars. I fully understand that my work will make the people I investigate angry, and I know that brings risk. My eyes are wide open about that.
But I'm not a war correspondent. I'm not reporting about an authoritarian regime that might use violence to silence me. I inform my community about issues of public concern and I always take care to respect people's privacy. I do everything I can to give people who are accused of wrongdoing a chance to tell their side of the story. I carefully check everything I report to make sure it is accurate and something the public has a right to know.
I should not be afraid of being attacked, just for doing my job. Unfortunately, these kinds of unprompted attacks against reporters are happening more and more lately, by people who seem to think anyone in the news media is fair game. As your honor may have seen, a TV reporter was murdered and a photographer was shot last month in Orlando while they were sitting in their news vehicle. Another reporter doing a live report about power returning after Hurricane Ida was attacked by a person driving by, apparently for no reason other than the attacker had something against the media in general.
And when I learned last year that a convicted child molester named Brian Matherne had been let out of prison seven years too early, I could never have imagined I would be attacked for trying to find out why. I gave the state Department of Corrections three full days to explain. They could have admitted they made a mistake when I asked, but they didn't… not until many weeks later, when Governor Edwards apologized for them.
When I couldn't get an answer from the state, I wanted to give Mr. Matherne a chance to explain, in fairness to him. I had all the documents and records I needed to show he was set free by mistake, but I wanted to give him a chance, in case I was missing something. Photographer TJ Pipitone and I went to the address listed for Mr. Matherne on the public sex offender registry, the one the sheriff posts online so everyone knows there's a child molester living there.
When we got to the address, we were careful to stay on the side of the highway, in the public right-of-way, not on anyone's private property. And yet, when someone on the next property yelled to ask us to move, we didn't argue. Mr. Pipitone immediately said he would move the camera to the other side of the street.
We had no reason to expect that Mr. Verdin would come out of nowhere and hit Mr. Pipitone with his truck. Or that he would use the truck to trap our vehicle so we couldn't get away. Or that he would get out of the truck to hit us with a metal wrench and smash our equipment.
I tried to explain why we were there, but Mr. Verdin never stopped to listen. He never said one word to us about anything, much less why he was attacking us. He just did it.
The sheriff's deputies' body cam footage showed Mr. Verdin saying he knew why we were there. He told police his brother-in-law was a child molester who was let out of prison too early. And still, he said he felt he had a right to attack us.
Your honor, this was a scary attack. Mr. Pipitone was carrying a heavy camera and tripod when Mr. Verdin hit him with his truck. He is lucky he wasn't seriously injured. We are both very lucky because Mr. Verdin clearly wanted to do more harm to us than he managed to inflict.
I love my job, and I give it my all because I believe it is critical to making our community better and safer. I am proud that journalism is the only profession protected and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
But threats and physical attacks take a toll on our ability to do that job. And if the criminal justice system doesn't punish those who think they can silence journalists through violence, the right of a free press that's guaranteed by the First Amendment won't mean very much.
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