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Activist's tale of attack is ruled untrue

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Fifteen months ago, something violent happened to Stephanie McGuire at a desolate fish camp on the banks of the Fenholloway River in Taylor County.

Three masked men beat her, she said, slashed her and burned a circle into her breast with a cigar. Then they poured river water into her wounds and said, "Now you'll have something to sue us about."

McGuire belonged to an environmental group that was threatening to sue the county's largest employer, the Buckeye cellulose plant, over pollution of the Fenholloway. Her story made national headlines and brought harsh criticism down on plant owner Procter & Gamble and Taylor County.

Tuesday, three law enforcement agencies said McGuire's version of the attack was not true.

"During the exhaustive investigation, many of McGuire's statements could not be verified and were in fact contrary to available evidence," reads a statement by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

For example, the circular burn that McGuire said was made by a cigar appeared to bear the outline of Lincoln and was likely made by a hot penny.

The conclusion: Unless new evidence surfaces, the case is closed.

McGuire, 38, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. She has moved out of Taylor County and did not respond to efforts to contact her.

One of her friends, Joy Towles Cummings, called the investigators' conclusion "outrageous." She heads Help Our Polluted Environment, the group McGuire belongs to and that sued Procter & Gamble.

"Stephanie is being victimized again," Cummings said. "I think they never intended to investigate this from the start."

But Dan Simmons, spokesman for Buckeye, applauded the investigation that apparently has cleared its tarnished name. "We're pleased that the shadow has been lifted from the community," he said.

Noxious fumes are

"smell of money'

McGuire is a painfully shy native of Taylor County who in April 1992, when the alleged attack occurred, ran the Fenholloway River Fish Camp with a roommate, Linda Rowland.

Taylor County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and locals fondly refer to the noxious odors from the cellulose plant as "the smell of money." It's essentially a one-company county that depends on the plant that makes pulp for Pampers and other products for its livelihood.

Buckeye employs 1,000 in its plant and creates another 1,000 support jobs in a county of 18,000 residents.

So when Buckeye pumps its wastewaters into the nearby Fenholloway River, few people objected until several years ago, when people living near the Fenholloway complained that their drinking water wells were being polluted. Some of them formed the HOPE environmental group and asked state and federal officials to stop the discharge of toxins into the river.

On April 7, 1992, McGuire said she was attacked, and Taylor County was on the national map. 60 Minutes ran a segment on McGuire; CNN aired several stories; and recently, Hollywood called, talking about a movie. Soon national environmental groups such as Greenpeace offered support.

Taylor County's business leaders also responded, pushing law enforcers to solve the mystery. At one point last year, Taylor County Sheriff John Walker attempted to charge McGuire with perjury. But the charges didn't hold up.

Last month, after 60 Minutes reran the show that included McGuire's attack, the Perry-Taylor County Chamber of Commerce announced a campaign to raise $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the fish camp attackers. The chamber contributed the first $5,000, matching a reward posted by Procter & Gamble after the alleged attack last year.

Three agencies _ the Taylor County Sheriff's Office, State Attorney Jerry Blair and the FDLE _ investigated for more than a year and released their findings Tuesday. McGuire suffered real wounds, investigators concluded, but they don't believe her story.

Among the findings:

Lab analysis by forensic expert Dr. Joan Wood, Pinellas County's medical examiner, shows McGuire's breast burn was not caused by a cigar but a hot Lincoln-head penny.

A wound McGuire says was caused by a bite was not a bite mark, according to analysis by dental expert Dr. Richard Souviron.

McGuire refused to be photographed by the Sheriff's Office the day of the alleged attack and refused to take polygraph tests.

Sheriff's investigators could find no evidence of a scuffle at the crime scene or blood on the gate of the hot-wired fence that surrounded the fish camp.

Although the FDLE assigned one of its top female investigators to the case, hoping McGuire might feel more comfortable working with a woman, she frequently did not cooperate with law enforcers' attempts to interview her or investigate the incident.

McGuire and Rowland had said in earlier interviews that they feared the sheriff's department was influenced by Procter & Gamble and wouldn't give them a fair investigation. (Procter & Gamble sold 51 percent of the plant earlier this year to a group of Buckeye executives.)

But neither the FDLE nor State Attorney Blair found evidence that the sheriff's department mishandled the case, FDLE spokesman John Joyce said.

"We don't have any proof as to her allegations or iron-clad proof that something didn't happen to her," Joyce said. "It's just a muddled case."

Many Taylor County residents wanted McGuire charged with a crime.

But investigators said they have no plans of charging McGuire with perjury.

"I think there's been a tremendous interest (in Taylor County) in proving that Ms. McGuire lied and I can't prove Ms. McGuire lied," Blair said. "I think there is a perception down there that if it could be proven in court, that instantly, the image for the Procter & Gamble plant would be changed overnight, and that is not going to happen."