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Friends step between media glare, victims' families

Gwen Hadley didn't know what to do.

Her best friend's son, a promising young Vanderbilt University running back, was shot to death the day after Christmas. Now the media, including CNN and ESPN, were calling and calling and calling.

Hadley's friend, Kelly Doster, was in no shape to speak. But someone had to answer the phone. So Hadley started answering reporters' questions about 21-year-old Kwane Doster.

Soon Hadley was acting as a full-time media spokeswoman, appearing on camera and fielding calls on her cell phone at all hours of the day and night.

"It's been overwhelming, overwhelming, overwhelming, overwhelming," said Hadley, a former professional singer who lives with the Doster family. "I'm just trying to roll with the flow."

Twenty years ago, a local tragedy might draw one or two newspaper reporters and a television crew. But with the proliferation of cable news shows and other outlets, a full-fledged media throng is becoming increasingly common.

For a family in the first throes of grief, the attention can be too much. So people like Hadley are stepping in to act as a buffer.

Some are family friends. Others are employers or colleagues. And despite a lack of training, these impromptu spokespeople are surprisingly savvy, calling news conferences and scheduling interviews like professional publicists.

The job can be emotionally exhausting, frustrating and even a little scary when the cameras get too close.

But even with the drawbacks, most say their time in the media spotlight was interesting and ultimately rewarding.

"I wish I hadn't been so drained and tired, and I wish I had been dressed the way I like," Hadley said. "But I would do it again, if someone needed me."

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When reporters started camping outside Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg for news about the condition of James Dolan, who was injured in the Radio Shack shootings last month, family friend Ric Cornelius knew something had to be done.

Dolan's wife and her mother work for Cornelius, a broker manager for Sand Key Realty Sales and Rentals. They called him for guidance the night of the shooting.

As the author of two consumer guides, Cornelius had some experience speaking on radio and television. He offered to handle the media.

Soon he had scheduled a news conference to update reporters on Dolan's condition and to announce the creation of a trust fund to offset the family's medical bills.

How did someone with limited experience dealing with the media know to schedule a news conference? It was mostly common sense, Cornelius said.

"Someone had to get a grip on the situation," he said. "You want the cooperation of the media. And you don't want to ignore them because then you force their hand so they have to find other ways to get the information they're seeking."

Dolan, a 30-year-old Radio Shack employee, was blinded when he was shot in the head during a Nov. 18 shooting rampage by Justin Cudar, 25. Two others were killed in the attack.

Dolan is the father of three young children, and Cornelius said one of his main jobs was to control the flow of information so the kids didn't find out about their dad before someone in their family told them.

"You have to pick your words very carefully in a case like this," Cornelius said. "Our first priority was protecting the children."

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While it may be more comfortable for families to pick someone to speak for them, it's not always the best route, said Wally Dean, broadcast training coordinator for the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.

When the spokesman isn't a family member, there's a greater risk that misinformation may be spread, he said. Also, many families find it cathartic to talk publicly about their loved ones.

"It helps for people to be able to tell their own story," Dean said, "if they can do it in their own way and their own terms."

But he said it's hard to blame families for shying away from the media. With the incredible increase in media outlets, there may be too many reporters for a grieving family to handle.

Also, because competitive pressure to score an exclusive bit of information or a family interview is increasingly intense, journalists may not be as sensitive to a situation as they should be, Dean said.

"News people can be abrupt," Dean said. "They're always in a hurry. They've got questions, they need an answer and then they're done with you."

When he gives seminars and speaks to journalism students, Dean urges journalists to slow down and take the time to learn about the community and the family when reporting a story. The extra time and investment usually result in a better story, he said.

"The one word to remember," Dean said, "is respect."

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Sometimes, it takes one tragedy to understand another. Hadley lost her 28-year-old daughter to cancer just six months before Kwane Doster was killed.

"We've all been touched by death in one way or the other," she said. "But to lose a child is like none other."

Tampa community activist Michelle Patty knows that pain, too. Her 21-year-old stepson, Byron Patty Jr., was gunned down during the robbery of a South Tampa motel room in 1994.

The shooting attracted a lot of media attention. Patty handled it all herself.

"At the time of his death, I would have appreciated it if someone had stepped up and been my spokesperson while I was trying to make funeral arrangements," she said.

So when a hit-and-run driver killed 13-year-old Bryant Wilkins and 3-year-old Durontae Caldwell, Patty was quick to volunteer her services to their mother, Lisa Wilkins.

The Wilkins' case was particularly difficult because it generated such intense coverage for so long, Patty said. When it was discovered that a pretty young schoolteacher named Jennifer Porter was driving a car police said was involved in the accident, a near frenzy ensued.

Each day, there was a new question. Will Porter be arrested? Will her parents cooperate? Will they turn over evidence? Lisa Wilkins spoke to reporters herself numerous times. But it quickly grew tiring.

"Sometimes the media got a little too aggressive," Patty said. "They could be relentless sometimes."

Then there was the day Patty and Wilkins were returning from the funeral home after completing burial arrangements.

As they arrived at Wilkins' home, cameras suddenly surrounded them.

"By the time we pulled into the parking lot, they had come from all four corners," Patty said. "That was a little scary."

They were trapped inside the car, unable to move. It felt, Patty said, like they were being assaulted.

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It was 3 a.m. when two of John Andrews' phones started to ring. One call was from 60 Minutes. The other was 20/20.

"I told both of them, "Sorry, I'm going to have to call you back in an hour,' " Andrews said. "I was sleeping too soundly to talk."

An employee in Andrews' law firm, Patricia Parra-Perez, was shot in the head by her ex-husband, Robert O'Mara on Dec. 10 in western Hillsborough County. O'Mara also shot and killed the couple's two children, 12-year-old Sean and 13-year-old Lauren, before killing himself.

Parra-Perez didn't have any relatives nearby to make medical arrangements or speak to the media. So Andrews, her employer of about six months, stepped into the role.

There were a few times when reporters were a little too aggressive. But Andrews said the media attention has also been positive, allowing him to publicize a trust fund set up on Parra-Perez's behalf. Now cards and donations are pouring in, wishing her a speedy recovery.

Each time he speaks to a reporter, Andrews urges them to tell people to pray for Parra-Perez. Now she is slowly recovering, and Andrews thinks those prayers are working.

"It's not over yet," he said. "We've still got a long way to go. But I think what we are witnessing is a miracle."

Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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