By Rosalyn Graham
Veteran Vermont journalist Mike Donoghue has been delving into the stories behind the stories in Vermont for 50 years. So when Charlotte Shelburne Hinesburg Rotary invited him to the April 4 meeting to talk about some of his favorites, he brought some big ones, from unsolved murders to political intrigue.
When Donoghue began working part-time at the Burlington Free Press half a century ago, he was a high school senior. He moved to the newsroom in college doing a general assignment beat and later police and courts for many years, telling countless stories of law and order in Vermont. He returned to sports for 12 years and a newsroom reorganization in 2010 made Donoghue the paper’s first “accountability” reporter, giving him broad rein to follow his curiosity and rely on his experience to further shed light on mysteries, expose corruption, and even write stories that led to laws being strengthened.
Now retired from the Free Press, Donoghue continues to work as a freelance journalist and reports for the Shelburne News and The Citizen and other Vermont newspapers. He also is executive director of the Vermont Press Association and served for more than three decades as an adjunct professor of journalism at St. Michael’s College.
With almost 50 years on the “dig-deeper beat,” Donoghue had many memories to share last week. Some he touched on briefly, such as unusually high salaries in some state government departments, former police officers bilking the system, and laxness in enforcing drunken driving laws. He also reflected on the positive side of the news, and paid tribute to the many who serve their communities, be they volunteers, elected officials or municipal employees.
One story that illustrated the persistence and personal commitment Donoghue brought to his coverage of the news was a murder that happened in Shelburne.
Judith Leo-Coneys, a 32-year-old woman from North Cambridge disappeared in 1979 and the man suspected of having murdered her, a Burlington teacher and administrator, also disappeared. Donoghue covered the story and as it appeared that the police were giving up on searching for an answer to the mystery, he continued to write about it at least one a year.
It was not until 1990 that the suspect was arrested in Los Angeles and returned to Vermont where he eventually led police to Leo-Coneys’ body buried in Washington County in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. The family could finally have peace of mind and bury the young mother.
“It was a terrible crime and I wouldn’t let anyone forget,” Donoghue said.
Rotary meetings typically have interesting, challenging, entertaining and timely speakers, but it isn’t often that the speaker’s stories trigger a comment that Donoghue’s talk did.
Rotarian Bob Manchester told him: “You have so many important stories, you have to write a book. You might be the last of the breed and you need to share your perspective with your community.”