For more than a month, a 22-year-old Black woman was allegedly held hostage inside a makeshift room in the basement of an Excelsior Springs, Missouri, home. Bound with handcuffs, gagged by duct tape and a metal collar with a padlock around her neck, she was repeatedly raped and whipped by her kidnapper, according to court documents.

During that time, community activist, Bishop Tony Caldwell, posted a video on Facebook accusing elected officials and law enforcement of ignoring signs of a “serial killer on the loose.” Three Black women had gone missing within a week, he said, but no one was looking for them. The Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit Black news publication, republished the video on its TikTok account. “Given the very serious nature of the matter we believe it is critical to report this,” wrote the publication, adding a disclaimer that they were working to confirm the details of the video.

The Kansas City Police Department rebutted the claims in the video with a lengthy statement that said it didn’t have any reports of “missing persons, more specifically black [sp.] women, missing from Prospect Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri.” 

Less than two weeks later, a barely clothed woman appeared at a home on Don Shelton Boulevard wearing a trash bag, a metal collar with a padlock, and duct tape around her neck, according to court documents. She told police that she had been picked up by Timothy M. Haslett Jr., a 40-year-old white man, on Prospect Avenue in early September, and held in a basement room where Haslett had tied her up and tortured her. She told police that Haslett killed two of her friends, The Washington Post reported. 

Haslett was arrested the same day and charged with first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, and second-degree assault, according to court documents. If convicted for the top charge of rape, he faces from five years to life in prison. Officials have not released information about other possible victims, but police said the investigation is still ongoing. 

Haslett is expected back in court on Feb. 24. He has entered a plea of not guilty, and a judge set bail at $500,000. Haslett’s attorney Tiffany M. Leuty Winningham told Capital B in an email that she doesn’t “wish to make a comment at this time.”

Excelsior Springs police, which is leading the investigation with the assistance of the Kansas City police, named Jaynie M. Crosdale, 36, as a potential witness to the crime and are asking for the public’s help with locating her, according to a news release the agency issued on Wednesday.

The story shows why it’s “absolutely essential” to have “radical Black media outlets that are unapologetic and unafraid to report on issues that white news outlets don’t want to talk about or that they will water down or whitewash,” said Ryan Sorrell, founder of the Defender. The 27-year-old created the news site following the 2020 social justice protests, targeting young adults and millennials. 

Missing Black and Indigenous children and women historically have not received the same level of news coverage as white missing women. There were nearly 90,000 Black girls and women who were reported missing across the country in 2021, including 4,144 who were classified as “endangered,” according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files. By the end of 2021, there were 14,323 Black girls and women still missing from that year’s entries. 

Days after the young woman’s escape, the Excelsior Springs Police Department released an updated statement doubling down that their and other nearby law enforcement agencies did not receive a missing person report for her. Because of this, Sorrell says the Defender is working with a software developer to create their own Black missing persons database that people in the community can submit to “so that we don’t have to rely on the police department to be the sole centralized source for that information.”  

Capital B interviewed Sorrell for this story to amplify why newsrooms dedicated to the Black community are important. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Capital B: When you first saw the video from Bishop Tony Caldwell on Facebook, what made you stop, hone-in and listen to what he was saying to then take a chance to publish a story about it without the police’s records to back up the allegations?

Ryan Sorrell: I originally came across it on Facebook, and it immediately was just very disturbing to me to hear the information that he was talking about and trying to bring awareness to. It was not surprising in any way, to me, that the other news outlets in the area weren’t covering it. When I first came across it, I sent it to our team and we just started discussing it. I was able to get in touch with Bishop Caldwell, who I didn’t even know before that story took place, and a few other people because he wasn’t the only person who was raising the alarm on what was happening. The word was already spreading pretty quickly in our community. 

Ryan Sorrell, founder of the Kansas City Defender, says the Defender is working to create a Black missing persons database that people in the community can submit to “so that we don’t have to rely on the police department to be the sole centralized source for that information.” (Courtesy of the Kansas City Defender)

The difficult aspect about it was that we do have an adversarial relationship with our police department in Kansas City, because they’re currently under federal investigation for racism and discrimination. … And so we can’t rely on the police department for situations like this, and that’s what made it difficult for us. We still decided to publish it because we thought that it was very important for the community to know, and we also provided a disclaimer saying that we didn’t want to fearmonger or provide any misinformation, and we will provide updates as soon as possible.

Can you explain how important it is to have community outreach and to be a part of the Kansas City community as a Black news outlet?

After we had published that initial story and came under major fire by the police department that basically dismissed our reporting and said that it was, quote unquote, “completely unfounded rumors,” every single news outlet across the entire city took that verbatim and used that because the police department already doesn’t like our news outlet. So they kind of used that as an opportunity to discredit us, and other news outlets across the city just piled on in that moment. And even at the national level, Newsweek published a story about it, named us as being the supposedly culprits of — they didn’t use that specific word, but in essence, in the way that they frame the story — we were the culprits of the people who disseminated the alleged misinformation. Even the Atlanta Black Star published a story which is also honestly sad to see from a Black news outlet. [Atlanta Black Star did report a second article correcting the record weeks after Haslett’s arrest.]

I think, going back to why it’s important to have the community trust and being actively engaged in the community, because even when we were under all that fire, the people in our community, who actually read our news outlet, said, “You guys did not do anything wrong in this situation, and we believe what you all are saying is happening.” A lot of people from these news outlets were trying to attack our organization and silence the community’s claims; we actually never even apologized, even before the new information came out. We didn’t apologize. We actually doubled down on our commitment to the community and I published an open letter that said we’re not backing down, Black Kansas Citians, we have your back. And that was before the new information [the escape] even came out. And so when the new information did come out, again, I think it just kind of made our connection to the community even stronger in our relationship and trust with the community even stronger. And we would have never even had the information if people in our community didn’t trust that we had the community’s best interests at heart.

Do you think this moment will be a turning point for the Defender’s relationship with the police department and the police’s relationship with the community, which feels they are not heard? 

I think that there has been some kind of reckoning or awakening as it relates to the media in Kansas City as a result of this story. I’ve seen a lot of reporters and even talked to a lot of reporters who said that they had big conversations in their newsrooms after this happened and what community-first news can look like and how they should be transforming their newsrooms after this story. I think as far as the news and media is concerned, it did definitely have an impact. 

I think as far as the police are concerned, I don’t really see anything changing, honestly, because to this point, they still will not acknowledge any wrongdoing and how they handled the situation. I was a part of a panel, specifically talking about this exact situation, and a sergeant referred to our reporting as “myths,” even after the entire situation had played out. … I would not have any problem from the beginning, if they would have just said, “We don’t have anything in our database that corresponds with what is being reported by these news outlets.” If they would have said something like that, that would have been perfectly fine. But the fact that they said these are “completely unfounded” rumors, and, in essence, silenced and dismissed the concerns of Black media and the Black community and Black women specifically, I think the fact that they dismissed those and silence those, that’s where the problem is, and they still have not acknowledged the fact that they did that. And without acknowledging that, there’s no type of way to repair the type of harm that they did.

And I think the last thing I will say is, there’s something that Bishop Caldwell brought up as well but just imagining if you are this young lady, who was in that basement, and Timothy Haslett shows you the reporting that’s taking place — because you might have a hope that some people are going to be looking for you as long as she was down there — and then Timothy Haslett shows her that people are calling it “rumors” and saying and the police department itself says it’s “completely unfounded,” just imagining the type of psychological harm that would have caused her while she was down there.

How has it been for your staff with this kind of attention? Is it overwhelming? Is it motivating you all more? 

I would say it’s motivating. I think that it is, again, like the absolute worst and most horrific and tragic situation that could have ever happened. I think that we, our news outlet, are constantly having to expose racism, and denounce the hatred and violence that is being inflicted on our community by the police department, and people like Timothy Haslett. But at the same time, I think the responsibility of the Black press and Black news outlets and Black community organizations is to provide love and positivity and uplift our community as well. 

That has been what I have found to be optimistic about the situation. It has brought more attention to the issue of missing Black women across Missouri and Kansas, because it’s not only Missouri, but it’s in Kansas, it’s all across the country. … Since this story came out, we had a number of volunteers, software engineers, developers, who have volunteered with us right now to build our own Black missing persons database in Kansas City so that we don’t have to rely on the police department to be the sole centralized source for that information. Because if we would have had some type of independent database before this situation occurred, we could have pointed to that whenever the police department said they didn’t have it. If we would have had our own source of information that people in the community can submit to, then we would have had a way to refute that. So I think that is also one of the positive things that’s coming out of the situation.

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega