SEPTIC: New Podcast Explores a Tragedy and a Rush to Judgment

May 17, 2018

Journalists are used to reporting on tragedies of all kinds.  But the story of a 5-year-old Pulaski boy, who died after falling into a septic tank 3 years ago, has stayed with two Roanoke Times Reporters. Now they just released a podcast series that explores the nuances and backstories of the sad saga that are not always visible in black and white.  It's called SEPTIC. 

Robby Korth begins the podcast this way: "Every time a family makes the news our community mobilizes. We hold candle light vigils.  We pin ribbons to our shirts, stickers on our cars, we make casseroles for each other and set up crowd funding campaigns...

Roanoke Times Reporter Robby Korth and colleague Jacob Demmitt covered the story. And despite their extensive reporting, there were questions that continued to haunt them. "Our newspaper has been full of these kinds of tragedies, but this?  This is not one of them," Korth says in the recording. "This is the story of Noah Thomas.  A five-year-old boy who, all the evidence suggests, wandered out of his home while his mother slept in 2015. He fell into a septic tank and drowned.  But more than that, it's a story about his parents, who were blamed for his death, scorned by their community during their darkest hour and tossed aside as white trash drug addicts."

Their inquiry began with that single, mundane image that spoke volumes, Demmit says.  "A big question that kicked us off was, why is no one delivering casseroles to Ashley after her child dies in a septic tank? But instead they're calling for a court house hanging.  What happened here that lead us to that place?"

SEPTIC includes court room audio, interviews with law enforcement, neighbors, who fanned out to help in the search, attorneys, and more. But this wasn't about getting the facts of the case.  Korth and Demmitt already had those.

"The podcast isn't about how Noah died. This isn't Serial.  We're not trying to go back and solve a case. We don't have an opinion on whether justice was served here. That's for the listeners to listen to the facts and make up their minds."

But, always running in the background, was the unfettered voice of Facebook, with its own take on what had happened, like a Greek chorus of accusations and misinformation.

This was the 'go to' narrative: " 'This child is missing. He was found in a septic tank. He was killed,' that became the story line immediately and once that became the story line, it's never been undone."

Ashley White was never charged with murder.  She was charged with abuse leading to injury or death, a felony.  But after she served her time in jail an appellate court overturned her conviction.

"Had Ashley not been living in a trailer, a recovered drug addict, then the conversation might have been different." say Demmitt.

"White took a drug test right after Noah's death" Demmitt say, and was not positive for anything but prescribed medication." The reporters found evidence of at least one other case, where a child fell into a closed Septic tank.  Closed but not secured properly, exactly what happened to Noah. But none of this has really changed the false narrative in many people's minds.

Korth says reactions to the case raise the question, 'Is this how we, as a society, look at poverty?'

"I hope that people take a step back and ask themselves, am I thinking about opioid abuse or someone who is in a poverty situation in a fair way? Am I giving them the benefit of the doubt or am I judging them based on my own biases," Korth wonders?

Demmitt says,"We need to all ask ourselves what happened; why, when one of our own was dealing with this, did we not get a good grasp of the facts, why did we not feel empathy, why did we not look at this whole situation before we passed judgment?" 

(MUSIC PLAYS/ Blind Man’s Lament Performed live at the Country Store in Floyd by Roanoke Times Police Reporter, Mike Gangloff and Matt Peyton.)

After Ashley White was exonerated, the Virginia Attorney General's office filed an appeal. Now the supreme court will decide whether to take the case.                            

Robby Korth, (left) Jacob Demmitt (right)
Credit Heather Rousseau

Listen to the Podcast 'SEPTIC' here.                      

List of Current Episodes

Ashley White took a nap in 2015, leaving her children alone. When her 5-year-old son Noah is found dead in the family’s septic tank, the backlash was stronger than anyone could have imagined.

Episode 1: Small town angel

A rural Virginia county rallies together when a child goes missing in 2015. When the boy is found dead in a septic tank four days later, many rally together to condemn his parents.

Episode 2: Pulaski’s own

The people searching for Noah don’t know much about the child’s parents, other than Ashley White’s history with drug addiction. For many, that was enough.

Episode 3: The whole Ashley

Though Noah’s death is one of the most high profile cases in Pulaski County history, it wasn’t the first time his mother found herself at the center of tragedy.

Episode 4: Four days

The discovery of Noah’s body inside the family’s septic tank sets of a series of rumors about the way he got inside. But what does the evidence suggest?

Episode 5: A bad idea

Ashley White testifies she only left Noah for the length of a shower. She knows now that was a bad idea.

Episode 6: 16,776 hours

It might seem like Noah’s death is unique and unprecedented. It isn’t. Children die in septic tanks each year, but unlike Paul and Ashley, few of their parents see the inside of a courtroom.

Episode 7: Remembering Noah

Noah’s preschool teacher Stacy Arnett gave a eulogy at his funeral. She wanted to make sure people remembered him as a joyful little boy instead of just a life cut short by tragedy.