No. 14: Threats, Lies and Audiotape
Notes from my deeply weird and kinda scary interview with Bill Sanderson
|Cari Wade Gervin||Jul 31, 2019|| 8|
I know I said I was going to send this out a week ago, but as handsomer men than me once said, everything hits at once. Also, there’s been more reporting — and more still to come …
“Saw part 10.”
That was the subject line of an email I received from a fake email account at 9:41 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, a little over an hour after I left (now former) Tennessee state Rep. Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton) in the parking lot by his Germantown condo. The email was referencing the horror movie Saw and its many sequels, none of which I have seen (despite my abiding and eternal love for Cary Elwes). Ostensibly sent from “Chainsaw Douglas” with the account “firstname.lastname@example.org,” the email said, “Want to play with lives? Okay let’s play. Love, C&B.”
I have no proof that Bill Sanderson sent me this email, of course. It might have been a political operative working for him, or a former staffer. It could have been his wife or one of his three children. But given how our interview Tuesday ended, I’d bet money on the legislator I outed.
As I wrote last Wednesday, I have known about one set of messages that Sanderson sent to a 23-year-old man since 2016. ( I incorrectly wrote that he was 20 at the time of the 2013 messages last week due to a miscommunication; still, in his pictures from the time, he could pass as even younger.) In deciding to write this (ongoing) story, I have had sleepless nights and talked to a number of people, gay and straight, in politics and in journalism, about the facts and the ethics involved. I did not make the decision to publish this lightly, nor without verifying the facts. And the fact is, Bill Sanderson used Grindr to meet much younger men and attempted to have sex with them. He says no sex ever happened — but that’s not what he told the men he messaged.*
I called Sanderson twice on Friday, July 19, after weeks of reporting and writing and editing. He replied via text and said he was on vacation and asked for me to email him. I sent him a list of questions and the general details of the story the next morning. Sanderson texted me later that day and asked to meet on Tuesday, saying that he was coming into Nashville for the GOP caucus vote to replace House Speaker Glen Casada. Although I had planned to send my story out Monday morning, I delayed it in order to talk to him in person.
On Tuesday morning I heard that Sanderson planned to resign via a story in a local West Tennessee newspaper the next day. I called Sanderson, and he confirmed it. By that time both his personal and campaign Facebook pages had been deleted, which he told me he had done on Monday. (As of today, July 30, Sanderson’s personal Facebook page is back up.)
Later that day, July 23, I met Sanderson at 6 p.m. CDT at the Nashville Farmer’s Market, across the street from his condo. (For non-Nashville readers, the Farmer’s Market is an indoor food court with small local eateries open year-round, just a few blocks from the state capitol and legislative buildings.) We sat outside on a picnic bench and talked for about 45 minutes.
Sanderson said his resignation was for family and business reasons, and that he “chose to do it now, because of the caucus meeting,” but that “I wish I had resigned two months ago.” He also told me that he had told Casada he planned to resign prior to his vacation, i.e., a week and a half earlier. At a different point in our conversation Sanderson said he told people two months ago that he planned to resign. But he told The Tennessean later that Tuesday evening that he told Casada the day before, on Monday, July 22 — three days after I had contacted Sanderson about the original story. (Casada did not return a call to confirm or deny this.)
Sanderson then gave me a written statement in which he said he always tries to consider how his son will feel when voting on issues that affect the gay community and has tried to “temper bills that were harsh or closed minded.”
“I have always been sensitive and spoken up for refugees, LGBQ and socially sensitive issues that have come before our committee,” Sanderson’s statement read. He then goes on to say that all the Grindr messages were faked by a “disgruntled state employee” from Lake County who “has an evil spirit.” (Not one of my many sources for last week’s piece was that man, whose existence I only learned about through Sanderson.)
After I read his statement, Sanderson told me the following.
“As I was driving down today I was thinking that once somebody says something, some people automatically perceive it to be true, period,” Sanderson said. “You seem like a really nice person. I get it from your voice, you’re a nice person. I don’t know what other people think about you, but I think you seem like a nice person …
“Let me say this to you. I have made the decision to leave. I would ask that you allow me to leave with dignity. It would mean more than you could imagine, to my family, to my children, to my mother, to me. Because what you write is going to be believed, regardless of what it is. I know what this — regardless — I haven’t been a perfect person. But I’m not a bad person. And this will probably ruin my marriage,” he continued.
“And if you’re looking for sensational stories? I’ve got sensational stories. That happened on the Hill. That are very provable,” Sanderson added. “But I just ask you that if you really search your heart and realize what this would do to me — just having to deny it, publicly, that would be a big deal.”
Then Sanderson asked if I was recording him, which I was. (Tennessee is a one-party consent state, so it is not illegal to record a conversation if the other party is not aware of it. That said, my phone was flat out on the table.) So I stopped recording for a bit, and Sanderson continued to plead that I not release my story, offering to trade all sorts of legislative gossip in kind, telling me about other legislators who have allegedly had affairs (all widely circulated rumors in recent months). I was sympathetic — not because he was trying to give me other stories, but because I do have empathy.
Then Sanderson showed me a faked text message, purportedly from me to him on that Sunday, saying that I wouldn’t run the story. Below is a picture I took of Sanderson holding up his phone with the faked message:
The tone of the threat was clear, although I don’t believe a single person who has ever met me would believe I would ever write, “I appreciate your service” to a legislator in either party. My empathy went out the window. And I started recording again.
Sanderson said his family looked up to him and that they wouldn’t if I released this story. I asked if they might not look up to him more if he came out.
“I’m not bi or gay. I don’t have a problem with that, but I’m not. I’m married. I can’t. I mean, that’s just not a possibility. I’m married,” Sanderson said. “I love holding my wife, I love the feel of her skin, I love rubbing her back at night and her feet at night. I love all of that. That turns me — that warms me up inside, that’s what I’m into. That’s who I am.”
Sanderson then suggested going to Germantown Cafe, a few blocks away, for a glass of wine. I agreed. As my car was parked at the market, I offered to drive. We split pretzels and beer cheese and he discussed his winery and spilled all sorts of tea on other legislative scandals, which legislators he thinks are dumb, and how the mediocre glass of red we had compared to his winery and to wines he had recently tasted on his California trip. I recorded pieces of that conversation too. We were there a little over an hour, and it was a semi-pleasant gossipy conversation of the type reporters often have with legislators and lobbyists. Sanderson even discussed looking into the possibility of lobbying, and I told him that he might be a perfect fit for the wine industry.
I offered to drop Sanderson off at his building on my way home, as, again, it was four or so blocks away. We pulled into the parking lot, and I told him that I would still be publishing my story in the morning.
“Oh come on!” Sanderson replied. “You’re going to ruin my fucking night!”
He iterated that my piece would “fucking ruin” his marriage and his family and that because he was resigning, I shouldn’t run the piece.
“Are you going to punish me or the party?” Sanderson asked. “It’s not fucking right! … You’re punishing me my doing that! Am I going to have to call my wife and tell her, ‘This girl is publishing something that’s really going to make me look bad.’ Is it fair for me to have to do that?”
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, Sanderson repeated, “It is not fair!” dozens of times and accused me of ruining his life. It’s hard to convey via mere transcription, but Sanderson was alternately bullying and cajoling, visibly angry and eerily calm. By the time I finally made him leave my car, I was in the throes of a panic attack that lasted the entire next day.
Sanderson started jabbing me in the arm with his forefinger for emphasis. I demanded that he stop touching me. He swore he had never “laid down with a man.” I read the text of the 2013 Grindr profile of “Brian” to him. Sanderson said “those were not even the words I would say.” He then said the headshot of “Brian” came from his personal Facebook page.
“Would I be stupid enough to post something like that on a sex porn site? Absolutely not!” Sanderson fumed.
Sanderson then told me that if I published the story, I wasn’t a good reporter.
“I thought you were an in-depth writer that people respected up here!” he said. “Now if you’re trying to besmirch me after I’ve stepped down, I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, because all you’re doing is hurting my character.”
I told Sanderson, again, that I had spoken to multiple sources. He replied, “You have not talked to anyone who has had any kind of relationship with me because I have not. That is a lie! You have not talked to anybody who has ever touched, been with, laid down with or done anything with me, because that would be a lie!”
Sanderson then said I was “on a witch-hunt.” He began punching my dashboard. He said that I was taking someone else’s word over his, and that wasn’t fair. I asked him to leave the car. He kept talking.
“You seem like a nice girl, and I think you’ve got promise. But if you fuck around with something like that that’s not verifiable, that’s not fair,” Sanderson said. (I am 42, for the record, and have been reporting for 17 years.)
“I have the screenshots,” I said for the umpteenth time.
“Just like I’ve got that screenshot of that text you sent me,” Sanderson replied.
“That was not a text that I sent you,” I said.
“You sent them to me. I’ve got them,” Sanderson said. I asked him who made the fake text. “Cari, that’s your name, right? That’s who sent it to me,” he said.
After more back and forth, Sanderson again told me that I wasn’t a good reporter if I ran the story. “I have verified it!” I replied. “No, you haven’t verified it!” he said. “Because whoever said that, that’s their word against mine, and that never happened!”
Sanderson again blamed the unnamed government employee for faking the messages. I kept repeating that I had never talked to this man. Sanderson told me that’s who went to WKRN in 2016. I told him it wasn’t. He told me I was wrong. (Reader, I was not.)
“I’m not upset, I’m just trying to state the facts,” said Sanderson, who was, in fact, very upset. “The fact is, you’re taking somebody’s word for granted you don’t know. I’m telling you, I’m a reputable person in my community. And that is made-up crap.”
After another back and forth about the fake text message I did not send him, Sanderson finally got out of my car and slammed the door shut. I sat, shaken, trying to catch my breath and calm down.
I don’t freak out very easily — I’m used to people getting angry about my reporting in my line of work. But Sanderson’s rage that he could not control my actions, that he could not bribe me with additional gossip or sweet-talk me into dropping the piece because he was resigning has convinced me more than ever that I have the story right. Because Sanderson has used the exact same tactics in the messages with the men he has tried to meet. And over the past week, I have received even more proof and witnesses.
After I got the first Saw-themed email, I replied asking Sanderson (or whoever sent it) to cease contacting me. The next morning, at the exact time my newsletter went out, I received a second email from “Chainsaw Douglas,” stating, “I’ll see ya soon.”
Since then, Sanderson’s attorney, Frederick H. Agee, has sent cease and desist emails (with very inaccurate information) to multiple news outlets demanding that they retract or refrain from publishing stories based on my reporting. On at least one major national news outlet, the tactic has worked.
But I have more messages. More sexually explicit pictures (which I am still not going to publish). More allegations. And more* to come Thursday morning.
*Including what he told that 23-year-old man about hooking up with someone “too fem” at Tribe.
Reminder: I’m on Venmo @cgervin until subscriptions start (really soon!) if you want to help fund this reporting. More importantly, if you want to throw the other kind of tips my way, you can reply to this email; DM me on Twitter or Facebook; message me on Signal or Confide; or call or text me. And please, if you were forwarded this do sign up for the newsletter. The more subscribers I have, the more credibility I have.
Also, if you have your own experiences with Sanderson (or any other closeted legislator) on Grindr or a different dating or hook-up app, do get in touch! (I am guessing by the pictures I have seen that Sanderson is not on Scruff, but feel free to prove me wrong!)