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He went to jail to protect a confidential source. His legacy changed journalism

Remembering longtime Fresno Bee reporter Bill Patterson

William "Bill" Patterson went to jail to protect a confidential source and eventually increase California's shield law protecting journalists.
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William "Bill" Patterson went to jail to protect a confidential source and eventually increase California's shield law protecting journalists.

William “Bill” Patterson, a longtime Fresno Bee reporter who unflinchingly faced an unknown amount of jail time to protect a confidential source and, subsequently, helped change laws that protect journalists, died on Sunday at the age of 91.

The 15 days he spent incarcerated in 1976 with three other Bee journalists, who became known as The Bee Four, drew international attention.

“I remember Bill Patterson was absolutely steadfast in the desire to protect sources,” said retired attorney Phil Fullerton, lead legal counsel for The Bee Four. “He was a tower of strength, so he never wavered a bit.”

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William “Bill” Patterson working as a reporter at The Fresno Bee.

Mr. Patterson and fellow Bee reporter Joe Rosato, along with then-city editor James Bort and managing editor George Gruner, were jailed for refusing a Superior Court judge’s order to name a confidential source who provided The Bee with sealed transcripts of a grand jury hearing.

The Bee published stories quoting the transcripts, which cited testimony by a Fresno city councilman saying he was paid by a company to take over the city’s garbage removal services. The testimony had been sealed after the councilman and others involved were indicted on conspiracy and bribery charges.

“The revealing of this grand jury testimony was absolutely necessary in order to protect the public interest,” Fullerton said. “So even though grand jury transcripts are supposed to be secret, he felt it was in the public interest to reveal this. I would also say that battle continues to this day.”

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The Fresno Bee Four, from left, Joe Rosato, George Gruner, William K. Patterson and James Bort, Jr., on Sept. 3, 1976 outside Fresno County Jail. FRESNO BEE ARCHIVE

Fullerton compared what The Bee Four did to recent decisions made at media outlets such as The New York Times, who have published information provided by confidential sources within the White House.

“These people stood for something really noble,” Fullerton said of The Bee Four, “and what they stood for is overwhelmingly important at this time in our country. … The ability for the press to gather information is absolutely imperative and Bill, early – 40 years ago – stood for this right, and I was proud to be their lawyer.”

Former Fresno Bee reporter Joe Rosato and former executive editor George Gruner talk about going to jail after refusing to reveal the source of grand jury testimony in 1976. Rosato, Gruner, reporter Bill Patterson and former city editor James H. B

Gruner called Mr. Patterson a “crackerjack reporter” who knew his beat – at that time, covering courts and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors – extremely well.

“He knew what he was talking about,” Gruner said, “and there was never any question about the facts in his stories.”

Mr. Patterson had a key to the courthouse, Fullerton said, “he was that deeply ingrained and that deeply trusted.”

California’s shield law, which helps protect journalists from having to name confidential sources, became stronger after The Bee Four were released.

Gruner wrote in a Bee column in 2006 that the California Legislature, “noting Judge Peckinpah’s position, converted the shield law into a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters, strengthening the role of the press in its watchdog capacity.”

Still, Fullerton said, journalists’ rights remain “under siege.” Other states and the federal government have different laws.

Fullerton said reporters should have the right to keep a source confidential in the same way doctors protect the privacy of their patients, or lawyers protect their clients.

“I think that the right to protect these individual sources should be enshrined as an equal, absolute privilege instead of it being a limited privilege.”

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The Fresno Bee Four, from left, Joe Rosato, James Bort Jr., George Gruner and William Patterson, discuss their appeal outside Superior Court Judge Denver C. Peckinpah’s courtroom on April 24, 1975 after being sentenced to indefinite jail terms for refusing to reveal the source of a sealed Grand Jury testimony. FRESNO BEE ARCHIVE

As civil prisoners, The Bee Four stayed in a bunkhouse segregated from criminal prisoners, where their work detail consisted of feeding ducks. One evening, they enjoyed a tasty steak dinner behind bars. They were all “amused” by their imprisonment, Fullerton recalls – but still, it was jail.

“Bill never seemed to be overwhelmed by that,” Fullerton said. “He continued his hard working and rather modest personality.”

He worked at The Bee for over 40 years, writing for every department. Daughter Cindy Wegermann said “what he loved is it was something different every day.”

A front-page Bee story from 1976 about The Bee Four being sentenced to jail hangs in the office of his granddaughter, Rima Runtzel – a gift from Bee publisher Ken Riddick. Runtzel works for the Sierra Star in Oakhurst, which is owned by McClatchy, also the parent company of The Bee.

“As an advertising sales executive with McClatchy, I don’t necessarily do the same thing that grandpa did,” Runtzel said, “but I do help make it possible for those who do to continue, and that does feel like honoring his legacy.”

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William “Bill” Patterson with his daughter, Christine Nemanick, left, and granddaughter Rima Runtzel in November 2016. Special to The Bee

Mr. Patterson stayed active in his retirement. He performed for Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater and New Wrinkles in Fresno, along with acting in a few commercials and films – including Alan Autry’s “The Legend of Jake Kinkaid.” Gruner recalled Mr. Patterson’s affinity for wearing cowboy hats, singing and playing acoustic guitar.

Mr. Patterson also loved backpacking and spending time outdoors. He was a scoutmaster for Boy Scouts of America and a member of E Clampus Vitus, an organization dedicated to the study and preservation of Western history. He co-authored two local history books.

“He had a tremendous zest for life, which was evidenced by all the things he was involved in,” Wegermann said. “He could just be very excited about whatever he was involved in. He loved to party – some dancing, some food, some music. He always wanted to make sure everyone always had a good time when they were with him.”

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William “Bill” Patterson during an E Clampus Vitus election campaign. Special to The Bee

Mr. Patterson was born in Burlington, Iowa. His father worked as a furniture factory worker and bookbinder, and his mother as a seamstress.

“He described his early life as something similar to Tom Sawyer’s,” Wegermann said, “except he never rafted the Mississippi.”

He got his first newspaper job as a boy, selling papers on street corners for one cent each.

Mr. Patterson had five children with Pat Patterson. They were married for 58 years. After Pat died in 2000, he reconnected with a classmate from high school, Marilyn Williams. He moved to St. George, Utah, to live with her until she died, then returned to Fresno.

Wegermann said her father died in his sleep at Blossom Creeks Assisted Living from natural causes.

“We just enjoyed watching his enthusiasm with everything he did,” Wegermann said. “He jumped in with both feet. That was something that made us all enjoy life.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

William “Bill” Patterson

Born: Jan. 25, 1927

Died: Sept. 23, 2018

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Reporter

Survivors: Sister Betty Jenkins; daughters Cindy Wegermann, Christine Nemanick, and Charlotte Valdez; son James Patterson; and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and nephews.

Memorial service: 11 a.m. Oct. 20, Campus Bible Church, 222 E. Fountain Way, Fresno. Luncheon following at Santa Fé Basque, 3110 N. Maroa Ave., Fresno.

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