Mitchell police investigating surgeon's racial slurs, threats
MITCHELL, S.D. -- A racial slur and threatening comments made by a local doctor to the editor of The Daily Republic are being investigated by the local police and hospital.
Jerome K. Howe, a surgeon employed by Avera Queen of Peace, made the comments during a March 6 phone conversation with Daily Republic Editor Korrie Wenzel and during a one-on-one meeting Monday in Wenzel's office. Wenzel recorded the Monday conversation and told Howe that he was being recorded.
Howe was upset about an editorial written by Wenzel in The Daily Republic's March 6 edition. The editorial questioned whether the local hospital's practice of recruiting doctors who are native to Mitchell is resulting in the best possible health care for patients.
On the phone, according to Wenzel, Howe said Wenzel was lucky The Daily Republic hadn't been "firebombed." During the Monday meeting, Howe made a threat of "war" against the newspaper and twice used a racial slur to describe Arab physicians.
The slur combined the word "sand" with a derogatory word typically applied to African Americans. Howe used the slur to make a point about the recruitment and hiring of physicians.
"Quite honestly, and I won't take it back, a sand-n***er with a J3 visa isn't gonna get that much scrutiny," Howe said on the audio recording, after being reminded that the conversation was on the record. "And you get a nice, clean, washed white guy that asks to come here, and it begs the question is he really the best and he brightest, or is he just some yahoo that walked in?"
Avera Queen of Peace is part of the larger Avera system, which is the health ministry of the Benedictine and Presentation Sisters. After being contacted by The Daily Republic and given access to the recording, Avera Queen of Peace issued a statement saying its leaders were "shocked and stunned" by Howe's comments and are taking the situation "very seriously." The statement also pledged a thorough investigation followed by "decisive action" against Howe.
"The Sisters, Board of Directors, and Administration of Avera Queen of Peace absolutely renounce his offensive remarks," the statement said, in part.
Trish Delaney, vice president of marketing/fund development for Avera Queen of Peace, said in an interview Thursday that Howe was still employed by Avera as of Thursday afternoon. She declined to divulge what action might be taken following Avera's investigation. When asked if Howe would continue to be employed by Avera, she said "things are undecided at this moment." Howe also is a member of the Avera Queen of Peace Board of Directors.
Detective Lt. Don Everson, of the Mitchell Police Division, said Thursday that Howe is being investigated for making the threats and that the investigation is being turned over to the Davison County state's attorney.
"It appears there might be a basis for criminal charges if the state's attorney also feels that way," Everson said.
Wenzel's March 6 editorial referenced a Feb. 28 Daily Republic news story about the hospital's recruiting practices. The story focused on the growing number of physicians native to Mitchell who are coming home to practice medicine. Howe's son was interviewed for the story.
Howe told Wenzel he was pleased with the story but was angered by the following paragraph in the editorial, which appeared on the opinion page six days after the story:
"We admit to one concern: As doctors with local ties are admittedly being recruited by the local medical industry, does it provide the best possible medical care for Mitchell residents? When we succumb to a severe medical crisis, do we want the best possible doctor to treat us, or one who simply grew up down the street?"
Howe read the editorial the day it published and called Wenzel at home that evening. Wenzel did not record the phone conversation.
According to Wenzel, Howe expressed his anger about the editorial and made his comment about the newspaper being "firebombed." Wenzel said Howe also criticized him for questioning the hiring of Mitchell natives but not the hiring of, as Howe put it over the phone, "sand n***ers."
Wenzel recalls telling Howe that, in Wenzel's opinion, the editorial was fair. After raising the questions about the hospital's recruiting practices, the editorial went on to say "We were assured by a hospital spokesman that the 'best and the brightest' are considered, no matter where they are from. We believe them, and are pleased to hear that very often, the best and the brightest are hometown kids who have all sorts of options but choose to return to Mitchell."
The phone conversation ended with Howe demanding a Monday meeting in his office, according to Wenzel. Wenzel refused but offered to meet in his own office at the newspaper.
Howe came to Wenzel's office at noon Monday. Wenzel began recording when Howe walked in and, at the 2-minute, 50-second point, told Howe that he was being recorded. The conversation lasted about 33 minutes.
About two-and-a-half minutes after being told that the recorder was on, Howe asked Wenzel, "I understand you're from (Wessington) Springs?"
"I am," Wenzel responded.
"So you of all people would know about sand n***ers that can't even speak English."
"Uh, well, I don't, I don't ..." Wenzel said before being cut off by Howe.
"They've run through a string of them," Howe said, "busting their nuts to try to get a doctor up there to help (a Wessington Springs doctor) out, who by the way is a local talent."
Eight minutes into the recording, Howe asked Wenzel to apologize for the editorial. Howe suggested Wenzel write a paragraph that would read: "Oops, maybe should have looked at this differently."
"No," Wenzel responded. "Absolutely not."
"Anything other than that's war," Howe said, "and I've got the ammunition."
Howe also mentioned "war" during the earlier phone conversation, according to Wenzel.
At about the 12-minute point in the recording, Howe referenced something he was willing to state "on the record." Wenzel interjected, "I think everything we've said today is on the record," and Howe kept speaking about other matters without clarifying whether he thought the conversation until then had been off the record.
Toward the end of the conversation, Howe referenced a past dispute he had with a radio personality who read on the air what Howe considered an inaccurate story about anesthesia. Howe said he called the radio station to complain, and since then the radio personality "doesn't work there any longer."
Howe's concluding comments in the recorded meeting included the use of the phrase "holy f***." According to Wenzel, Howe also used profanity during their previous phone conversation.
The audio recording concludes with Howe's comment comparing "sand n***ers with a J3 visa" to "a nice, clean, washed white guy."
Thursday, The Daily Republic reached Howe by phone while he was in a room at the hospital, on speaker phone, with some hospital officials. When Howe was asked if he wanted to make any further comments beyond those he made to Wenzel during their two conversations, he said this:
"Very honestly, for you -- heck, even for me -- to understand the background on this would take an awful lot of time."
Howe was then reminded that the newspaper has a recording of him saying the phrase "sand n***er" and was asked if he is a racist.
"I can tell one color from another," he said.
At that point, a hospital official interrupted.
"You know what," the official said, "I don't think Dr. Howe has any more comments."