The interview assignment

samantha zaldivar, field, notebook

Last Updated on November 5, 2022 by Ellen

The new editor-in-chief at the Buffalo News is a SUNY College at Buffalo grad who partly credits Charles Adair with her journalism success. Before I was an early retired budget traveler, I was a journalist, and my own career course included Charlie, as he was fondly called.

Charlie influenced countless other newspaper journalists, including Margaret Sullivan. There were many great Buffalo State College professors who also yielded strong influence on where I ended up: Janet Kaye, Dick Lucinski, Janet Ramsey, Ron Smith, to name a few. I have no idea where they are today – but I do know Charlie died in 2000.

Charlie is part of my answer to that question we all ask ourselves at some point: how’d I get here?

This is not a travel post. It’s not a money-saving post. It’s a personal recollection on my first difficult interview as a wanna-be journalist that set me on a path that led me to where I am today. I’m writing about it here to get it out of my head, because it’s taken up a lot of rent lately.

The interview course

Charlie Adair’s advanced interview course was notorious among wanna-be newspaper reporters at State University of New York, College at Buffalo. Most of your final grade came from only one report you wrote based on an interview he assigned you. Each student had a different interview assignment. Easy examples: the college president, city council members or some other politician, some obscure public works head.

That semester, I had the most challenging assignment. By far.

I remember the day Charlie doled out the assignments. There was a collective gasp when my interview subject was named. Then pure silence. He let the shock sink into the room, and I didn’t know whether to crawl under my desk or stand atop it, beating on my chest declaring, ‘Bring. It. On.’ Instead, I did nothing with my flushed face. Then Charlie continued down his list. I didn’t hear anything else in class after that.

After class, the guy next to me– wish I could remember his name– said he had the second-toughest interview assignment– wish I could remember what it was. I do remember it was a tough one, though maybe not as ’emotional’ as my assignment.

We lamented our fate, and we made a bet: the person with the lower final grade would have to buy the ‘winner’ a bottle of Jack Daniels. I cannot remember the finer points of our wager, but it sure sounds like a contest I would have concocted in those days.

Behind my bravado over the boozy bet, I feared this assignment.

My assignment

Charlie assigned me to interview Bruno Stra, the grandfather of a 7-year-old girl who disappeared from her trailer home in rural Western New York in early 1997. A farmer found the body of Samantha Zaldivar three months after she disappeared. She was buried facedown in a shallow grave at the edge of a field, only a few hundred yards from her home. This was a big news story in Western New York. A little girl had been missing for three months and it scared people. Then when she was found, she was so close to home.

Bruno’s daughter Rachel was Samantha’s mother. Rachel and Samantha lived with Rachel’s boyfriend, Angel Colon, in a trailer near the grave. Grandfather Bruno lived nearby, down the road. Rachel Stra and Colon had two children together who were younger than Samantha. Samantha Zaldivar’s father lived out of state.

My assignment to interview Bruno Stra came as the case was still active – it had not yet played out in court and during key court dates, it was the proverbial media circus. Buffalo reporters and TV camera crews descended on the small rural town. By the time Charlie assigned me this interview, the court of public opinion had convicted the girl’s mother’s boyfriend.

No one else in my class had this type of a heart-breaking assignment. I remember putting it off for a few weeks. We had until late in the semester to turn in our ‘reports’ and I wasn’t in a rush to interview a grieving grandfather.

Eventually, I hunted down a phone number for Mr. Stra, and then I worked up the courage to contact him. When I called, his fiance Lisa Johnson answered, and promptly gave the phone to Bruno. I explained the nature of my call and he agreed to see me. Call me Bruno, he said. Come this weekend, he said. I went to their home on a Sunday, if I recall.

I took an atlas with me into the wild, free fields of Wyoming County with long roads through small towns outside Buffalo’s urban jungle. It was late autumn, chilly, the ground was getting hard and most of the leaves had disappeared. The sky was white the day I went and found their home, parked the car, and went inside to listen.

The interview

It was weird, surreal. Bruno was open, chatty and raspy, yet sad. He was memorable for his 70s-style Elvis-eque look. Lisa was reserved, stand-offish, but polite.

I listened to Bruno talk about how he loved his granddaughter Samantha. How she was an “angel” – a smart girl who loved life; about how she had just turned seven; how he was shattered by her death; how the community searched and hoped and searched some more; about how her body was found; about how his granddaughter’s remains were so Goddamned close to his own home — and did I want to see exactly where her body was buried? Lisa did not want to come with us.

Bruno and I walked to the edge of the field where Samantha was buried. I couldn’t believe how close it was to his and Lisa’s home. I stood looking stupidly down at a dirt patch as I shivered against the chill, my nose running, my heart in a box. I said nothing, asked nothing. Only listened. I cannot remember specifics now, but a sense of sorrow is all I remember.

Next Bruno wanted to show me the trailer, so we walked down the field at the tree line, crossed the road, and walked into the trailer park. I stood looking stupidly at the outside of an ugly mobile home. Bruno said something like ‘you can see how close she was to home’.

Back inside Lisa’s and Bruno’s house, Lisa served more tea. She seemed to think the case would end soon, but wouldn’t talk specifics. I fell for the bait. ‘Oh? What do you think really happened?’ She leveled a look at me and repeated my question back to me as her answer. Bruno shifted, said nothing. I was incredibly uncomfortable.

Perhaps I’m projecting a re-remembrance of official news reports I’ve dug up in recent days from those long-ago years. I’ve been scouring the web for old reports from 1997. Perhaps my memory is faulty about my sophomoric interview appointment over tea at a kitchen table in a modest rural home, one late afternoon in late autumn with the biological grandfather a murdered 7-year-old girl and his fiance.

With the light fading fast, I thanked them for their time, offered my best wishes for peace, and got the hell out of there.

My report

I drove back to Buffalo questioning everything, including my career choice. I remember that clearly.

How was interviewing a grieving family a benefit to society at large? I got into Journalism for the public’s right to know – to shed light on things the powerful wanted kept hidden. Just the facts, please. No need to get emotionally messy over a sexually abused, murdered little girl in a trailer park by someone she knew well.

Disturbed, I reached the city by dark and wrote my report in the communication department’s first computer lab. There weren’t many other students working in the basement that evening and I was the last one to leave, with a draft of my report finished.

I turned in my report rather close to the deadline, if I recall. I wish I could remember what the hell I wrote. It could not have been ‘good’ – but I met the challenge of the interview. Charlie recognized that when he reviewed the assignments aloud in class at the end of the semester. When he got to mine: ‘And what did you learn, Ellen?’ Oh jeez, too much for a single report, really… ‘Ah, yes. Sometimes the story can easily be a book…’

Where the assignment led me

I had earned an A, not for any revelatory information or great writing, but probably simply because I had the balls to go through with this challenging assignment.

Charlie’s class and my assignment helped set me up for part-time work at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls before my college graduation. In fact, though I’m on the spring class of ’98 program, I didn’t attend the ceremony. None of my family was in Buffalo, and, if I recall, I had to work in Niagara County that weekend anyway.

Through some crazy turns, I ended up in TV news for years. I left the news business in 2015, at the dawn of Donald Trump media coverage. You might (or might not) be shocked to learn that even back then, there was a concerted effort by some public relations firms to label true stories as ”fake news”. But that’s another storybook for another time.

I had a mostly successful career, and Charlie was a part of my start. Today I’m early retired with husband Theo (also a former news man) and we travel the world, thanks to another shove by the Universe.

Where are they now?

Angel Colon

Rachel Stra’s live-in boyfriend Angel Colon was indicted on sexual abuse and first-degree murder charges of Samantha Zaldivar, but after my college graduation, he pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge.

Angel Colon in a widely used media picture

Colon sexually assaulted Samantha, and then smothered her to death. He buried her body later that night. Prosecutors said they offered the plea deal because they could not prove intent to kill. The plea deal took the death penalty off the table.

Colon is serving a 25-to-life sentence today. He was recently denied parole on his first attempt at freedom. Colon is up for release again in 2024.

Rachel (Stra) Hare

Rachel Stra initially stood by Colon. In October 1997, she was arrested on public lewdness and disorderly conduct charges. Police said exposed parts of her body to the windows of the Wyoming County Jail just after visiting Colon. She pleaded not guilty, but I have no idea whatever exactly happened with those charges.

She also was indicted on charges of hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence. She got probation in a plea deal more than 18 months after her daughter’s death.

In late 1998, an investigator quoted in a Buffalo News report said Rachel would have had to have been “as dumb as a houseplant” to not know Colon killed Samantha.

But — really? Or was Mrs. Hare just a woman with three young children who blindly loved Colon? A judge is quoted in the same article as saying she did not have a tight grip on reality.

Mrs. Hare today

She made local headlines in Wyoming County a few years ago (2017) for felony fraud charges. Now named Rachel Hare, a news report said she was accused of receiving nearly $24,000 in benefit money she was not entitled to get. I don’t know the outcome of the charges. It takes time and money to review all court records, and news articles are behind paywalls, though her mug shot was clearly visible without a subscription (see below) courtesy thedailynewsonline.com.

Rachel Stra Hare pictured in a police mug shot in 2017 on felony fraud charges.

Today, Mrs. Hare uses a different first name, too, and she appears to have a great life, based on hundreds of photos of her smiling Facebook family.

Her two children with Colon are grown, and now have children of their own. Mrs. Hare has many public photos with her grandchildren, and and children, including one with her three daughters before Samantha’s murder, on which she wishes Samantha happy birthday in heaven.

Mrs. Hare married Mr. Hare in 2014. Her profile says she loves “traveling” and “road tripping” and “discovering restaurants.”

There are pictures with her mom, but I didn’t see any of her with her dad, Bruno. There was only one mention of Bruno: she said ‘my dad’ introduced her to her husband, Mr. Hare.

Bruno

Bruno Stra is apparently 75 years old now, and lives less than five miles from Lisa’s home where I interviewed them for my advanced reporting assignment. (I found no marriage record for them on a half-hearted look, and Lisa still owns the same home across the street from the trailer park, according to the tax map used above to show the scene layout.)

I saw leads on Bruno’s phone number and personal email address, and his living address comes back to the current residence of Mr. and Mrs. Hare, which is less than five miles from the trailer park.

The only way to confirm any of this, of course, is to reach out, like I did all those years ago. And while I wonder if Bruno remembers my afternoon visit among all the other ‘real’ media interviews he gave back then, it is not a reason to bother the family.

Newspaper clipping from the day Angel Colon struck a plea deal, Bruno Stra is shown.

I do hope Bruno, who was quite an eccentric character, has found happiness through the years – as much as his daughter “Rachel” seems to have found it, based on her public Facebook posts.

And as tough as it was do to this college interview assignment, professor Charles Adair’s lessons will never be forgotten.

Someone wrote a book

Someone eventually did write a book about Samantha Zaldivar’s murder: Stephen Tarbell, an investigator in Samantha’s case. He titled his 2017 release, “Too close to home.” I have not read it, but I might.

That’s the story of my college interview assignment in an advanced reporting class designed by the late Charlie Adair, and the intense memories that came to me while I had a lot of free time in Jaipur, India, as I happened to read about how the new editor of The Buffalo News got where she got today.

Thanks for reading, “The interview assignment.”

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