One year ago, I met the most hated man in Auburn.
I was nervous, inexperienced and had just begun my first semester as community news editor for The Plainsman.
He was on trial, unhealthy and understandably miserable.
Despite all of this, Harvey Updyke was nothing short of polite.
We spoke for a time about a variety of topics. I learned we’re both Louisiana residents. In fact, he and his wife, Elva, have a house about 45 minutes west of my parents’.
I also learned he and an unnamed accomplice did, indeed, poison the Toomer’s oak trees.
Even so, we smiled, shook hands and Elva and I exchanged contact information to do a feature on Updyke in the future.
None of us knew we would never speak again.
None of us understood the price of being honest.
Much has changed since June 19, 2012, when Updyke confessed his guilt to me during his own jury selection, and most who care know the rest of the story.
I published an article detailing the confession and was subsequently subpoenaed and placed under a gag order. After Updyke’s attorney called me a liar, my name was apparently changed to “student journalist” and The Plainsman then became “Auburn’s student-run newspaper.” Under the gag order, I was defenseless.
But that’s not the issue. Updyke has now served his sentence, the trees have been removed and I can now speak and write freely once more.
A year removed, I will say this: I imagined the day going much differently before I spoke to Updyke.
I saw Updyke for the first time earlier that day. Judge Jacob Walker read the charges against Updyke, and with each word, Updyke’s eyelids drooped lower and his breathing became more labored.
After tweeting the observation and having it questioned, I went to the source. The Updykes stood by themselves outside the elevator at the Lee County Justice Center. I had left everything but my cell phone in my bag. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I settled for texting quotes and notes to myself.
Updyke confirmed that he felt ready to “pass out” all morning, and the two were more than candid about Updyke’s somewhat publicized health issues.
The numbers alone were staggering: 62 pounds lost since his arrest, 18 different medications in his system and thousands of Auburn fans clamoring for him to end his days in a cell.
Numerous stories portraying his mistakes had poured from the media outlets (including The Plainsman) almost daily. But part of journalism is occasionally advocating for the devil, and I wanted Auburn to know the man being demonized.
The father whose daughter would no longer speak to him. The Alabama fan whose beloved university banned him from its campus, stadiums included.
To me, it was only fair.
The chance for a sympathetic piece passed by when his candor spread to the crime he had pleaded innocent of. When he admitted he was involved in the incident, he said that was all he would say about the matter. And yet the question came to my lips anyway as a sort of due diligence, anticipating a “no comment.”
“So, what happened that night?”
In this case, the former Texas state trooper was a straight shooter: “Did I do it? Yes.”
Harvey and Elva watched as I took notes on my phone. Even so, we said farewell amicably and left on good terms. I had just met with the most despised man on The Plains, and I left with sympathy for the devil. Not to mention an obligation to create more mayhem in an already difficult situation.
Maybe it was all an orchestrated plot to change the venue or add credibility to his insanity defense. Perhaps Updyke truly had given up.
Whatever the reason, as a journalist, his confession was breaking news, immeasurably more important than any softer feature story.
As an Auburn man, the destruction of the historic oaks was deserving of punitive measures. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. I still do. Had I never spoken to Harvey Updyke, the biased Tiger in me would most likely still loathe him.
Updyke still has an elephant’s share of lawsuits to deal with, but one year later, I can only hope he’s beginning to get his life back together.