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ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

It seemed too good to be true, and it was.

On March 11, just three short weeks ago, an article on the front page of the Niagara Gazette announced the appointment of Carl Helbig as publisher of that paper, the Tonawanda News, Lockport Union-Sun &: Journal and the Medina Register. He replaced a young Oklahoma cowpuncher named Mike Kellog, whose tenure had lasted a little more than one month.

"We have to do the best job we possibly can covering all the things that are going on," Helbig said. "To where you can't find this news anyplace else except our newspaper pages and our Web site."

But like much of what is printed in the local daily, the Gazette article only told half the story. Left out were the sordid details surrounding a shocking love triangle that led to the newspaper executive's recent departure from a well-known newspaper chain, and landed him behind bars.

Helbig, 50, became the sixth publisher to command the foundering Greater Niagara Newspapers group the past nine years, and he clearly brought something new to the table. Previously, the article stated, he had been the publisher at the Messenger Post newspapers, a Fairport-based group of one daily and 10 weekly newspapers serving the leafy suburbs of Rochester and Canandaigua, and boasting a combined circulation of 100,000. The papers are owned by GateHouse Media, an up-and-coming media empire that has spent the past five years binging on small but profitable newspaper properties throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Unlike his most recent predecessors at the Gazette and its sister papers, Helbig seemed to have a solid background in the newspaper business, and rather than hailing from Indiana, Alabama or some other godforsaken place, was actually born and raised in Western New York.

This immediately raised eyebrows in the local journalistic community. Why on earth would a fellow leave a good job with a reputable media company to come to the Niagara Gazette, a paper that's become well-known as a place where publishing careers go to die?

The answer came late last week, in the form of a police arrest report obtained by the Niagara Falls Reporter under New York's excellent Freedom of Information Act. It paints a different portrait of Carl Helbig than was presented on the front page of the Gazette that of a dark and desperate man driven to the brink by a twisted passion that ultimately led to a squalid cell in the Ontario County Jail.

The divorced Helbig made his first mistake by entering into an workplace tryst with one of his subordinates, a woman eight years his junior named Sharon Amico. At the Messenger Post, the wagging tongues of office gossips spread the news that no reporter would dare to print.

But the scandalous affair soured last summer, and Amico took up with a younger man, kicking her former paramour to the curb. According to the police report, the trouble began almost immediately.

On July 8, Ontario County Sheriff's Deputy J.S. Falbo responded to a harassment and trespass in progress call at Amico residence. In the dry language of his official report, Falbo wrote of a disturbed man consumed by an overwhelming obsession.

"Upon arrival, the offender was gone," he wrote. "I spoke with the complainant, Sharon Amico, who stated that her ex-boyfriend, Carl Helbig, has been harassing her since early Saturday morning beginning at about 2 a.m. Sharon further stated that it was at that time that Carl showed up at her house when she had another man in her house, so Carl began pounding on the bedroom window asking "are you fucking him," and various other expletives. He attempted to get into the house, and when Sharon thought he was inside the house, she ran outside and locked herself in her car. Carl then went into the house through the garage, which Sharon had opened to get outside, and had an argument with Sharon's friend, Steve Whalen, who was still inside the house. Sharon called the police at that time and Deputies Torlish and Habberfield responded. Sharon didn't want to press any charges, but wanted Carl to stay away from her. Carl was told to go home and stay away from Sharon and not to have any contact with her."

The tiny hamlet of Victor, N.Y., where the incident occurred, is a rural community of the sort where everyone knows everyone else and, as longtime publisher of the local newspaper, Helbig was undoubtedly regarded as a local celebrity by the townsfolk. Whether this entered into the deputies' decision to cut him a huge break is not known, but cut him a huge break they did.

"If he was in the house when the officers arrived, they really didn't need her complaint in order to arrest him right then and there," one top lawman told the Reporter. "They saw with their own eyes that a crime was being committed. Sometimes in domestic disputes, though, if you can just get the people away from each other, you can avoid further trouble."

But it was no such luck for Deputy Falbo that torrid July night.

"Carl continued to come to Sharon's house, banging on the door and ringing the doorbell, as well as attempting to contact her by text message, voicemail and email," he wrote. "Carl did leave harassing text message and voicemails about 'reclaiming' Sharon.' After Carl showed up at Sharon's house for about the 30th time today, Sharon decided to call the Sheriff's office again and this time she signed the informations to have Carl arrested. Upon speaking with Carl, he would not say what had happened but only that Sharon is blowing everything out of proportion."

Helbig was placed under arrest on charges of criminal trespass and aggravated harassment. In his arrest report, Deputy Falbo noted Helbig's sandy hair and blue eyes, listing his occupation as "publisher" and his religion as "Christian." Fingerprints and mug shots were taken, and Helbig was locked up in lieu of a $1,000 bond, the report states.

Sources at the Messenger Post say that Helbig went back to work and circulated an apologetic memo in an attempt to paper over the whole tawdry affair. But respectable media corporations generally take a dim view of their upper-management types landing in the police blotter columns of their own newspapers. Suddenly unemployed, Helbig next turned up in January of this year, when he was named publisher of the Taconic Press Group, a downstate cluster of small weeklies serving Westchester and Duchess counties.

He lasted there for about a month before coming to Falls and the skid-row Niagara Gazette.

It is uncertain whether or not CNHI, the Alabama corporation that owns the Gazette and its sister papers, was aware of the lurid circumstances surrounding Helbig's departure from the Post Messenger when he was hired, as repeated calls to the company's Birmingham headquarters went unreturned Friday. If the company did know about its new publisher's recent criminal past, it would present a thorny liability problem should history repeat itself in a new setting.

The Helbig debacle is the latest in a series of false starts made by CNHI since the unceremonious ouster of longtime publisher Mark Francis in 1999. The company's first import, Steve Braver, came from Nevada, where perhaps his dyed blond tresses were all the rage. Braver was followed by the hulking Wayne Lowman, who suddenly left the city following an investigation by the county DA into the use of public funds to build a $35,000 decorative wall on the Gazette's property.

Then came someone named Steve Hall, whose nine-month tenure was marked by the inability of anyone in town to remember his name.

Hall was replaced in January by the aforementioned Mike Kellog, who didn't last nine weeks. Finally, in what can only be considered an act of desperation, CNHI brought the disgraced Carl Helbig to town.

His philosophy, that of presenting the news you can't find anywhere else, is a sound one. Unfortunately for him, however, the Reporter has had that territory staked out for quite some time.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 1 2008