When Blame Knocks on the Wrong Door
# Since Fox News wrongly identified a La Habra home as that of a terrorist, its five- member family has faced an angry backlash.
By H.G. Reza, Times Staff Writer
Randy and Ronnell Vorick thought La Habra was about as far away as one could get from terrorism. They were wrong.
For the last 2 1/2 weeks, the lives of the couple and their three children have been plunged into an unsettling routine of drivers shouting profanities, stopping to photograph their house and — most recently — spray-painting a slogan on their property.
Their house, a suburban fixer-upper the Voricks bought three years ago, was wrongly identified in a cable news broadcast as the home of a terrorist.
"I'm scared to go to work and leave my kids home. I call them every 30 minutes to make sure they're OK," Randy Vorick said.
"I keep telling myself this can't be happening to me. This can't be happening to my family. But it is. I want our lives to be normal again," he said.
In what Fox News officials concede was a mistake, John Loftus, a former U.S. prosecutor, gave out the address Aug. 7, saying it was the home of a Middle Eastern man, Iyad K. Hilal, who was the leader of a terrorist group with ties to those responsible for the July 7 bombings in London.
Hilal, whom Loftus identified by name during the broadcast, moved out of the house about three years ago. But the consequences were immediate for the Voricks.
Satellite photos of the house and directions to the residence were posted online. The Voricks told police, who arranged for the content to be taken down. Someone even removed the street sign where the Voricks live to provide some protection.
Still, it has not been easy.
A driver yelled a profanity at the family and called them terrorists as they barbecued on their patio Aug. 14. Some drivers have stopped and photographed the house, Randy Vorick said.
Last weekend, someone spray-painted "Terrist" on their home. Police, who have regularly patrolled their house since the day after the broadcast, now station a squad car across the street.
Randy, a restaurant manager, and Ronnell, a manager at a staffing agency, have been married 19 years and met as teenagers when they worked at a local McDonald's.
They grew up in La Habra and bought the house three years ago after Hilal moved out so they could be close to Ronnell Vorick's parents.
La Habra Police Capt. John Rees said the department was "giving special attention to the family to make sure they're safe," but declined to elaborate.
"This thing broke on a Sunday, when we started receiving inquiries from the public about terrorists," he said.
The Voricks said they had made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Fox News and Loftus by telephone and e-mail. They want a public apology and correction.
Both have issued apologies — Fox in a one-line statement to the Los Angeles Times and Loftus in an e-mail to the family — after being contacted by the newspaper. The Voricks say they have yet to see or hear a correction.
"John Loftus has been reprimanded for his careless error, and we sincerely apologize to the family," said Fox spokeswoman Irena Brigante.
Loftus also apologized and told The Times last week that "mistakes happen."
"I'm terribly sorry about that. I had no idea. That was the best information we had at the time," he said.
Loftus said he gave out the address to help local police, and insisted that Hilal, a Garden Grove grocery store owner, was a terrorist.
"I thought it might help police in that area now that we have positively identified a terrorist living in [Orange County]," he said.
Cathy Viray, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said agents were looking into Loftus' terrorist allegations but stopped short of calling it an investigation.
The Voricks' nightmare began Aug. 7 when they were returning from SeaWorld in San Diego with their daughters, 17 and 5, and son, 14.
"I was driving home and my neighbor called saying that some guy on Fox said a terrorist lives at my house and gave out the address," Randy Vorick said.
The next day, the couple left for a four-day cruise to Santa Catalina Island and Ensenada, leaving their children in the care of a house-sitter and Randy Vorick's brother, all unaware of the growing fallout from Fox's report.
When they returned Aug. 12, Randy Vorick said he had received several e-mails and messages on his cellphone from friends who told him that Loftus had been interviewed on KFI-AM (640) radio and repeated his allegation about a terrorist living in La Habra. The radio station did not broadcast his address.
In addition, the house-sitter said police had stopped by Aug. 8 to check on their safety and were keeping an eye on the house. Randy Vorick said he had e-mailed Fox and Loftus, asking for a public retraction and apology.
He said the apologies that came were too little, too late.
On Monday night, the day after someone spray-painted their house, the Voricks were up all night looking at the street and the cars that drove by.
"I just want a good night's sleep," Randy Vorick said. "I don't know when I'm going to have it."