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Star’s former publisher acknowledges assault on reporter

H. Brandt Ayers, former publisher of The Anniston Star and current chairman of the board of the company that owns the newspaper, acknowledged Tuesday that he assaulted a reporter in her Anniston home in the 1970s.

Ayers said he went to the home of Wendy Sigal, a reporter who worked at the newspaper in 1973 and 1974, and spanked her — on the advice of a doctor, Ayers claims. Ayers seemed to admit to another assault, against reporter Veronica Pike Kennedy in the Star newsroom in 1975.

Ayers said he had no intention of resigning from his position as chairman of the board of Consolidated Publishing, which operates The Star.

“Of course not,” Ayers said. “I am the third generation of a family that has served honorably, even courageously, in the public interest.”

Kennedy last month said that in the 1970s, Ayers delivered a spanking to her, against her will, in The Star’s newsroom. Kennedy was in her early 20s in 1975, when the  attack is alleged to have happened; Ayers turned 40 in the same year. Mike Stamler, a former Star reporter, said he witnessed the attack.

Two other women told The Star of similar incidents in which Ayers spanked women against their will, with sexual overtones. The women asked that their names not be published because of possible repercussions for their careers and families.

Some of those women told of another victim, Wendy Sigal, who came to The Star as a police reporter at the age of 26 after working at The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Former Star editor Trisha O’Connor said she got a call from a distraught Sigal one day, after Sigal had been out of work for a few days.

“She was very, very upset,” O’Connor said. “She said Brandy had been to her apartment. He told her she had been a bad girl and she needed to be spanked — and he spanked her.”

Ayers on Tuesday said he did indeed spank Sigal — on doctor’s orders, he claimed.

Ayers claimed Sigal had been out of work because of a psychological ailment.

“I called the doctor and asked what should do, and he said ‘calm her down,’” Ayers said. He said he asked the doctor if spanking would work, and the doctor said yes.

Ayers said Tuesday he didn’t recall the name of the doctor. O’Connor and one other Star reporter said they’d never heard of management contacting employees’ doctors when they were home sick in the 1970s.

Sigal, later Wendy Beasley, died in 2006 according to Social Security records for a woman by those names who shares the same birth year and birthplace. Attempts to reach members of her family were unsuccessful. Former co-workers, including O’Connor, said they lost touch with her after she left The Star. Still, there’s no clear evidence that Sigal did have a mental illness.

“She came to work,” O’Connor said. “She did her work. She was moving on in her career.”

O’Connor said members of Sigal’s family came to Anniston to take Sigal home. O’Connor said she and fellow Star reporter John Childs went to meet the family members at the Downtowner Hotel in Anniston, and found them there speaking to Ayers and his wife, Josephine Ayers.

Josephine Ayers said Tuesday morning that she recalled the meeting.

“I don’t recall the details,” she said. “I remember that the parents came.”

In a later interview, after Brandt Ayers acknowledged the assault on Sigal, Josephine Ayers said she had not heard that account of the incident before.

Josephine Ayers, who is vice-chairman of Consolidated Publishing, said she didn’t care about the events of 40 years ago as much as she cared about their effect on the family-owned paper and her husband’s legacy.

Brandt Ayers seemed to acknowledge an assault on Kennedy, as well, when asked about the incident Tuesday.

“Let the accusation stand,” he said.

Sigal left The Star after the attack, former staffers say. The Star’s archives show her writing for the paper from November 1973 through the middle of 1974.

O’Connor, like other former reporters at The Star, said Tuesday that employees brought their concerns about the publisher’s behavior to editors in the 1970s. Some former reporters said the editors responded by appointing a woman on the reporting staff to warn newly hired women to stay away from Ayers.

O’Connor said that she doesn’t recall even that much action being taken. Women took it on themselves to issue those warnings, she said.

“Frankly, nothing happened,” she said.

Ayers, son and grandson of The Star’s earlier publishers, served as publisher from the late 1960s until 2016, when the position went to Bob Davis, formerly editor and associate publisher of the paper.

Davis said Tuesday that The Star is in the process of creating a clear policy on sexual harassment. He said that policy will include clear avenues for reporting sexual harassment by anyone in the company. The paper’s first priority, he said, is to create an environment where workers feel safe.

“I cannot control the past,” Davis said. “I can control, as long as I am here, the future of this company.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.