Within hours of an alleged domestic assault that left the police chief with a broken arm and her husband facing charges, rumours started circulating. The gossip pushed Belleville, Ont., Chief Cory McMullan to acknowledge publicly four days later that she was the victim.
On Monday morning, those rumours prompted Neil Ellis, mayor of the city of 50,000, to take to the airwaves to reveal that he was with the chief shortly before the alleged assault and to deny that he was having an affair with her.
He told talk radio station CJBQ that he spent the evening of Aug. 6, a Friday, at the movies with his daughter. After bringing her home around 9:30 p.m., he drove to the mall where his son works and left the car for him. He set out on foot to visit a friend, he said.
Along the way, Chief McMullan offered him a ride, wanting to discuss city business, he told the radio station. As they approached Plaza Square on the city's east side, a car driven by David McMullan almost hit them, he said. They drove into a nearby parking lot, where Mr. McMullan confronted him, he said.
"He said 'You've been with her the whole night,'" Mr. Ellis told the radio audience. "She grabbed him and said, 'David, what are you doing?'"
Mr. Ellis said he threw Mr. McMullan aside and walked away. The couple drove off. Asked by the CJBQ host if he had been having an affair with Chief McMullan or anyone else, Mr. Ellis replied: "Absolutely not."
He also said that he will seek a second term in November.
For more than two weeks, Mr. Ellis refused to confirm or deny the rumours - declining or ignoring repeated interview requests from The Globe and Mail - even as townsfolk continued to swap stories, unsure what to believe.
"I hope it all comes out," a city worker said the week after the alleged assault, declining to give his name for fear of getting in trouble at work. "The whole city is talking about it."
His co-workers were eager to tell the version of the story they'd heard, and which they said they believed, but admitted they couldn't prove.
"We can't judge until we know," security guard Phil King said as he sipped coffee at a Tim Hortons. "This gossip is murder by character-assassination."
"I think everyone is just kind of shocked as she's a chief of police," said Brittney O'Hara, 18, a clerk in a store at Quinte Mall. She heard about the case from a co-worker, and people coming into her store had been talking about it for days.
Chief McMullan also declined to confirm or deny the rumours.
"I reiterate what I said earlier, unfounded rumours and innuendos such as these do nothing but retraumatize victims of crime," she wrote in reply to an Aug. 12 e-mail.
Mr. Ellis's silence may have only added fuel to the fire.
"Once a rumour like this comes out, and particularly if one knows it's spreading, one very good rule of thumb is to nip it in the bud, and if it's true, or even partially true, to steal the thunder. The absence of a rebuttal just adds to the uncertainty and adds more grist to the rumour mill," said Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychology professor and expert on rumours at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He said numerous factors could be at play, from sheer interest in the subject to the novelty of a woman in a traditionally male role and the fact that Mr. Ellis is a politician.
City councillor Robert Dolan, who chairs Belleville's police services board, suggested as much.
"I can't think of a reason, other than that he's a very popular mayor and some people didn't like that," he said. Mr. Dolan said there was no substance to the rumours.
In his morning broadcast, Mr. Ellis acknowledged that the persistence of the gossip spurred him to come forward.
"I have to take my mayor's hat off and talk about it," he said. "As a community, this should be the last time anyone speaks about this."
Mr. Ellis also denied that he knew Ms. McMullan at Carleton University (they took similar programs, but years apart) and that the altercation in the parking lot left him with a black eye. (He and Mr. McMullan never traded blows, he said.) He added that police investigators contacted him shortly after Mr. McMullan's arrest to ask if he had witnessed the alleged assault, but he had not.
While Prof. DiFonzo said the mayor likely made the right decision in coming forward, others were more circumspect.
"All that's happening is the mayor is denying a charge," said sociologist Gary Alan Fine, author of The Global Grapevine. "If someone wants to believe there was hanky-panky, this is hardly definitive."