I’ve seen some weird stuff. Priests caught soliciting prostitutes, beloved teachers peddling drugs, kindly old men accused of atrocities. Everywhere you look you find good guys gone bad and the next one is just around the corner.

It’s a shocking business, all right, but I don’t think I was truly thunderstruck in this job until the business with Josh Shea.

Right now Shea — former journalist, city councilor, magazine publisher and film festival founder — is watching the clock wind down and waiting to report to jail. For the next nine months, he’ll spend his days dressed in orange under lock and key, punishment for crimes to which he has admitted.

I get all that now, but for a period of days, if not weeks, I fully expected the bizarre situation to clarify itself. In the immediate aftermath of his arrest, I anticipated seeing Shea stand before the TV news cameras to deny — loudly and angrily — the charges against him.

I expected him to claim the computer taken from his home was not his. Or if it was his, maybe he had been the victim of some malicious virus that spread child pornography across his hard drive. It’s a weird world, man. Strange stuff happens.

But Shea never offered a denial, angrily or otherwise and, for me, the shock wore off. What remained was a dismal reminder of a familiar fact: You just never know about people, or the grim secrets they might keep.

The day before Shea was arrested, we had a conversation. He called me a dirtbag; I called him a wuss. Just your standard male ritual of trash talk that had begun 20 years ago when we met on the job; the vocal equivalent of a friendly jab on the shoulder.

We were talking about a project he was working on: He wanted me to consent to a long interview about my work as a news reporter and author, but he wanted to involve more personal stuff, as well. My background, my personal failings and the various missteps I had made over the years.

He wanted to produce something raw and substantial and I was wary. As much as I liked the dude on a personal level, I had misgivings about him on a professional one. Shea, a mostly admitted narcissist, often craved glory and he had very little compunction about trampling somebody to obtain it. I was intrigued by the project, though, and agreed to meet with him the following day.

The following day, the news release rolled in and, for me, the thunderstruck began. And brother, I mean it dropped my jaw to the point where small birds were perching upon it.

I keep going back to that — back to the instant I had opened that news release with the simple headline: “Auburn Child Porn Arrest.” I keep wondering why I was so damn stunned to see Shea’s name listed in the text detailing the crimes in question.

Didn’t I know better by then? Didn’t I realize that you can never truly know a person and the dark secrets that they keep? Hadn’t I learned years ago that almost nobody is what they appear to be?

I did know better and yet I was stunned.

I was there when Shea bought his first legal six-pack at a corner store. We used to drink together and talk about all the usual things: hot news, hot women and hot prospects for the future. To me, Shea was just another drinking buddy, a guy with a sassy mouth and a streak of self-indulgence who would probably end up doing great things one day.

Ordinary in every way, this Shea fellow, yet in his private hours he was apparently doing things the rest of us find appalling. As open as he was about his ambitions, he was also dedicated to the preservation of his grim proclivities.

I think what bothers me most about the arrest and conviction of Josh Shea is that it openly mocks the idea that I’ve been covering this stuff for so long that I’m beyond being surprised. And it reinforces the notion that when it comes to human nature, what you see is almost never what you get.

When the masks come off, anyone at all can turn out to be the bad guy: an old friend, a delightful neighbor, that teacher who shaped your life. You just never know, and to me that’s the most depressing thing in the world.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. Send affirmations to [email protected]

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