Death and the cub reporter: My life and murder

December 13, 2012

Author’s note: This is the second entry in a series of related posts that began on Wednesday. I also posted this prologue the previous week. Thank you very much for reading!

***

I had lived a few relatively comfortable decades before I first got involved with murder. Then I changed careers and became a reporter for a small-town North Carolina newspaper.

I wasn’t officially the crime reporter at the paper. Then again, the paper was so small that sometimes I had to handle whatever kind of news story broke. The three-county area that we covered wasn’t home to that many people, but unfortunately, it seemed to have more than its share of crime.

And actually, one of my assignments was covering an entire county. Usually, that meant covering the local governing council and school board. But sometimes, it meant covering crime — and typically, the kind of crime we were interested in was murder. One of the years I worked the beat was astonishingly bloody: If memory serves, there were eight slayings in a county of about 20,000 people.

One night a man, apparently made paranoid by cocaine, starting shooting the folks on his driveway. Two died; one managed to escape despite a serious wound. It was the county’s first multiple homicide in many years.

One evening an off-duty deputy-in-training was waylaid by a bunch of people walking on a road just outside the business district of a tiny town called Norlina. I never learned exactly what happened or why, but one of the teenagers had a gun and an itchy trigger finger. The trainee died a short drive from his home.

On another night, a man stabbed his own brother to death. The victim, after having apparently asked for money and been rebuffed, charged the knife wielder. When I asked around, I learned that the victim was a ne’er-do-well widely known and disliked by residents in the county seat. No one I talked to seemed particularly sad that he was dead — a marked contrast to the sentiments that are typically expressed when someone has died. The district attorney’s office, after consulting with police and the family, classified the slaying as justifiable homicide; no charge was ever filed.

The most bizarre killing was one that I never understood — at least not until years later. A detailed report by The News & Observer explained that the State Bureau of Investigation had conducted an incredibly shoddy and perfunctory probe of a crime scene with two corpses.

Everyone had always found the official story difficult to swallow. Supposedly, a timid and well-behaved grade schooler had for no apparent reason shot and killed his beloved mother before turning the weapon on himself. Some believe that the woman’s jealous ex actually did the killing. But either there was never evidence to prove that or the initial crime scene examination was so inept that potential evidence was forever lost.

***

Over the course of a seven-year stint as a daily newspaper reporter, I probably covered around 25 murders. A murder is, frankly, an exciting story to cover. In the small towns where I worked, it seemed everyone wanted to read about a shocking crime. And depending on who had done what to whom, many of the folks in town turned out to know both the victim and the defendant.

Murder, of course, is inherently dramatic: A life has been cut short by a criminal act. And unlike the municipal business that occupied much of my professional life — zoning, property tax rates, possible utility expansions — a murder story let me describe what had happened without having to provide intricate explanations.

But while murders may be exciting in a ghoulish fashion, they tend ot be challenging to cover. The victim can’t tell me what happened; the suspect — if there is one, and if I could find him or her — almost certainly won’t talk.

(There are always exceptions. One night, a man walked into the newspaper where I would later work and voluntarily confessed the murder he’d committed to the editor. The paper’s lawyers had to work to keep the editor from being forced to testify in court.)

Police, rightly, don’t want reporters contaminating crime scenes, so there’s rarely much to see while the initial investigation is ongoing. Now and then, someone who saw or claimed to see what happened is available to talk to reporters. Often, there’s no witness to be found. It’s up to the police to reveal what happened and who was involved. Sometimes, they’ve got a lot to say. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, it’s several hours before they have anything to say.

And a murder usually requires a reporter to do one of the hardest jobs in journalism: Ask a grieving relative to describe the person who was just killed. Even when an interview has been arranged through an intermediary, such as a funeral director, this is no easy task.

I’ve talked to grieving relatives hours after they’ve experienced a loss. I’ve talked to bereaved mothers who, years after burying their sons, quickly tear up at the thought of their dead children. Some very clearly still held out hope of seeing familiar faces that have long since crumbled into dust. Their sadness has touched me, sometimes in ways that were hard to shake.

But those experiences hadn’t fully prepared me for what happened on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, which was that a man I knew had been killed.

***

Author’s note: I posted expect to post a follow-up to this entry on Friday. Again, thank you for reading.

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