Thursday, March 22, 10:12 a.m.
In my limited experience, all daily newspaper journalists want to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Local TV reporters want to get hired by Fox News, CNN, 60 Minutes or Dateline NBC—whichever calls first.
Writers at the too-cool alternative weeklies want to be latter day incarnations of Dorothy Parker and get hired by The New Yorker, or become the next David Sedaris and craft false memoirs for NPR.
Bloggers want to be real (i.e. print) journalists.
Monthly newspaper reporters turned fully fledged editors want to write a book.
But what do crime reporters want?
Jack O’Lies is one.
I find it hard to believe that such a job still exists. Nonetheless, I’m about to meet him in his natural habitat: a crime scene. A murder scene. A possible serial killer murder scene, if the tweets are to be believed.
The crime scene is on the western shore of Lake Washington, where the sand meets rain-churned mud. I park between a King County Sheriff’s car and a City of Seattle Police car. Washington State Patrol is on scene too, sandwiched in between a pair of TV news vans. I’ve never understood the division of labor among the various cop agencies. I’m not that kind of journalist.
I don’t get out of the car. Chaos reigns as cops and marauding ducks fight to defend their strongholds between the mucky bank, the gently lapping gray water, and the yellow Police Line Do Not Cross tape that separates them. Through my windshield, I can see a major media convergence zone just outside the yellow tape. I’ve been here once before, under far more mundane yet equally duck- and reporter-ridden circumstances. I ought to feel right at home. Except for that whole dead body found floating on the water thing.
Stumbling over the waddling wildlife, the perpetually jeans ‘n’ T-shirt-clad TV cameramen
(they are always men)
poke their lenses into the cops’ faces while the on-air talent—no one I recognize—fiddle with their handheld mics. Also jeans-clad, but sporting dry cleaned sports jackets, a half-dozen newspaper reporters are standing together gossiping. Their photojournalist counterparts, decked out in full-body khaki like war correspondents, are picking their way through the muck to shove their telephoto lenses over the yellow tape. Several radio reporters stand well apart from the mob and record their reportage with their iPhones: a feat that impressed me excessively the first time I saw it —ironically at the equally over-policed Shop With a Cop Christmas charity event.
Keeping a safe distance from the edge of Lake Washington where the corpse recently washed ashore, and looking hungover, overwhelmed, or both, are a couple kids from one of the alternative print weeklies. Given their smeared eyeliner and excess of sequins, I’m willing to bet that they got pulled directly off late night music club duty to cover this murder scene. Appearing uncomfortable and sporting homemade press passes, a few lonely souls drift through the crowd. As soon as I see their expensive digital cameras, I peg them as bloggers. My digital camera is small, cheap, and freelances during off hours as the family snapshot taker.
If this is indeed the crime scene of a serial killer, the FBI ought to be in attendance, dressed in their iconic trench coats. I’m wearing a trench coat that I bought a few years ago because I thought it looked reporterish, courtesy of my vague memories of 1940s movies. It was on sale at the Value Village and once got me erroneously pegged as a private investigator whilst I waited for an interviewee outside his tattoo parlor. Maybe the intimidating cops and the clique-ish reporters will think I’m FBI.
The thought cheers me considerably. I wanted to join the FBI in college. I sent in an application. “The X-Files” was popular at the time.
I’m with a monthly newspaper. And I’m way, way outside my newspaper’s coverage area. In more ways than one.
I get out of the car. I need to find Jack O’Lies. He’s a real, live crime reporter. He’ll be able to steer me through this murderous morass without landing me on the 5 o’clock news, immortalized as the crazy lady who blundered across the Police Line Do Not Cross tape and tripped over the corpse.
I pause next to the KING 5 TV news van. I have no idea what Jack O’Lies looks like. There are plenty of images of his wife’s killer, Robert “Bobby” Dean Clasky, the Westgate Serial Killer. They range from wild-eyed courtroom sketches to dead eyed mug shots going back fourteen years to a single school photo, aged eight or so, that ruins all wrath with his blond, abused, tentative yet hopeful smile.
I know that Jack is 45. Because I’m white, I whitely assume he’s white. He lives in Seattle’s Scandinavian ghetto, Ballard, so he’s pretty much got to be white.
The air is crisp and reeks of fish, waterfowl excrement and cheap aftershave. I wend my way over the slippery ground toward the water’s edge. Up to their thighs in Lake Washington, the police crime scene investigators are slowly trudging, their eyes on the rippling water. Red and white lights atop three useless ambulances circle silently. Cop radios jabber while, incongruously, the cops attached to them burst out laughing. I see a TV cameraman aim his all-seeing lens at a kid in a Seattle PD uniform who can’t be a day over 19. “Why so much police interest in a semi-eviscerated and mutilated body? Can you confirm this is the work of a serial killer, and is all of Seattle in danger?” the heavily made-up TV reporter inquires.
I spy an idle print journalist, identifiable by her jeans, sensible shoes, and out of style but carefully pressed suit jacket. She’s leaning against an ambulance, smoking and poking at her iPhone with a short-nailed thumb.
“Excuse me? You don’t happen to know if Jack O’Lies from the Washingtonian is around here somewhere?” I say.
She points her cigarette at an open space beyond the yellow police tape. “Over there with the coroner. Can’t believe Muhammad actually came to the mountain for once,” she says.
The cigarette indicates a black guy in his fifties who is talking with a white guy. The white guy looks to be in his forties, with graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut. He sports a couple days’ worth of beard growth that looks sexy on movie stars in their twenties but doesn’t work for professional men over the age of thirty. The black guy is wearing a dark blue windbreaker loudly emblazoned “King County Coroner’s Office.”
I take a deep breath and contemplate the forbidding yellow tape that separates us.
I’ve only seen such a thing in real life once before. Granted, it was labeled Fire Line Do Not Cross, but close enough. It cordoned off a crucial cross street in the wilds of Ballard (Jack O’Lies country, before I had heard of him) when I was working on a Halloween article about bugs as a culinary option.
Yes, I ate bugs in Ballard. For journalism. But I didn’t violate the official yellow tape.
I glance around. There’s a gawky kid in a trench coat wandering around beyond the yellow tape. His trench coat screams “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. He’s got a fantastically expensive camera. He’s clearly a blogger. I duck under the tape barricade and approach the coroner just as the blogger turns and makes a sudden beeline for the same.
Blast these tenacious amateurs! I pick up my pace as best I can, but I’m slow and unsure on the slick mud. The blogger reaches the coroner and starts waving the camera in his face.
What happens next confuses me. I’m out of earshot. The blogger and the white guy—Jack O’Lies, I presume—appear to exchange words. Angry words. Because the blogger is attempting to horn in on Jack’s interview, perhaps? In my peripheral vision, I see a couple TV cameramen hustle toward them.
My view is abruptly blocked by a radio reporter, then a print journalist, half a dozen photojournalists, uncountable bloggers, and all the cameramen and audio techs from the TV crews. Everything suddenly becomes a noisy, jostling, desperate sort of scene that I’m not used to but have seen on the rare occasion when I’ve covered a popular news story.
Someone is shouting, then the white guy with the graying crew cut and last week’s 5 o’clock shadow shoves his way through the crowd of reporters. All lenses, boom mikes, SLR digital cameras and iPhones swivel to point at him.
I have no idea what just happened. But according to the cigarette, that is Jack O’Lies.
The lenses and the reporters attached to them turn back to the coroner, the lake, and the blogger, who is being hauled to his feet after he apparently slipped in the mud. I hesitate, then follow my presumed interviewee. I have a very fast car this week. I have no doubt that even with his head start, I can catch him.
As I navigate the slippery ground to my press car, I figure there’s a 50/50 chance he’s heading to the Washingtonian headquarters. I don’t know exactly where the Washingtonian building is located, beyond the mythology of the so-called Paper Triangle formed by the Interstate 5-bordering Seattle Times, the waterfront home of the comatose unto death Seattle P.I. and the northern apex between the two, the Washingtonian, which points toward Ballard.
Lucky for me, I have GPS in the car. This awesome ride, the Infiniti G convertible is the best car I’ve ever driven in my life. And it’s mine for a whole week, courtesy of the automobile PR firm that arranges such things, so that my newspaper can review the latest cars, generating revenue by selling ad space surrounding the car reviews. It is a total midlife crisis car. When I have my midlife crisis 10 or 15 years from now, I plan to ruin the family budget to buy one for myself.
Even with GPS, I manage to get lost. Forty-five minutes later, I pull into the Washingtonian’s “staff only” parking lot and hide the press car between a couple Fords. If it’s towed, I’ll be stranded but not liable for the impound costs, since it’s not my car. I hope.
I’ve walked past the corpse of the Seattle P.I. once. I’ve entered the Seattle Times building twice. The Washingtonian, never. I pull open the frosted glass front door and enter an echoing, marble expanse of soulless 1960s architecture. Like at the Times, there’s a front desk manned by a security guard. Unlike at the Times, there’s a two story waterfall behind the front desk that would be quite impressive if it wasn’t bone dry. Also unlike at the Times, I’m treated with little caution or interest. I tell the guard that I have an interview scheduled with Jack O’Lies.
“Know where he is? Third floor,” he replies. The Times has a formidable security gate. There’s no security gate here. Nor am I issued a plastic I.D. badge with a mugshot of me on it, which the Times security guard insisted I wear. I drift uncertainly to the bank of elevators, press the up button, and wait.
The building feels bereft. It appears to have been designed for a bustling community of thousands that has been decimated during the past decade. It’s creepy.
On the third floor, I wander through a cubicle farm dominated by row upon row of empty desks. I run into Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay exactly where I least desire to: coming out of the men’s room.
I’m certain that it’s him. He’s hard to forget. The last time I saw him, he had a waist-length black braid and was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt
(red, of course) under a second-hand brown corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches. He also sported tight jeans with a hole in one knee, a turquoise and silver bracelet, and a pair of beat up cowboy boots. He was such a twenty-seven-year-old tribal cliché punk when he strutted up to collect his trophies at the Society of Professional Journalists awards ceremony.
Today, his hair is shorn to corporate shortness. He’s wearing a pair of unattractive pleated front Dockers, a department store golf shirt, and unobtrusive lace-up leather shoes. Pushing thirty, his face is about a decade older than it was two years ago.
“Oh, hi,” I say. “You’re John Whiteclay, right?”
Looking surprised, cornered, and yet so very professional as the bathroom door swings closed behind him, he replies, “Yes. I’m sorry, you are…?”
“Katherine Luck from the Journal. We set up an interview with your staffer, Jack O’Lies, remember?”
Not surprisingly, he looks very surprised that I’m here after he gave me the big brush off over the phone this morning. However, he hides it with managerially speed.
“Right, right,” he says. “Coffee? I was going to grab a cup.”
“Sure, I never say no to coffee,” I say, trailing him to the break room. “So, I went on down to Lake Washington, but I didn’t manage to hook up with Jack.”
Mr. Whiteclay grabs the Mr. Coffee carafe and a probably clean mug from the counter. His face again registers surprise before he hides it ever so professionally.
“I thought you two were going to schedule things over the phone. Were you covering the murder for your paper or something?”
“Oh no, we don’t do hard news. Nothing controversial,” I say.
He does not offer me a cup of coffee. He leans against the counter and sips.
“Okay,” he says.
“I just figured it would be easier to get in touch with him in person, maybe,” I say.
John Whiteclay says nothing. He crosses one Dockers-encased leg over the other, leaning against the counter in a way that announces that this is where we’re going to wrap things up. I’ve been long-form blown off before. I know the body language all too well.
I, however, become stubborn when professionally thwarted. I can stay here all day if that’s what it takes. I’m saved from making myself obnoxious by a staff writer who pokes his head into the break room.
“Oh man, Chief, you gotta see this! O’Lies punched the hell out of that idiot Seattle Crimeologist blogger.”
Chief Whiteclay’s face registers alarm. Still clutching his coffee mug, he follows the writer. Not uninvited, I trail them to a low-walled cubicle in the middle of the newsroom. Half a dozen reporters are crammed in it, their eyes glued to a computer screen. Their Chief, John Whiteclay, shoulders his way through to stand next to the cubicle owner, who is seated in front of the computer.
“Did you see this, Chief? It’s all over his blog,” she says, hitting play on the uploaded video.
Lake Washington of about an hour ago comes into focus: reporters, camera crews, cops, ducks and all. Behind the camera, a whiny, juvenile sort of voice is saying, “It is a measure of the depravity—nay, the sheer brutality—of modern American culture that a police force immobilized by—”
Off screen, someone says, “Jack? That really you? What’re you doing here today?”
The camera swings from the rippling blue lake filled with wading cops to focus on a black guy in his fifties standing with a white guy who looks to be in his forties. The black guy is wearing a dark blue windbreaker loudly emblazoned “King County Coroner’s Office.” The white guy has graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut and a couple days of beard growth that looks sexy on movie stars in their twenties but doesn’t work for professional men over the age of thirty.
“Tell me about it. I feel about a hundred and forty today,” the white guy says.
The black guy leans closer to the white guy. In the cubicle, we all lean closer to the computer speakers. The coroner says something that sounds like, “Jack. What’re you doing here, really? You know what today is.”
Behind the camera, there’s a gleeful chortle and the shot begins to wobble as the cameraman walks toward the pair.
“Jack O’Lies, Washingtonian crime reporter,” says the unseen cameraman. Both the coroner and Washingtonian crime reporter Jack O’Lies turn and stare into the camera. “What, indeed, are you doing at a serial killer crime scene today, of all days? Are you trying to finally win that Pulitzer? Today’s the perfect day to give it another shot!”
The white guy, Jack O’Lies, goes whiter. Then whiter still. His eyes are fixed on the camera. He steps toward it.
“Jack,” says the coroner. Then he exclaims, “Jack!” as the camera makes a rapid arc up to the blue sky.
“You don’t ever speak to me, you ignorant little bastard,” a voice beyond the blue sky shouts. There’s a commotion, then some scuffling sounds as the camera swings wildly around. We viewers are treated to scraps of cop uniforms, blurry reporters, a few fancy TV cameras and boom mikes—look, that’s me! Then a shot of the back of Jack O’Lies’ head and jacket as he pushes his way through the crowd.
“And it’s on the KING 5 website, too,” says the cubicle owner, tapping at the keyboard as her fearless leader, the stricken Chief, stares at the monitor. There’s a snippet of happy talk from the KING 5 in-studio talent, then their faces and voices abruptly go serious.
“A body was found on Lake Washington today,” says the blond (female).
“The nature of the as-yet unidentified man’s injuries have officials from the Seattle Police Department speculating that it may have been the work of a serial killer,” chimes in the blond (male).
They cut to one of the heavily made-up TV reporters I noted earlier. He begins to speak earnestly into the camera, clutching a large microphone that I suspect is purely a prop, given all the boom mikes I saw.
“Thanks, Shannon and Greg. I’m here on the shore of Lake Washington, where police have discovered another body that officials suspect may be one in a string of—”
Off screen, there’s a commotion, then some scuffling sounds. The TV camera swings smoothly to take in Jack O’Lies shoving a gawky kid wearing a trench coat that screams “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. The kid slips in the mud and lands on his back.
“There appears to be some sort of incident here—hold on,” says the unseen yet unflappable TV reporter as his cameraman zooms in on Jack O’Lies’s enraged face.
“Ever speak to me, you ignorant little bas—BEEP!” he says.
Is “bastard” really on the FCC’s profanity list? Or is KING 5 hypervigilent?
Just then, a man with a graying, super-short crew cut shoves his way through the crowd into the cubicle. He slams a galley sheet covered with text in 12-point Times New Roman font onto the keyboard. Like meerkats sensing danger on that meerkat nature show I watched once, dozens of reporters around the newsroom poke their heads up from their cubicles.
“Here,” he says to Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay. “And you don’t ever, ever send me out into the field again.”
I glance at the graying crew cut, then at the copy, which is bylined “Jack O’Lies.”