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Nine days and three dead bodies later, I would wish I’d never met Jack O’Lies.

Monday, March 19, 9:22 a.m.

I’d never met Jack O’Lies, award-winning crime reporter from Seattle’s venerable Washingtonian newspaper, but I knew so much about him. I also knew about his boss, Washingtonian Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay. I first encountered young Mr. Whiteclay at the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual awards ceremony a couple years ago, when I was but a slip of a staff writer at an obscure monthly newspaper outside Seattle and he was an investigative journalist at the Tulalip Tribune, which was headquartered on an Indian reservation a handful of miles north of my house.

He owned that awards ceremony, raking in five or six second-place medals and a gleaming first-place statuette. I remember he had the longest hair I’d ever seen on any man or woman: a raven-black braid that hung past his belt, tied off with what was either a thin strip of leather or a garbage bag twist-tie. He was all of 27.

I didn’t talk to John Whiteclay at the time. I remember being profoundly embarrassed that I hadn’t realized there was a legitimate newspaper up in casino land. Last night I finally read his first-prize-winning investigative journalism article from that awards ceremony so long ago, “Slaughterhouse 98271.” It took me all of five minutes to realize why it won, why he had accumulated at least eight more first-place statuettes since I last encountered him, and why he has since ascended from lowly reporter at a weekly tribal newspaper with a circulation of maybe 2,000 to an editor gig at the Washingtonian, a hallowed bastion of journalism and one of the last print dailies in the country. My own journalistic ascension has been far less impressive: no statuettes and a lateral drift from staff writer to editor at the same obscure monthly newspaper outside Seattle.

When I called Jack O’Lies to set up an interview (multiple times, all sent to voicemail) and when I emailed him (multiple times, all unanswered), I never thought I’d eventually have to resort to the lowest of tactics, namely contacting his boss. But I tended to get pushy when I was ignored.

After checking my email one last time and finding no response, I decided to place a call to John Whiteclay, one newspaper editor to another. Very collegial, I figured. As I dialed, I wondered if he still had the incredibly long braid.

I was transferred, put on hold, transferred again, then put on hold again. While I hummed along to a canned version of the theme from Titanic, he picked up.

“John Whiteclay.”

How much humming did he hear?

“Hi there. This is Katherine Luck from the Journal,” I said.

“The Business Journal?”

“No. The Journal Newspapers.”

Did he hear my attempt to hit the high trill? What sort of monster would set their on-hold music to a Celine Dion song, then abruptly pick up? And what the hell was the lyric after “my heart will go on?” It was going to bug me all day.

“The King County Journal?”

“Yes. No—not the one you’re probably thinking of. That folded, like, ten years ago.”

I just said “like.” That was not a good sign. It meant he was rattling me.

“Who are you with?” he said. He sounded annoyed.

“We’re a monthly newspaper. We have two editions—the King County Journal and the Snohomish County Journal. But officially or collectively or whatever, we’re the Journal Newspapers.”

I just said “whatever” to an award-winning investigative reporter who was now an influential news editor. I sounded like I was thirteen. I was thirty-three.

“I’ve, uh, been trying to get ahold of one of your reporters for a piece I’m working on,” I said.

“Permissions can be obtained by calling extension 102—”

“No, no, I don’t want to reprint anything,” I said. “I want to interview him.”

I heard the chatter of a keyboard through my phone. He was checking his email as we spoke. I knew he wasn’t looking for a message I might have sent—no, he was multitasking, barely listening to me. I knew this because I often did it myself.

“Who were you trying to reach?” he said. He sounded uninterested.

“Jack O’Lies. He’s a crime reporter, it says.”

“It” was the ten-year-old byline that Google supplied three months earlier when I typed five simple words into the search bar: “husbands of serial killer victims.”

On the other end of the phone, John Whiteclay stopped typing and sighed.

“Jack O’Lies,” he said. “Why would you want to interview him?”

“Research. Um…that I’m doing. For a book. That I’m working on.”

John Whiteclay sighed again.

“Is this some kind of backgrounding thing?”

“Yes?” I said. I had no idea what he meant.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll see. What’s your number?”

“425-775-2400,” I said. I didn’t bother to give him my extension. I only did so when I feared a potential source would mistake me for a mere blogger. Besides, I wanted him to tangle with my newspaper’s on-hold music, just to even the score. Mine played Sonny and Cher tunes.

“Okay,” John Whiteclay said. “Jack will get back to you.”

He hung up. I hung up.

Jack did not get back to me.

 

 

Thursday, March 22, 10:12 a.m.

In my experience, all newspaper journalists wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Local TV reporters wanted to get hired by Fox News, CNN, “60 Minutes,” or “Dateline NBC”—whichever called first.

Writers at too-hip alternative weeklies wanted to become the next James Frey or David Sedaris and craft bestselling false memoirs.

Bloggers wanted to be real (i.e., newspaper) journalists.

Staff writers turned editors at obscure monthly newspapers wanted to write a book about a serial killer.

But what did crime reporters want? I didn’t know.

I found it hard to believe that a professional journalist with such an esoteric specialty still existed in this day and age, yet I was about to meet one in his natural habitat: a crime scene. A murder scene. A possible serial killer murder scene, if the live radio reports were to be believed.

The crime scene was located on the western shore of Lake Washington, where the coarse gray sand met rain-churned mud. I parked between a Washington State Patrol car and a Seattle Police Department cruiser. The King County Sheriff was on scene too, his car sandwiched between a pair of TV news vans. I’d never understood the division of labor among the various cop agencies. I wasn’t that kind of journalist.

I didn’t get out of my car. Outside, chaos reigned as cops and marauding ducks fought to defend their strongholds between the mucky bank, the gently lapping water, and the yellow tape emblazoned with the warning “Police Line Do Not Cross” that separated them. Through my windshield, I could see a major media convergence zone just outside the yellow tape. I covered a story here once before, under far more mundane—yet equally duck and reporter infested—circumstances, when the shoreline was submerged by a minor flood and some flunky from the mayor’s office held a press conference. I ought to have felt right at home. Except for that whole “dead body found floating on the water” thing.

Stumbling over the waddling wildlife, the perpetually jeans ‘n’ sweatshirt clad TV cameramen (they were always men) poked their lenses into the faces of sundry cops, while the on-air talent—no one I recognized—fiddled with their handheld mics and tried to keep their hair neat. Nearby, half a dozen newspaper reporters were standing together gossiping, jeans-clad like the TV cameramen but sporting out-of-style sports jackets and clutching reporter’s notebooks. Their photojournalist counterparts, decked out in full-body khaki like war correspondents, were picking their way through the ooze to shove their telephoto lenses over the yellow tape. Several radio reporters stood well apart from the mob and recorded their reportage on their iPhones, a feat that impressed me excessively the first time I witnessed it at the likewise heavily-policed Shop With a Cop charity event held at the mall last December.

Keeping a safe distance from the edge of Lake Washington, where the corpse recently washed ashore, were a clutch of hungover and under-caffeinated kids from the alternative weekly papers. Given their smeared eyeliner and excess of sequins, I was willing to bet they got pulled directly off late-night club scene coverage to report on this murder. Appearing uncomfortable and gripping homemade press passes, a few lonely souls drifted through the crowd. As soon as I saw their expensive digital cameras, I pegged them as bloggers.

If this was indeed the crime scene of a serial killer, the FBI ought to be in attendance as well, dressed in their iconic trench coats. I myself was wearing a trench coat that I bought a few years ago because I thought it looked reporterish, according to my vague memories of 1940s movies from the film noir genre. The coat once got me erroneously pegged as a private investigator while I waited for a respectable local businessman I was supposed to interview in front of his tattoo parlor. Maybe the intimidating cops and the cliquish reporters would think I was a Fed or a private eye. I was way, way outside my journalistic beat at this crime scene. In more ways than one.

I got out of the car. I needed to find Jack O’Lies. As a real-life crime reporter, he’d be able to steer me safely through this murder morass. Alone, I was likely to gain instant immortality on the 5 o’clock news when I blundered across the “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape and tripped over the corpse.

I paused next to the Channel 5 TV news van. I had no idea what Jack O’Lies looked like. I knew he was 45. Because I was white, I whitely assumed he was white. He lived in Ballard, Seattle’s historic Scandinavian ghetto, so he pretty much had to be white. There were no photos of him online. There were plenty of images of his wife’s killer, Robert “Bobby Dean” Clasky, the Westgate Serial Killer, however. They ranged from wild-eyed courtroom sketches to stone-cold mug shots going back fourteen years to a single school photo taken when he was a kindergartener that wrecked all wrath with his black eye, split lip, and tentative, battered smile.

The air was crisp and reeked of fish, waterfowl excrement, and cheap aftershave. I wended my way over the slippery ground toward the water’s edge. Up to their thighs in Lake Washington, the crime scene investigators were slowly trudging with their eyes on the rippling water. Red and white lights atop three useless ambulances circled silently. Police radios jabbered urgently and, incongruously, the cops attached to them burst out laughing. I saw a TV cameraman aim his all-seeing lens at a kid in a state trooper uniform who couldn’t be a day over 18. “Why so much police interest in an 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 inquired.

I spied an idle newspaper reporter, identifiable by her jeans, sensible shoes, and decades-old but carefully pressed suit jacket. She was 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 said.

She pointed 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 said.

The cigarette indicated a black guy in his fifties who was talking with a white guy. The white guy looked to be in his forties, with graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut. He sported a couple days’ worth of beard growth that would have looked sexy on a movie star in his twenties but didn’t work for a professional man over the age of thirty. The black guy was wearing a dark blue windbreaker that loudly proclaimed “King County Coroner” in a sans-serif font across the chest.

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I took a deep breath and contemplated the forbidding yellow tape that separated us. I’d only seen such a thing in real life once before. Granted, it was labeled “Fire Line Do Not Cross,” but close enough. It had 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 disobey the official yellow tape.

I glanced around. A gawky kid in a trench coat was wandering around beyond the yellow tape. His trench coat screamed, “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. He was carrying a fantastically expensive camera. He was clearly a blogger. I ducked under the tape and approached the coroner just as the blogger turned and made a sudden beeline for the same.

Blast these tenacious amateurs! I picked up my pace as best I could, but I was slow and unsure in the slick mud. The blogger reached the coroner before I did and pointed the camera in his face.

What happened next confused me. I was out of earshot. The blogger and the white guy—Jack O’Lies, I presumed—appeared to exchange words. Angry words. Because the blogger was attempting to horn in on Jack’s interview, perhaps? In my peripheral vision, I saw a couple TV cameramen jump the yellow tape and hustle toward them.

My view was abruptly blocked by a radio reporter, a newspaper journalist, half a dozen photojournalists, uncountable bloggers, and all the cameramen and audio techs from the TV crews. Everyone suddenly coalesced into a noisy, jostling, desperate media-mob that I had only ever experienced on those rare occasions when I was covering an event graced by a celebrity. Someone was shouting, then the white guy with the graying crew cut and last week’s 5 o’clock shadow shoved his way through the crowd of reporters. All lenses, boom mikes, DSLR cameras, and iPhones swiveled to point at him.

I had no idea what just happened. But according to the cigarette, that was Jack O’Lies.

The lenses and the reporters attached to them turned back to the coroner, the lake, and the blogger, who was being hauled to his feet, his trench coat covered in mud. I hesitated, then followed my retreating interviewee. I had a very fast car at my disposal. I had no doubt that I could catch him.

As I navigated the slippery ground to my loaner press car, anxious to avoid biting it in the mud like the blogger, I figured there was a fifty-fifty chance Jack O’Lies was heading back to Washingtonian headquarters. I didn’t know exactly where the Washingtonian building was located, beyond the mythology of the so-called Paper Triangle formed by the Interstate 5-hugging Seattle Times, the comatose Seattle Post-Intelligencer with its waterfront view, and at the apex pointing north toward Ballard, the Washingtonian.

Lucky for me, I had GPS in this week’s press car. It was an awesome ride—an Infiniti convertible, $80,000 manufacturer’s suggested retail price. It was by far the best car I’d ever driven in my life. And it was mine for a whole week, courtesy of the automobile advertising firm that loaned me a new car every week in exchange for a review, which my newspaper’s plucky sales staff leveraged into revenue by selling ad space around said review to local auto dealerships, mechanics, and oil changing outfits.

Even with GPS, I managed to get lost. Forty-five minutes later, I penetrated the Paper Triangle, pulled into the Washingtonian’s “staff only” parking lot, and hid the press car between a couple Fords. If it was towed, I’d be stranded but not liable for the impound costs, since it wasn’t my car. The automotive advertising firm would send me nothing but base-model Mazdas and retrograde Nissans forever after, however, and my newspaper’s ad revenue would suffer. I experienced a momentary twinge of doubt, shook it off, and made for the massive gray building before me.

I’d walked past the corpse of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer once. I’d entered the Seattle Times building twice. But the Washingtonian was a complete mystery to me. I pulled open the frosted glass front door and stepped into an echoing, marble-coated expanse of soulless 1960s architecture. The building felt bereft. It appeared to have been designed for a bustling community of hundreds that had been decimated during the past decade. It was creepy.

Just like at the Seattle Times, there was a front desk manned by a security guard. Unlike at the Seattle Times, there was a two-story waterfall behind the front desk that would have been quite impressive if it wasn’t bone dry. Also unlike at the Seattle Times, I was treated with little caution. The Seattle Times had a formidable security gate. There was no security gate in sight. I informed the drowsy guard that I had an interview scheduled with Jack O’Lies. He barely looked at me in response.

“Know where he is? Third floor,” he replied.

I waited, but I was not asked for ID, issued a visitor’s badge, or ordered to sign in. I drifted uncertainly past the front desk to a bank of elevators. I entered the first one I encountered, pressed the button for the third floor, waited, waited, waited, and eventually ascended at an indolent pace.

On the third floor, I wandered through a lonely cubicle farm dominated by row upon row of empty desks. I was on the verge of giving myself up for lost when I ran into Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay under the least desirable of circumstances: He was stepping out of the men’s room. There was no doubt that it was him. He was 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 dun second-hand corduroy jacket with fake leather elbow patches. He had accessorized his tight jeans with a hole in one knee that definitely hadn’t occurred naturally, and completed his ensemble with a turquoise and silver bracelet and a pair of beat-up cowboy boots. He was such a 27-year-old rez-cred cliché punk when he strutted up to collect his prizes at the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual awards ceremony, lo those many moons ago.

But as he made his egress from the gents’ powder room, I noted that his hair had been shorn to corporate shortness. He was wearing a pair of unattractive pleated-front Dockers, a department store golf shirt, and unobtrusive lace-up leather shoes. And a watch. Pushing thirty, his face was about a decade older than it was two years ago.

“Oh, hi,” I said. “You’re John Whiteclay, right?”

Looking surprised, cornered, and yet so very professional as the bathroom door swung shut behind him, he replied, “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 looked very surprised that I was here after he gave me the big heave-ho over the phone this morning. However, he hid it with supervisory speed.

“Right,” he said. “Coffee? I was going to grab a cup.”

“Sure, I never say no to coffee,” I said, trailing him to the breakroom. “So, I went on down to Lake Washington, but I didn’t manage to hook up with Jack.”

Mr. Whiteclay grabbed the Mr. Coffee carafe and a probably clean mug from the counter. His face again registered surprise before he hid it ever so judiciously.

“I thought you two were going to schedule things over the phone. Were you covering the murder for your paper?”

“Oh no, we don’t do hard news. Nothing too controversial,” I said.

He did not offer me a cup of coffee. He leaned against the counter and sipped.

“Okay,” he said.

“I just figured it would be easier to get in touch with Jack in person, maybe,” I said.

John Whiteclay said nothing. He crossed one Dockers-encased leg over the other, leaning against the counter in a way that announced that this was where we were going to wrap things up. I’d been long-form dismissed before. I knew the body language all too well. I, however, tended to become stubborn when professionally thwarted. I knew I could (and would) stay there all day if that’s what it took. I was saved from making myself obnoxious by a reporter who poked his head into the breakroom.

“Oh man, Chief, you gotta see this! O’Lies punched the hell out of that idiot Seattle Crimeologist blogger.”

Chief Whiteclay’s face registered alarm. Still clutching his coffee mug, he followed the reporter. Since I wasn’t explicitly uninvited, I trailed them to a low-walled cubicle in the middle of the newsroom. Half a dozen reporters were crammed in it, their eyes glued to a computer screen. Their Chief, John Whiteclay, shouldered his way through to stand next to the cubicle owner, who was seated in front of the computer.

“Did you see this, Chief? It’s all over his blog,” she said, hitting play on an uploaded video.

The glossy-gray spectacle of the Lake Washington crime scene came into focus: reporters, camera crews, cops, ducks, and all. Behind the camera, a whiny, juvenile sort of voice was 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 said, “Jack? That really you? What’re you doing here today?”

The camera swung from the slate-colored lake filled with wading cops to focus on a black guy in his fifties standing with a white guy who looked to be in his forties. The black guy was wearing a dark blue windbreaker that loudly proclaimed “King County Coroner” in a sans-serif font. The white guy had graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut and a couple days’ worth of beard growth that would have looked sexy on a movie star in his twenties but didn’t work for a professional man over the age of thirty.

“Tell me about it. I feel about a hundred and forty today,” the white guy said.

Within the video frame, the black guy leaned closer to the white guy. Within the cubicle, we all leaned closer to the computer speakers. The coroner said something that sounded like, “Jack. What’re you doing here, really? You know what today is.”

Unseen on the screen, someone let out a gleeful chortle. The shot began to wobble as the cameraman walked toward the pair.

“Jack O’Lies, Washingtonian crime reporter,” said the unidentified voice.

Both the coroner and Washingtonian crime reporter Jack O’Lies turned and stared 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, went whiter. Then whiter still. His eyes were fixed on the camera. On all of us in the cubicle. He stepped forward.

“Jack,” said the coroner. Then he exclaimed, “Jack!” as the camera made a rapid arc up to the cloudy sky.

“You don’t ever speak to me, you ignorant little bastard,” shouted a voice beyond the view of the heavens. There was a commotion, then some scuffling sounds as the video whipped wildly around. We viewers were 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 pushed his way through the crowd.

“And it’s on the Channel 5 website, too,” said the cubicle owner, tapping at the keyboard as her fearless leader, the stricken Chief, stared at the monitor. There was a snippet of happy talk from the Channel 5 in-studio talent, then their faces and voices abruptly went serious.

“A body was found in Lake Washington today,” said the blond (female).

“The nature of the as-yet unidentified man’s injuries has officials from the Seattle Police Department speculating that it may be the work of a serial killer,” chimed in the blond (male). “Bill Arpaggio is live on scene. Bill?”

They cut to one of the heavily made-up TV reporters I noted earlier. He began to speak earnestly into the camera, clutching a large microphone that I suspected was 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 a body that officials suspect may be another in a string of—”

Off-screen, there was a commotion, then some scuffling sounds. The TV camera slid smoothly left to take in Jack O’Lies shoving a gawky kid who was wearing a trench coat that screamed “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. The kid slipped in the mud and landed on his back.

“There appears to be some sort of incident here—hold on,” said the unseen yet unflappable TV reporter as his cameraman zoomed in on Jack O’Lies’s enraged face.

“You don’t ever speak to me, you ignorant little bas—BEEP!” he said.

I wondered, was “bastard” really on the FCC’s infamous profanity list? Or was Channel 5 hyper-vigilant?

Just at this moment, a man with a graying, super-short crew cut shoved his way through the crowd in the cubicle. He slammed 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 poked their heads up from their cubicles.

“Here,” he said to Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay. “And you don’t ever, ever send me out into the field again.”

I glanced at the graying crew cut, then at the copy, which was bylined “Jack O’Lies.”

 

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