Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Newsroom Confidential: My First Murder

I got into work around 9:45 on Monday morning, about 15 minutes late, which was par for the course. Maria, the editor at Suburban Trends, literally through to me a copy of The Record, the daily paper which both covered our publication zone and also owned our publication.

The bottom front page had a big headline. "BABY KILLED IN HASKELL" it read.

Suburban Trends was my second newspaper. I had been there about four months, covering the towns of Wanaque and Ringwood. I had never heard of these towns until I started my beat, and I warmed up to them fairly quickly. Ringwood is located along the New Jersey/New York border, filled with a multitude of state parks, stunning views, expensive private lake communities and a very active (and downright nasty) political climate.

Wanaque sat to the south. The part of town closer to Ringwood was very woodsy, quiet and suburban. In Haskell, the other part of town, it wouldn't be shocking to see a pickup truck with a Confederate flag parked on a front lawn. It was dusty, in need of a major paint job, and a little bit frightening.

It was a great place for a young journalist to grab a story.

By that fateful Monday morning, I had already cut my teeth. I was about a year into my career, and had established a bit of a reputation in the North Jersey Media Group company. I was seen as a very strong reporter, a very quick learning, capable of turning out a decent amount of copy. I also had a reputation as being someone who wasn't afraid to yell at an editor, a publisher or a company higher-up -- putting me in the doghouse pretty much from day one.

(To re-up this back to The Wire: I have more than just a little McNulty in me, even though I do not drink or sleep around. I have a hard time keeping my opinions to myself. I enjoy pissing off authority figures, particularly incompetent ones. It took me a long time to temper the part of my personality requiring me to serve the role of the self-righteous center-of-attention. In short, I am an asshole.)

I had no idea what to do. I had already figured out by this point that pretty much everyone in the newsroom with me was completely worthless. My editor never left her desk, except when she had to go to our corporate offices in West Paterson for some prime ass-kissing time. The assistant editor was too busy scouring goth personal webpages. Most of the other reporters were a bunch of housewives who worked about ten hours a week, writing great stories such as "Bloomingdale BOE Votes To Hire Gym Teacher."

This place was not conducive to a young reporter who dreamed of making it to a big city daily newspaper one day. It was a place where the folks thought it was "cute" to have the title of reporter, something they could tell the other soccer mom's in their cul de sac about. My editor was also in grad school and a teaching assistant at the time. She used to grade papers while at work. The sports editor at the time used to show up once every two weeks and openly talked about how he wanted to get fired.

I had no idea what to do. I had covered a handful of decent stories -- a police stand-off in Midland Park, two teachers who ended up in a fist-fight at an elementary school in Wanaque -- but I had never covered an actual murder. And I knew everyone I worked with was completely worthless. So I had to concoct a plan on my own.

(It's a bit of a cliche for people to expect newspapers to have these grizzled veterans taking cub reporters and learning them a little bit at a time. I never met those people. I, and most other journalists, had to learn everything on my own. I had to learn what to expect at a council or board of education meeting. I had to learn how to cover a court case, where to find legal briefs and what to ask attorneys. I had to learn how to get police records. Learning on your own, and learning quickly, is a definite strength for anyone in the business and has its merits. But it would have been nice to have a little bit of help for really basic questions.)

First, I scoured the article in the Record. I learned the alleged facts of the case: a 20-year-old gave birth to her newborn baby, stabbed it to death, hid it in a plastic bag and left her son in a dumpster behind her trailer. Making it even more complicated, she had recently moved to Wanaque from Mexico, staying with her brother and sister, who claimed they had no idea she was pregnant. After she killed her kid, she went to work at Burger King where she started bleeding. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where doctors immediately knew she gave birth but didn't have a child with her.

From the article, I saw most of the information was coming from the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, who were now handling the case. I called them to get information as to what happened, and they sent me a press releasing with the basics of the crime. I had names, an address and the police version of what occurred. I now had everything The Record had already printed.

Many daily newspaper outfits own the weeklies in their same coverage area. This is who weekly reporters compete with -- someone who gets a paycheck from the same exact company. (Which I'll get into more later, because that creates many problems.) Our paper came out on Wednesday and Saturday. If something happened that made the Record on a Monday or Tuesday, I still wrote about what happened for the next issue. My strategy was to always try to put a new spin on a story or dig up new information.

There was one thing The Record didn't have with their story. And that was a quote from the family of the alleged murderer. And, having read The Record every day for that year, I knew their reporters were too lazy to try and talk to them.

Now, what I said earlier about that newsroom being filled with wastes was a bit of a stretch. There were two solid people who worked there. The first was Matt, a fellow Clash fan who fits an archtype all-too familiar at a weekly newspaper: the overly talented reporter who, for whatever reason, couldn't catch a break and end up at a newspaper which paid more than $28,000 a year in salary. Matt was always quick to provide me with a phone number or lead when I was stumped on a story. For this, he gave me the phone number of a few area attorneys who could help me figure out the legal system, since the only real experience I had came from watching Law and Order reruns.

The other was Andrea, a college intern who was working with us. Andrea was originally from Peru, having moved to America with her parents only a few years earlier. She was really pretty and she seemed, at first, as very timid and shy. I initially thought she would quit in a few weeks but she wrote a few decent features at the paper which impressed me.

And, most importantly, Andrea spoke Spanish. I guessed this was needed since the family involved in this murder were illegal Mexican immigrants.

I paired up with Andrea. She also read the story and agreed immediately to give me a hand. We came up with a list of questions to ask the family and discussed how to approach them. Luckily, we found a phone number for the family and Andrea gave them a call. They were happy to talk to us.

On our way up, Andrea and I talked about what could possibly cause a woman to kill her newborn child.

"Maybe she didn't know she was pregnant," I said.

"No, you would just know you're pregnant," Andrea replied.

"Well, maybe the hospitals in Mexico aren't so great," I said. "Maybe the doctors there had no way of telling if she was pregnant."

Andrea looked shocked.

"If you think hospitals are like that in Mexico, I don't want to know what you think they're like in Peru," she said. I started laughing, realizing how completely ignorant I was to anything outside of suburban New Jersey.

We drove up to Wanaque, behind a hardware depot, down this dingy dirt road littered with garbage. There, we came across a double wide. Police tape was all over the ground. Behind the house, there was a big dumpster which was also marked with police tape. In front was a bloodied plastic bag.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I felt nauseus. I knew the story was horrific, the latest in a long string of baby murders in North Jersey. But earlier, it was just another article in a newspaper. Now, this was something else. This was real. And this was awful.

Andrea and I approached the house. We knocked on the door. A Mexican guy in his late-20's came out in a wifebeater and jeans. Next to him was a petite woman in her 20's. They were both crying.

Andrea started talking to them in Spanish. They were talking back to her. I couldn't understand a word. Andrea was writing furiously, trying to translate to me what they were saying. But it was obvious. They had no idea their houseguest was pregnant, they had never thought she was capable of something so twisted, and they were scared shitless that they could also be arrested.

We spent about 30 minutes with them. We eventually thanked them and went back to the office. Andrea translated the notes and sat next to me and I started to write the story. It took us about two hours to finalize our copy, as we talked about how to shape every paragraph.

I then went home and started crying my eyes out.

The story had some legs, with The Record doing a few follow-up pieces. Ours ran that Wednesday. It was the only article to have a quote from the family.


Blogger Ed. said...

yeah, Haskell represent!

i know the paper for which you worked. thanks for confirming a lot for me about it.

5:46 AM  

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