Stalking a Sniper  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2002

Stalking a Sniper   

It was a frightening saga that gripped the nation, but at its core it was a cop story. The pursuit of the sniper underscored the complex, mutually dependent relationship between journalists and law enforcement officials.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      


On October 8, morning anchor Mike Buchanan led the 11 p.m. news on Washington, D.C.'s WUSA-TV with an exclusive. Investigators had found a tarot card--the death card--next to a bullet casing near a middle school where a sniper had shot and critically wounded a 13-year-old boy.

Six people had died before the boy was shot outside the school in Bowie, Maryland. With each shooting a quiet dread grew out from suburban Washington.

Jamie Stockwell reacted immediately, working her sources to confirm the disclosure for the Washington Post. Yes, officers had found a death card, they told her. The card had writing on it, they said, but not exactly the statement Buchanan had reported. If you are going to run with the tarot card, sources told Stockwell, at least get it right. "Mister Policeman, I am God," was the message.

In a page-one story written with staffer Christian Davenport that ran on October 9, Stockwell reported that one officer close to the case said describing the message on the tarot card had "severely impaired" the police investigation. At a press briefing that day, Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose, who led the sniper investigation, excoriated the press for its irresponsible handling of the information.

But Stockwell had learned more from her sources than she would report. The cops working the case were divided over whether or not the tarot card disclosure would hinder or help. Perhaps sharing the card and its message with the public would generate leads. The leak to Buchanan had come from someone close to the investigation. Buchanan, who did not return calls from AJR, later told the Washington Times he called police to let them know what he planned to air and no one tried to stop him.

There was a handwritten note on the tarot card, Stockwell learned. Do not tell the press about the card, the note said. Maybe Chief Moose was genuinely angry, but his display for the television cameras was acting, too, sources told Stockwell. Moose was using television to tell the sniper that it wasn't he who had revealed the existence of the tarot card. Moose thought he needed a dramatic moment if he were to establish credibility and begin a dialogue with a killer.

This is how it would play out for another 16 days and five more shootings, four of them fatal. At the daily press briefings, Moose would accuse the press of jeopardizing his investigation by refusing to confine its reporting to his official releases. At those same meetings he begged reporters for help in bringing the case to a close.

This is the way it has always worked in cop stories, and for all its terror, complexity and scope, this was a cop story. For Stockwell and scores of other reporters who worked the case, the core issue governing their relationship with investigators didn't change.

The issue is information. Cops and reporters chase the same information trying to answer the who and the why of a crime. They go to the same crime scenes, talk to the same witnesses, work with the best evidence they have. Each develops a barter system for information based on trust. The reporter and the cop size each other up and determine their ability to exchange or share information. Peculiarly, the seasoned cop and the seasoned cop reporter affect a similar callous attitude toward dead people, tell the same scabrous jokes and punctuate colorful sentences with profanity.

The relationship is a complex calculus of mutual dependency. And yet cops and reporters have different missions and different bosses. "If this story taught us anything," says Bob Steele, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, "it is that the roles, values and responsibilities of law enforcement and the press are very different."

In an anguished debate, it seemed elementary to choose the mission of cops (to stop killers) over the mission of reporters (to tell the public about it). A considerable number of experts in law enforcement and journalism agreed with Moose that leaking information hurt investigators and, worse, appeared to be aiding the suspects by detailing the every movement of law officers whose job was to protect the public.

As if that weren't enough, the press, particularly national cable news networks, whipped fear into panic, the critics said. Hour after hour, television commentators reminded the public of the randomness of the killing, the phantom-like ability of the snipers to escape and their seemingly omniscient way of plotting their next strike. Viewers will not soon forget the relentless statement crawling along the bottom of the CNN screen: "Your children are not safe at any time anywhere."

And when news outlets weren't scaring people, they were misleading them by the injudicious selection and widespread use of interview subjects whose qualifications were at times dubious and whose speculation on the suspects and their motives was outrageously wrong (see "Off Target").

But the fundamental relationship between cops and reporters survived more than three weeks of intense national scrutiny. Over three critical days following the fatal shooting of bus driver Conrad Everton Johnson--October 22, 23, and 24, near the end of the harrowing ordeal--television and print reporters produced stories of astonishing depth and detail, because police sources provided those details.

Moose had made statements at one of the press briefings clearly directed at the snipers. Sources explained to reporters what the statements meant. Investigators had found a note behind a restaurant in Ashland, Virginia, where a 37-year-old man had been shot. Sources told reporters the note demanded $10 million. Through stories about the bungled communication between one of the snipers and the FBI, and the links between a bullet-riddled tree stump in Tacoma, Washington, and a murder in Montgomery, Alabama, and the sniper shootings, the trust between cops and reporters kept the public informed.

A source provided an accurate description and license plate number of the Chevrolet Caprice investigators believed the snipers were traveling in, later detailing how its trunk had been remodeled as an arsenal. A truck driver who had heard the description on the radio--information the police did not release at the official press conference--called authorities when he spotted two men sleeping in the car in the early morning at a rest stop off Interstate 70 northwest of Washington. Reporters could, with some justification, claim credit for assisting in the arrest of John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

Reporters could also claim credit for understanding that crime-solving isn't the primary role of the press. Michael E. Ruane, a gifted rewriteman who wrote several of the lead stories for the Washington Post, says Post editors reminded reporters to stay focused on the heart of the stories.

"Early on an editor here got us together and told us this story was galloping off in the distance," Ruane says. "We need to go back and visit the people whose lives have been shattered by this. They were all very basic human-interest stories. They are 10 individual homicides that taken together created an epic."

Unlike the paid experts, hundreds of reporters like Stockwell went about their work without making a TV appearance.

"I did the same thing every day in Rockville working this case that I do every other day at work in Upper Marlboro," Stockwell says. "I think of it as police reporting at its best. The size, the magnitude and the interest was greater than any other story I've been involved in, but it is still a good old-fashioned cop story."

Stockwell, 26, is a rarity in the newspaper business today--a police reporter by choice. Growing up in Edinburg, Texas, with relatives in law and law enforcement, Stockwell knew cops and courts would provide the raw material for someone who loved to write. While attending the University of Texas, she covered both during an internship at her community's newspaper, the McAllen Monitor.

The open and friendly ways of her hometown police department did not prepare Stockwell for Prince George's County when the Washington Post assigned her to the police beat there in April 2000. The police department had been the subject of several legal and newspaper investigations centering on civil rights and brutality complaints. Yet another probe began just months after Stockwell started.

"I knew right off the bat it was going to be a hell of a county," Stockwell says. "People thought I was crazy to take it. They told me nobody was going to talk to me. I'd never get anything out of the cops. Everything they said was right, at first."

Prince George's County is a nearly 500-square-mile county of 815,000 people whose 1,400-member police force confronts rampant drug-dealing and about 100 homicides a year. Stockwell knew she'd get plenty of chances to change the equation.

"I'd go to every single homicide scene, the ones nobody seemed to care about, the ones cops call the run-of-the-mills," she says. "I'd be the only one there from the press. I'd talk to the officers and the detectives working the homicide. Pretty soon they knew who I was."

The clincher, Stockwell says, was an invitation by the head of the police union to drink beer with him. Before long, Stockwell was an after-work visitor at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. At its basement bar, Stockwell would listen to the usual cop bluster over $1.50 Budweisers. Police officers felt comfortable with her.

"Don't get me wrong, they don't all like me or trust me," she says. "But there are enough of them I trust and respect that if I want information, I can get it."

On October 4, the day after the snipers had shot five people, a Post editor called Stockwell and asked her to drive into neighboring Montgomery County to find family members. Knocking on doors that day and the next produced nothing. For the next couple of days Stockwell would makes calls and contribute to stories from her home base.

On the morning of October 7, Stockwell called the Prince George's Police Department about an unrelated case and found out a student had been shot outside a middle school in Bowie. As she arrived at the scene she saw Police Chief Gerald Wilson and reporters from national news organizations. "One of the detectives told me the boy had been shot from a distance with a single shot, so they were thinking this was the sniper," Stockwell says.

The officers Stockwell talked to didn't tell her about the bullet, the tarot card and the note. No editor scolded her for losing an exclusive to Mike Buchanan that night, but Stockwell says she was determined to work the phones until she could report the story independently.

That the tarot card was in the public domain relieved Stockwell of the primary decision of whether or not to go with the story. Still, she considered what the tarot card meant to the investigation.

"Had I received it first? That would have been a creepy piece of information to get," Stockwell says. "I would have taken it to my immediate editor and asked if we should go with it at all. In a way I'm relieved we didn't have to have that discussion." That said, she emphasizes she would have been "excited" to have broken the story.

Editors at the Post spent little time debating whether or not to mention the tarot card, says Maryland Editor Ashley Halsey, who helped coordinate the paper's sniper coverage. Editors talked a lot about running everything Stockwell had gleaned from her sources.

"On more than one occasion during the pursuit we weighed whether or not to use certain information and asked police if it would be detrimental to their investigation," Halsey says. "Had we gotten the information [about the tarot card] exclusively we would have had a very different discussion. Would we have run it? That is a hypothetical that would be impossible to answer."

The executive who had to answer the question was David Roberts, vice president for news at WUSA-TV Channel 9. In the end, Roberts believed his audience's need to know as much as possible about an imminent public safety threat trumped the protection of a police investigation. And Roberts believed in Mike Buchanan.

Thirteen years after taking an anchor's seat, Buchanan is still the dogged police reporter who broke the story of the 1986 cocaine death of Len Bias, the young Boston Celtics player who starred at the University of Maryland. Buchanan scooped local and national reporters following the shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, when the reporter learned John Hinckley Jr. had shot the president to impress actress Jodie Foster.

"Mike Buchanan has been a reporter in this town for more than three decades," Roberts says. "Like any good reporter he's not prone to wait around for handouts at press conferences. The goal of good reporters is to break enterprise stories other people don't get. Experience determines who breaks those stories."

Disagreement with that rationale came from the expected places. Thomas Mauriello, who teaches forensic science and criminal investigation at the University of Maryland, wrote an opinion piece saying that he was angry with the media for interfering with the investigation and, possibly, aiding the suspects. Because it was not obvious what information might do all that, Mauriello advised reporters to behave like investigators and keep it all to themselves.

Harvey Goldstein, a psychologist and law enforcement consultant, said in the Washington Post the press was not only giving aid but comfort, too. "[I]t doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that human behavior depends heavily on reinforcement," Goldstein wrote a few days after the tarot card disclosure. "Reward a behavior and that behavior is likely to be repeated.... For our serial sniper the rewards have been remarkable.... The attention makes him feel powerful: He is so important that important people are talking about him."

A writer to Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler may have summarized it best when chastising WUSA-TV. "Regardless of the reasons, it is unacceptable for a news organization to substitute its own judgment for that of our government's authorities," adding that, "in doing so, you may have placed more people's lives at risk." In a post-September 11 climate of fear of random terror, the surrender to powerful authority gains currency.

Some in the world of journalism were finding it hard to defend this news judgment. In a column for the Hartford Courant, Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University, said the news media might be doing more harm than good in their coverage of the sniper. The old police reporter wrote that the press would be better served cooperating rather than competing with police, never mind that Buchanan's tarot card scoop was the very example of such cooperation.

The defenders of the tarot card story agreed with the officer who leaked it. "[G]iven the choice between too much coverage and none at all, I'll take excess every time and rely on the intelligence of the news consumer to sort it all out," wrote columnist Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times. Journalists assume that citizens make better choices, safer choices with more information, not less.

"This was a hell of a piece of information to have, because it tells you a lot about the shooter," Stockwell says. "You get it out there, you show a picture of the handwriting and maybe someone recognizes who wrote it."

This was not at all what Chief Moose had in mind. The tarot card story marked a turn in the public relationship between the press and police--though this change in attitude had nothing at all to do with the quality or quantity of information released officially. It can't be repeated enough that law enforcement officers are predisposed and trained to withhold as much information as is beneficial to an investigation. At one point Moose told reporters if he had his way he'd release none of it.

"[D]o you want the police department to work the case or do you want Channel 9 to work the case?" Moose asked nobody in particular at one of the daily press briefings. "Let me know because there is no room, in my mind, for both of us to work the case."

The daily briefings became televised confrontations. Moose's history with the press might have had something to do with it. While chief of police in Portland, Oregon, his all-police-business demeanor was sometimes punctuated with angry outbursts. The Oregonian in 1999 reported that in 24 years with the Portland department, Moose had been disciplined over four blowups. On at least one occasion he had been sent to anger-management counseling.

More likely, Moose's posture at the briefings reflected the magnitude of the events unfolding in his county. In 2001 Montgomery County police investigated just 19 homicides in an area of 900,000 people. Neighboring Prince George's County had five times that many.

"I'm not sure he was ready for the circus, and it was a circus," says Sara Michael, a reporter for the local daily, the Montgomery Journal. "At the first press briefing he was talking openly with reporters, answering questions. The cameras are running and he says, 'Be patient with me, don't make me look like an asshole.' That's the kind of person he is. He's real. He's not a politician, he's a cop."

The more defensive Moose became, the more repetitive and badgering the questions from the press seemed, Michael says. Letters to the editors of papers across the country indicated the public was on Moose's side.

"From the letters we got," says Amy Dominello, assistant managing editor of the Montgomery Journal, "the message was clear that people wanted the national media to get off Chief Moose's back and let him do his job."

Deprived of news from official sources, national cable TV outlets, with lots of time to fill and a story that dramatically boosted their audiences, brought on the experts. Federal cops, undercover cops, cops who specialized in profiling criminals, military cops with sniper training. Psychologists of all stripes. Clairvoyants. Some of the pundits were either flogging their own consulting firms or being paid for their wisdom.

Of course, cable didn't have these gurus all to itself. The networks and the newspapers made ample use of them. But it was on cable, with that infinite newshole, where they were most conspicuous.

This may have been the most damning charge. Dru Sefton, a national correspondent for Newhouse, was the first reporter to document the connection between news reports and sniper movements. A Montgomery County official appeared on CNN to assure the safety of children in schools, four days before the sniper shot the 13-year-old boy outside his school. Criminal profilers on national television spoke of the God complex of the sniper for three days and on the next police found the "I am God" tarot card. When the Washington Post pointed out on October 15 that all the shootings had occurred on weekdays, the next shooting came on a Saturday. And when a profiler on CNN said he could envision the sniper striking in Ashland, Virginia, he did.

Rather than treat the story as a cautionary tale of the cost of speculation, MSNBC did what seemed natural. The network invited Sefton to a roundtable discussion--as an expert. Sefton declined, because she had to write another story. "It puzzled me that they would see me as an expert that would get on TV and talk about this when there were many other people who were much more well-versed in the situation," Sefton says. "I am not an expert. I'm a feature writer. This was one story on one day and I'm on to the next story. Today I'm working on a story on bird ownership being up in the U.S."

Repulsed as he was by the "pathetic litany of pseudo experts parading on cable television," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the changing media landscape creates the need for two kinds of reporting.

"There is what I call the sense-making, wading through everything that's being reported, on television, too, and making sense of it for a public that is frustrated wading through all the garbage to get what they want," Rosenstiel says. "Then there are those practicing what most of us consider familiar journalism, the shoe-leather kind of newsgathering. These people are the heroes of this story."

Among those heroes, who committed shoe leather and paid little attention to experts on their own networks, were cable news correspondents like Jeanne Meserve. When a hurricane failed to make its way to the Mississippi coast, CNN diverted Meserve to Montgomery County. For three weeks she got to know cops, worked them out of camera range and relied on them when press briefings utterly failed her. Meserve saw few of the experts on her own network and wasn't asked to confirm a profiler theory, she says.

The briefings failed because Moose was sometimes unreceptive even to nonthreatening questions. When a reporter asked for something basic, like what a citizen should be looking for to be a credible witness, the chief bristled, Meserve says. But because the major newspapers cycled so many new reporters through Montgomery County, these reporters were unable to engender trust.

"There were the repetitive questions, sometimes downright stupid questions from reporters who had no idea what was going on," Meserve says. "Chief Moose had every right to be frustrated."

Hundreds of television and print reporters descended on "Camp Rockville." Washington Post editors dispatched dozens of reporters each day until the capture of Muhammad and Malvo. Jamie Stockwell alone wrote or contributed to 24 stories in 23 days. On the day following the capture, in a box tucked into an inside page of the Post, were the credits for all reporters who contributed to the coverage that one day. That box included the names of 63 reporters, including Stockwell's.

The Baltimore Sun didn't send out the same numbers, but kept up with hustle. Steve Kiehl had done some cop reporting as a college intern a few years before but had been brought in to the Anne Arundel County bureau of the Sun to write about education. Then he was reassigned to transportation. After the shooting in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on October 4, editors decided that since he hadn't really started covering his new beat, he was available for duty on the sniper story.

Kiehl, 25, attended most of the press briefings and watched Moose go from affable to surly. He hung out at nearly every one of the crime scenes and rode the elevators from the first to the fourth floors of the office building in Rockville where the task force was based. Kiehl had talked to victims' families during internships. The job was no easier competing with hundreds of reporters. For three weeks, Kiehl logged 30 hours a week of overtime. Proud as he was to have taken part, he says it was tough to stay on top of the story.

"It was one of the most frustrating stories I've ever done, and the hardest thing about the story was developing sources on the fly when the whole world is watching and you don't normally do cops," Kiehl says. "People don't realize it, but in the last week the story was left to anonymous sources."

During those last days Moose had begun to talk to the sniper through a series of messages aimed at persuading the killer to contact police. What would be made clear by sources was the frustration of the sniper, who had been unsuccessful in his attempts to reach law enforcement officials. On October 22, police found a letter tacked to a tree behind a restaurant where a 37-year-old man had been wounded three days before. The letter from the sniper complained that he had tried to contact police six times to demand that he be paid $10 million in ransom. Without the money, he'd continue.

Del Quentin Wilber, a police reporter for the Sun in downtown Baltimore, unearthed the story of the sniper's foiled communication attempts, followed it by identifying the two people police were searching for and linked the semiautomatic found with Muhammad at the time of his arrest to the shootings. In all, Wilber had 30 bylines and credits over the length of the ordeal.

Wilber learned the suspects' identities working a cell phone from a hotel room in San Francisco. He had grudgingly gone with his parents to pick out a place for a rehearsal dinner for his June wedding.

Wilber, 28, had heard whispers about the two suspects, about their link to a homicide in Montgomery, Alabama. From his hotel room he asked his sources if he should make a move. Come back now, they told Wilber; we're going to catch these guys right here.

Wilber returned to Baltimore on the red-eye that night and without missing a beat reported on the arrests. The Sun's stories matched the Post's in their depth of detail. Both newspapers managed to give readers a feeling that their reporters worked side by side with investigators. In an important way, they had. Wilber had laid the groundwork for his stories long before the sniper fired the first shot.

"That's what you have to do, make sources over beers, put in the shoe leather," Wilber says. "When this broke we started out behind. I knew I would have to work every source I had. It took a while, but we caught up. That's when it starts to pay off. I have a knack for wandering into good stories, but I'll tell you, I worked really hard to get plugged in to people who could help me with this."

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