The Oakland Project
In an echo of the Arizona Project that investigated the murder of slain journalist Don Bolles in 1976, Bay Area news outlets, journalism schools and media groups have joined forces to complete the unfinished work of murdered Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
During the final hour of his life, Chauncey Bailey ate breakfast at McDonald's and bought a meal for a homeless man. He was on foot, heading toward his newsroom a few blocks away when he spotted his killer. The assassin wore a black ski mask and brandished a sawed-off shotgun.
Around 7:25 a.m., the masked man fired a round into Bailey's chest. He stood over the dying journalist and fired a second powerful blast directly into his face. The killer turned to flee, then reconsidered and shot him again in the abdomen. He made his getaway in a waiting white van.
The thugs behind the August 2, 2007, murder of the editor of the Post News Group, a chain of San Francisco Bay Area weeklies, may have celebrated the easy kill, but not for long. They were wrong if they thought the Oakland attack would stop Bailey's investigation into a controversial local enterprise called Your Black Muslim Bakery.
Instead, the bold murder triggered an intense reaction. More than 24 Bay Area journalists from competing news outlets joined forces to complete the fallen editor's story. Area media groups and journalism schools participated in the effort as well.
It's the biggest journalistic show of force since 1976, when reporter Don Bolles' car was blown up by a bomb while he was investigating organized crime in Phoenix. Journalists from all over the country gathered to continue Bolles' work under the banner of the Arizona Project. (See "Recalling the Arizona Project.")
During the past 10 months, media professionals in the Bay Area have taken collaborative journalism to new heights as they produced more than 140 stories related to Your Black Muslim Bakery and Bailey's assassination. They also have posted numerous multimedia packages on their Web sites.
The material is offered to all of the participating news organizations, which make their own decisions on how and whether to play them. The San Francisco Chronicle, the region's largest newspaper, decided not to be part of the project. "They did invite us, but we already were launched on a fairly significant effort in this arena, and I believe it's important to have competition on a big story," says Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor Stephen Proctor. "More gets done that way. It's the best way to get to the truth, which is our ultimate goal."
At the first anniversary of Bailey's death, reporters continue to peel away layers of intrigue about a Bay Area crime family that for years confounded Oakland police and city officials. Leadership of Your Black Muslim Bakery, founded by Yusuf Ali Bey in 1971, has been implicated in such crimes as torture, murder and child rape.
Since they organized in October, reporters have spent hours slogging through dusty court documents, tracking down real estate transactions and birth, death, marriage and divorce records to build a master database on the Bey family. And they have managed stunning breakthroughs. But financial problems threaten to slow down the progress of the probe.
From the outset, Bailey's death was a call to action for Sandy Close, director of the San Francisco-based New America Media, a national network of about 2,800 ethnic media organizations, and Dori Maynard, head of the Oakland-based Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. For them, the loss was highly personal. Bailey was a cofounder of New America Media and a Maynard Institute alum.
Close's and Maynard's grief impelled them to help found the project. Soon after his death, the two sent out an SOS to Bay Area media. "We felt we needed to come together to honor the dedication and commitment Chauncey had and to finish what he started," says Close, who, like Maynard, has been a fundraiser for the project.
Close and Maynard organized the project's first meeting in late August. By October, a patchwork of Bay Area journalists had come together under the leadership of Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the beginning, it was akin to herding cats. "Everyone was going in a different direction," Rosenthal says.
Competing media outlets with varying agendas clashed. The journalists' competitive instincts complicated the situation. Oakland Tribune Editor Martin G. Reynolds reminded the group, "This isn't about any one of us. This is about Chauncey Bailey. Egos have to be checked at the door."
Coordination was a challenge. Reporters operating out of different Bay Area newsrooms struggled with how to keep track of everything they knew, who had told them what, and how to share the information with colleagues to avoid duplication.
Josh Richman, an Oakland Tribune reporter who worked with the slain journalist and has been heavily involved in the Bailey project, describes the first meetings as "jawbreakingly awful." Rosenthal remembers them as "completely chaotic, a huge mess... We had a wide range of skill sets. We got a lot done, but we stumbled quite a bit the first three to four months."
Two breakthroughs helped establish order. Investigative Reporters and Editors provided a secure, password-protected server that allowed reporters to share information and post new findings. "In the beginning, we were afraid that secret information getting out would ruin the investigation. We didn't want people to know we had all this personal information on the Beys. The server gave us a safe place to work," says Mary Fricker, a retired business writer for the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa and a project mainstay.
After the initial confusion, project leaders divided the investigation into beats or areas of interest surrounding the Bey empire. Reporters were split into teams to provide more structure and focus to their newsgathering.
Key editors for project stories have included Reynolds, Oakland Tribune Managing Editor Michelle Maitre and Mike Oliver, special projects editor for the Bay Area News Group, with Rosenthal at the helm.
Journalism students also have played a role, swarming over Alameda County and surrounding areas to create a paper trail from criminal records, civil suits, real estate deals, and birth, death and marriage records. They meticulously scanned the public documents, then pumped them into a master database. "They all had the last name Bey," Fricker says. "It was a nightmare."
As the project broke important stories, a one-for-all-and-all-for-one mentality took hold among the core group of reporters and news managers. "We're competitive with each other until something like this befalls one of us," says Richman, who has devoted large blocks of time to the investigation. "Then we work as a team to get to the truth."
On June 10, members of the Bailey Project were in a celebratory mood.
They had been summoned to the war room, or "bunker" as some call it, at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Berkeley. The rustic, vine-covered building on a quiet side street had become a haven from newsroom clatter and possible leaks. The meeting was set for 10:30 a.m.
Project reporters Thomas Peele of the MediaNews-owned Bay Area News Group and Bob Butler, a freelancer and president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, were the first to climb the stairs to the second floor. As they set up laptops, 12 more participants packed into the small, stuffy room.
Reporters and news managers were abuzz over a video, secretly recorded by Oakland police and slipped to the Bailey Project by a source close to the investigation into his death. The content would prove to be explosive.
Peele and Butler already had studied the tape. Those who had not seen it bunched around a computer screen, watching intently as three young men, sitting in a jail interrogation room, manacled and wearing prison jumpsuits, joked and laughed about Bailey's murder.
The cast of characters was familiar to those in the room. Yusuf Bey IV, the 22-year-old leader of Your Black Muslim Bakery, whispered to his buddies that he kept the gun used to kill Bailey in his closet after the attack and bragged of playing "hella dumb" when investigators asked him about the shooting.
He described the killing, then, laughing, denied he was there. He boasted that his friendship with the case's lead detective protected him from charges. Clowning for his pals, Bey IV jerked back his head to mimic a shotgun blast to the face, saying "Pow, pow! Poof!" They joked about Bailey being hit in the face with "shotty."
"That is very disturbing and chilling," said Butler, who was instrumental in obtaining the video. Police made the recording four days after the August 2 slaying.
Bey IV wasn't in jail in connection with Bailey's murder. The three, including his half brother, were being held on unrelated kidnapping and torture charges.
On June 18, the video, which can be viewed at ContraCostaTimes.com or InsideBayArea.com, made the splash that project members had hoped for. It led the nightly news on ABC affiliate KGO-TV and Fox affiliate TVU-TV. KGO investigative reporter Dan Noyes reported that the jailhouse video revealed new evidence that the bakery's leader may have been involved in a wider conspiracy to kill Bailey. News reports raised serious questions about the Oakland police investigation.
The story appeared on the front page of the Oakland Tribune and received prominent play in other newspapers in the Bay Area News Group, including the Contra Costa Times. The weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian posted the stories on its Web site. By June 20, the Tribune had run a handful of follow-ups and sidebars. To project leaders, it was the most important exposé so far. KQED radio did a half-hour interview with Rosenthal and one of his reporters.
"We have brought a searchlight down on the bakery and the Bey family. There is more to come," promises Reynolds, editor of the Tribune, where Bailey worked from 1993 to 2005. The paper has been home to the project, which is run by Rosenthal.
Known to his colleagues as "Rosey," Rosenthal, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, joined the center in January. He signed on early to shepherd the project's loosely knit investigative team, most of whose members have been doing double duty over the past months. Reporters work beats in their own newsrooms and eke out time to pursue the story of a fallen colleague.
"We've worked our butts off to prove a lot of what [Bailey] was looking into. We've also found information Chauncey had no clue about," Rosenthal says. "We know where we want to go with this story."
Reporters have turned their attention to the relationship between the Oakland police and Your Black Muslim Bakery, famous for bean pies, spice cakes and whole wheat bread pudding. Signs on the outside advertised fish sandwiches and tofu burgers. Inside, a patriarch ruled with an iron hand.
Yusuf Ali Bey was a charismatic leader who enticed mayors, city council members and other power brokers to his fiefdom at the bakery, one of Oakland's most venerable – and controversial – black institutions.
For more than 30 years, Bey was viewed as a pillar of the community, a vital link to disenfranchised Oakland neighborhoods where drugs, intimidation and murder are part of the landscape. He fostered social welfare programs and gave jobs to ex-convicts with nowhere to go.
When Bey appeared in public, a cadre of heavily armed foot soldiers, impeccably dressed in suits and bow ties, stood guard.
Using birth certificates, sworn depositions and other records, Bailey project reporters confirmed that Yusuf Bey had at least 42 children with 14 women and girls. It was no secret that he slept with teenage "wives." Yusuf Bey IV, the braggart on the jailhouse video, is his namesake.
While Bey was promoting himself as a model black entrepreneur, he was raping and beating women and girls who lived with him, according to the testimony of five women. Fricker took the lead in following the paper trail of sexual terror for the project.
In 2002, when Bey was charged with preying on young girls, prosecutors said they had evidence to prove he had fathered five children with four victims under the age of 14. Two were 13 when they gave birth.
When he died in October 2003 from colon cancer at age 67, Bey was awaiting trial for child rape. Bailey covered the scandal and wrote his obituary.
The Chauncey Bailey Project has been burrowing deep into the empire Bey created, meticulously connecting the dots on criminal activities.
"I don't think these guys had a clue about the kind of can of worms they were opening," says Bob Butler, who often reports for KCBS 740 radio. "Everything about this organization, every facet of the business, is now being looked at."
During their hunt, reporters have found new and incriminating evidence. They also have driven law enforcement to take action.
Due to the project's inquiries, police have reopened investigations into three unsolved murders dating as far back as 1968, all with potential Bey family links. Police reports at the time of the killings had been copied on microfilm, archived and remained untouched for decades until reporters began checking them out.
An account of a 1986 slaying linked to Yusuf Ali Bey ran April 9. The story about the reopening of the 1968 investigation into a double homicide ran March 25. (Stories produced by the Chauncey Bailey Project can be found at www.chaunceybaileyproject.org.) Reporters also sought to open windows into the bizarre, mysterious world Bey and his followers created.
A series in February titled "Women of the Bakery" was based on the project's research into reports women in the Bey family made to police in 2002, their sworn depositions in 2005 and related reports prepared by police, the county social services agency and the courts.
The project has documented how Bey built his fortune in part by using child labor, withholding wages and Social Security, and forcing women and children to collect welfare benefits. He was masterful at working the system, getting large loans from the city and lenient sentences from judges when his minions were arrested. At one point he ran for mayor of Oakland, garnering five percent of the vote.
"He had political clout and he used it to his advantage," Butler says.
During the June 10 meeting, Peele filled in his colleagues on the high praise the Chauncey Bailey Project had received at the IRE conference earlier that week in Miami.
Members of the team – Peele, G.W. Schulz of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and freelancer A.C. Thompson – walked to the podium at the Intercontinental Hotel to collect the prestigious Tom Renner Award, honoring outstanding reporting on organized crimes and other criminal acts.
The audience at the awards' luncheon rose for a rousing ovation. "People were tearing up. It was pretty remarkable," says former IRE Executive Director Brant Houston, who is now Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. "It touched everyone deeply... A journalist had been killed, and despite everything going on in this industry, people stood up and are finishing his work. It was one of those bonding moments."
Peele, a lead investigator on the project, recalls fighting back tears. "The ovation was a wonderful moment, but how should we act given the underlying reason for our work?" he said during an interview in the war room. "For us to allow it to be a joyous moment would have been disrespectful to Mr. Bailey."
Even during his life, Chauncey Wendell Bailey Jr., was something of an enigma.
Former coworkers and friends describe him as charismatic, lovable, articulate and "smart as hell." They also tell of a stormy, unpredictable side. He was known for his aggressive questioning of city officials and his outspoken style.
"Chauncey had a forceful personality," says Tribune Editor Reynolds, a friend of Bailey's. Reynolds was at home on vacation when he received word of the shooting. "My first thought was, 'Who did he piss off?' Chauncey had a knack for getting under somebody's skin."
By all accounts, Bailey, 57, lived and breathed journalism. "He was the Energizer Bunny," says Josh Richman. "If he wasn't sitting around typing or on the phone at his desk, he was in motion. He was on his way somewhere or on his way back. He didn't have a lot of down time."
Bailey earned a reputation as the Helen Thomas of the Bay Area, Butler says. "Chauncey always asked the first question at a news conference. And if he didn't get an answer, he would ask it again and again. If he still didn't get an answer, he would chase the person out the door."
Friends also saw a softer side. Bailey mentored young black men, some of them budding journalists, and wrote passionately about society's lost souls. Tribune staffers warmly recall the times he brought the son he adored, Chauncey III, to the newsroom. The boy was 13 when his father was murdered. Bailey had what he described to friends as an amicable divorce from Chauncey III's mother.
Bailey's plump Rolodex was legendary. So were his powerful connections to the black community, especially in the poverty- and violence-scarred neighborhoods of East Oakland. Was he a Woodward or a Bernstein? "Probably not, which is not to say he was a bad reporter," Richman says.
Friends describe Bailey as a crusading journalist, an advocate and a civic booster. He shined a light on black entrepreneurs and events in African American neighborhoods that otherwise might have been ignored. He railed in his copy against black-on-black crime. A speaker at his funeral called him a warrior for equality.
"Chauncey was an excellent community journalist. He was so out there; everybody knew him... What he brought to the newsroom has been hard to replace, but his impact was not as an investigative reporter," says Reynolds, who spoke at the funeral that drew more than 700 mourners to St. Benedict's Catholic Church in East Oakland.
Posthumously, Bailey received the George Polk Award for Local Reporting. The Nieman Fellows at Harvard University honored him for his work as a champion of the black community. He was named "Journalist of the Year" by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Chauncey Bailey began his journalism career with a paper route and reported for his high school paper in Hayward, California, where his family moved on Christmas Eve 1960. He had been born in rougher territory in East Oakland.
He earned a journalism degree from San Jose State University in 1972 and had a series of news jobs at the Hartford Courant, United Press International and the Detroit News. He landed at the Oakland Tribune in 1993.
Yusuf Ali Bey and his apparent good works, especially with young black men, drew Bailey's attention. At one time, no reporter had better access to the patriarch than Bailey did, according to former coworkers at the Tribune.
But grumblings in the newsroom about Bailey's possible conflicts of interest began to grow louder. By 2005, his tenure at the Tribune had ended on a sour note.
Bailey was fired for ethical breaches. He wrote a letter on Tribune stationery to resolve a dispute with the Department of Motor Vehicles and promoted a business that a girlfriend owned without revealing the tie to his editors. According to Reynolds, Bailey was crushed by his ouster.
"He was very contrite; he felt bad about it. He understood that what he did was inappropriate. He seemed to learn from his mistakes," recalls the editor, who took a share of the blame. "There probably was not enough oversight into exactly what Chauncey was doing. What he brought to the paper was so important, and we needed it. We looked away."
After he left the Tribune, Bailey freelanced from Vietnam and the Caribbean. At times, he showed up in dreadlocks and bright shirts, a far cry from his trademark business suits. Then came a turning point in his career.
In June 2007, he was named editor in chief of five Bay Area weeklies of the Oakland-based Post News Group, which serve black communities. It seemed a perfect fit for his crusading style of journalism.
A few weeks later, a chance meeting may have set off a chain reaction that led to his death.
On July 16, 2007, Bailey bumped into a source, Saleem Bey, on the street. Bey told Bailey that the bakery was being seized from rightful heirs through fraud and forgery. He blamed ruthless younger family members, including Bey IV.
Bailey wanted to know more. The two headed to the Post's newsroom for an interview. Saleem Bey agreed to be an anonymous source for the story.
As Bey was leaving the Post, he bumped into an employee who once had ties to the Bey family. When she asked why he was there, he lied, saying Bailey had interviewed him for a story about computers. By the time Bey returned home a few hours later, his wife knew, via the Bey family grapevine, that he had talked to the editor about the bakery.
After Bailey's death, Saleem Bey told the media he had called Bailey and asked how he could have let his name slip out. He said the editor admitted to talking about the interview. "I don't think he understood the gravity of his mistake," Saleem Bey told reporters.
Bailey's story never made it into print. Post Publisher Paul Cobb, who declined to be interviewed for this article, decided it was not ready for publication. He suggested Bailey add balance by interviewing Yusuf Bey IV. According to news accounts, Bailey called Saleem Bey on July 19 to tell him the story was being held.
By then, the killers knew Bailey was poking into the bakery's finances. After his death, his publisher told reporters that Bailey also was investigating police corruption. The execution-style murder drew national media attention, including a segment on CBS' "60 Minutes" in February.
A few days after the shooting, the online magazine Slate ran a story questioning why Oakland police had done so little about Your Black Muslim's Bakery's thuggery over the years.
"Rape, polygamy, intimidation, torture, murder, all of these emanating from one address and some of them performed in the name of a fanatical ideology," wrote Christopher Hitchens. "What were the police doing all this time, and why did Chauncey Bailey have to be murdered before they could be moved to act?"
Project reporters are probing similar questions.
Soon after the attack, police arrested a 19-year-old handyman named DeVaughndre Broussard at Your Black Muslim Bakery and charged him with the murder. He confessed, but then recanted, saying he had been ordered to be a good soldier and take the fall. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. No one else has been charged.
Was Broussard the real killer? Did the shooter act alone or was he part of a conspiracy?
Less than 24 hours after Bailey's murder, police SWAT teams and bomb squads descended on the Bakery's San Pablo Avenue headquarters and three other locations. They arrested Yusuf Bey IV and others in the kidnapping and torture of two women for drug money. Police say they already had search warrants for the raid before Bailey was shot.
An October 10 story by the Bailey project noted that the August 3 raid netted a shotgun with a firing-pin signature that matched spent shells found at the scene of Bailey's slaying. The 12-gauge shotgun was stolen in November 2005 from a liquor store that Bey IV and his followers are accused of ransacking.
The gun was linked to a second shooting in January 2006, in which windows were shot out of a car belonging to a man who once dated Bey IV's girlfriend.
As for Bey IV, little is left of the patriarch's multimillion-dollar empire. Your Black Muslim Bakery is bankrupt. The building has been sold and transformed into an HIV/AIDS clinic.
In June, the project hit a snag. The $145,000 budget, much of it provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was running out. Maynard and Close embarked on a hunt for additional funding. "I think there are possibly some foundations that could help," says Close, who delivered a eulogy at Bailey's funeral.
Rosenthal says the project will continue, but it could lose people and momentum without additional funding. Freelancers such as Butler, a crucial contributor, no longer are being paid. "People like Bob will have to pick up other part-time work if we can't pay them," Rosenthal says. "It also means our Web site could be curtailed or slowed."
The project faces another painful reality: Some of the participating news outlets have experienced severe job cuts in recent weeks, which could limit their ability to lend reporters to the project. "This story would not have been peeled back as much as it has without this alliance," Rosenthal says. "It is crucial."
For some journalists, balancing their day jobs and their project contributions has been a draining juggling act. The Tribune's Richman, a political reporter, showed up late at Bailey's funeral because he was assigned to cover Barack Obama's visit to Oakland that morning. He is itching to cover the presidential campaign.
"Still, I can't imagine walking away. I just wouldn't feel right," he says. "So far, my editors have given me a lot of latitude. We have been able to keep bringing them stories that remind them how important this is. They're not having fatigue with the content yet."
G.W. Schulz of the Bay Guardian would put in a full day's work, run home for dinner, then return to the newsroom to work on the Bailey Project until 3 a.m. "I felt strongly that weeklies needed to have a voice in this. I am very, very good at documents," says Schulz, who has tracked connections between the Bey family and their enterprises.
During the six months she volunteered in Oakland, Mary Fricker lived in a room above a friend's garage to avoid the commute from her home in Sonoma County. "This story came along and I just couldn't get away from it. I am very proud of what we're doing," says Fricker, who has worked as support staff for local reporters.
The Tribune's Thomas Peele has been the only working reporter assigned full time to the project. He set up databases, laid out plans for collecting public records and oversaw journalism students who helped gather them. "I have been doing nothing but this," Peele says. "Some of the others had beats to feed."
Martin Reynolds is keeping his fingers crossed about the project's future. So far, his bosses at the Bay Area News Group have not ordered him to pull his people off the project. "This was the right thing to do. We'll sort of know when it's time to move on," says the editor, who would like to see the Bailey Project become a model for collaboration in the Bay Area the next time a major story breaks.
The editor sees another legacy Chauncey Bailey left behind. "The journalists in this community in general have grown closer through all of this," Reynolds says. "Relationships have formed that will last a long time. There is a closeness and cooperation we never had before."
Senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) wrote about the media's plummeting interest in the war in Iraq in AJR's June/July issue. Editorial assistant Melanie Lidman contributed research to this report.