(The following is part of a chapter from my book draft Private Eye Confidential. I reflect on where I have been because it has shaped the person and private investigator I am today.)
With my right arm in a cast up to my shoulder, I tooled around on my Honda 400 motorcycle on the night cops beat at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. I found that I could still take notes if I held my reporter’s notebook in my left arm extended far away from my body. I then jotted stiffly in the notebook with the pen in my casted right hand and arm, looking like idiot mummy.
It was less than a week after I had shattered my right wrist in two places playing rugby in Savannah, Georgia at a St. Patrick’s Day tournament. My city editor, a gruff bullying sort, sought to clip my wings by taking me off my reporter’s beat and putting me on light duty by answering phones and doing other clerical duties while I was injured. Fuck this and fuck you I thought about the situation and my boss. I think I got a doctor’s note saying that I could do my job, begged to go back to reporting and got my wish. So I rode around town at night casted up on my motorcycle, looking for police news or any excitement.
I had left the Contra Costa Times in early 1992 to work in Florida, aka the sunny place for shady people. What I learned in the next two and a half years covering police and news for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune opened my eyes about power dynamics, corruption and the fact that people of all stripes and stations in life lie.
(Oh, I replaced Karen Dillon, the reporter who broke the stories about Peewee Herman beating off in the South Trail Triple XXX movie theater during a showing of Nurse Nancy)
Sarasota vibed schizophrenic. The demographic:
wealthy New York snowbirds, cheap Canadians in the winter, German tourists on the beach in thongs and dark socks, Midwesterners too lazy to drive another two hours east to the Atlantic, working class Joes into beer- and- be ech, a smattering of Mennonites, art students, spring breakers and indigenous Rednecks. One joke goes: “Old eople live in St. Petersburg. Their parents live in Sarasota.” Elites in town pretended that it was the Athens of the Gulf Coast. Nice beaches. I will leave it at that.
I did the night cops beat from 2
:00 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. I lived two blocks from a white-sand beach, swam in the mornings, listened to a scanner in my apartment, played rugby on the weekends, drank in local bars and dated a great girlfriend at the paper. And yet, I couldn’t pull it all together and be content. The problem? Me. I argued with my editors and wound up on their shit lists. I lacked an ear for politics and how to get along with managers. It’s a form of my stupidity and my immaturity. If I saw something wrong or saw a double-standard or thought I was being treated unfairly, I said something about it and sometimes I went straight to upper management. My parents raised independent kids. Four of seven of us are self-employed. If I had just kept my mouth shut more often and played niceI might have had a long career as a journalist.
But I kept honing my investigative skills, from digging up information to cultivating sources. At the courts I asked to see returned search warrants. The detectives must have forgot these documents were public.
In them, detectives outlined in great detail why they were looked for items and gave narrative on the case. I often had these documents in big cases or even found out about before an arrest. State public records and federal public records requests proved great tools as well. Once you had your information you had to write like a demon to make deadline. Most newspapers, even back then, don’t have the resources to allow reporters to take weeks or months to report special stories. You have a newshole to fill every day. If you want to do enterprising work it’s in your spare time or on your own time.
Certain stories stood out for what I learned. In one investigation I found that county jailers were negligent in how they treated a mentally ill inmate who choked to death eating the bandage that had covered his head. After the man died I had a tip from an inmate that the jailer whose job it was to check on the inmate every 15 minutes ignored the man and read paperbacks when the man choked and died.
Police had arrested the man because he held a lighter towards them when they were questioning him about something else. He started banging his head into the jail wall, so much that they had to bandage his head and stick a bicycle helmet atop the bandages to keep him from more head-bashing. Jailers should have checked on him every 15 minutes per procedures. The tipster said that instead of looking in on the man, the deputy read paperbacks at a desk. I asked the Sheriff’s Department to inspect the area where the man died. What did I see next to the jailer’s desk in the cellblock but a box of paperback books. The crazed inmate had to have taken more than 15 minutes to remove the bandage off the helmet and start gobbling until he suffocated. What a horrible way to die. The story speaks volumes about the criminal justice system’s inability to deal with the mentally ill.