A Murder Made for the Front Page

When Nicole duFresne died, man bit dog and ink flowed

The Sunday before Nicole duFresne became famous, the New York Police Department reported 35 murders in the city so far this year. By week's end, there'd be 41. Some made the papers. Eric Dunning was killed by an ex-con. Juan Jimenez died in a hit-and-run. Fausto Lachapel was gunned down in a lobby. But none were front-page fodder, day after day, like duFresne. She had the unique characteristics of being white, beautiful, and murdered. It wasn't just any murder. It was a random crime, committed by an apparently clueless perp, and ending in a dramatic death scene: She died in her lover's arms. And she wasn't just any white girl, but a woman who'd come to New York chasing her dream, an actress who had just worked her first shift at a trendy bar when she was killed. These details—rather than her race—are the hooks that newspaper people involved in the coverage say drew them into the story, transforming duFresne from just another of the city's roughly 570 killings in the past year into a household name.

It began with the Post's January 28 "Beauty Slain" front page, followed by "That's Him" on page one of the Daily Newswhen police released a surveillance tape of the suspect. Newsday had "Cops Say He's the Shooter" on February 1, when the alleged gunman was charged. The suspect, Rudy Fleming, was pictured sobbing on all three tabs' covers. The Post noted that Fleming was "whining to cops 'like a little girl,' " and the next day reported that "the sniveling jailbird" soiled his pants during a 2001 confrontation with police. DuFresne's killing was B1 in the Times, as was the report of Fleming's arrest. The murder made the papers in duFresne's home state of Minnesota, in Seattle where she once lived, and in Boston where she went to school. It drew mentions from Reno to Canada and on ABC, CBS, and NBC.

DuFresne is on her way to becoming one of New York's super-victims, like the Central Park jogger in 1989; Brian Watkins, the tourist whose stabbing death in 1990 led Time to declare "The Rotting of the Big Apple"; or Nicole Barrett, the woman from Texas severely injured in a 1999 brick attack. With her star status came the familiar question of whether duFresne's slaying would have received as much ink if she had been black, Hispanic, or unattractive.

Three tabloids with covers featuring photos of Rudy Fleming
photo: Cary Conover
Three tabloids with covers featuring photos of Rudy Fleming

It's not a question of overt racism. "It's a mind-set. It's a way of seeing the world, it's a perspective, it's the way people connect certain dots," says Natalie Byfield, a former Daily News reporter who runs the Black Media Foundation and is writing a dissertation about the Central Park case. "This does not take away from the tragedy of the event, but lots of tragic events happen in New York City, so how do we as journalists go about singling out the stories that we're going to feature prominently?" she asks. What makes papers decide to devote resources to a particular tragedy?

In duFresne's case, editors at three papers—the Times, the News, and Newsday (the Post did not return calls)—say the story unfolded remarkably quickly, helping them to uncover within hours the details of duFresne's life and death that set her case apart.

At just after 3 a.m. on January 27, the NYPD notified reporters of a shooting at the corner of Rivington and Clinton streets. "A female in her 30s was shot one time in the chest following an altercation with a male black and two female blacks," the bulletin read. Usually the race of the victim is noted; this time it wasn't. The Daily News' overnight reporter headed to the scene, says metro editor Dean Chang, but found just one witness and no victim. Hours passed before the story took shape.

When Times police reporter Michael Wilson saw the bulletin later that morning, he and colleagues at first heard the victim was Hispanic. Eventually, duFresne was reported dead, and details began to trickle in. Wilson told his editors that he had a hot one: A young bartender had been killed on the way home from her first night on the job. Times assistant metro editor Wendell Jamieson dispatched reporters to the crime scene and the Seventh Precinct.

"News is not a mathematical equation. It's not something you tally up and divide and you come up with a number from one to 10. It's a gut reaction," Jamieson says. "This story was headed for the top of B1 whatever color she was."

Chang recalls that it wasn't until he was leaving his 3 p.m. story meeting that he learned duFresne's name. Reporters soon found a website that featured not only the now familiar head shot of duFresne, but also a full résumé, a list of plays she had been involved with, and contact information. With a few clicks, they had gathered the sort of in-depth biographical information that can sometimes take hours or days to assemble. "Everyone had the raw material to build a good story," says Chang. They learned that she was an actress, "and that was enough for us to immediately launch reporters everywhere we could," Chang says. "This wasn't just any old person."

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