Kill the Messenger

The tragic death of Gary Webb, one of America's most important investigative journalists

After days of unrelenting winter rain from a powerful Pacific Storm, the clouds moved east and the skies cleared above the Sacramento valley. The snowcapped peaks of the western range of the Sierra Nevada glowed pink in the glinting early morning sun. On days like this, Gary Webb normally would have taken the day off to ride his motorcycle into the mountains.

Although it was a Friday morning, Webb didn't need to call in sick. In fact, he hadn't been to work in weeks. When his ex-wife garnished his wages seeking child support for their three kids, Webb asked for an indefinite leave from the small weekly alternative paper in Sacramento where he had been working the past four months. He told his boss he could no longer afford the $2,000 mortgage on his house in Carmichael, a suburb 20 miles east of the state capital.

There was no time for riding. Today, December 10, 2004, Webb was going to move in with his mother. It wasn't his first choice. First, he asked his ex-girlfriend if he could share her apartment. The two had dated for several months, and continued to live together until their lease expired a year earlier, when Webb had bought his new house. They had remained friends, and at first she had said yes, but she changed her mind at the last minute, not wanting to lead him on in the hope that they'd rekindle a romance. Desperate, Webb asked his ex-wife, Sue, if he could live with her until he regained his financial footing. She refused.

photo: Brad Wilson

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Editor's note: A college dropout with twenty years of reporting experience and a Pulitzer Prize on his resume, Gary Webb broke the biggest story of his career in August 1996, when he published "Dark Alliance," a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News that linked the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to America's crack-cocaine explosion via the Nicaraguan contras, a right-wing army that aimed to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government during the 1980s.

Many reporters had written about the CIA's collusion with contra drug smugglers, but nobody had ever discovered where those drugs ended up once they reached American soil. "Dark Alliance" provided the first dramatic answer to that mystery. But in the months following its publication, the story was subjected to ferocious attacks by the nation's biggest newspapers-the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times-and soon Webb found himself out of a job. After being assigned to a tiny regional bureau, Webb quit the paper and never worked in daily journalism again.

Nick Schou's new book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb, examines the tragic unraveling of one of America's most talented yet enigmatic investigative journalists. This excerpt is being printed with the permission of Nation Books. All rights are reserved.

"I don't feel comfortable with that," she said.

"You don't?"

Sue recalls that her ex-husband's words seemed painfully drawn out.

"I don't know if I can do that," she said. "Your mother will let you move in. You don't have any other choice."

Besides losing his house, Webb had also lost his motorcycle. The day before he was to move, it had broken down as he was riding to his mother's house in a nearby retirement community. After spotting Webb pushing the bike off the road, a helpful young man with a goatee and a spider-web tattoo on his elbow had given him a lift home. Webb arranged to get a pickup truck, but when he went back to retrieve his bike, it had disappeared.

That night, Webb spent hours at his mother's house. At her urging he typed up a description of the suspected thief. But Webb didn't see much point in filing a police report. He doubted he'd ever see his bike again. He had been depressed for months, but the loss of his bike seemed to push him over the edge. He told his mother he had no idea how he was going to ever make enough money to pay child support and pay rent or buy a new home.

Although he had a paying job in journalism, Webb knew that only a reporting gig with a major newspaper would give him the paycheck he needed to stay out of debt. But after sending out 50 resumes to daily newspapers around the country, nobody had called for an interview. His current job couldn't pay the bills, and the thought of moving in with his mother at age 49, was more than his pride would allow. "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" he asked. "All I want to do is write."

It was 8 p.m. by the time Webb left his mother's house. She offered to cook him a dinner of bacon and eggs, but Webb declined, saying he had to go home. There were other things he had to do. She kissed him goodbye and told him to come back the next day with a smile on his face. "Things will be better," she said. "You don't have to pay anything to stay here. You'll get back on your feet."

The next morning, Anita Webb called her son to remind him to file a police report for the stolen bike. His phone rang and rang. She didn't bother leaving a message, figuring the movers already had arrived. They had. It's possible they heard the phone ringing. As they approached his house, they noticed a note stuck to his front door.

"Please do not enter," it warned. "Call 911 for an ambulance. Thank you."

When her son failed answer the phone for more than an hour, Anita Webb began to panic. Finally, she let the answering machine pick up. "Gary, make sure you file a police report," she said. Before she could finish, the machine beeped and an unfamiliar voice began to speak: "Are you calling about the man who lives here?"

It is normally the policy of the Sacramento County Coroner's office not to answer the telephone at the scene of a death, but apparently the phrase "police report" startled the coroner into breaking that rule. At some point early that morning, Gary Webb had committed suicide.

The coroners found his body in a pool of blood on his bed, his hands still gripping his father's 38-caliber pistol. On his nightstand were his social security card-apparently intended to make it easier for his body to be identified—a cremation card and a suicide note, the contents of which have never been revealed by his family. The house was filled with packed boxes. Only his turntable, DVD player, and TV were unpacked.

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