Kill the Messenger

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

In the hours before he shot himself in the head, Webb had listened to his favorite album, Ian Hunter Live, and had watched his favorite movie, the Sergio Leone spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In a trashcan was a poster Webb had saved from his first journalism job with the Kentucky Post. The poster was an open letter to readers from Vance Trimble, Webb's first editor. Decades earlier, Webb had clipped it from the pages of the paper. Although he had always admired its message, something about it must have been too much to bear in his final moments. Trimble had written that, unlike some newspapers, the Kentucky Post would never kill a story under pressure from powerful interests. "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way," his letter stated.

That morning, Sue Webb was at home in Folsom, just minutes away from Carmichael, when her cell phone started ringing. She was about to walk out the door to bring her 14-year-old daughter Christine to school. Because Sue was running late for a business meeting in Stockton, she didn't answer. But when she recognized the number of the caller as Kurt, her ex-husband's brother, she began to worry. "I was standing in the bathroom, and when I saw that number, I knew something had happened," she says. "I kept saying, 'No, this is not happening, this is not happening.'I was afraid to pick up the phone."

Thoughts raced through her mind. Two days earlier, Webb had taken Christine to a doctor's appointment. At the doctor's office, there was a copy of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, which Webb had loved reading to her years earlier. He jokingly asked her if she wanted him to read it aloud to her. When he dropped Christine off at Sue's house later that day, Christine said her father made a special point of walking up to the door to kiss her goodbye. "He told her to be good to her mom," Sue says. "And he handed her some little bottles of perfume and said 'I love you.' When she asked him if he wanted to come in, he said no."

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.

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Sue put her daughter in the car and drove a few blocks to the entrance of the middle-class neighborhood of tract houses where she lives on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of town. "I couldn't stand it anymore, because the phone kept ringing," she says. "It was Anita, and she was just sobbing. And I said, 'Is he gone?' and she said 'Yes.'And I just pulled off the road and started crying and said 'Christine, your daddy's dead.' We had to get out of the car and we sat on the grass together and just started crying. I don't even know how long we sat there."

A woman driving by pulled over and asked what was wrong. Sue gave her the number of the healthcare company where she worked as a sales agent. She asked the woman to call and let them no she wouldn't be able to keep her appointments that day. Then she called her twenty-year-old son Ian and Eric, her 16-year-old, who was already at school, to tell them to meet her and Christine at Anita's house. "I had to tell them on the phone what had happened because they wouldn't let me hang up," she says.

When she arrived at Anita's house, Ian was sitting on the front lawn, tears streaming down his face. "The police had already left," she says. "I told him not to go inside." A block away from the house was a bench with a view of a duck pond. The tranquil scene seemed surreal, dreamlike, frozen in time. "I remember feeling this sense of loss. It was the weirdest thing in the world. I had moved to California to be with Gary and had left my family behind and suddenly I felt alone. And I knew almost immediately that he had killed himself."

That afternoon, Sue met Kurt at the coroner's office. "They took us into a room and the coroner came in and told us that Gary had shot himself and what gun he had used," she says. "It was his dad's gun that he had found when he was a security guard at a hospital in Cincinnati. Some patient had left it there and his dad had kept it. He used to keep it under the bed. I'd get mad because we had kids and he'd stick it in the closet."

Kurt asked the coroner if he was certain it was a suicide. "There's no doubt in my mind," he answered. He added that sometimes, people who shoot themselves have bruises on their fingers from squeezing the trigger. Apparently the will to live is so strong that suicide victims often grip the gun so tightly and for so long they lose blood circulation in their hands. "Gary had bruises on his fingers," Sue says.

A few days later, four letters arrived at Sue's house, one each for her and the three kids. Webb had mailed them before he died. He sent a separate letter to his mother, and a last will and testament to his brother Kurt. He told his children that he loved them, that Ian would make a woman happy someday, and that he didn't want his death to dissuade Eric from considering a career in journalism. His will divided his assets, including his just-sold house, between his wife and children. His only additional wish was that his ashes be spread in the ocean so he could "bodysurf for eternity."

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