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 News when 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.
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.”
But did the website belong to the right Nicole duFresne? At Newsday, metro editor Diane Davis’s staff found four women with that name, and one reporter actually called a living one’s relative. Over at the Times, Wilson—not knowing if he had found the right Nicole—left a message on the victim’s cell phone, then called a second number listed on her website. A short time later, Jeffrey Sparks called him back and confirmed that Wilson had found the right duFresne. Wilson asked Sparks how he’d heard about the crime.
“She died in my arms,” Sparks, the fiancé, said. Suddenly, Wilson had the victim’s life story and an eyewitness in hand.
The Daily News was also in touch with Sparks, having sent a reporter to his door. Sparks and duFresne’s mother and brother—who appeared on multiple network morning programs—were crucial to the development of the story. “Sometimes we pursue a story and we come up against closed doors and you realize people don’t want to talk. In this case, people did want to talk,” Davis says.
For the tabs, it was instant front-page material, and it returned to page one over several days, thanks to the release of the surveillance tape and the unusually fast sequence of arrests. The Times played it on the metro front. Jamieson says it deserved that prominence because it was “a random crime on the streets of New York, somebody who dies in something as stupid as a mugging.” That it was her first night of work and a crime in an “interesting neighborhood” were also factors, he adds.
For Chang, “It’s the kind of story that you’d want to hear, one of those aspiring- success stories.” Davis agrees. “People come to New York to make it here and here is a woman who did just that,” she says. “So I think that strikes a chord with a lot of people, including people who are covering the story as well.”
In 1980, when Jean Harris, the head of a ritzy Southern girls’ school, killed her lover, the “Scarsdale diet” doctor Herman Tarnower, the case was splashed on the Times front page day after day, leading CBS News mandarin Fred Friendly to ask Times headman Abe Rosenthal if it really deserved that much ink. After all, it was just a murder. “But it’s our kind of murder,” Rosenthal said.
In other words, it’s the kind of murder you don’t expect to hear about because it crosses into the ranks of the not-often murdered. It’s man bites dog, the definition of a story. How unexpected was Nicole duFresne’s death? As a white woman, she had only a one-in-50,000 chance of being murdered, and only one in seven white murder victims is slain by a black person.
The metro chiefs say race simply didn’t factor in. “We’re worried about trying to find the most interesting story on each given day,” says Chang. He contends the duFresne story “would have been no less compelling had she been black or Asian or Latino.” Davis says there was internal discussion at Newsday about whether the duFresne story was being played appropriately. “It certainly crosses our mind,” she says, but adds that editors make their calls on how to play a killing based on the other stories of each day, not murders from months past. “You can’t look at it in a vacuum.” Jamieson says race “just never entered my head.”
What enters readers’ heads is another matter. “The story and the play alone create the perception that white people are vulnerable to assault from black people,” says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. “Now, if that’s not true, you as a journalist have an obligation to point out what the reality is.”
Race is undeniably part of the duFresne story. The randomness and location of the crime are linked to race, because white women are so rarely killed and the Seventh Precinct is gentrifying. If skin color didn’t figure into how papers handled duFresne’s killing—and there were plenty of color-blind reasons to work this story—maybe it should have had a place in the stories themselves. A simple reference to how rare black-on-white crime is would acknowledge the racial dynamic inherent in the facts. “More—not less—information is really important,” says McBride.