NEWSMAKINGNEWS

INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER  GARY WEBB
1955 - 2004  RIP
by Virginia McCullough
 

"Congress shall make no law respective an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances."
   
First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America

Last Friday morning, December 10, 2004, three strong men walked up to the door at 2016 Clearfield Way in Carmichael, California.  They were employees of A Better Moving Company and they were arriving to move the resident's belongings into storage.  The company's estimator, Steve, had talked with the homeowner recently and he had felt that the man seemed saddened or depressed.  The homeowner had just sold the home for $321,750 and said that he would be moving in with his grandmother who lived nearby.  When the men arrived at the door they found a handwritten note attached to the surface that read, "Please do not come in.  Dial 911 and ask for an ambulance." 

The men instinctively took a step back in unison and then rapidly returned to their truck and notified authorities.  The time of their call was 8:35 a.m.  Paramedics and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department arrived at 9:15 a.m. and entered the home. The firemen went to one of the back rooms while one of the macho moving men followed them.  He stopped abruptly when he spied two feet on the floor.  As he was turning around a fireman addressed him saying, "Go back out.  You don't want to see this."

The man rejoined his comrades outside and they waited until they were told that they would not be needed that day. The homeowner was dead from two gunshot wounds to his head. They left and returned to their office.  Big, strong men thoroughly shaken whose boss gave them the rest of the day off.

At 3:55 p.m. Friday afternoon Sacramento Coroner's Investigator Dave Brown determined that the dead man had committed suicide with a hand gun.  Dave Brown said that the first wound was not fatal and a second shot took the man's life.  Dave Brown further stated, "There is no other possibility but suicide."  Spokesmen for the investigative units of three different sheriff's departments contacted stated that suicides seen with two shots to the head inflicted by a hand gun are extremely rare.  Each man interviewed also said that they have heard of such cases but had never personally seen one.

With the determination of suicide the coroner's office announced that the victim was 49-year-old investigative reporter Gary Webb. 

The Sacramento Coroner's Office and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department were ill prepared for the inundation of phone calls that followed the announcement of Webb's death.  Few associated with the 911 response and the subsequent investigation realized that Gary Webb was the reporter who had exposed the CIA's connection to the crack cocaine explosion when he published the 1996 series entitled Dark Alliance.  The San Jose Mercury News that published Webb's three-day series would later boast that "it had published the first interactive expose in the history of American journalism."  In other words, the 49-year-old deceased male found in the home in Carmichael was not just another reporter.  He was THE investigative reporter of the 20th century; the first writer to link cyberspace to the printed word thereby providing his readers instant access to all the documentation that supported his story.  While all the major newspapers ignored Webb's expose Dark Alliance took on a life of its own on the Internet.  Subsequently, the fame of the Internet series forced the major newspapers to attack the reporter and eventually his own newspaper backed away from its support of Webb's series.  Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos cowtowed to the big three,  the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and apologized for "shortcomings" in the series, not long after he had written that four Post reporters assigned to discredit the series "could not find a single significant error."

The betrayal of the Mercury News of one of its own reporters deeply angered a great many in the newspaper industry.  Long time investigative reporter George Williamson addressed his anger in an email to editor Jessica Portner by stating: "Mr. Webb 'resigned' from your newspaper, indeed!  As if there were no more to it.  Nothing about his forced exile to the Cupertino beat huge miles away from his Sacramento family and home.  Nothing about the cowardly asinine about face by the Mercury honchos on his CIA/crack cocaine stories -- which history has fully validated -- and your own staffers' absolute betrayal of him by the silly vote you registered against his stories.  Not one of you could carry an ounce of ton of truth he assiduously uncovered."  Williamson concludes by saying, " In my day you would not deserve the label of reporter.  You should be ashamed both of yourself and your newspaper from top management on down.  I advise you to look in the mirror no more.  You will be fully depressed by what you see --  provided you are a not conscience-free sociopath."

The book Into the Buzzsaw, edited by Kristina Borjesson, features a chapter by Gary Webb which honestly describes the impact authoring Dark Alliance had on his life.  (Click to read Chapter 14.)

When papers worldwide featured stories about Webb's strange death, this reporter received countless emails asking about the parallels between Gary's demise and the killing of reporter Joseph "Danny" Casolaro in 1991 under the first Bush regime.  Danny had been hot on the trail of a the infamous Inslaw/Promis story where the Department of Justice had allegedly stolen the proprietary software called Promis which belonged to the company called Inslaw.   Both stories involved powerful people in high places who were involved in dealing drugs for arms for money to support America's dirty little wars.  Both men were dedicated, determined and, in the end, damned because of the things they exposed as they turned over rocks and exposed slugs.  Both men spoke of death threats and the possibility of death.  Casolaro told his brother that if he died not to believe it was suicide.  Yet when his body was found it was embalmed before his family was notified and the immediate cause of death was officially determined to be "suicide".  Gary Webb had a conversation with Constitutional journalist Jon Roland who warned Webb that the CIA might contrive to "suicide" him  and Webb indicated that if he died it would not be suicide. (Click to read Jon Roland's email.)  In this email Roland included "clicks" to Webb's Dark Alliance series.

It is interesting to note that this reporter has tried to phone Gary Webb's home phone number (916) 481-6835 hourly since first learning of his death on Sunday.  Through and including Tuesday 12-14-04, the same thing has happened.  Upon dialing the number there is a long pause and then a recording comes on stating that, "All circuits are busy.  Please try again later."  Webb's phone company is Sure West and offers a repair service number of (877) 255-0676.  On Monday at noon a supervisor spent about an hour on the phone with this reporter trying to fix the problem.  Finally the gracious woman assured me that the problem would be fixed in five minutes.  The same delay and the same recording continued to answer Webb's phone the next day.  A Sure West spokesperson refused to comment on whether or not law enforcement could implement such a phone block with the cooperation of the company.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) issued a statement late Monday afternoon December 13,2004.  Her comments were straight forward, compassionate and from the heart.  In part she said, "I am stunned and pained with the loss of Gary Webb.  Gary was a friend and one of the finest investigative journalist I have ever witnessed.  Gary's work was not only in depth, revealing and confrontational but it single handedly created discussion and debate about the proliferation of crack cocaine and the role of the CIA."

She continued, "Unfortunately, the major news papers attempted to silence him by undermining his personal character and his professional integrity.  Through his diligence, he has brought to the attention of the American public the failed policies of the CIA and the drug war."  And she pointed out that, "It is interesting that at the time he uncovered and exposed the deficiencies of the CIA, he was attacked as rogue.  It is only recently as an unintended byproduct of the war on terror that the rampant problems and mismanagement of the CIA have come to light."  (Click for Maxine Water's full statement.)

The respect, affection and love that fellow journalists had for Gary Webb will not be diminished by his death.  Gary Webb was a private man who was open to all people regardless of color, faith or religion.  He was a reporter who honored his profession even when powerful people in his industry turned against him.  He drowned himself in researching the people who encompassed his stories and he passionately lived to experience, explore and above all to write.

One of the most eloquent tributes to Gary Webb was posted to the web by Luis Gomez at NarcoSphere on Sunday, 12-12-04.  Unfortunately the English translation does not convey the poetry of the Spanish text. (Click to read, Gary Webb, iPresente! in Spanish.) Luis speaks of returning to his home where his friend George Sanchez explained to him that Webb would not be able to answer Luis' words because, like Salvadorian poet Castle Dalton said, Gary had decided to "pass to a better life".  Gomez speaks of a morning in Port Morelos when the two men saw  journalist students embarking on a bus to Merida.  Luis asked Gary if he noticed the difference in the size of the luggage of the students.  He commented that it was a new generation of people now in the media, "loading, I do not know what things in immense suitcases, in purses on the verge of bursting."  Luis and Gary, the "most veteran",  loaded three items of clothing, sufficient tools and one box of cigarettes - the necessary things to move, to always continue moving.   Gomez then tells Webb, "I do not doubt that now, to where you have gone away, you continue being the same one: simple, light of luggage."

Luis Gomez then asks Gary Webb to pardon his digression, and he asks if Webb had finished the book that he was working on when they spoke some months ago.  Apparently Webb had told Gomez that  the book was being held in abeyance while he looked for a job at that time.

The subject matter of the book Webb was working on is apparently not known to Luis and he expresses the hope that it will be completed and sold so that Gomez can learn what footsteps Webb had followed in the last months of his life.  Luis reiterates to Gary that "man lives to fight" and urges him to send him a news article on the wings of angels.

52 journalists died during 2003 in the practice of their chosen profession.  Reporters are becoming an endangered species and excellent, fearless reporters who do not bend to the power of industry money and government are a true rarity.  The current situation begs for a strong first amendment and citizens with the courage to demand the freedoms it assures from their government and from the courts.

Gary Webb asked the all important question in his  heart wrenching chapter entitled The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On in the book Into the Buzzsaw:  "Do we have a free press today?  Sure we do.  It's free to report all the sex scandals it wants, all the stock market news we can handle, every new health fad that comes down the pike, and every celebrity marriage or divorce that happens.  But when it comes to the real down and  dirty stuff -- stories like Tailwind, the October Surprise, the El Mozote massacre, corporate corruption, or CIA involvement in drug trafficking -- that's where we begin to see the limits of our freedoms.  In today's media environment, sadly, such stories are not even open for discussion."

Webb concluded, "Back in 1938, when fascism was sweeping Europe, legendary investigative reporter George Seldes observed (in his book, The Lords of the Press) that "It is possible to fool all the people all the time -- when government and press cooperate."  Unfortunately, we have reached that point.


Virginia McCullough © December 14, 2004