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Reminded today of the first time I interviewed a murderer

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Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

August 13, 2015 at 11:35 am

Reminded today of the first time I interviewed a murderer

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The Beaumont Enterprise newsroom -- back in the day. I'm in the middle of this photo, in front of the curtains, and facing the camera with a phone in my hands.

The Beaumont Enterprise newsroom — back in the day. I’m in the middle of this photo, in front of the curtains, and facing the camera with an old rotary phone in my hands.

I was maybe 22 years old and covering Port Arthur police for the “Beaumont Enterprise” in one of the most violent and newsworthy communities of the ’70s. Lucky for me, I was indestructible and fearless because the woman I am today would be way too wise to have conducted this particular interview

  • in a small jail cell,
  • across from a man who had beaten a friend to death with his bare hands
  • and with only one jailer nearby for my protection.

When I’m reminded of my old police reporting days, I’m lucky the story gets to end with, “I lived.” I now realize I was foolish and foolhardy and not at all unbreakable.  But, before I was 30 years old, I always was focused on “getting the story.”

I was reminded of this first interview with a murderer today because I’m listening to a new author, Allison Brennan, who has written a book “Compulsion” and it begins with a reporter interviewing a killer awaiting trial. It doesn’t read like the writer ever really did this, is my thinking.

On my commute to Houston both mornings and evenings, my choice most often is murder mysteries, police procedurals and serial killers. I read “Dexter” before he became an HBO series, “Bones” without Booth, “Wallander” before Kenneth Branaugh, “Bosch” before Amazon even existed.  You get the picture.

I tried to look at the newspaper archives today to lay my hands on reality but it’s not available. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I can’t quite recall enough facts to make the search viable.) Many of my reporting memories pre-date good web content. Most of my recollections are indelible only because of the retelling over the years and not because of the facts. At the time, I was always good with quotes and solid memories, but these decades later – who knows?

Facebook has been interesting for me because I often tell old police reporter stories and old friends come out of the ethernet to remind me of details or confirm my own remembrances. This happened most notably with my most painful interview – Karen Silkwood’s father. The photographer who was present is now a FB friend and remembered more details and confirmed some others. It was fun. But, that’s a story for another column. This one is about murder and how I survived. It also was a good lesson and one I used frequently in my stint as an adjunct professor at University of Houston.

Sharon Englade, a wonderfully generous courthouse reporter at the Enterprise at the time, gave me the lead. Generosity is an uncommon trait in the reporting world, even more so today. It happens only when you’ve seen your byline on Page 1 enough times that it doesn’t make a big difference to your ego about the next time.  Very rare indeed in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Sharon’s tip was facilitated by the jailer at the Nederland substation who had become a source of mine along my routine police “traps” I ran every day.

A convicted murderer (and I can’t find or remember his name) was transported to Jefferson County to testify against his co-conspirator in a murder trial. This man – the one I would interview – had pleaded guilty without a trial, and his partner in the crime had chosen to stand trial.

In his 30s, he was a solid figure, strong and compact. A bit attractive but, of course, I thought he was terribly old, he had been given life in prison for beating his friend to death. Now’s the part I can’t remember: Why did he and his buddy turn on this third man? I don’t quite know and can’t find the old clip; seems like it was over a woman. Isn’t that always the case?  My memory tells me they originally were all three friends. Happens. Friends turn on friends.  Stranger-on-stranger crime is the most uncommon – 2 percent for women; 25 percent for men. In my story, the likelihood of these three being friends is 75 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Now, here’s the rub.

When Sharon called to tell me there was a possibility I could interview this man, he had just testified against his friend. However, his friend was fully acquitted. The verdict was returned somewhere along the man’s police-escorted route from the courthouse to the substation. His friend would walk away free. My interview subject would go back to prison for life.

Originally, he had pleaded guilty in anticipation of a lighter sentence. It didn’t happen.

Bad lawyering? Bad judgment on his part? Well, you see what I was walking into . . . an angry man who had just been further angered by what he had to perceive as terrible injustice.

Nederland’s substation for Jefferson County was a fairly new structure – linoleum tiled with white walls, clean and safe in the suburbs.  The jailers were usually smart men (all men in this ’70s era) on their way up in the criminal justice chain. They were taking night classes at Lamar University, down the street, and showing potential to either be professional police or lawyers. They wore jackets and ties and looked like detectives instead of street cops.

I went by or phoned this substation every day that I was on the beat, and my office itself was only a few blocks away.

I remember some finagling between the jailer and me and me and Sharon and then transportation of the interviewee to the substation after his testimony. I was waiting when he arrived. He already had been told his friend was acquitted, so I was not the one to bear that news. Lucky for me.

To say the least, he was pissed by the time I first laid eyes on him.

Now, here’s the part I taught at UH: You have to have a good gut to be a good interviewer. Your job is to make the subject comfortable and trusting. This is your first job and how you determine how you will get your notes for the story. Some subjects are comfortable with you taping the interview. In those days, most were not. Most subjects are comfortable with you taking notes, but there was a trick to writing or not writing to help with the interviewee’s comfort level. In this story, the subject was not comfortable with anything.

I sensed right away that he was no longer interested in talking to me about his experience, thoughts or anger. If I had pulled out my pencil and skinny reporter’s notebook from the pocket of my jeans skirt, he probably would have broken my Ticonderoga No. 2 in half — maybe over my head.  So, we just talked. I took absolutely no notes. I never pulled out my notebook or put pencil to paper.

I didn’t have to ask “how he felt.” Such a stupid, stupid question.

I didn’t have to ask if he wished he’d stood trial instead of pleading guilty.

I didn’t dare ask about his guilt.

I didn’t have to ask anything. All I did was listen.

He felt railroaded and betrayed, of course. Prison sucked, of course. His life was over and he hated everyone and everything. Couldn’t blame him.

I walked away with very little in the way of new information. It was just a story to say the Enterprise had gotten the story. And, indeed, I had gotten the story. But I didn’t have a single note.

He was dragged away into a police car for transport back to Huntsville; I headed for the quiet of the Ladies Room. (And yes, it was the “ladies” in this day.)

I took out my notebook and began to scribble – every single word I could remember. In those days, my shorthand was still good. Today, my aged and feeble mind can still see my tan reporter’s notebook on my jean-skirted lap, writing away – at least some brief forms.

The story itself when it was published the next day may have been eight inches; I hope it was 12. Not long. Not worthy. But certainly worth the experience and the experience of telling it over and over again for the next few decades.

And the ending? I lived.