“god bless the ded”: Why We Interview People After Tragedy (even when we don’t want to)

Interviewing: The Oregon Method
September 18, 2014
By Alex Tizon

His daughter’s body had been found in the middle of the street. He didn’t know who killed her. He didn’t know why she was killed, and why her body—legs crossed at the ankles, arms outstretched—had been laid out in the form of a cross. The toll of not knowing showed on his face. His whole bearing implied a crumbling. When I first met him, Richard Zapata was 65, a retired media executive, a tall, dignified, silver-haired man unaccustomed, I would have guessed, to losing his composure. But as he spoke to me at length about the police investigation, his voice would crack for a moment. His face would contort. He’d collect himself before resuming.

Now, many years later, I’ve forgotten most of what he said, but I still remember the cracking, and the lines of his face quivering. I remember trying to keep my own composure. I remember feeling like a jackal for being there at all, asking questions no considerate person should ask. I had to remind myself that I served a function. I had a job to do.

What exactly is the correct way to conduct yourself in the presence of inconsolable grief? I don’t know. This is the truest statement you’ll read from me. I’ve done some things wrong, and some right. Every situation differed, and no formula could guarantee a desirable result. In 2 ½ decades of covering news, I’ve seen mayhem, and I can say that reporting on mayhem is easy compared to what we journalists cover much more often, which is the drawn-out aftermath of mayhem. We walk into the ruins of a fallen skyscraper. We wade through streets-turned-rivers after the storm has passed. We approach a house where a single mother has just learned that her son, 6700 miles away, was erased by something as impersonal as an “improvised explosive device.” We enter these spaces, and come face to face with the people standing there. I don’t know any journalist who enjoys that moment. One hot afternoon in Seattle, I walked with a silver-haired man to the exact spot on 24th Avenue South where his daughter’s body had been discovered by a streetwalker named Charity. Charity called the police.

“I want to understand,” Zapata told me. Everyday for months, and as often as he could for many years, he walked the route that he believed his daughter Mia had walked on that summer night in 1993. “It’s a pilgrimage for me, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe I think by doing this, I’ll figure out what happened.”

Feeling Like a Jackal

As I think of it now, that’s exactly why I was there, too. I was trying to figure out what happened: so I could tell the story, so the story could be known by others. So that we could bear the weight of grief together, as a community, and even perhaps help one another arrive at some sort of answer to “why?” The writer Robert Stone said that telling stories involved seeing people suffer and finding some meaning therein. At our best, that’s what we do as public storytellers. It doesn’t mean there aren’t jackals among us, or that compassionate journalists can’t be jackals at times. I’ve certainly had some “learning moments.”

During my rookie years at the Seattle Times, I covered street gangs as a beat. It involved some covert, mostly low-risk, infiltration. In the late eighties and early nineties, the story of West Coast gangs, with their crack cocaine and propensity to drive by and shoot, was still largely untold. I wanted to tell it. One day I received a tip about a private funeral for a notorious gangbanger killed in a drive-by. I found out the location, a small church, and decided to attend. I didn’t identify myself to any of the few dozen people there. Ten minutes into the service a young man in the same pew stood and addressed the gathering. “Hold up, hold up,” he said. Then he turned to me, and all eyes turned.

“Who’s this motherfukka?”

“I work for a newspaper,” I said. Gasps in the crowd. Glares and murmurings of doing me harm. The dead man’s mother, in the front pew, looked at me plaintively and said, “You’re disrespecting my son. You’re disrespecting his family. Do you know that, sir?” She told the others to leave me alone, and she asked me to leave. “Please.”

Young and dumb and brazen, that was me. I eventually would have identified myself, probably, but the truth was I hadn’t thought it through. At the time, I hadn’t yet experienced a death in my family or close circle. Death was still just a concept. I’ve since sat through the funerals of a beloved grandmother who had lived with me, both of my parents, and several close friends who passed suddenly. I know now the mother was right. I had trespassed on a family’s private moment. I added to the affliction. To this day I don’t feel sympathy for the dead guy, and if you knew what he had done in his life, you wouldn’t either. But his mother, his brothers and sisters, his childhood friends—the ones left to deal with his departure—they deserved sympathy, respect. They had the right to grieve without an uninvited outsider taking notes on them.

I’ve rung the doorbells of grief-stricken households, and have had a door or two closed in my face. I’ve approached people at the scene of shootings, accidents, natural disasters, and have been told in various ways, “I’m sorry. Not now.” Even when I conducted myself with utmost decorum, I sometimes felt like a heel. I felt it most acutely when I was part of a media swarm. The 1989 San Francisco Earthquake. The crash of Alaska Airlines 261. September 11. Hurricane Katrina. The capture of the Beltway Sniper. The sentencing of Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, in which the relatives of his forty-eight victims gathered in a Seattle courtroom. Many in the room spoke of their suffering for the first time. Mothers and sisters wept; fathers cursed. We reporters swarmed. There was no getting around it. From what I saw, the vast majority of us behaved with as much sensitivity as humanly possible given the circumstances.

“I was only five when my mother died,” said one woman, Sara King, daughter of Carol Ann Christensen, identified in court papers as Victim 22. “The one thing I want you to know is that there was a daughter. I was that daughter, and I was waiting for my mother to come home.”

I try to remember this when I’m tempted to feel like a heel, when I get down about my profession. The daughter could have communicated her thoughts in more private ways, but she chose to speak in front of a packed courthouse, with cameras rolling and note-takers scribbling. Why? I think it’s for the same reason that a 15-year-old girl in Oklahoma City, Bonnie Martinez, allowed me to ask her questions about her father Gilbert, who was vaporized when Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb went off in 1995. “I miss everything about him,” she told me. It was the same reason why Richard Zapata took me to the spot on 24th where a chalk outline of his daughter’s body remained visible for three years. The same reason, I’m guessing, that compelled children in New York City to scrawl notes in crayon, and to post them on a bulletin board outside of St. Paul Chapel, one block from the now-gone World Trade Center:

I feel so sad

I will always love you Daddy

god bless the ded

Reporters, at times, swarm and nobody likes it. Some people will turn us away. Some will be too broken to speak. But many, many others, given the opportunity, want to talk of how it’s been for them. They want someone to listen to their story. They want it chronicled, put on the record. Sara King wanted the world to know that she had waited for her mother to come home. The day that my Green River story ran in the Los Angeles Times (my then new employer), I got a call from a young woman who had spoken at the sentencing. None of her quotes had been published, and no reporter interviewed her afterward. She wondered if I might be interested. I told her I couldn’t guarantee a story. She spoke to me for thirty-five minutes. The one thing I remember—I’m not sure why—was that she wished she could thank her sister for the months she spent teaching her how to drive a stick-shift.

This “interview” took no skills on my part. The best thing I did was not interrupt her. I made some occasional sounds to let her know I was listening. In many of my encounters with people in grief, my “technique” was simply showing up and shutting up. That’s my five-word crash course on the topic. The showing up part is critical. It’s the one aspect that you have control over. We must show up, despite our discomfort, despite the possibility of rejection. Make ourselves available. Be present. If we must, probe as gently as possible. We often need only a few words. Imagine these words as fingers easing out the cork, allowing what’s been bottled up to pour forth on its own.

The Demon Theory

It’s all that was necessary with Richard Zapata. His affliction was of a particularly cruel kind. There was no answer to the most basic questions: who killed his daughter, and why? We spoke on several occasions over a span of years. When we first met, he said he didn’t have much to say, but it turned out he did. The day that I joined him on his pilgrimage, he wasn’t much interested in talking about how he felt, and to my credit I never asked. He wanted to talk about the investigation. He spoke of his daughter. Mia was twenty-seven, a musician, and “the best of our family,” he said. She was an idealist, too trusting for her own good. A couple of times Zapata stopped at an intersection, trying to imagine which route Mia chose.

Police knew that she walked part of the way home after a night out with band members. She stopped at a friend’s apartment, and left the place at 2 a.m. Her body was found at 3:20 a.m., 1.6 miles from where she was last seen. Eighty minutes, Zapata said. Measurements were what preoccupied him. Coordinates. They were as close as he could get—in my presence, anyway—to talking about the attack, which one detective later described to me as “surpassingly brutal.”

The killer had left almost no evidence. Police collected DNA samples but found no matches in criminal databases. All the usual suspects—boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, close relatives and friends—were cleared. Local bands, among them Nirvana and Pearl Jam, raised $70,000 to hire a private investigator. Profilers and psychics were brought in. A forensic psychologist theorized that Mia had been killed by someone who’d done it before, perhaps a serial killer.

Zapata moved from his home in Yakima to a condominium in Seattle, close to where Mia’s body was discovered, so that he could conduct his pilgrimages more often. He wound up retracing her footsteps “as many times as I have hair on my head.” Police worked the case hard for a couple of years but never got close to identifying a suspect. One of Mia’s close friends, explaining the dearth of clues, told me she believed a demon had entered “the earthly realm,” took Mia’s life, and quickly departed. People in mourning must be given latitude. I told her that anything’s possible, I suppose.

Leads dried up. Public attention drifted. The original detectives transferred or retired. Mia’s family and friends resigned themselves to the possibility that her murder would never be solved. I had written the initial news briefs in the early days after the murder, and an extensive piece five years later, revisiting what had become a torment to those closest to her. Another five years passed, and I lost touch with Zapata during that time.

One night in January of 2003, I received a phone call from a detective whom I knew only in passing. He wanted to talk off the record. Of course, I said. He was a type of talker who, in reporter’s lingo, “buried the lead.” Five minutes into a conversation about cold cases and advancements in DNA technology, I still didn’t know why he had called. Then he informed me that my stories about Mia’s murder, particularly the long piece at the five-year anniversary—the most in-depth article on the case written to date—had become part of Mia’s case file. He thanked me for helping to keep the case “on the radar.”

“Ok,” I said.

“I thought you’d be interested to know, although it’s not public yet—”

“Right.”

“We got him.”

I think I took a breath. “What do you mean?”

“We got him.”

I recall asking him if Mia’s father had been notified. He said something along the lines of “we’re doing that now.”

Nearly a decade after Mia’s death, a tall, balding, 48-year-old itinerant fisherman named Jesus C. Mezquia was arrested at his ramshackle home on a remote islet in the middle of the Florida Keys. It turned out that the passing-demon theory was closest to the truth. Mezquia had no known connection to Mia, nor any meaningful tie to Washington state. In the summer of 1993, he had drifted into Seattle, encountered Mia on a dark street, brutalized and killed her, and soon drifted away. He might never have been caught if a Seattle detective had not dug up the case file, re-entered the DNA evidence, and found a match. Mezquia said nothing, and avoided all eye contact, during his trial. He got thirty-six years.

So one other thing I remind myself when I’m tempted to feel like a jackal is that we reporters can’t know the ends to which our stories contribute. We do our jobs with a certain amount of faith. Sometimes a story we tell—one that involves uncomfortable interviews with people in pain, and that draws ire for opening wounds—can help something or someone to not slip into oblivion. And it’s our rendering of one party’s suffering that often makes the story meaningful or memorable. Being forgotten is easy. Fading is the natural course. Walk into any homicide division or newsroom in any metropolitan area in the country, and you’ll find too few workers laboring to keep up. Yesterday’s urgencies must be set aside for today’s, and soon yesterday’s hardly seem to matter. Zapata did what he could to keep that from happening. I believe the main reason for his pilgrimages to 24th Avenue South, though he couldn’t put it into words at the time, was that he didn’t want to let go of his grief until it had served its purpose.

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