Bearers of Bad News
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Apr 8, 2007
11/09/12 at 2:17 PM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a chapter of the book “Tulsa’s Daily World: The Story of a Newspaper and Its Town,” by Randy Krehbiel. The book, published by World Publishing Co. in 2007, is a history of the Tulsa World. This chapter explores how journalists deal with tragic events such as the Oklahoma City bombing.
Wayne Greene got to his desk a few minutes past 9 that morning, later than he would have liked but practically the crack of dawn for someone used to the late nights of a morning newspaper. Greene, a long-time reporter, had been city editor only a few weeks and still wondered if he and the job were right for each other.
Greene was hardly seated when Riley Wilson, his walrus mustache grown white from more than four decades in the news business, approached. Wilson, usually the first person in the newsroom, told Greene that correspondent Charlotte Ann Smith had called in with a potential front-page story. A 29-year-old cancer patient being flown by a Wichita-based charity to Houston for treatment had been killed, along with his wife and the volunteer pilot, when their Cessna 337 spun into the ground near Coffeyville, Kan., 60 miles north of Tulsa.
Greene had barely digested this information when the telephone rang. A World reporter at a University of Oklahoma regents meeting in Norman, 20 miles south of Oklahoma City, told Greene that OU President David Boren was saying a major fire had broken out at or near the federal courthouse in downtown Oklahoma City. The reporter asked if he should investigate.
“Call back in five minutes,” Greene said. The World had three reporters assigned to the Capitol Bureau, but locating them on short notice might be difficult. Before Greene could begin tracking down the Capitol reporters, his phone rang again. This time it was Executive Editor Joe Worley.
“There’s been an explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City,” Worley said. “What are you going to do?”
Greene did not hesitate. “We have a reporter on the way,” he said.
Actually, Greene had not yet dispatched the reporter from Norman. But unknown to him, a World reporter was already on the scene. Brian Ford had been at the Capitol when a loud noise shattered the clear, cool morning. Smoke billowed over downtown Oklahoma City, less than two miles away. Ford jumped into his car and drove as close as he could to the rising plume, then got out and walked. Another Capitol reporter, Barbara Hoberock, went from her apartment about five miles away.
What Ford and Hoberock found that morning – April 19, 1995 – was unlike anything they or anyone else at the Tulsa World had ever seen.
Newspapers are often bearers of bad news. It’s part of the job. Critics may complain of too much pain and suffering, and sometimes justifiably so, but, as one commentator has put it, newspapers and other media bear the responsibility of “public witness” when the earth shakes or the skies open, bullets fly or lives are taken. The World’s first extra, in April 1906, brought Tulsans news of the San Francisco earthquake; five years later, on April 13, 1911, a disaster closer to home filled most of Page One:
FIVE KILLED AND DOZENS INJURED
Tornado Demolishes Little Village of Bigheart
Thirty-five miles northwest of Tulsa, Bigheart (now Barnsdall) had been hit about 5 p.m. the previous day. Telegraph and telephone lines were blown down and overland roads were hardly more than wagon trails, so news of the calamity did not reach Tulsa until the arrival of a Midland Valley freight train later that evening. Shortly before 3 a.m., a special “relief train” pulled into Tulsa bearing three dozen of the injured. “A large crowd of Tulsans went without sleep,” the World reported, “waiting … to ascertain if relatives had been hurt in the storm.”
With the few telegraph and telephone lines into Bigheart down, newspapers were the only form of mass communication. They relayed news of deaths and injuries and of the terrible destruction visited on the hamlet. Then, as now, reliable information in a crisis was difficult to come by.
The train crew were told (of) an … incident …
which lacked confirmation. It is that of a woman and a child
who were picked up by the gale and blown away. Searchers
afterward found the mother dead in a field almost a half-mile
from home. The child’s body had not been located at last report.
April 13, 1911
The casualty list fluctuated; the number of dead soon dropped to three, with five others “near death’s door.” On April 15, three days after the disaster, the World published photographs of a demolished home and badly damaged school. A Dr. E.G. Croxdale was arrested for running a relief donation scam. If true, the World said, the allegations against Croxdale would “establish him among the top notchers in the list of ‘the meanest men on earth.’ ” The World itself pleaded for assistance for the victims and pledged one-half of all revenues from new subscriptions to Bigheart disaster relief.
Over the course of 100 years, such stories became numerous beyond counting. A tornado killed 12 at Skiatook, just north of Tulsa, in May 1912. Eugene and Maud Lorton were among the passengers the following Fourth of July when two trains collided on the Sand Springs interurban, killing three and injuring more than 50. The grandstands at the local baseball stadium collapsed in 1913. In 1923, the Arkansas River crested nearly 20 feet above flood stage, the highest ever recorded. Tulsa County tornadoes killed five in 1933 and four more in 1934.
The 1940s were particularly bad. The U.S. Weather Bureau reported 229 Oklahomans killed by tornadoes from 1942 to 1946 – and that was before a giant storm swept across the Texas Panhandle and northwestern Oklahoma in April 1947, killing 169, including 101 in the town of Woodward.
Pryor, northeast of Tulsa, was nearly wiped out by a tornado in April 1942. A week later, 19 died when twisters cut a swath through Osage and Washington counties and clipped Turley, a small community on Tulsa’s northern edge. The next year, unprecedented flooding killed 21 Oklahomans and inundated thousands of acres. The devastation so moved Robert S. Kerr, then governor, that flood control and navigation in the Arkansas River Valley became Kerr’s signature issue during his 14 years in the U.S. Senate.
Tornadoes killed 111 in April 1945, including 82 at Antlers in southeastern Oklahoma; on the same night, the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee took a direct hit.
In 1951, the “greatest flood in Miami’s history” lifted the Neosho River 15 feet above flood stage, more than five feet higher than ever recorded before. In 1957, Bird Creek left its banks at Skiatook six times in 40 days.
Except for the 1923 flood, Tulsa had largely avoided such disasters. From its origin, for reasons hazy even then, local lore held the city immune from tornadoes. “There’s a tradition, attributed to Indian origin, that there can never be a tornado in Tulsa because of protecting hills bordering the city on the north, south and west,” the World related during the stormy spring of 1945. Later versions identified the Arkansas River as t the invisible force warding off ill winds. Meteorologists declared the whole idea was hokum.
A tornado did finally cross the Arkansas on June 8, 1974, whirling through the Brookside neighborhood and exacting the first known weather-related death ever within the city proper when a falling tree crushed a man inside his house. The Brookside tornado signaled the start of a decade of spring storms that culminated with the great Memorial Day weekend flood of 1984. A foot of rain fell in five hours over Saturday night and Sunday morning, turning placid streams into raging rapids, overwhelming storm sewers and submerging large sections of the city. Thirty people rode out the storm in a decommissioned school bus when the motel in which they were staying flooded. A house in east Tulsa burned while its owner stood nearby in water almost to his waist.
The rising waters and high winds wreaked $150 million in havoc, making the ’84 flood the most extensive disaster in the city’s history; with 13 fatalities, it was surpassed only by the 1921 race riot for deadliness.
But natural disasters, carelessness and chance are one thing. Pure, unadulterated malice is another.
Wayne Greene’s reaction, when he heard there had been an explosion in downtown Oklahoma City, was that it must have been caused by a gas leak or some sort of industrial accident. Like many Americans, or at least many Oklahomans, Greene considered the possibility of a premeditated act hardly possible.
“I thought it might not even make the paper,” Greene recalled a decade later. “Then we began to see the images.”
Two-thirds of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was simply gone, reduced to a pile of smoking rubble; what remained resembled a wounded giant, staggering and in shock, its insides ripped open and spilling onto the ruins below. The nearby Water Resources Board, Athenian, Regency Tower, Journal-Record and YMCA buildings and two churches were heavily damaged. Glass, shattered to the consistency of sand, crunched underfoot for blocks around. Ghostlike figures wandered stunned and bloody into the streets; from under the concrete and steel emanated the cries of the trapped and injured.
The final death count of 168 included two rescuers, one of whom survived the initial blast only to be killed by falling debris when he went back into the ruins to search for survivors. Nineteen children died, most of them in a first-floor day-care center.
“The bomb left hanging, like dust in the air, the question of who did it, and why a city in the heartland of America was the target,” Brian Ford wrote.
Oklahomans, said World columnist Jay Cronley, “didn’t sign on for this.” They accepted life in America’s hinterlands with the understanding they would be left alone. “Part of our deal here,” Cronley wrote, “was, no bombing.”
The inclination, in Oklahoma and elsewhere, was to blame foreign terrorists. Early reports even placed two “Middle Eastern” men in a brown pickup at the scene. An Oklahoma City man of Middle Eastern birth was detained en route to Jordan; when word got out, the man’s family was driven into hiding and his home vandalized. In New York, attorneys for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, on trial for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, asked for a mistrial, saying the reports from Oklahoma City had tainted the jury.
But in the basement lounge of a Howard Johnson’s near the Oklahoma Capitol, another possibility suggested itself. As the television over the bar repeated that an unidentified informant had told police he’d seen two Middle Easterners fleeing the bomb site, a World reporter remarked wryly to his colleagues: “I wonder if that ‘informant’ was wearing a cap with ‘Remember Waco’ on the front of it.”
That the attack might be linked to the deadly April 19, 1993, federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, was something Americans seemed reluctant to consider. Experts interviewed by the World downplayed a possible connection to Waco and to an increasingly vocal movement that portrayed the federal government – and federal workers – as enemies. But April 19, the anniversary of the start of the American Revolution and known in some places as Patriots Day, was a day fraught with symbolism for the angry extremists who thought of themselves as the true sons of liberty. April 19 was also the second anniversary of the trial of Randy Weaver, an Idaho man whose wife and son were killed in a shootout with federal officials trying to arrest Weaver on weapons charges. An Oklahoma white supremacist executed in Arkansas just hours after the bombing let it be known he thought the attack was some form of retribution. Nevertheless, one terrorism expert blamed the attack on the “new world disorder” and said it almost certainly had been carried out by a “rather organized and well-trained group.”
They were wrong. Authorities quickly determined the bomb had been a truck loaded with fertilizer and diesel fuel. From a serial number attached to an axle, the Federal Bureau of Investigation traced the truck to a rental agency in Kansas and, from there, to Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, two ex-soldiers with a grudge against the government. Two days after the bombing, Nichols was taken into custody at his home in Herrington, Kan.; McVeigh, it turned out, had been in the Noble County Jail, 70 miles north of Oklahoma City, since an hour and a half after the bombing. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Hanger had pulled McVeigh over for not having a car tag; Hanger probably would have ticketed McVeigh and let him go if McVeigh had not been carrying a loaded 9 mm Glock pistol. Not until an acquaintance identified McVeigh from an FBI sketch did anyone connect him to anything more serious than a concealed weapons charge.
In that first 24 hours, as law enforcement officials sifted through the evidence that would lead them to Nichols and McVeigh, and others struggled to cope with the bomb’s human toll, the World also tried to come to grips with the situation. Professionally, logistically and psychologically, this story was unlike any other in the newspaper’s history. The 1921 riot had been a disaster of comparable proportions, but in a different era. In 1921, news still traveled mostly by telegraph; a practical method of transmitting photographs did not exist. Telephone switchboards were still manually operated. There were no two-way radios or walkie-talkies, and police communications were by messenger and a few call boxes scattered around town. Trains were the primary mode of transportation. Aviation was in its infancy, automobiles were unreliable and paved highways nonexistent. Reaching Tulsa from either coast or Chicago meant a two-day train ride, so that instead of the thousands of reporters and photographers who would descend on Oklahoma City in 1995, the Tulsa riot was covered by a handful of local reporters, correspondents and photographers.
Tulsa in 1921 was isolated. Oklahoma City in 1995 was at the center of a transportation network that included three major interstate highways and an international airport. Within hours, every major newspaper, magazine and broadcast network in the world was at the bomb site. They had deep pockets and reporters and photographers who had covered every natural and manmade disaster imaginable. Nobody from the World sitting around that table in the basement of Howard Johnson’s had covered even the 1984 flood, much less a war, a hurricane or a riot.
Executive Editor Joe Worley, Managing Editor Susan Ellerbach and City Editor Wayne Greene had all moved up within the newspaper’s ranks, but on the day of the bombing had been in their respective positions less than three weeks. Worley, who had been the World’s managing editor and before that executive editor of the Nashville Banner, reacted quickly to the news he heard on his car radio as he drove to work that morning.
“My sense that it was something big was almost immediate,” he said.
“We went into a whole different realm,” said Greene. “I think we did some of the best writing and editing in the history of the Tulsa World. We arguably were competitive with a lot of people who don’t expect us to compete with them.”
Reporters and photographers were dispatched to Oklahoma City within the hour with instructions to find hotel rooms and stay as long as necessary. Others soon followed. Nine reporters, two photographers and an artist filed from Oklahoma City on April 19. Thirty-nine other reporters and photographers got credit lines from Tulsa and elsewhere – and that did not include editors, page designers, researchers and other personnel. The first five pages of the next morning’s paper were cleared of advertising and committed to bombing coverage, a practice that continued into early the following week.
“On April 19,” Worley said, “this newspaper learned what it could do.”
“Literally everybody who worked at the paper got involved,” Greene said. “Business reporters, sports reporters, copy editors – and I don’t remember a single person complaining about doing something that was not glamorous. Ralph Marler, who had been at the paper 30 years, had been the Washington correspondent and the state editor, did nothing but copy-edit the thumbnail obituaries of the victims. He did that for four days and never said a word about it.”
Tulsa may nurse a sense of rivalry with Oklahoma City, but in the faces of the dead and injured and their families, Tulsans saw themselves. They lined up by the hundreds to donate blood and offer whatever other help they could.
“Still, to this day, I believe some of that rivalry Tulsa has always felt with Oklahoma City was taken out by the bombing,” Worley said 10 years later.
That night in the Howard Johnson’s basement lounge, John Klein, later a World sports editor and columnist, suggested the tone the World’s coverage would take. None of the remains recovered from the blast site had yet been officially identified, leaving the families in a state of unbearable suspense. Many of the dead were children, and throughout the city forensic teams set about the grim task of lifting fingerprints from toys and picture books.
Klein turned to one of his co-workers. “You have kids,” he said. “What would you do if they had been in that building and you didn’t know where they were?”
An eerie silence settled onto what was left of the Murrah Building. The search for survivors continued, but the moans and cries that had guided rescuers slowly diminished to nothing more than the creaks and groans of ruined beams and failing joints. “Grim-faced rescue workers, many with tears streaming down their faces, began a second day of searching for survivors Thursday,” Klein wrote. “Hope faded with each passing hour.”
Spectators, including the press, were kept a block away. Oklahoma City Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen periodically briefed reporters. Rescue workers trudging up from the bomb site collapsed despairingly onto curbs. “The smell of death is everywhere,” an Oklahoma City firefighter said. “As you walk through the building, you see limbs of people buried under rubble. There’s nothing you can do for them, so you move on, looking for someone you can help.”
Several World reporters and a photographer had gone that morning to the First Christian Church, about two miles north of the bomb site. They were under the vague impression, as was most of the press there, that Ray Blakeney of the state medical examiner’s office would be holding a news conference concerning the identification of those killed. In fact, Blakeney was at the church primarily to meet with the families of those still listed as missing.
The church had been designated the family assistance center, where those waiting for news of loved ones could gather in privacy with grief counselors, religious leaders and mental-health professionals. The press was precisely the sort of distraction those in charge did not want. Already worn thin, they greeted the reporters and photographers with barely restrained hostility. The press reacted predictably.
Finally, someone suggested asking if anybody inside the church wanted to talk to the press. To almost everyone’s surprise, many did.
Within minutes, a man named John Cole, so shaken he could not walk without help, brought small photographs of two boys he had been helping to raise. Aaron and Elijah Coverdale, who would become two of the bombing’s best-known victims, had been in the Murrah Building child-care center. Cole held the pictures up, asking if anyone had seen Aaron and Elijah, hoping they were in a hospital bed somewhere.
Others soon followed. The first few, like Cole, displayed photographs in the heartbreakingly slim hope someone would recognize a face. Later, resigned, they seemed simply determined to tell the world about a person they loved. To be sure, many of those inside the First Christian Church did not want to face the reporters and photographers clustered behind a rope 50 yards from the front door. Those who did, however, seemed to find something therapeutic in it.
On April 23, in advance of a Sunday memorial service attended by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, evangelist Billy Graham and more than 10,000 mourners, the World spoke to the emotions of the moment.
The official number of those killed in the bombing advances methodically, like the hour hand of a clock or the turning of a calendar page. But whatever the official number, the truth is found in the voice
that is no longer heard and the touch that is no longer felt.
This is a city that grieves for what will never be.
For the promise of young lives that will never grow old.
For a wedding that was to have been in a few weeks.
For Christmas gifts that were to have been opened four
For a telephone call never made.
A vacation never taken.
A life never lived.
April 23, 1995
Although certainly not as affected as survivors and rescue workers, reporters and photographers were not immune from emotional strain. Many wept. A few became physically ill. In the weeks ahead, the World and The Oklahoman offered counseling at work, something few newspapers would have thought of doing before and to which even fewer journalists would have acquiesced. Many still did not. But an indication of how the business had changed occurred a few years later, when a group of editors and reporters from a former Soviet republic visited the World. While talking with some of those who had covered the bombing, one asked if the World staff had dealt with the tragedy in the traditional manner.
“Did you drink heavily?”
Once Nichols’ and McVeigh’s names became known, the rush was on to find out something about them. David Fallis, the assistant city editor who oversaw the work of the police and courts reporters, tapped into a resource still unfamiliar to most reporters and editors – the Internet – to find phone numbers and other information about people who may have had a connection with the bombing suspects. Fallis also began monitoring the short-wave radio broadcasts of a Michigan militia group associated with Terry Nichols’ brother James.
In April 1995, few reporters or editors fully appreciated the Internet’s potential. Netscape, the first commercial Web browser, and Windows ’95, the first mass-produced software package designed to interface with the Internet, had been released only a few months earlier. Greene remembers the bombing investigation as the first time he and other World editors realized the Internet’s potential.
“Fallis did some amazing things that week,” Greene said. “He had this new, amazing tool called the Internet that nobody at the Tulsa World had ever used.”
Julie DelCour became the lead reporter on the investigation and prosecution of McVeigh and Nichols. She and Fallis made a good team. Both came from law enforcement backgrounds. DelCour’s father had been a Missouri state trooper; her husband Paul Cleary had been a World reporter and editorial writer before going into law practice and would become a U.S. magistrate in 2002. DelCour had covered the federal courts for 10 years and the state courts before that and knew several of McVeigh’s defense attorneys. Fallis had been a police reporter and grew up around high-profile trials; his father, S.M. “Buddy” Fallis, was the district attorney who prosecuted Albert McDonald and Tom Lester Pugh.
In the days after McVeigh’s and Nichols’ arrests, DelCour and other reporters made hundreds of telephone calls, most of them shots in the dark, trying to get a line on the suspects. They talked to neighbors of James Nichols, with whom Terry Nichols and McVeigh lived for a while. DelCour found a security guard in Kingman, Ariz., who told her he had been with McVeigh on a firing range when McVeigh “just went crazy. … He was shooting randomly but not at anybody. He decided to destroy a fence post to see if he could cut it in half.”
Michael Fortier, an Army buddy of McVeigh, lived in Kingman; McVeigh had, too, for more than a year. McVeigh and Nichols were said to have experimented with explosives in the desert near the town 100 miles southeast of Las Vegas. In early May, Joe Worley agreed to let DelCour go to Kingman – if she could get a good airfare. She found a seat on a gambling junket out of Oklahoma City and flew to Las Vegas surrounded by a planeload of happy-go-lucky partygoers while she contemplated back-tracking a mass murderer.
Many of the dead were U.S. government employees and the crime scene was U.S. property, so officials decided to try McVeigh and Nichols on federal murder and conspiracy charges. The indictment covered only eight of the 168 deaths, leaving open the possibility of trying the pair later on state charges. Because Oklahoma City’s federal courthouse was across the street from the bomb site, a change of venue was granted. Similarly, U.S. District Judge Wayne Alley, to whom the case originally was assigned, was soon replaced by Judge Richard Matsch of Denver. Matsch moved the proceedings to Denver, where McVeigh and Nichols were tried separately.
While not unexpected, the change of venue angered survivors and the families of those killed in the attack because it made attending the trials more difficult. In response, the federal government took the extraordinary step of paying the expenses of some of those who wanted to go to Denver and making available a closed-circuit telecast of the proceedings to those remaining in Oklahoma City.
To cover the trials, the World essentially opened a bureau in Denver. It rented and furnished a downtown apartment a few blocks from the courthouse and staffed it for more than a year with as many as three reporters and photographers at a time. Julie DelCour was there most of the time, usually joined by Barbara Hoberock or David Fallis or sometimes Brian Ford. During jury selection, Fallis set up an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of information gleaned about the prospective jurors. Hoberock entered most of the data, which, by the end of each trial, yielded names and telephone numbers for the otherwise anonymous jurors. The names were not used without permission, but contacting the jurors after the trials provided insight into the process by which the juries reached their verdicts.
The federal investigation of the bombing involved 10,000 FBI agents, 25,000 witness interviews and 100,000 pieces of physical evidence. The legal proceedings produced an equally massive volume of information. Each night, usually after a full day in court, reporters downloaded, printed and sorted the most recent filings and transcripts – often numbering into the hundreds of pages. Every name and piece of information introduced into the case had its own file, and an Excel database was used to keep track of the hundreds of exhibits. DelCour’s notes and files ultimately filled 100 boxes.
Items of particular importance were taped to the Denver apartment’s wall. These included a copy of the indictment, a list of the dead and a photograph of 21 children inside the Murrah Building’s day-care center at the time of the blast. DelCour found the picture especially poignant. It had been taken a few days before the bombing by a woman who was herself killed in the bombing and turned up in a packet of photos her husband collected from a pharmacy the day of her death.
“The challenge was … how to condense and keep straight all of this and give it some kind of context for the reader,” DelCour said.
She observed that more people died in the bombing than could be seated in Matsch’s courtroom and noted the persistence with which their families pursued justice.
“Never in the history of the American justice system had this many victims asserted themselves in a criminal case,” DelCour wrote after McVeigh’s conviction in June 1997.
“On some mornings … lines for the 150 courtroom seats stretched half a block down the plaza. Before closing arguments in the first stage of the trial, the line of survivors began forming just after midnight.”
On Friday, June 13, Matsch read McVeigh’s sentence: death.
“Wedged in the back rows of the courtroom, victims of the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing – bonded by tragedy and trial – leaned against each other, absorbing the impact of a verdict they had waited 787 days to hear,” reported DelCour and Fallis.
“Some wept. Some prayed. Some smiled. Most shook.”
DelCour left the courthouse with Diane Leonard, whose husband Don had died in the attack.
“The air was just electric,” DelCour said. “I remember helping Diane Leonard – we were being swept down the steps – and we came out into this bright light, and standing along the street were all of these people who had come out of the office buildings to cheer. The police were almost shoulder-to-shoulder. It was as emotional as anything I’ve ever been around.”
Nichols’ trial later that year was, in some respects, anticlimactic – but the verdict was not. His defense team pointed out that Nichols had not been anywhere near Oklahoma City when the bomb exploded and had cooperated with investigators afterward. Nichols’ lawyers portrayed him as a dupe without a clear understanding of McVeigh’s ultimate intentions. These arguments made an impression: On Dec. 23, its sixth day of deliberation, the jury had not yet reached a decision. It was still meeting late that afternoon, but Julie DelCour told Barbara Hoberock to keep her reservation on an evening flight home. The jury, DelCour thought, would break that evening for the Christmas holiday.
But as the bus carrying Hoberock to the airport passed the courthouse, she saw a crowd gathering outside and guessed the reason. A radio news report confirmed her suspicions: The jury was about to announce its verdict. Hoberock tried to get the driver to stop the bus. He said he couldn’t. She said she was sick and if he didn’t stop, she would throw up. He stopped.
“I think by that time he had decided I was crazy and he wanted to get rid of me,” Hoberock said. She ran back to the courthouse, dragging her luggage, just in time to join DelCour in reporting the surprising verdict: guilty of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter. But not murder. That meant Nichols was not eligible for the death penalty. Instead, Matsch sentenced him to life without parole. Many Oklahomans could not believe it. “My heart is broken again,” Diane Leonard said when she heard the decision.
“When it was over, I felt like I’d fallen off a cliff,” DelCour said. “The thing about trials is that you get so caught up in the process … and then you get the verdict, but it doesn’t change anything about the original crime.”
Oklahoma officials, determined to put Nichols to death, charged him in state court with the murders not included in the federal indictment. A McAlester jury found him guilty in 2004 but Nichols was again spared the execution chamber. Once more, he received life without parole.
Time and circumstances move on. The Oklahoma City bombing recedes in the public consciousness, its horror surpassed on the broader stage by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It remains, however, a pivotal event in the emotional life of the nation and in the lives of those affected. DelCour, when asked if she still thinks of the haunted faces that surrounded her in a Denver courtroom, replied, “I think about them every day.”
Rape, murder, floods, tornadoes – the bad news continues. And reporters, photographers and editors continue trying to report such news without overstepping the bounds of responsibility and taste.
“You try to go into those situations sensitive to the fact someone’s life has just been turned upside down,” said reporter Rod Walton, who started at the World four days after the Oklahoma City bombing. He covered the 1999 tornado that killed 44 in and around Oklahoma City, the collapse of an Interstate 40 bridge spanning the Arkansas River that killed 14 in 2002, and Terry Nichols’ 2004 state murder trial.
“I try to go in humbly and politely and say, ‘Can we talk?’ ”
Often, they do.
“It’s amazing the … details about their lives people will tell you,” Walton said.
In 1996, Michael Smith was on the police beat when a Sapulpa woman, Michelle Hendrix, was shot dead by purse-snatchers outside a westside medical clinic while getting into a car with her 2-year-old and 4-month-old daughters.
“The husband didn’t want to talk at first,” Smith recalled, “but I said, ‘I’ve talked to the police. All they can tell me is how she died. Is there anything you can tell me about how she lived?’
“When I was a younger reporter, I thought approaching people in those situations should be the last thing to do. And I’ve been told no. But now when a story like that comes up I want to do it, because I feel like I know how … to get the best story for those people. I tell the families, ‘I know how they died. Tell me how they lived.’ ”
“It usually comes down to treating people with compassion,” said Rhett Morgan, who, in his job as a state reporter, frequently talks with families coping with violent crimes. His experience growing up in a family of southeast Missouri funeral home operators has at times been helpful.
“Countless times you have to call the relatives of someone deceased,” Morgan said. “I tell them I would like to honor their family member’s memory by writing about their life. Eighty times out of a hundred, somebody wants to share something.”
Sometimes reporters find themselves delivering bad news to victims’ families. In 2000, 7-year-old Christi Blevins of Oilton was strangled and her 12-year-old friend raped by a neighbor, Robert Wayne Rotramel. When Morgan went to the Blevins home, he learned the girl’s parents did not know how their daughter died.
“The mother asked me, and I knew she’d been strangled, but I didn’t think I should tell her,” Morgan recalled. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ She wanted to know, and finally I told her. She broke down. And I guess I did, too.”
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