Authors: Edna Buchanan
Tags: #"BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY/Editors, Journalists, Publishers"
Homicide detectives wanted an explanation. “I just shot him,” the suspect said, flashing a goofy grin. Somehow it made sense to him.
Months followed, with more stories, more murders, more witnesses. I did not see Michael again, though I wanted to go back. Bright and beautiful, he belongs in a Montessori school some-where, not in the Beirut he lives in. One reason I did not return was the impulse to snatch him and run, somewhere, anywhere, to a safe and secure future. But in my business the rules are clear
Do not get involved.
Remain objective and professional at all times.
Keep a stiff upper lip.
Above all, never let them see you cry.
I cover the police beat for
The Miami Herald
, daily circulation 427,954. Over eighteen years I have covered thousands of crimes, most of them violent, and talked to thousands of witnesses: cops and convicts, little children and old ladies. Some are doomed, some deadly. A few, like Michael, I cannot forget.
This book continues the story of life and death in Miamiâ the place and the people, in my world as a police reporter in this treacherous, dazzling and dangerous city.
Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it
People ask if I am callous and cold after years on the police beat. Quite the contrary. You cannot grow calluses on your heart.
If I have become anything, it is more sensitive, because I now know the truth: The victim will most likely be victimized again, by the system.
How can I do this job year after year? they ask. Why would I want to? The question always surprises me. How could I
In a world full of bureaucracy and red tape and social agencies that do not respond, this job can be a joy. A story in the newspaper can slash through red tape like a razor. Sometimes it can help bring about justice in cases where it would never triumph otherwise. Cops' hands are often tied. Judges are often inept, corrupt or incompetent.
Sometimes, we are all the victim has got.
A half-million informed readers can be a far more effective force for good than a few overworked, indifferent or preoccupied cops.
Sometimes you feel like Wonder Woman, or Superman, going to the rescue. Reporters can find missing kids, lost grand-mothers and misplaced corpses. We fish out people who fall through the cracks. Publicity rescues people tangled in the hopeless mazes of government and bureaucracy. We recover stolen cars and priceless family heirlooms. A story in the newspaper can secure donations of blood, money and public supportâand occasionally that rarest gift of all: justice.
A brutal fact of life and death is that a crime with media attention is better investigatedâand better prosecuted. Police stories often make a differenceâthe difference in whether the crime is solved or not.
A good reporter can be a victim's best friend. How could one
do the job, even when it is unpleasant?
We all must do things we don't want to do. Heart in my throat, I approach the bereaved spouse or parent. For each who is not, a dozen are eager to share their story. A reporter's arrival often validates their tragedy, assuring that the terrible event that befell them does matter and that the rest of the world does care.
A young man who lived with his grandmother was murdered while I was away on a book tour. Only a brief paragraph appeared in the newspaper. Finding myself in the neighborhood weeks later, I stopped by to learn more. I knocked, introduced myself and said I wanted to talk about her grandson's death. The woman stepped back, swung the door open wide and welcomed me inside. “I wondered why you never came,” she said.
No one had, except a policeman to tell her that the boy she raised was dead.
How could one
do this job?
The good news is that putting it in the newspaper works, even for me. The bright spot in a bleak childhood was my seventh-grade English teacher, Edna Mae Tunis. She changed my life when she said: “Promise you will dedicate a book to me some day.” Decades later, I kept the promise. She never
knew; she died when I was in the eighth grade. But I wanted someone to know that I remembered. Mrs. Tunis had a little girl, but I had no luck finding her. Little girls grow up, marry and change their names.
During the book tour I told the story to a reporter in New Jersey. He included it in the article he wrote. The newspaper hit the street. His telephone rang. Mrs. Tunis's daughter was calling, and she was crying. Grown up, married and, as I suspected, an English teacher like her mother.
Putting it in the newspaper works.
When his picture appeared in
The Miami Herald
it posed a problem for Maurice Edwin Darden.
The caption said: SUSPECT.
A bank surveillance camera snapped the photo during a stickup. Darden was the man in dark glasses, holding the gun. My story quoted the FBI as saying that they believed he was the same man who had been robbing banks and fast-food restaurants all over Dade and Broward counties.
Darden, age thirty-four, stared at his own face, staring back at him from
The Miami Herald
, and pondered what to do. He even considered surrendering. As he tried to make up his mind, the FBI saved him the trouble. They surrounded his house.
The feds had been flooded by calls fingering Darden after his photo appeared in the newspaper. His mother and three sisters wanted him off the street, too. His sisters joined the FBI agents outside the house and talked him into stepping out with his hands up. His girlfriend also emerged, clutching a copy of the newspaper article, which she handed to a detective.
Everyone had seen it. They all had been trying to talk him into giving up.
Putting it in the newspaper works.
Some people are unaware that they are missing or in trouble unless they read the newspaper.
Retired New York City Police Captain Alexander Kneirim, age ninety-five, mugged by two youths, was treated for head injuries and released from Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. Still disoriented, he staggered into the path of a patrol car six hours later and was rushed back to the emergency room. Four days later he stumbled and fell while chasing a bus. He again visited the emergency room and was again sent home. Next morning he was back, and doctors agreed he needed placement in a care center. But when they turned their backs, the captain vanished. Still frisky for a nonagenarian, he had marched out of the ER to conduct some business at his bank. He returned to the hospital several hours later and was admitted to the Happy Home Care Center.
That was Friday.
When he did not come home, his alarmed landlady notified relatives. They called the police. My friend, Missing Persons Detective Sandy Weilbacher, checked hospitals, the jail and the morgue. She found no trace of him. On Tuesday, she called fifteen numbers at Jackson Hospital, requesting that medical records, the emergency room, crisis intervention, the outpatient clinic, placement and patient information double-check, in case his name had been misspelled. Still nothing. His relatives sobbed. Sandy feared the worst.
After six days, grim Miami police stopped the search for an old man and began looking in alleys and under expressways for a body. Then the story and a picture of the missing captain appeared in the newspaper. The staff of the Happy Home Care Center recognized him at once, of course, and called the police, who found him watching television.
“I spent hours stomping around under bridges looking for a body,” Sandy groused, her freckles and red hair pulsating as her blood pressure soared. “Everybody's time and effort was wasted.”
The captain was also nettled. No one had come to visit him. He had no idea he was missing and presumed dead. If not for his picture in the newspaper, he might still be lost.
slip through the cracks. Putting it in the newspaper does work.
Sometimes it is the only way to shake the truth out of the system. A young wife, seven months pregnant, had feared for months that she had cancer. Busy doctors had performed tests and a biopsy. They told her only that her condition could not be treated until after she gave birth. Convinced she was suffering a malignancy that endangered her unborn child, she became deeply depressed. Her husband tried to reassure her, but after he dozed off one night, she swallowed some pills, then vanished. For two nights and a day she wandered in a disconsolate daze.
She returned safely after seeing a newspaper account of her family's anguished search. Hospital officials also saw the story, checked records and said her medical problem was not cancer. She gasped at the good news. “Are you sure?” she asked me. “I was so depressed. They kept taking tests. They did a biopsy. They told me to come back. They wouldn't tell me a thing. So I knew I had it.”
But she didn't.
Total strangers sent messages of support and hope. “People were concerned about me,” she said, choking back tears. “It made me feel good. I thought nobody cared.”
Given the straight story, people
Frail and sick, an elderly widow called the Dade tax assessor's office, complaining in tears about her increased property tax assessment and pouring out her problems. Not only was she poor, she said, she had been too weak even to change her sheets for a month.
Vickie Nevins, clerk-typist, took the call. “I can't do anything about your taxes,” she said, “but I can do something about your sheets.” Nevins, a thirty-four-year-old, eighty-nine-pound divorcee, fixed dinner for her two children that night, then drove to the home of Minnie Wheeler, a lonely seventy-year-old heart patient, changed her sheets and visited for two and a half hours.
The widow Wheeler was astonished. “It's like an angel dropped out of heaven.”
I wrote about Vickie Nevins's kind deed. Mrs. Wheeler had said that she had no money left to pay her rising property taxes. Her husband was dead and “his illness took everything.” Hospitalized twice recently herself, she had found life “a terrible thing for old people.” She had no transportation, so the only time she saw a doctor was when taken to the hospital as an emergency. She received $176 a month from Social Security. Her home was in dire need of repair. Her mortgage payment was $72. Now her taxes had increased from $85 to $112.
“She called at ten minutes to five, crying her heart out,” Nevins said. “It's heartbreaking. I can't help her financially. I'm in a bind myself. But I'll do anything else I can for her.” Minnie Wheeler had proudly shown her visitor a prized possession, all her favorite old hymns on a long-playing record sent by her minister the last time she was hospitalized. She had never heard it. She had no record player.
“I'm looking around for a small turntable,” Nevins told me. “I feel so sorry for her. She's just a very sweet little old lady trying to make it all by herself.”
The brief story about a stranger's compassion produced immediate results: Three businessmen offered to pay Minnie Wheeler's taxes. Readers wrote checks. A medical clinic offered free services. People called with gifts of record players, friendship and assistance.
I wish I could write stories about every poor and lonely little old lady, but helping one is better than nothing.
Putting it in the newspaper works especially well if you are seeking a long-lost person. Always attracted to stories about lost people, I wrote about four sisters and a brother tragically separated as children, forty years earlier. Their father was killed working undercover in a police bootlegging investigation in 1932. The widow remarried. The children recall their stepfather fondly, but a malicious relative filed a false complaint telling the local sheriff that the couple was not legally married. Police arrested the stepfather. His wife took her four youngest children with her to the jail to find out why. She too was arrested, and the children, ages five through eleven, left on the sidewalk. The oldest girl took them to a relative, where authorities found them and took them to an orphanage.
Charges were dropped two months later and the parents freed. Too late. The thirteen-year-old had been released to an aunt, but the two youngest girls were gone, already adopted by strangers. The boy had also vanished, taken by foster parents. The eleven-year-old girl had been transferred to an out-of-town orphanage and would spend the next five years with families in St. Petersburg and Fort Myers. She ran away at age sixteen and made her way back to her mother and sister. The trio never stopped searching for the other children. It took them eleven years to find the boy. He joined the navy shortly after they were reunited and was killed in a car crash outside Jacksonville. He was twenty-one. Then their stepfather drowned in a boating accident off Tarpon Springs. The search for the two youngest girls continued.
Orphanage officials agreed to release the records only if the new parents granted permission. The adoptive mother of one girl refused. The other family could not be located.
The sisters pressed their search with even greater determination as their mother lay on her deathbed. She died without finding her missing children, but her daughters never gave up. The reluctant adoptive mother relented after being contacted a second time by a social worker. When the long-lost little girl, now a woman of forty-five, returned home that night, her husband said, “Your sisters have called eight times.” The joyous reunion brought a new resolve to find Dorothy, the last missing sister.
I wrote that Dorothy would now be forty-seven. When last seen she was age seven and wore her light brown hair in a Dutch-boy cut.
“If she sees our picture or hears about us,” one of her sisters said, “we want her to know that if she can't get to us, then for God's sake, let us know where she is. We'll get to her.”
No results, at first. But eventually the Miami newspaper story arrived in Detroit. When it did, we found Dorothy, a widow with five children. After forty years, the sisters wasted no time. The reunion took place at a Florida airport twenty-four hours after the first telephone call.
Putting it in the newspaper works.
Some results are unexpected, but often you know at once how readers will react.
At Miami Beach police headquarters on other business, I could not help but notice Rose Goldberg. She sat sobbing on a hard wooden chair. “I have no home! Where can I go?” she cried.
got my attention.
Wearing a torn white sweater with two one-dollar billsâall the money she hadâfolded neatly in her pocket, she was homeless, evicted from her South Beach hotel room because she was ten days late with her $150-a-month rent.
It was Saturday, the day before Mother's Day.
Her trembling hands clutched her cane and a crumpled green paper sack, her heart medicine and hairpins insideâall she had been able to salvage before a Metro deputy, summoned by the hotel owner, locked her out of her room on Friday. She sobbed to police officers who tried to help that she would rather be dead than homeless and indigent.