You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy.™
It begins as a normal Wednesday morning.
I am at my computer, sorting through the emails and garbage news of the day. Suddenly my phone chirps like a hungry baby bird.
I look at my phone. My eyes are old. Years of life have greased the optical lenses like so much vasoline on a windshield.
I blink trying to focus on the tiny screen.
Then I see the 5 words that will commandeer the rest of my week.
Dickson Officer Shot and Killed.
My brain tries to make sense of such a prodigious text message. Officer shot and killed.
Oh my God. I think to myself. When? How? What should I do?
I look around the newsroom trying to gauge whether everyone knows this.
A cop shot generates a distinct frequency. The Scanners should be shrieking about ambulances and response. The assignment editor would be shouting like a drill sergeant in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The web staff would be typing a story at 90 words per minute instead of the pedestrian 65.
I listen. I look.
I stare at my phone again. DICKSON OFFICER SHOT AND KILLED.
I look at the name on the text. He is a long time source. A trusted source. A guy who doesn’t text me unless there is something to text me about.
I text him back: Where? Are you sure?
I watch the little hour glass spin on my phone as he composes a new message.
Yes. A trooper just called me. He’s racing to the scene now.
I push back from my chair. I have a sunken feeling in my chest. I’ve had this feeling many times. I know that my day is about to radically change. I know that I am about to be tested by the available facts, the black holes of facts and the difficulties of the job. I know that I am about to drive to a bleeding wound of a city where cops are on edge and people are devastated. I know that I am about to put in a long day with nothing to drink and no place to pee. I know that I am about to be rained on and burned by the sun and challenged by not only the other reporters in town, but by the national media who will surely come like the cock roaches they are.
I walk to my bosses office. His door is open. He is hanging up his jacket and putting his brief case on his desk.
He is talking to someone about something.
It sounds like the teacher talking waa waa noise in the Peanuts Cartoon.
I put myself in his doorway. My body language is screaming that I am about to interrupt his conversation like a bucket of ice water tossed into an electric heater.
“I’ve got a cop shot,” I say stoically. “I confirmed it with a THP Lieutenant.”
He asks me a number of questions. They are good questions. The same questions I asked. I have no answers.
I look at him, then say. “We just need to go.”
And suddenly I am out the door racing to another tragedy that will tear apart a community, a family, a sheriff’s department.
I learn early on that the deputy pulled over a suspicious vehicle. While walking to the passenger side window, a wanted scum bag, raises a gun and blasts the deputy dead. I don’t have all the details yet. I’m told they are horrific and vile. But I understand the scum bag, high on meth and lacking love in his heart, attempts to burn the deputy’s car and possibly the deputy. These are facts that are just too gruesome to report.
The Sheriff will later hold back tears and tell us that the crime is so shocking that when details are released the community will be appalled. The sheriff speaks reverently about this Sgt. He calls him the best officer his department has. He tells us about the husband and new father who came in to work someone else’s shift. So much went so wrong so quickly.
Life is sinister this way.
I will later come to learn that I have interviewed this fine law man before. He was working an off duty security job at a tiny college on a Saturday night. Shots were fired behind the school. He responded and helped effect an arrest of an AR 15 toting gunman. Nobody was hurt, thanks to his quick actions.
I text many of my sources. Many respond by saying they are busy. Many just don’t respond. These guys have lost a brother. They are a collective fist of energy punching into the unknown. Hundreds of cops will respond to this location, amassing boots on the ground that will search for the killer.
When I arrive, I see officers in combat mode. I see eyes determined, hearts sad, minds and bodies hooked up to an electric grid of adrenaline.
These officers are the thin blue line and one of their brothers is dead. Before they can grieve, they have to find the douche bag who pulled the trigger, who is still out there, terrorizing this community.
I will come to learn that the scum bag is armed, possibly with the deputy’s guns.
I do a number of live shots from an intersection that leads from the main street into the back woods. The road is closed down, now an air tight check point where every car coming in is turned around, and every vehicle coming out is searched.
I watch as a police officer with an AR 15 strapped over his shoulder, checks the tailgate of a mini van. He is cordial, but business like. He is talking to the woman. I cannot hear his words, but I assume he is saying that a dangerous man is loose and they need to make sure he isn’t hiding in her car.
I watch as they carefully stare through the glass, their weapons at the ready.
We do a few live hits for the station that is going wall to wall with the breaking news. I show the checkpoint numerous times. I air interviews with motorists I stopped coming out of the checkpoint. They tell me the usual things people say when they are greeted by armed officers looking for a cop killer in their backyards.
After approximately 2 hours, we go back to regular programming. We won’t be back on the air till 4pm for the early news. That gives me four hours to find something more than this checkpoint.
“What do you want to do?,” my chief photog will say.
Most of the other journalists are camped out at the command post. They are like cattle, feeding from an informational trough. I hate the herd. I hate seeing these other reporters.
If I can see them, that means I am cattle grazing on the same old news.
I need to go somewhere with a frenetic feel. I need something new and unpredictable. I need to peel the news onion and see what I can see.
“Let’s go” I say to my chief photog.
“Where?,” he says.
“In there,” I point past the checkpoint. “The Hot Zone.”
We drive parallel to the road that is blocked off. I’ve learned in my life, there’s always a back way in. After a 1/4 mile, we find a tiny street. We hang a right on a windy dirt path that suddenly changes everything.
The canopy above us is thick, like fingers interlocking tightly, choking out the sun. I immediately notice wisps of sunlight, that periodically dart through the mesh of leaves as we move forward.
It’s as if a thick thunder cloud has moved abruptly in front of the sun. The temperature drops, the luminescence decreases, the colors have somehow become more muted.
We proceed forward on a road that winds like an octopus tentacle, undulating in a wave.
Our trek is bordered by high grass and trailers and old barns.
For the last 2 hours I have heard cops warn each other to be careful, that he is armed, and he will kill again. I can’t help thinking that he could be 3 feet from my window as we slowly drive by each tree trunk, or thicket of impenetrable bushes.
We turn a corner and see a phalanx of THP officers, guns out, going door to door, house to house. They are serious, moving in concert with one another, as if years of training for this horrific moment is now part of the job.
The Chief Photog seems unsure what to do.
“Don’t get out,” I say pulling out my iPhone and hitting the record button.
I’ve learned a few things over the years. Ask for forgiveness not permission. And if you don’t get in the immediate way of an officer working a case, most times he will let you do your job while he does his.
Around the next curve and we encounter a squadron of men. They look like storm troopers going to Iraq. They have battle helmets and thick Kevlar vests and combat boots. They are all clutching semi automatic rifles. They look intense and agitated.
As I video tape them from my window, I say, “Be careful guys.” I hear someone in the pack respond, “you too.”
We hang a right onto a narrow road barely big enough for our news car.
A hundred yards ahead, I see a dozen police units, lights swirling against a muted backdrop lit only by the occasional filament of sunlight pouring through the tree tops.
“stop stop stop,” I whisper loudly to my chief photog at the wheel.
“I can’t stop,” he whispers back, slowing the news car to a crawl.
I know I only have 10 seconds to get this moment. It is intense and dangerous and happening at the speed of news.
I push the camera across my chief photog’s chest as he leans back in the driver’s seat. I focus the camera out the window as the car becomes a beautiful, cinematically wonderful dolly shot capturing the essence of the moment.
I look at my screen to make sure the numbers are moving. I look up in real time to see 6 armed law furtively approaching an aging dark tobacco barn. I see the flash light from their semi automatic weapon bouncing off a dark, partially cracked window in the dilapidated structure. Officers are cautious as they peer into the black void that might be the hiding spot of a cop killer waiting to launch another volley of death.
I watch as other officers take up tactical positions around the barn, allowing K9’s to sniff for a bad man’s scent within the perimeter of high grass and bushes.
In 10 seconds, it’s gone. Our perfect dolly shot past the most intense energy of an unpredictable hot zone has evaporated as we round the next unpredictable bend in the road.
I pull my camera back to my chest and pray the time counter is moving.
“Got it,” I say quickly playing the video back.
Compared to the informational drivel being fed to the other news cattle back at the command post, this is a masterpiece. It’s the journalistic equivalent of the Mona Lisa smile.
My photog leans over and watches the video as we crawl down the road.
It shows in grainy detail the intensity of the moment. The video shows the harsh conditions. The images show brothers sacrificing their own safety to arrest a mad man who killed one of their own.
“That’s awesome,” the chief photog says.
He’s right. Our station will use this 10 second shot over and over. In cold opens, in bump shots before commercials, as teases for the next news cast.
My video shot on my little phone is journalistic gold that will lead ABC WORLD NEWS. It will also surface on Good Morning America. When it airs this time, my name is printed in tiny letters giving me courtesy.
It’s odd, but a nice way to start my day.
I will tell stories unlike the stories of the other cattle reporters.
I will focus on the search and the conditions and the intrepid bravery of the men and women searching in dangerous conditions and pushing through the unknown.
My broadcast does not go unnoticed. For the next 2 days, officers, some of whom I do not know, will approach me, call out my name and tell me they appreciate me showing their point of view and what they are experiencing.
It makes me feel good. It’s the reason I got into journalism. I want to tell stories and help my community. I feel like today I am doing both.
This story will skyrocket across the national spectrum.
ABC News will send Alex Perez out of Chicago. He will rely heavily on the footage my photographers and I shot. I am not impressed.
Mark Strassmann from CBS News arrives on the second day of this growing manhunt for a cop killer. He approaches me in a gravel parking lot behind the sonic adjacent to the command post. I am here doing a story with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Chopper crew. They are flying non-stop missions providing back up for the boots on the ground.
I know these man and they are kind enough to shoot cell phone footage from the sky and inside the chopper and then text me that video.
It makes for a great story. It shows what conditions look like and it is the 1st aerials our station has since we do not own a news chopper.
Strassmann and his producer and his sound man and his camera man approach me. I laugh quietly as they near. It takes four guys at the Network to do what I can do by myself in a fraction of the time.
I’ve never been rude to national guys. I get it. They fly in and jet out. They don’t know anyone locally. They are the equivalent of door to door salesman waking up in a new calamity each day. It’s not an easy life, I’m sure.
Strassmann asks me what I’m doing. I tell him that Dickson doesn’t have a chopper crew and everyone else is pitching in to help. He likes that story and says thanks.
I watch as this quadrangle of arms and legs and lenses and sound poles walks toward the Captain of the chopper unit. I laugh inside. The Captain doesn’t even like interviewing with me, and I’ve known him for years. Now CBS Evening News is knocking on his door.
Friday, Day 3.
My alarm, a 6 year old Labrador wakes me with a lick on my hand.
I grab my phone hoping that there will be an email from the station that the killer was caught over night.
No suck luck.
I jump in the shower. As the water drips over my face, my eyes closed, I imagine what it will be like today. What will I do today. I’ve been into the zone, I’ve shown the search from the air. What can I do today, I wonder.
I also think about the police officers, 500 strong. What are they thinking today. They’ve been running around 24/7. These Boots on the ground are exhausted. Many think the killer is still in the hot zone, and that gives them incentive to hunt this lousy POS down. But many people also secretly think that he caught a ride and he’s in Mexico or Nashville or out of state.
I get out of the shower, and wrap myself in a towel. I pick up my phone and there is a text. It says: WE GOT HIM!
The way it started for me 3 days ago, so it ends. With a text message that is short and sweet. It is a lit fuse to a pile of TNT that will explode across the globe.
I open the text picture and gaze at its splendor. The image sings to my eyes like a visual choir rejoicing as sunshine from heaven slices through a dark storm cloud.
There on my little phone in brilliant color is the image of a murderous douche bag in custody in the back of a THP car. I feel a chill race up my spine. I look at the bearded killer. He is cut and dirty. His pants are ripped and his clothes covered with mud. He is pathetic and sweaty and doesn’t seem so scary suddenly.
I quickly text my source and ask a few important questions like where this happened and who caught him and did he say anything.
My source will tell me that search teams outlasted this POS. “He was out here living like an animal.” He will say the killer was lying on the side of the road when a trooper drove by and took him into custody.
“He just gave up. He was crying like a little bitch, wanting food and water,” my source says.
“We used boxing gloves,” he adds. I will later come to learn that nobody roughed up this cop killer as much as everyone wanted to put a bullet in his melon and save the tax payers the expense of a lengthy trial.
I quickly post the picture to Facebook with the caption: CAPTURED.
I want the picture on Facebook because I have a loyal following of news junkies who expect to learn of breaking news first. I also post it on Facebook so my station can grab images quickly. And then there is the matter of competiveness. Once it is on Facebook there is a universal time stamp that will prove that I broke this story before any other journalist in the whole world.
I call the station and tell them to check my facebook page for the photo. Within 5 minutes the morning anchor breaks in and my photo sent to me from a source 40 miles away is on the air.
AT THE SPEED OF NEWS.
Suddenly I am on the phone, wearing nothing but a towel doing a phoner from my bedroom. I am pacing back and forth, my TV on with the sound muted. I am talking about what I know and how the capture took place. I am recounting elements of the search and pointing out to viewers how horrific the conditions are.
I go to work and my boss fist bumps me. We have a long day ahead, but he knows we have lead the charge on this sad, but important story.
The producers begin to cluster around me like a gaggle of geese who have escaped from their pen.
They begin trying to tell me what I should focus on today.
I laugh, dismissing them.
“I’ll come up with something out there,” I say heading out the door. “I always do.”
The boss laughs and says “Go for it. Keep us posted.”
And with that, I’m off to the scene of the crime. Now there is purpose. Now there is hope. The arrest of this man means fear can stop and healing can start.