Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Death of a News Crew

Like everyone else, I  reacted with horror at the deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, the journalists who were gunned down on live TV in Roanoke, VA. It is another senseless episode of gun violence that will have us questioning (again) the role of guns in our society.

But Alison and Adam's murder struck a much deeper chord with me. I, too, have been part of a news team that had to cover the murder of one of their own.


Fast Friends

In 1987, I was a reporter with the Journal Inquirer, then the third largest newspaper in Connecticut. A new reporter had just joined the staff. Her name was Kara Laczynski. Like Alison, she was 24 and at the beginning of a promising news career. Kara was bright, beautiful, and talented. We quickly became friends and then neighbors when she rented an apartment in the building next door to mine in Hartford, CT.

That October, she had planned a weekend away in Philadelphia, where she was meeting up with friends from her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. She had been looking forward to the trip for a while. My last glimpse of her was in the newsroom, when she turned to wave goodbye to me and promised to tell me of her weekend's adventures.

A Tragic Day

That Monday morning, she wasn't at her desk and hadn't called in sick, very uncharacteristic of this dedicated, hard-working professional. After being unable to reach her, her editor - knowing we were neighbors - asked me to check on her. My fear was that she was ill and needed help.

When I got to her building, I saw her car parked in the lot. I called her phone, rang her bell. No answer. I then called the property manager and relayed my concerns. She sent over a member of the maintenance crew to unlock the door.

He and I had the horror of discovering Kara's naked, lifeless body sprawled on the floor of her living room. Her hands were bound, and a belt around her neck strangled the life out of this beautiful woman. Strangers gained access to her apartment. Her death was likely the result of a sexual assault gone wrong.

The next days, months, and years passed by with a blur. An investigation resulted in arrests in Kara's murder, but the case became bogged down in a racial, cultural, and political morass. Some say Kara's murder marked a tipping point for Hartford, damaging its reputation and sending it into a tailspin. Mistrials were declared, and no one was ever convicted of murdering my friend. The justice system let her down, and it let me down.

Aftermath

It is difficult to gather news when you are part of the story. "I feel like this happened to my little sister," one reporter covering the case remarked. Another - a seasoned crime and court reporter - struggled with his emotions when the crime scene and autopsy photographs were entered into evidence. I interviewed Kara's father for a piece, still one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

My thoughts and prayers are with the WDBJ7 team. These next days and weeks will be dark ones. They are coping with the sudden, tragic, and very public loss of people they cared about. There are still stories to be written and broadcast about Alison and Adam. It is difficult to properly mourn when the cameras are on you. The apparent suicide of the suspected shooter will spare them a lengthy investigation and trial. But this won't be easy. They will never get over it.

The effects of a murder are long and far-reaching. Alison and Adam's coworkers will likely have sleepless nights and other emotional repercussions. They may spend years looking over their shoulders every time they are out in the street. They may relive those terrible last moments of their colleagues' lives,
made worse by the fact that the incident was on live television. The news business is a transient one, and those working for the station will likely move on to other jobs. But they will all have this one important and horrible day in common for the rest of their lives.

Finding Peace

I hope they will be like me - able to make peace with tragedy. At first I agonized over what Kara had to go through as she died. Her memory brought pain. I had trouble listening to the music of U2, her favorite band. I had a lot of what-ifs in my head.

But after nearly 30 years, her memory brings a smile to my face. I remember her beautiful broad smile, curly black hair, and sparkling brown eyes. I remember her intelligence and humor and the way she valued learning. I remember that she loved journalism because she wanted to stand up for the underdogs in life. What I remember now is the vibrancy of her life.

But even after so many years, I still have difficulty talking about this period in my life.

 To all those who are grieving this day,. I wish you peace.