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  • Writer's pictureLynn Bohart

INTERVIEW WITH GARY LARSON: Retired Crime Beat Reporter

BIOGRAPHY


Gary is a lifelong resident of Washington state and developed a love of writing in high school. Searching for ways to pursue his passion without dying of starvation, Larson enrolled in a journalism program at the University of Washington. He landed his first newspaper job in Everett, where he covered the police beat and other assignments.


After several years, he moved to a Tacoma newspaper, where he had to overcome an unfortunate coincidence involving his name. His newspaper ran the “Far Side” comic penned by the ‘other’ Gary Larson. Gary once had the humbling experience of being invited to deliver a high school commencement address when it became clear he’d been confused with the “real” Gary Larson.


After leaving the newspaper business, Larson tried true crime writing, an experience that proved personally and financially rewarding. He then turned his writing skills loose on the state capital, where he performed communications work for several state agencies. Gary is now retired and recently completed the first draft of a mystery novel, a requirement, he believes, of all retired police reporters.



LYNN: What was it like to be a crime beat reporter? Is that even what you call it?


GARY: At most news outlets, it’s called the police beat, or just “cops,” but that title covers a lot of ground. I also wrote countless stories on fires, floods, plane crashes and fatal car accidents. On those rare days when things were quiet, I might switch over to “general assignment,” which meant that I could be assigned any story—from a light feature about a summer program for kids, to a heavyweight city council issue that I knew almost nothing about. But the good news (or the bad, depending on your viewpoint) was that every day was a little different. Unlike most government reporting, which is fairly predictable, you never know what’s going to happen on the police beat.


For example, one morning I learned that I was about to hitch a ride on an Air Force cargo plane carrying local Army troops to fight a raging forest fire in Yellowstone National Park. After landing in Montana, a photographer and I rented a car and drove to the park, nearly hitting a panicked moose in the dark and then getting lost in the smoke near Old Faithful. That day may not have been typical, but you get the idea. 


LYNN: Where did you dig up most of your information for stories?


GARY: The best information almost always came from people directly involved with the victims in some way. That meant, for example, interviewing the adult children of a beloved elderly couple murdered in their home during a residential burglary. Or the family of a scared teen-age girl who committed suicide with her parents’ gun after getting caught shop lifting a couple of candy bars. Intruding on the lives of people who have just experienced the worst day of their lives is hard. I never pressed people if they didn’t want to talk. But it always surprised me how many people did want to talk. They wanted their loved ones to be remembered as something more than a crime statistic or a name on a murder charge.


One other thing about interviewing friends and relatives of murder victims. It can put reporters at odds with police, who want to control the information about a case that becomes public knowledge. In some situations, that’s totally legitimate. In others, maybe not so much. 


LYNN: You covered Ted Bundy’s execution. What was that like?


GARY: For those who may not remember, Ted Bundy was the infamous serial killer who was executed in Florida in 1989 for the 1978 murders of two Florida State University students and a 12-year-old girl. Before he died, Bundy confessed to killing or savagely attacking scores of other women in Washington and other states.


I didn’t witness Bundy’s execution in the Florida electric chair—that task was limited to Florida news media only. But I was present outside the prison, and that  experience was memorable enough. TV news vans and dozens of reporters from around the country gathered in a farm field across from the state prison to await the execution and listen to official press updates. We were joined by scores of college-age partyers who seemed determined to turn the somber affair into a big party. The festive atmosphere continued all night until, a little after the chilly dawn of January 24,1989, an execution witness appeared at a prison doorway and waved. It was the signal that Bundy’s execution had been accomplished. My story reported that the revelers raised frying pans in the air and sang Bundy a farewell tune.      


LYNN: If I were interviewing you as a reporter to get background information for a book I’m writing, is there anything I should know going in?


GARY: This is going to sound picky, but I’ll say it anyway. Notice that I don’t refer to my journalism work product as “articles.” They’re “stories,” or perhaps “pieces” if they happen to involve some degree of special effort. Who cares, you ask? Well, to me, it says something important about the way many reporters and editors view themselves. Their objective is to convey the daily dramas of human life in a somewhat literary, storytelling fashion, as opposed to merely reciting a bland set of bare facts.


LYNN: Charles Rodham Campbell was a monster. Tell us what it was like to cover a story like that.


GARY: Charles Rodman Campbell killed a mother, her 8-year-old daughter, and their neighbor in the unincorporated community of Clearview in 1982. Sad to say, what I remember most about that case today isn’t the monstrous nature of the crimes (they certainly were) but the intense competition that existed among newspapers and broadcast stations to “scoop” each other on the story.


As luck would have it, I had recently been reassigned from the police beat and was succeeded by a talented young reporter with limited experience on high-profile murder cases. That put our paper at a distinct disadvantage vis a vis the competition. Not that it should have mattered all that much, looking back on it now. But for me, it was an example of how the competitive nature of the news business sometimes overshadows the tragedy in the story itself.  


There was a coda to the Campbell story for me years later, while I was working in Tacoma. As the only reporter on that staff with personal knowledge of the Clearview community, I was assigned to write a “reaction piece” from a small café in Clearview the night Campbell went to the gallows at the Washington State Penitentiary.


All in all, it’s not a story I remember with any fondness.   


LYNN: As a writer of fiction yourself, what do mystery writers often get wrong about murder cases, how police operate, and how the press contributes to the public’s knowledge of the case?


GARY: I think mystery writers should be a little careful about how they portray relationships between fictional police and the private investigators, reporters and amateur sleuths who fill out their casts of characters. In my experience, cops usually dealt with reporters cautiously. Burn a cop once, and you probably burned that cop for life. And maybe that’s as it should be. A detective’ job is to investigate crimes and bring the guilty to justice. Journalists not only report those successes, but also when things go seriously wrong. Maybe that’s a difference that mystery writers should think more about as they create these fictional relationships. 


For me, things always went the best when the police and the press had a minimum of mutual trust and saw some value in cooperation, if only on a case-by-case basis. Early in my journalism career, I and another reporter were granted access to the unedited investigative files of unsolved Seattle murder cases going back to the start of the 20th Century. My colleague and I couldn’t believe our good fortune. The Seattle homicide commander who authorized the viewing probably figured they had nothing to lose, and a series of stories on those old files might just lead to a breakthrough or an arrest (this was years before DNA became an even more effective tool for solving long-dormant cases).      

 

What came of that? In other words, after reviewing those files, did you do stories on any of those files? If so, which one stands out?   


BONUS QUESTION:

 

LYNN: What did you learn from the cold case file? Anything pertinent to the cases themselves?

 

GARY: Hey, you're testing my memory, Lynn. This project was thousands of column-inches ago. But yes, we did produce a series that ran for a week or more (our boss would have been flabbergasted if we'd spent days doing the research and then had nothing to show for it).

 

Like most reporters, I kept "tear sheets" of the stories in case I needed them to show as writing samples. But the expiration date for that purpose passed long ago, so I no longer have copies to refresh my memory about the cases I found most interesting. I don't recall any major breakthroughs resulting from the series.

 

A few recollections do come back, though. I remember that the unsolved case files were stored in a kind of walk-in safe in the detectives' office. I remember the yellowed and crumbling paper on which the older reports were typed, and the harsh black-and-white crime-scene photos included in some files. Even the evidence of changing typewriters used over time seemed interesting to me.

 

One other thing I remember--the very brief reports on transients and other undesirables killed in the early days. "Unidentified male, about 30, shot dead in alley" was about the extent of the investigative work indicated.        

   

LYNN: That’s sad about the deaths of transients and the homeless and how they were treated. As you know, in my most recent book No Place Like Home For a Murder, I focus on the homeless population and the concept that they are ‘throw aways.’


Thank you so much, Gary. You’ve given us a snippet of what it must be like to not only work within the competitive world of journalism but what it was like to cover crimes against humanity.

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