Gary Webb was born in Corona, California, in 1955. Webb worked for several newspapers including The Kentucky Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer. Webb became a staff reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in 1988.
An investigative journalist, Webb became interested in the covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. Webb created a great of controversy when in 1996 he wrote a series of articles claiming that supporters of a CIA-backed guerrilla army in Nicaragua helped trigger America's crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.
Three of the America's leading newspapers, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, followed up with reports questioning Webb's conclusions. The San Jose Mercury News came under considerable pressure for publishing these stories and in 1997 Webb left the newspaper. Webb published Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion in 1998.
Webb worked in the California Assembly Speaker's Office of Member Services and for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. In 2003 Webb began work for the Sacramento News and Review, a weekly publication.
Gary Webb was found dead at his home on 10th December, 2004. He had apparently committed suicide. Nick Schou, published to Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb in 2006. This book was later turned into the movie. Kill the Messenger (2014).
If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me. I'd been working at daily papers for seventeen years at that point, doing no-holds barred investigative reporting for the bulk of that time. As far as I could tell, the beneficial powers the press theoretically exercised in our society weren't theoretical in the least. They worked.
I wrote stories that accused people and institutions of illegal and unethical activities. The papers I worked for printed them, often unflinchingly, and many times gleefully. After these stories appeared, matters would improve. Crooked politicians got voted from office or were forcibly removed. Corrupt firms were exposed and fined. Sweetheart deals were rescinded, grand juries were impaneled, indictments came down, grafters were bundled off to the big house. Taxpayers saved money. The public interest was served.
It all happened exactly as my journalism-school professors had promised. And my expectations were pretty high. I went to journalism school while Watergate was unfolding, a time when people as distantly connected to newspapering as college professors were puffing out their chests and singing hymns to investigative reporting.
Bottom line: If there was ever a true believer, I was one. My first editor mockingly called me "Woodstein," after a pair of Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story. More than once I was accused of neglecting my daily reporting duties because I was off "running around with your trench coat flapping in the breeze." But in the end, all the sub rosa trench coat-flapping paid off. The newspaper published a seventeen-part series on organized crime in the American coal industry and won its first national journalism award in half a century. From then on, my editors at that the subsequent newspapers allowed me to work almost exclusively as an investigative reporter.
I had a grand total of one story spiked during my entire reporting career. That's it. One. (And in retrospect it wasn't a very important story either.) Moreover, I had a complete freedom to pick my own shots, a freedom my editors wholeheartedly encouraged since it relieved them of the burden of coming up with story ideas. I wrote my stories the way I wanted to write them, without anyone looking over my shoulder or steering me in a certain direction. After the lawyers and editors went over them and satisfied themselves that we had enough facts behind us to stay out of trouble, they printed them, usually on the front page of the Sunday edition, when we had our widest readership.
In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn't get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests.
So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as far as I could tell. It encouraged enterprise. It rewarded muckraking.
And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress.
In 1996, I wrote a series of stories, entitled Dark Alliance, that began this way: "For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods Street Gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found."
This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack" capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America -- and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a US backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting "gangstas" of Compton and South Central Los Angeles.
The three-day series was, at its heart, a short historical account of the rise and fall of a drug ring and its impact on black Los Angeles. It attempted to explain how shadowy intelligence agencies, shady drugs and arms dealers, a political scandal, and a long-simmering Latin American civil was had crossed paths in South Central Los Angeles, leaving behind a legacy of crack use. Most important, it challenged the widely held belief that crack use began in African American neighborhoods not for any tangible reason but mainly because of the kind of people who lived in them. Nobody was forcing them to smoke crack, the argument went, so they only have themselves to blame. They should just say no.
That argument never seemed to make much sense to me because drugs don't just appear magically on street corners in black neighborhoods. Even the most rabid hustler in the ghetto can't sell what he doesn't have. If anyone was responsible for the drug problems in a specific area. I thought, it was the people who were bringing the drugs in.
And so Dark Alliance was about them -- the three cocaine traffickers who supplied the South Central market with literally tons of pure cocaine from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. What made the series so controversial is that two of the traffickers I named were intimately involved with a Nicaraguan paramilitary group known as the Contras, a collection of ex-military men, Cuban exiles, and mercenaries that the CIA was using to destabilize the socialist government of Nicaragua. The series documented direct contact between the drug traffickers who were bringing the cocaine into South Central and the two Nicaraguan CIA agents who were administering the Contra project in Central America. The evidence included sworn testimony from one of the traffickers -- now a valued government informant -- that one of the CIA agents huddled in the kitchen of a house in San Francisco with one of the traffickers and had interviewed the photographer, who confirmed its authenticity. Pretty convincing stuff, we thought.
Over the course of three days, Dark Alliance advanced five main arguments: First, that the CIA-created Contras had been selling cocaine to finance their activities. This was something the CIA and the major media had dismissed or denied since the mid-1980s, when a few reporters first began writing about Contra drug dealing. Second, that the Contras had sold cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles and that their main customer was L.A.'s biggest crack dealer. Third, that elements of the US government knew about this drug ring's activities at the time and did little if anything to stop it. Fourth, that because of the time period and the areas in which it operated, this drug ring played a critical role in fueling and supplying the first mass crack cocaine market in the United States. And fifth, that the profits earned from this crack market allowed the Los Angeles-based Crips and bloods to expand into other cities and spread crack use to other black urban areas, turning a bad local problem into a bad national problem. This led to panicky federal drug laws that were locking up thousands of small-time, black crack dealers for years but never denting the crack trade.
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed contra rebels in Central America hobnobbed with drug-dealers, and the Agency and the Reagan administration, obsessed with ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, looked the other way. This is absolutely undeniable. In this past March, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general of the CIA, testified publicly to Congress that the CIA did not "cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who (were) alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking." Yet his startling admission received practically no notice from official Washington and the national media, which instead were consumed with details (real and imagined) of L'Affaire Monica.
But when the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 ran a three-part series exposing links between contra associates and the Los Angeles crack trade in the 1980s, the major media did pay attention; they assaulted the articles written by reporter Gary Webb. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each ran pieces critical of Webb's work. The Webb stories were hard to ignore, for they had ignited a firestorm. On black talk radio, hosts and callers decried a supposed conspiracy in which the CIA midwifed the birth of the crack industry. On Capital Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for investigation. The Mercury News web site, on which the series had been posted, received millions of hits. Webb had begat a national media event.
It had all begun in the summer of 1995, when Webb received a tip from the girlfriend of a drug dealer. Her honey was being tried, and a chief government witness against him was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who managed his own cocaine ring in California. In court proceedings, Blandon had claimed he had gotten into the coke business to raise money for the contras. Webb started investigating. He soon had evidence that Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses - a prominent contra supporter in California with an extensive criminal past in Nicaragua - had supplied cocaine to "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a pioneering crack kingpin.
The lead paragraph in the Webb series was a shocker: A Bay Area drug ring had "funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." Webb noted that the contras were in league with "Uzi-toting 'gangstas' of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles" and that the drug dealers "met with CIA agents" while raising money for the contras via drug sales. The articles implied that Blandon was directly wired to the CIA and that Blandon and Meneses had been protected from prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA.
Webb had a helluva story. But he botched parts of it. He produced little evidence that the Blandon-Meneses ring raised "millions" for the contras or that Blandon was linked to Langley. Consequently, newspapers that had neglected the contra-drug story in the 1980s now devoted much space to debunking Webb. Eventually, the editor of the Mercury News ran a column widely seen as a retraction, and Webb left the paper.
But Webb had committed a highly useful act. He had kicked open an old trunk and discovered it full of worms - real worms, ugly and nasty. He kept on investigating and produced a book that reflects the positives and negatives of the original series. In Dark Alliance, he fleshes out the drug operations of Blandon and Meneses, and he provides more evidence of their close association to the contras. (Meneses, for example, paid for early contra support events in California.) Webb also places this ring alongside other well-substantiated examples of contra-drug connections: a Honduran general convicted of selling cocaine to finance a murder plot who was supported by Oliver North and other Reagan officials; drug dealers winning U.S. government contracts to supply the contras; the National Security Council plotting with Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up strongman of Panama; the CIA interfering with a major drug prosecution that could reveal contra drug-dealing and embarrass the agency.
Webb reminds us that the Reagan-approved contra program attracted lowlifes and thugs the way manure draws flies. He guides the reader through a netherworld of dope-dealers, gunrunners, and freelance security consultants, which on occasion overlapped with the U.S. government. He entertainingly details the honor, dishonor and deals among thieves. (Sometimes the book reads like a hard-to-follow Russian novel, with a large cast of characters in a series of intricate episodes.) All in all, it's a disgraceful picture - one that should permanently taint the happy-face hues of the Reagan years.
Again Webb has trouble chasing the money and fails to thoroughly document how much dirty cash Blandon and Meneses steered to the contras. Was it as little as $80,000 or so, as CIA investigators claim Blandon told them? Or was it millions that were instrumental to the survival of the contras, as Webb implies but does not prove? Was Blandon's drug business originally set up as a cash-for-contras enterprise, as Webb depicts it? That's what Blandon has asserted. But there is evidence, as Webb notes, that Blandon may have been a drug entrepreneur years before he hooked up with Meneses. If so, that would cast doubt on his I-did-it-for-the-contras tale and make that claim sound more like an after-the-fact justification.
There are other problems with Webb's account. His threshold of proof is on the low side. In one instance, he passes on - seemingly with a straight face - the allegations of a drug dealer who claimed Vice President George Bush met with (and posed for a photo with) Colombian dealers to craft an agreement under which the traffickers could smuggle coke into America if they supplied weapons to the contras. And Webb is indiscriminating in his use of the term "CIA agent," making it appear as if Blandon and Meneses were dealing with James Bond-like officials of the CIA, when actually their contacts were Nicaraguan contras on the Agency payroll.
This may seem like hairsplitting. But it's important when evaluating the CIA's culpability. Webb demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with contras and contra supporters suspected of smuggling narcotics. But were Blandon and Meneses in cahoots with the Agency? The evidence only shows they were part of a dark community with which the CIA was merrily doing business. Another fuzzy point in the story is how Blandon and Meneses both ended up on the government payroll as snitches. Webb strongly hints this was due to their contra work.
But, again, the picture is too murky to come to any firm conclusions other than there was something funny about the government's relationship to this pair.
The book has flaws, but Webb deserves credit for pursuing an important piece of recent history and forcing the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate the contra-drug connection. Alas, the Justice Department has been sitting on its report for months. The CIA released one volume that maintained the Agency was not connected to Blandon and Meneses. But the report confirmed there had been a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the contras and that the CIA had ignored that. A second volume - one with a broader view of the contra-drug mess - is now being suppressed by the Agency.
With this book, Webb advances his newspaper series and supplies more muck to make a decent citizen cringe. While exploring this covert territory, Webb took a few wrong turns. But he succeeded in pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA's past into public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark.
He was the journalist who wrote a famous - or infamous - 1996 series for the San Jose Mercury News that maintained a CIA-supported drug ring based in Los Angeles had triggered the crack epidemic of the 1980s. On Friday, the 49-year-old Webb, who won a Pulitzer Prize for other work, apparently shot himself. His "Dark Alliances" articles spurred outrage and controversy. Leaders of the African-American community demanded investigations. Mainstream newspapers - including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times - questioned his findings. And nearly a year after the pieces appeared, the Mercury News published a criticism of the series; Webb was demoted and soon left the newspaper. Two years later, he published a book based on the series.
Webb's tale is a sad one. He was on to something but botched part of how he handled it. He then was blasted and ostracized. He was wrong on some important details but he was, in a way, closer to the truth than many of his establishment media critics who neglected the story of the real CIA-contra-cocaine connection. In 1998, a CIA inspector general's report acknowledged that the CIA had indeed worked with suspected drugrunners while supporting the contras. A Senator named John Kerry had investigated these links years earlier, and the media had mostly ignored his findings. After Webb published his articles, the media spent more time crushing Webb than pursuing the full story. It is only because of Webb's work - as flawed as it was - that the CIA IG inquiry happened. So, then, it is only because of Webb that US citizens have confirmation from the CIA that it partnered up with suspected drug traffickers in the just-say-no years and that the Reagan Administration, consumed with a desire to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, allied itself with drug thugs.
As the news of Webb's death circulated across the Internet, some of his fans took the opportunity to demand that I issue a posthumous apology to him. Why? Because I had been critical of his series and book. But my criticism was different from that of the mainstream press. I maintained he had overstated the case and had not proven his more cinematic allegations. But I also credited him for forcing the issue and prodding the CIA to come clean. No one at the Times (New York or Los Angeles) or the Post managed to do that. And though there were problems with Webb's work, it is a pity that he was so brutally hounded.
His death is a dark end to a dark story.
I am stunned and pained with the loss of Gary Webb. Gary was a friend and one of the finest investigative journalists that our country has ever seen. The Dark Alliance series was one of the most profound pieces of journalism I have ever witnessed. Garys work was not only in depth, revealing and confrontational but it single handedly created discussion and debate about the proliferation of crack cocaine and the role of the CIA.
Unfortunately, the major news papers attempted to silence him by undermining his personal character and his professional integrity. Through his diligence, he has brought to the attention of the American public the failed policies of the CIA and the drug war.
I spent two years working with Gary following his revelations and I am convinced that his work was factual and well documented. Unfortunately, as stated before, the attack on Gary Webb by major media outlets such as the LA Times, Washington Post and the New York Times were devastating and destructive.
It is interesting that at the time that he uncovered and exposed the deficiencies of the CIA, he was attacked as rogue. It is only recently as an unintended bi-product of the war on terror that the rampant problems and mismanagement of the CIA have come to light.
When he pointed out the numerous red flags concerning the CIA including their turning of a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from Nicaragua during the conflict between the contras and the Sandinistas, he was painted as the enemy.
Gary Webb is a journalist of courage and I truly believe that the latest revelations about the intelligence communities failures have vindicated him.
I will miss him and in his memory I can only hope that rather than silencing, we as a country will cultivate and encourage courageous truth seeking journalists like Gary Webb, Congresswoman Maxine Waters said.
In this weekend's mainstream media reports on Gary Webb's death, it's no surprise that a key point has been overlooked - that the CIA's internal investigation sparked by the Webb series and resulting furor contained startling admissions. CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz reported in October 1998 that the CIA indeed had knowledge of the allegations linking many Contras and Contra associates to cocaine trafficking, that Contra leaders were arranging drug connections from the beginning and that a CIA informant told the agency about the activity.
When Webb stumbled onto the Contra-cocaine story, he couldn't have imagined the fury with which big-foot reporters from national dailies would come at him - a barrage that ultimately drove him out of mainstream journalism. But he fought back with courage and dignity, writing a book (Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion) with his side of the story and insisting that facts matter more than established power or ideology. He deserves to be remembered in the proud tradition of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, George Seldes and I.F. Stone.
In this era of "embedded reporters," an unembedded journalist like Gary Webb will be sorely missed.
Last Friday morning, December 10, 2004, three strong men walked up to the door at 2016 Clearfield Way in Carmichael, California. They were employees of A Better Moving Company and they were arriving to move the resident's belongings into storage. The company's estimator, Steve, had talked with the homeowner recently and he had felt that the man seemed saddened or depressed. The homeowner had just sold the home for $321,750 and said that he would be moving in with his grandmother who lived nearby. When the men arrived at the door they found a handwritten note attached to the surface that read, "Please do not come in. Dial 911 and ask for an ambulance."
The men instinctively took a step back in unison and then rapidly returned to their truck and notified authorities. The time of their call was 8:35 a.m. Paramedics and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department arrived at 9:15 a.m. and entered the home. The firemen went to one of the back rooms while one of the macho moving men followed them. He stopped abruptly when he spied two feet on the floor. As he was turning around a fireman addressed him saying, "Go back out. You don't want to see this."
The man rejoined his comrades outside and they waited until they were told that they would not be needed that day. The homeowner was dead from two gunshot wounds to his head. They left and returned to their office. Big, strong men thoroughly shaken whose boss gave them the rest of the day off.
At 3:55 p.m. Friday afternoon Sacramento Coroner's Investigator Dave Brown determined that the dead man had committed suicide with a hand gun. Dave Brown said that the first wound was not fatal and a second shot took the man's life. Dave Brown further stated, "There is no other possibility but suicide." Spokesmen for the investigative units of three different sheriff's departments contacted stated that suicides seen with two shots to the head inflicted by a hand gun are extremely rare. Each man interviewed also said that they have heard of such cases but had never personally seen one.
With the determination of suicide the coroner's office announced that the victim was 49-year-old investigative reporter Gary Webb.
The Sacramento Coroner's Office and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department were ill prepared for the inundation of phone calls that followed the announcement of Webb's death. Few associated with the 911 response and the subsequent investigation realized that Gary Webb was the reporter who had exposed the CIA's connection to the crack cocaine explosion when he published the 1996 series entitled Dark Alliance. The San Jose Mercury News that published Webb's three-day series would later boast that "it had published the first interactive expose in the history of American journalism." In other words, the 49-year-old deceased male found in the home in Carmichael was not just another reporter. He was THE investigative reporter of the 20th century; the first writer to link cyberspace to the printed word thereby providing his readers instant access to all the documentation that supported his story. While all the major newspapers ignored Webb's expose Dark Alliance took on a life of its own on the Internet. Subsequently, the fame of the Internet series forced the major newspapers to attack the reporter and eventually his own newspaper backed away from its support of Webb's series. Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos cowtowed to the big three, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and apologized for "shortcomings" in the series, not long after he had written that four Post reporters assigned to discredit the series "could not find a single significant error."
When the big story arrives, Susan Bell recalls her late husband saying, "it will be like a bullet with your name on it. You won't even hear it coming." It was a remark that Gary Webb overheard early in his career, from an older reporter, and would repeat, ironically, to the point that the phrase "It's the Big One" became a standing joke on his news desk. And yet for Webb, the idea that a journalist could be killed by his own story turned out to be no laughing matter. The only difference in Gary Webb's case was that his life was ended not by one bullet, but two.
We are in the living room of Bell's house just outside Sacramento, California. A perceptive, engaging woman of 48, she has turned an adjoining study into a small shrine to her late husband, who would have celebrated his 50th birthday five weeks ago. The room is decorated with his trophies: a Pulitzer prize hangs next to his HL Mencken award; also on the wall is a framed advertisement for The Kentucky Post. It reads: "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way." When Webb's body was discovered last December, Bell says, this last item had been dumped in the trash.
Webb, one of the boldest and most outstanding reporters of his generation, was the journalist who, in 1996, established the connection between the CIA and major drug dealers in Los Angeles, some of whose profits had been channelled to fund the Contra guerrilla movement in Nicaragua. The link between drug-running and the Reagan regime's support for the right-wing terrorist group throughout the 1980s had been public knowledge for over a decade. What was new about Webb's reports, published under the title "Dark Alliance" in the Californian paper the San Jose Mercury News, was that for the first time it brought the story back home. Webb's pieces were not dealing with nameless peasants slaughtered in some distant republic, but demonstrated a clear link between the CIA and the suppliers of the gangs delivering crack to the ghetto of Watts, in South Central Los Angeles.
His series of articles - which prompted the distinguished reporter and former Newsweek Washington correspondent Robert Parry to describe Webb as "an American hero" - incited fury among the African-American community, many of whom took his investigation as proof that the White House saw crack as a way of bringing genocide to the ghetto. Webb's reports prompted three official investigations, including one by the CIA itself which - astonishingly for an organisation rarely praised for its transparency - confirmed the substance of his findings (published at length in Webb's 1998 book, also entitled Dark Alliance). "Because of Gary Webb's work," said Senator John Kerry, "the CIA launched an investigation that found dozens of connections to drug runners. That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been willing to stand up and risk it all."
This emotive last phrase refers to Webb's experience in the immediate aftermath of publication of his three lengthy articles, in the summer of 1996. The Mercury News reporter came under sustained attack from the weightier US newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and, especially, the Los Angeles Times, infuriated at being scooped, on its own patch, by what it saw as a small-town paper.
When Webb pressed the Mercury News to allow him to investigate the LA connection further, his own newspaper issued a retraction which earned its editor, Jerry Ceppos, wide praise from rival publications, but effectively disowned Webb, who then suffered the kind of corporate lynching that reporters are usually expected to dispense rather than endure.
By 1997, Bell tells me, Webb - whose 30-year career had earned him more awards than there is room for in her study - had been reassigned to the Mercury News's office in Cupertino.
"They had him writing obituaries," she said. "The first story he had to file was about a police horse which had died of constipation."
Webb, whose plans to become a journalist had begun when he was 13, but never included equine death notices, resigned from the Mercury News a few months later. Depressed, he became increasingly unpredictable in his behaviour and embarked on a series of affairs; he was divorced from Bell in 2000, though he remained close to her throughout his life and lived in a house in nearby Carmichael. Unable to get work from any major US newspaper, he spent the four months before his death writing for * a free-sheet covering the Sacramento area. To pay off his mounting debts, Webb sold the Carmichael property, where he was living alone, and arranged to move in with his mother.
When removal men arrived, on the morning of 10 December 2004, they found a sign on his front door, which read: ''Please do not enter. Call 911 for assistance. Thank you." Webb's corpse was found in the bedroom, with two gunshot wounds to the head.
When I first heard the news, I tell Bell, I was inclined to believe the conspiracy theories that still proliferate on the internet, suggesting that Webb had been assassinated - either by one of the drug dealers he'd met while writing Dark Alliance, or by the intelligence services who were supposed to police them.
She shakes her head.
"Looking back," she says, "I think Gary had been obsessed with suicide for some time. And when he got something in his head, he was determined to do it. That was just the way he was."
Webb, Bell explains, had written four letters explaining what he was about to do - one to her, one to each of their three children - and mailed them immediately before he killed himself."Why were there two bullet wounds?"His former wife, her voice lowered to a whisper, explains that Webb missed with the first shot (which exited through his left cheek)."The second bullet," adds Bell, who has worked for more than 20 years in the area of respiratory therapy, "struck his carotid artery."
"After Gary died," she says, "a reporter from the LA Times came here. I felt weak and distressed; the whole thing was so fresh. She kept crying about how terrible it all was - by which I mean that she was, physically, crying. The story they printed was just awful. I felt she really trashed me. She said the paper wanted to make up for what it had done in the past. As it turned out," she adds, "that was not their intent."
After days of unrelenting winter rain from a powerful Pacific storm, the clouds moved east and the skies cleared above the Sacramento valley. The snowcapped peaks of the western range of the Sierra Nevada glowed pink in the glinting early morning sun. On days like this, Gary Webb normally would have taken the day off to ride his motorcycle into the mountains.
Although it was a Friday morning, Webb didn't need to call in sick. In fact, he hadn't been to work in weeks. When his ex-wife garnished his wages, seeking child support for their three kids, Webb asked for an indefinite leave from the small weekly alternative paper in Sacramento where he had been working the past four months. He told his boss he could no longer afford the $2,000 mortgage on his house in Carmichael, a suburb 20 miles east of the state capital.
There was no time for riding. Today, December 10, 2004, Webb was going to move in with his mother. It wasn't his first choice. First, he asked his ex-girlfriend if he could share her apartment. The two had dated for several months and continued to live together until their lease expired a year earlier, when Webb had bought his new house. They had remained friends, and at first she had said yes, but she changed her mind at the last minute, not wanting to lead him on in the hope that they'd rekindle a romance. Desperate, Webb asked his ex-wife, Sue, if he could live with her until he regained his financial footing. She refused.
"I don't feel comfortable with that," she said.
Sue recalls that her ex-husband's words seemed painfully drawn out.
"I don't know if I can do that," she said. "Your mother will let you move in. You don't have any other choice."
Besides losing his house, Webb had also lost his motorcycle. The day before he was to move, it had broken down as he was riding to his mother's house in a nearby retirement community. After spotting Webb pushing the bike off the road, a helpful young man with a goatee and a spider-web tattoo on his elbow had given him a lift home. Webb arranged to get a pickup truck, but when he went back to retrieve his bike, it had disappeared.
That night, Webb spent hours at his mother's house. At her urging, he typed up a description of the suspected thief. But Webb didn't see much point in filing a police report. He doubted he'd ever see his bike again. He had been depressed for months, but the loss of his bike seemed to push him over the edge. He told his mother he had no idea how he was going to ever make enough money to pay child support and pay rent or buy a new home.
Although he had a paying job in journalism, Webb knew that only a reporting gig with a major newspaper would give him the paycheck he needed to stay out of debt. But after sending out 50 résumés to daily newspapers around the country, nobody had called for an interview. His current job couldn't pay the bills, and the thought of moving in with his mother, at age 49, was more than his pride would allow.
"What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" he asked. "All I want to do is write."
It was 8 p.m. by the time Webb left his mother's house. She offered to cook him a dinner of bacon and eggs, but Webb declined, saying he had to go home. There were other things he had to do. She kissed him goodbye and told him to come back the next day with a smile on his face. "Things will be better," she said. "You don't have to pay anything to stay here. You'll get back on your feet."
The next morning, Anita Webb called her son to remind him to file a police report for the stolen bike. His phone rang and rang. She didn't bother leaving a message, figuring the movers already had arrived. They had. It's possible they heard the phone ringing. As they approached his house, they noticed a note stuck to his front door.
"Please do not enter," it warned. "Call 911 for an ambulance. Thank you."
When her son failed answer the phone for more than an hour, Anita Webb began to panic. Finally, she let the answering machine pick up. "Gary, make sure you file a police report," she said. Before she could finish, the machine beeped and an unfamiliar voice began to speak: "Are you calling about the man who lives here?"
It is normally the policy of the Sacramento County Coroner's office not to answer the telephone at the scene of a death, but apparently the phrase "police report" startled the coroner into breaking that rule. At some point early that morning, Gary Webb had committed suicide.
The coroners found his body in a pool of blood on his bed, his hands still gripping his father's 38-caliber pistol. On his nightstand were his Social Security card - apparently intended to make it easier for his body to be identified - a cremation card and a suicide note, the contents of which have never been revealed by his family. The house was filled with packed boxes. Only his turntable, DVD player and TV were unpacked.
In the hours before he shot himself in the head, Webb had listened to his favorite album, Ian Hunter Live, and had watched his favorite movie, the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In a trash can was a poster Webb had saved from his first journalism job with the Kentucky Post. The poster was an open letter to readers from Vance Trimble, Webb's first editor. Decades earlier, Webb had clipped it from the pages of the paper. Although he had always admired its message, something about it must have been too much to bear in his final moments. Trimble had written that, unlike some newspapers, the Post would never kill a story under pressure from powerful interests. "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way," his letter stated.