PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh police are investigating a body found dead in Bloomfield this morning. The body was found in Friendship Park after a passerby called police around 7:30 a.m.
The incident is under investigation.
Most people don’t know how many phone calls it takes to write those three lines. I sat at a desk inside the Post-Gazette office, calling the coroner, calling Zone 5 police, then Zone 2, then Zone 5 again because nobody would take claim over Bloomfield.
Then, Jim, one of the other reporters at the PG, told me to call the West Penn Hospital. They have a nursing school right next to the park. Maybe someone there saw something.
Finally I called the emergency dispatch office and asked to speak to a supervisor. I don’t remember if the supervisor was male or female. This was six weeks into my internship at the paper and all of my days, all of my reporting, have blended together. Attempted kidnappings, car crashes, car chases, suicides and homicides… I’ve written so many of these, they’ve all become one. I took notes on everything. I kept track of who I called, when I called, and when to call back. Those notes are the only evidence I have that all of these catastrophes didn’t happen on the same day.
I found the work of a breaking news reporter boring. I spent most of my mornings screening other news websites to uncover anything worth chasing. Most of my days, I was anchored to a desk. Tied to the phone by a headset that clamped over my head like a grappling hook. Fingers typing and retyping notes of a world out there, while I sat in “here.”
First thing every morning, I called the Allegheny Medical Examiner’s office and asked, “Any new bodies?”
Most of the time they told me no. Even if later I found out the answer was really yes.
I expected coming to the Post-Gazette to write features. I had expectations of flexing my prose and carving out beautiful pieces. I wanted to dig out the untold lives of Pittsburghers, to flesh out the living characters of our city. From the skateboard enthusiast to the college professor. I wanted to travel the hilly neighborhoods. To ride the roads through the shaded valleys. To find those secret places no one else had yet revealed.
I didn’t get so lucky.
But I blame myself for that. I had scheduled all of my Pitt classes in the evening, leaving me available for the Post-Gazette in the early morning. Breaking news was the best fit for that timeslot.
With breaking news, my desk was my Pittsburgh. There was nothing charming or adventurous about it. I did my reporting through a landline and a computer screen. But worse than that, I typed up stories the way you might fill an equation. It was formulaic. It was stiff. It was the type of writing that made me question whether a real, breathing human being had composed those sentences. There was nothing in my articles that made me recognize myself in the writing.
Unfortunately, that was the point.
I wrote for the public. I was the objective, invisible narrator.
Or so, I had to be.
So the morning of the body in Friendship, after several hours of calling and recalling police stations, all I had were those three lonely lines.
The incident is still under investigation.
That line was just as true for me as it was for police.
So when my editor Lilly came over to ask if I wanted to go to Friendship Park, I jumped up from the chair and grabbed my bag. I drove out to Bloomfield with more expectations. I figured I would talk to police there or at least catch a glimpse of what happened.
The park was empty.
No police or sirens or bodies or story. Just pedestrians walking around the long, oval stretch of grass surrounded by trees, surrounded by buildings. There was an aftertaste of death in the breeze, but only because I knew something had happened here. I found a police officer standing by one of the buildings and asked him where everybody had gone.
“You missed them. They left about an hour ago.”
I called in the office, and they told me to return.
I wanted to leave the story behind, pretend it didn’t happen. Not because of the death, but because this was a nameless body in a story that likely nobody would pay attention to. Why struggle through more phone calls and the frustration of more police deflecting my questions?
But I was wrong. People did care. And it was always more than a handful of people who paid attention when a story broke.
A woman named Val emailed me just after noon asking us to do whatever we could to follow up on those three lines. She expressed her frustrations of stories in the past that remained unsolved for the reader. She shared her fears of not knowing how this man died. Was it simply a suicide, or was there a killer in her little neighborhood of Friendship?
“Do I run past him on my afternoon runs? Am I in danger of bumping into him when I walk to work in the morning?” she wrote.
It was this email that motivated me to find out what happened. I realized at that point this was who I was writing for. It wasn’t that I didn’t know this before, but in this moment it became evermore clear. Readers weren’t simply my audience. They were the purpose for news. I wasn’t doing this job for my own pleasure of writing, but for the people of Pittsburgh. It gave me a little bit of the drive I needed receiving that email, and I attacked the phones once again.
Finally I got hold of a Zone 5 police station supervisor. The story unfolded as we spoke. I typed whatever answers he gave me.
He told me a passerby was walking around the park that morning when he saw the body of a man lying on the grass. I pictured the dead man face down, but that was only my own imagination trying to fill in the details. When police arrived, they met at the scene with medics and found a gunshot wound under the man’s chin. A black revolver lay in his armpit.
“Do you have an ID?” I asked.
“Let me see. Let me look at my notes.”
“Take your time.”
I breathed in the silence.
“Ryan P. Stokes. Thirty-four.”
“Can you spell that please?” I asked, and he did.
He also told me how, earlier that morning, police had received a phone call from a worried girlfriend asking them to check on his wellbeing. In his apartment, they found a suicide note with his identification. He gave me the apartment address. The weapon he used to kill himself was a .38 caliber revolver. He also told me that a witness saw Ryan pacing back and forth in the park around 3 a.m. wearing a backpack.
I pictured him murmuring to himself as he contemplated taking his life. As he reviewed his memories and weighed his options. Maybe his fists clenched as he paced. Maybe he prayed for somebody to stop him. Maybe he thought of his girlfriend and family and almost didn’t. But those aren’t verified facts.
I added the confirmed details into the story. The suicide note. The girlfriend calling for his wellbeing. The street and block number to his apartment. The pacing at 3 a.m. I attributed everything to, “according to police.”
I turned the story over to my editors who posted it online within minutes.
Then I emailed Val back to tell her there was nothing to worry about. No killer was running loose in her neighborhood. Mr. Stokes had committed suicide.
She thanked me.
I had served the public. I had done my duty as a reporter. But my sense of achievement disappeared the next morning when I came into the office and checked my email.
The subject line read, “My Family Member” from a Kristen B.
“Your information is very wrong,” she said. “You don’t know the story nor is it anyone elses business. Where the fuck do you get off giving his address out?? You have no say so in what went on in that poor mans life. You need to get your facts straight.”
She signed the letter, “From, Ryan’s Family.”
Her email hit me in the chest. I sat there staring off into the office filled with demi-cubicles and stacks of old newspapers dispersed across various desks. That email. I felt bad. But more than that, I felt for Kristen and for Ryan. Suddenly I saw the story from her eyes. She might have been his girlfriend or his cousin or his sister. And she had lost him, and he had been suffering. Really suffering.
Where was my line between serving the public and respecting personal privacy?
I prayed to God for Him to comfort her. I also prayed for the right words to respond. Up until now, I had viewed every breaking news story through the viewfinder of my cubicle. I had been so distant from it all. In my mind, the dates had become blurred, and the human impact had been pushed off into a corner with a stick. Everything had just become one big rubber ball of news clumped together. With each new story, add another rubber band.
But these stories were about lives and about people. Some of them stretched from the sad to the absurd.
A 15-year-old girl was almost abducted. A man was shot in McDonald. A woman hit a tree and flipped her car upside down. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. She died. A 15-year-old boy branded another 15-year-old with several hot objects, including a heart-shaped cookie cutter, a crucifix and a fork. An Arizona man was held hostage naked for several days, hogtied with duct tape by a group of men who thought he’d stolen their drugs. A pedestrian was hit by a car. A man was found sitting on a chair between two houses in McKeesport with a gunshot wound to the head. Two fires broke out on the same day, one at the Clairton Coke Works and another at the Pitt Penn Oil Company. A wanted fugitive was found in a closet. An eighty-one-year-old woman was hit by a car, flipped in the air and sat up on the road, conscious. A man leaned over to kiss his fiancé while driving a Dodge pick-up, causing him to swerve into the other lane and crash head-on with a Pontiac with a father and two children. The name of the kisser was Brian Shaffer, the same name of a student in my fiction class, and apparently the same name of a missing man from Columbus, Ohio.
Up until now – up until Val’s and Kristen’s emails – I’d never felt a thing for those stories. I typed them up and sent them in. I never felt sympathy, or remorse, or pain, or loss, or cringing. Not until Kristen told me I had no business into Ryan’s life did my gut cave in.
Only then did I think, “Oh.”
Only then did I touch the life behind the words. Only then did I let it touch me.
I wrote Kristen back an email expressing my condolences. I tried to explain that in fact, there was something human behind the reporter breaking a story, breaking a heart. I explained to her our responsibility to the public, especially since Ryan had committed suicide in a public place. Had it been private, had it been inside his own apartment, the story might have remained there. Safe. But not any less painful.
I told her how sorry I was for her loss.
But none of this really settled in for long. It didn’t take long for another story to break. A man was inside his house with a gun. A possible hostage situation with a wife and two kids inside. Pittsburgh SWAT was on the scene.
My editor asked me if I wanted to go out and cover it.
I didn’t hesitate.
“I’m on it,” I said, and after borrowing a camera from a photo editor I took off.
A surge of energy and excitement spilled into me. I was actually going to cover a story in person. This was going to be the real deal.
Just like that, my worry over Kristen’s loss and her anger vanished.
Instead, my mind filled with movie scenes of hostage negotiations. I pictured images of hectic reporters pushing their cameras and microphones beyond police lines. I also pictured the Iraqi media I had encountered during my deployment in 2008 as an Army journalist. Iraqi Media obeyed no rules and overstepped all boundaries. They placed their tripods wherever they liked and pushed back at security who pushed them first.
I expected to see all of that chaos as I drove to Beechview to cover the standoff. I braced myself in case I should have to fulfill the role of a relentless reporter trying to cover a story.
I parked my car at a McDonalds and grabbed the camera from my backseat. At the bottom of the street, two police officers stood by a cruiser to block traffic. I flashed my Post-Gazette ID. “Official Reporter,” it said. They waved me through, and I felt so momentarily powerful.
A man with access.
I ran up the steep road without stopping. In my mind, I was running away from the computer and phone and all the prior notions of desk-side reporting. In the excitement of the moment, all of my emotions tied to the Friendship suicide were left behind. The street curved around the top of a hill where a police line formed with a motorcycle, a few officers and an ambulance. A knot of television, radio and print reporters stood around talking among themselves.
The road dipped again beyond the police line, where a black SWAT truck was parked in the middle of the street. Dots of officers in green and black uniforms moved around the vehicle.
They were too far away to capture with the lens I had with me. In my hurry, I forgot to grab the 200mm lens from my car. Damnit, I thought, but knew I couldn’t go back now. Something might happen at any minute.
I took shots of everything I could from all kinds of angles. Kneeling. Standing. Through the frame of the motorcycle. Through the crowd of reporters. I even inched my way beyond the line since there wasn’t an actual police tape in place. When I stood up from taking one of my shots, I knocked over a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that was sitting on the ground.
“I put it there thinking it wasn’t going to spill,” someone said. It was a newscaster from Channel 4. He wore a tie, curly brown hair and a dark tan overcoat.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see it there,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have put it there.”
“I can buy you another one.”
“It’s alright. I was finished drinking it anyway.”
He shook my hand to introduce himself, but I don’t remember his name. He smiled genuinely. He seemed like a nice guy.
What I realized then, as I looked up from the river of coffee moving along the sidewalk, is how calm everyone was. My heart was still beating from my uphill charge. I had probably looked like a fool sprinting to the scene, followed by my crazed photo snapping like some infantryman taking shots during battle.
I gathered myself and mingled with the small crowd.
It surprised me to see how calm everyone was. They stood and waited and obeyed the rules. I waited for something to happen. There wasn’t a whole lot of information yet. The gunman was still inside his house. None of the police officers around us were allowed to talk. We just had to wait for it to be over.
Neighbors stood outside watching their little street become the center of Pittsburgh’s News-iverse. I asked if anybody knew anything, and two middle-aged ladies pointed me to a man behind me.
“He’s a friend of the guy, I think.”
I went over to the man and introduced myself. He seemed unsure for a moment on whether he should talk to me or not. As I asked him questions, he spoke openly but with a strum of worry in his voice.
“Yeah, I knew Jamie, if it’s him in that house,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s actually him. We grew up together. I came back to visit my mother.”
“You said Jamie. Do you know his last name?”
“Hirleman. He works for the gas company.”
“Hirleman? Can you spell that?”
He wasn’t sure about the spelling, and didn’t know for sure which gas company he worked for. He thought it was Duquesne, but it could have been Equitable. I jotted whatever I could. I would have to verify things later, but this was a starting point.
“Do you know about his wife?” I asked.
“Not sure. Not sure what her name is.”
Then someone said, “Is that her? Do you recognize her?”
I didn’t hesitate. I slipped my reporter’s pad into my back pocket and whirled around. For a moment, it was as though the sky rained down silence upon us. All noise disappeared. I watched a woman in a gray hoodie step up to the ambulance. A moment later, two little boys – maybe four or five years old – came out and she took them by the hand. The boys weren’t hurt. They weren’t crying. There wasn’t even fear in their eyes. Just confusion, perhaps, but that was about it. The woman had a full, pregnant belly. It pushed and forced against her hoodie, which stretched and held her roundness there like a tight blanket.
In real life, her eyes seemed calm and composed. But every time I snapped a photo, her gaze transformed into a desperate searching.
I kneeled and took as many photos as I could. Everything turned quiet around me as the reporters hushed and watched. Every camera turned toward her, dancing in unison. She was our gravity. She, and the two little boys.
Police escorted her away and we stood there, following with our cameras and with our eyes, until she left our sight.
Then, in the distance, the SWAT officers moved up the street toward us, loosening straps and unbuckling equipment from their bodies. I snapped more photos as they approached closer and closer.
We waited, and eventually the commander of major crimes came up to give his statement and answer questions. He provided no names. He gave us the house number and told us the man inside had shot himself. He explained how the mother, who was nine-months pregnant, and two boys had been able to get away to hide out in a neighbor’s house when she called police at 6:18 a.m. The standoff between SWAT and the man had lasted more than three hours.
I called in the office and gave them all of that information. For the first time, I actually felt like I was truly breaking news. Like I had played a role in delivering the story. I was more enthralled by my own sense of achievement than the impact of the story. It was as though I had never received an email earlier that morning telling me I had no business into the private lives of the people I exposed.
Lilly told me to stick around and see if any of the neighbors might talk.
The police line cleared, the various SWAT members jumped in their vehicles and left and most of the remaining officers scattered.
Neighbors stood outside of their homes, mingling and watching their street now somehow transformed. I walked down Saranac Avenue toward them with the rest of the reporters. I pictured us moving down the street like a pack of dogs moving slowly toward a carcass.
“Here come the leeches,” I said out loud.
“Actually I prefer the term vultures,” said the guy from Channel 4. But he said it jokingly, and I knew he had no cold intentions behind those words. His smile and his expression said, “This is what we have to do. It’s the job we were sent for.”
We weren’t here to enjoy our feeding upon the remains left behind by a SWAT negotiation gone wrong. We had a job to do. We had a story to tell.
When we asked about the gunman, a neighbor named Leonard told us, “I talked to him all the time. He just enjoyed his kids. Loved his two boys. I don’t know what happened. I would see him out here every day with his kids.”
He had come out to grab the paper that morning around 7:15 when police told him to go back inside. He told us Jamie was like any other neighbor. Friendly and approachable.
When we asked about Jamie’s wife, he couldn’t remember her name. I had seen her face. I had seen her pregnant belly. But I had no name to match those searching eyes.
I slipped away once Leonard answered all he could and found a young group of neighbors in their twenties. One of the girls said, “I saw everything. I even heard the gunshot.”
“Mind if I ask you some questions?” I said.
Within moments every tripod and microphone on the street swarmed around her.
“Oh my God! Wow!” she acted bashful and giggled and threw her hands in surprise as though she wasn’t expecting to become the center of attention, but she giggled some more and I realized that she enjoyed this. She would be on TV.
Her name was Ginger Show. It sounded like a stage name. She lived with her mother and son, four houses up from where the shooting took place. We asked her what happened. I recorded our interview and later transcribed it word-for-word at the office.
“Wow, well we came outside to bring my son to school, and there were SWAT team everywhere. I saw a lot of guns, lot of SWAT team. I heard the gun shot that he shot himself. That’s when I saw the SWAT team run in. I don’t know, but it scared the heck out of us … I heard the gunshot. It was like a pow sound. A boom sound. It sounded like they busted the door open. But I guess it was a gunshot. And after that, I kind of felt like his spirit leave, which is crazy. I was like, ‘He’s gone.’”
Her take on Jamie was different from the last neighbor.
“He was Quiet. He stayed in the house all the time. He really didn’t speak to neighbors. He really wasn’t a nice guy.”
When our interview was over, the cameramen shut off their cameras and folded their tripods. The reporters tucked away their microphones. I shut off my voice recorder and put it away into my backbag. We had what we needed, except every neighbor I talked to didn’t know the mother’s name.
I scrolled through the photos I snapped with my Nikon. I zoomed into her face. Her eyes avoided the lens. Was her jaw clenched? Was she holding off sobs? What would she tell her two boys? Who would be there to take the baby from the doctor’s hands and hold it after they cut the umbilical cord?
In six weeks of breaking news at the PG, I had never seen the faces impacted by the articles I wrote. Now I had seen this woman. I had seen her belly, which seemed to grow bigger every time I pictured it in my mind. I had seen her two boys’ faces. In my coverage of the Friendship Park shooting, I hadn’t seen this much. I had seen no body on the ground. No family members mourning a death. Suddenly, part of me wished I had stayed behind the desk, had kept my distance.
A thin woman in her sixties came out of the house patting her gray ‘fro. She was Ginger’s mother.
“Is the news still here?” she asked as she came down the steps, looking and calling around.
“The TV stations still here?” she asked.
“Momma, you missed them,” Ginger told her. “They just interviewed me.”
“Well bring them back here,” her mother said. “Where’d everybody go? I was getting ready to look good. Where’s all the reporters?”
We were all there. Standing around. Watching her.
“I’m a reporter, M’am.” I told her.
“Are you with the TV?”
“I’m with the Post-Gazette.”
“Oh. Well, can I get me on TV somebody?”
“Did you know the wife of the man who shot himself?” I asked.
Some of the reporters turned to listen, to see if she might divulge any new information. Suddenly aware of her newfound attention, she said, “Oh, yeah. I knew her. I knew her real well. I can tell you anything you want. I knew them.”
“Could you give me her name?”
Her face flexed and froze into an expression of deep thinking. She brought a hand to her chin for effect.
“Oh, let me think now. You know, with this scare we just had, I’m having a hard time thinking. I’m trying to remember. Just a sec. I know her name. What is her name?”
I turned away, feeling ashamed and embarassed for her.
Again, the face of the mother came to mind. She was nine months pregnant and that baby would never know her father. One of the neighbors later told me the baby would be their first girl together. She was due in a few weeks.
The woman behind me continued her pursuit for a TV camera.
A man had shot himself in his house. Two boys were without a father. A woman without a husband. I later found out they were not legally married, but that made her loss no less significant.
And here was this woman – who kept patting her gray curls to make sure her hair remained tidy – more concerned with landing her face on the local news than what this death might mean for her neighborhood.
I conducted a few more interviews and then returned to the office. I wrote the story and filled in the gaps that normally made these articles so inhuman. A man named James Hirleman had shot himself today. I confirmed the name with the coroner’s office, who gave me 9:36 a.m. as the time of death. He did not give me the caliber of the gun. He did not provide the location of the gunshot wound.
Would it be under his chin, like the Ryan in Friendship? Or did James bring the barrel up to his temples? What shape did the blood splatter make? Did it slash against the ceiling, or across the family portraits on the wall?
I didn’t want to imagine.
I had started this internship thinking I might write the story of Pittsburghers and make a name for myself. I had come here believing that I could expand on my title as “Writer.” What I failed to realize was that my audience was also composed of my victims. Some people didn’t want their faces on the news. Some people wished the father of her three children had never taken his own life. Some people wished their brother, their boyfriend, their cousin had prayed a little harder before his body fell on the grass of a public park.
I also learned that the eyes of the woman searching, the eyes of the two boys clutching her hands, would continue looking for their own lives, still broken but this time untold, while the reporters and journalists and photographers moved on to the next big story. Meanwhile, her pain – the pain of a woman whose name I never found out – would not fit inside the column of a newspaper article.
I’m not sure in the end if these stories are more about them than they were about myself. These are the things I wish I could have said. The things I wish I could have written all along. These are the things that never made it into the margins. Hopefully, these are the words not of a reporter, but a Pittsburgher, a man and a writer.