One of the toughest things for a reporter to do is speak with a victim’s family.
During my five years as a police reporter in the Poconos, I had to interview—or attempt to interview—people who had lost their loved ones due to fires, crashes, or crime.
It was a grim business, obviously, since answering a stranger’s questions about a deceased or injured family member was the very last thing that people wanted to do.
I tried to be sensitive to their suffering, but I always felt like a rat for intruding on their grief during one of the worst moments of their lives.
Some people told me to go to Hell, hung up on me or ordered me off their property. But there were others who willingly answered my questions.
One man, whose father had committed suicide by burning their house down, shook my hand, and, with tears in his eyes, actually apologized for not being able to speak to me. I didn’t know what to say to him.
I got a little better at approaching people as the years went by, but it was never easy. And there was this one time when something totally unexpected happened.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Stroudsburg, Pa. circa 1991. I was at the Pocono Record’s old Lenox Street building when the scanner went berserk, erupting with all kinds of signals for mayhem.
I listen to the windstorm of police and fire codes and realized that someone had either fallen or jumped nearby into McMichael Creek.
The dispatcher was calling the police, the fire department, and—most serious of all—a MedEvac helicopter for the flight down to Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown. This was nasty.
I raced out the door fully expecting to meet up with Bob Allen, the county coroner, and get the lowdown on the victim.
The scene was so close to the paper that I’m not even sure if I took my car. But how ever I got there, I ran into the middle of all the confusion looking for eyewitnesses.
And then I saw her.
There was a rather tough looking woman in her fifties standing near a police car and I immediately sensed that she knew the victim—wife or girlfriend, and she could give me some good material for my story.
I took a deep breath. There was a strong possibility that she’d blow up, call me all kinds of horrible names, and maybe even attack me. But I had to at least try to get an interview. So, I walked up to her.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said softly. “I’m sorry to bother, but I’m with the Pocono Record and I wanted to ask you about the man who fell into the creek—”
“He’s an asshole!” she shrieked and then promptly stormed away.
I stood there in shook. People usually tell me how kind and considerate the victim had been. Was this any way to talk about the dearly and very recently departed?
And then I looked into the police car and saw a man, also in his fifties, soaking wet, handcuffed, and grinning like an idiot.
That was the guy, the one who had gone into the creek. But he wasn’t dead or even hurt in any way. He seemed to be the only one having a good time.
The cops said he and his lady friend had been drinking rather heavily at a nearby rat hole of a bar when for reasons unknown he threatened to jump into the creek.
She waved him off, though, so he promptly made good on his promise-diving into some rather deep and turbulent waters and earning himself a ride to the county jail in the process.
I went back and told me editor what had happened and he decided that we would give the story very little play—nothing more than a blotter item—to avoid inspiring copycatting nitwits.
I was a little concerned about suppressing the news, but I think he made the right call.
When I went to the local YMCA the next morning to work out, I mentioned the incident to some of the guys in the locker room and they all laughed.
“What a story!” one of them said.
For the record, that was a very stupid stunt that wasted time, money and energy, and potentially diverted the first responders from a real emergency.
But that was one hell of a quote.