Another look at a hometown tragedy

Not all of my stories for The Trace touch on my current main reporting interest in crime victims. But my latest does. And they’re victims whose story I know well from past articles I’ve written, and from an even more personal connection: the crime took place in my hometown of Webster, New York, involving people whose social circles intersect with my friends and family.

The December 24, 2012, ambush of volunteer firefighters in a neighborhood on the Lake Ontario shore killed two (Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka) and seriously wounded two others (Ted Scardino and Joe Hofstetter). Three years ago, when I was working on what I hoped would be a book about the crime — I have since put that project on hold, I hope not forever — I wrote two stories about the crime’s aftermath. One, a cover story in Pacific Standard, looked at  the psychological growth that can be sparked by the trauma of such an event. The other, in the magazine where I once worked as an editor, The American Lawyer, told of Scardino’s efforts to press for tougher federal laws on straw purchases of weapons.

Straw purchases — where someone who can pass a background check illegally supplies weapons to someone barred from buying a gun — once again are the subject of my new story for The Trace. Using the lawsuit that the victims and their families brought against Gander Mountain, the retailer that sold the guns that ended up in the Webster killer’s hands, I examine a tactic used by plaintiffs’ lawyers to try to win these cases. The tactic: comparing a retailer’s behavior to industry standards promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to show whether a gun seller took enough care to prevent a straw purchase.

When Chiapperini vs. Gander Mountain was filed on the victims’ behalf by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the social-media peanut gallery criticized the victims for trying to cash in on their tragedy, or simply for looking in the wrong place to lay blame. If the firefighters’ and families’ allegations prove correct about what Gander Mountain clerks did and didn’t do, then the plaintiffs in this lawsuit will convincingly win that argument — not that everyone can be convinced to change their mind when guns are the subject.

The victims said when they filed the suit that they want this to bring about reforms, and to help other people. That’s a common impulse when tragedy strikes. I’ll continue to follow this case to see if the victims ever reach their goal.

Dick Heller, sore winner

In my previous story for The Trace, about Ted Cruz’s record as a gun-rights lawyer, I brushed up on my history of the most important Second Amendment case in history, D.C. v. Heller. In that story, the case was just one of several I looked at. Now I’ve taken a deeper dive into the 2008 case, with this newly published profile of Dick Heller himself.

This story is what’s known in the business as a write-around. That means the subject of the story wouldn’t talk to me. Rather than let him have veto power over the story, I forged ahead, gleaning his background and views from books, articles, and my own interviews with others who have worked for or against him.

The result is, I hope, a fair portrait of an important historical figure whose controversial politics and colorful personal backstory bring to light aspects of the Heller case — a case that’s now very much back in the news, with the battle on over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, the Heller majority opinion author.

My central conclusion: Heller’s politics, combined with his frustration over D.C.’s continued efforts to regulate guns, pushed him toward the absolutist end of the gun-rights spectrum — and away from the case that bears his name.

One aspect of the story I didn’t get a chance to explore this time are the arguments over whether Heller might be overturned if a Democratically appointed justice replaces Scalia, and if so, what difference that would make. Here’s one take on that. I hope to revisit that topic in a later story with views from all sides.

Fact-checking Ted Cruz’s gun-law record

I spent an 11-year chunk of my career in Texas. But I left that state when Ted Cruz was still in law school. So I have not been there to watch his political rise first hand. Still, I’ve remained interested in the place and visited multiple times to report on stories there. And, like everyone, I can’t take my eyes off this year’s presidential campaign.

So I was glad to get an assignment from The Trace on Ted Cruz’s record as a lawyer handling gun-rights cases. He has made that work a central point in his campaign, but as my new story on that record explains, he’s inflated his role in key cases while skipping past some inconvenient details about compromise positions that he no longer seems to hold.

I plan to write more for The Trace about the legal battles over gun safety and regulations, past and present. Reporting on this story (and on my previous one, about the federal law giving the gun industry immunity from civil lawsuits) has given me a quick refresher course in that world. I look forward to continuing my education and finding new stories to tell about how legal policy and litigation is shaping gun-rights battles today.

A new client, with strings attached

TraceOne of the bright spots in the journalism business has been the growth of digital-only publications that pay writers reasonably well — unlike so many that pay insultingly low rates (and pretty much get what they pay for). Some of these quality outfits are nonprofits by design, others by circumstances, and some even make money. They have taken up some of the slack left by shrinking print publication budgets.

One quality nonprofit I have been happy to write for is The Trace, which covers gun policy with intelligent original reporting and that pays its freelance writers enough to make it worthwhile to take on challenging topics such as these. On my “recent work” page, I link to two stories I wrote for The Trace last September on “stand your ground” laws. Now I have a new story up on the site, this time on the Newtown victims’ families’ lawsuit against the manufacturer and sellers of Adam Lanza’s preferred weapon, the Bushmaster AR-15. The issues in the lawsuit focus on the provisions of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the federal law granting immunity — with some exceptions — to the gun industry from lawsuits over injury and death from gun violence. This is the first in what my editor and I plan to be a regular string of stories on a variety of gun-law topics.

That’s all on the positive side of the ledger: a reporting challenge, an important policy matter, a potentially landmark case, and more stories to come. The negative, though, is that when working for anyone — nonprofits or for-profits — a writer must be aware of a publisher’s agenda and of its inherent biases. Ideally, the agenda is the same as mine as a journalist: to tell important stories that are true to the facts. That, indeed, has been my experience with The Trace, where my editor doesn’t expect or want stories to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In fact, he bends over backward to avoid the appearance that a story favors one side or the other. The appearance of bias, however, is inevitable, given that some of The Trace’s startup funding came from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Everytown is, in turn, funded in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and both he and Everytown advocate tougher gun regulations. It’s inevitable, then, that on this hopelessly contentious issue, some will see any work appearing at The Trace as hack journalism. At the very least, it makes it harder to get some calls returned.

I can’t help that. I can only do my job with integrity, letting the facts lead me to honest conclusions, or simply telling factual stories that readers can then use to form their own conclusions. I look forward to writing more for The Trace in coming months — and hoping that my stories speak for themselves.

Series finale: Why not restorative justice?

Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program
Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program

Since June, my series at Slate on crime victims has told the stories of victims and approaches to criminal justice that counter popular myths about who victims are and what they need. Three of the first five stories in particular (Parts 1, 2, and 5) pointed to a philosophy called restorative justice as the counterweight to traditional tough-on-crime policies that have given us excessive imprisonment, counterproductive policing tactics, and a punitive mentality underlying all of those systemic problems.

So why isn’t restorative justice the solution to all that ails our criminal justice system? The last in the series, which was published today, asks that question and examines why restorative justice — which focuses on what victims and communities need to heal from and prevent crime, rather than just on how to punish wrongdoing — has failed so far to fulfill the promise that its believers see in it as a powerful alternative.

Restorative-justice advocates no doubt will object to my premise, as their mission is to press for social change by pointing to all the good that restorative justice programs have accomplished already. My own series pointed out such successes, and the virtues of taking this healing, alternative approach. But as a journalist, my job is to step back and measure its impact. The conclusion I came away with was that restorative justice remains marginalized, rarely embraced by the public or policymakers, and rarely discussed in our current criminal-justice reform debate.

To show why that it is the case, I visited one of the first and most ambitious attempts to embed a restorative approach in a countywide justice system. The program in Genesee County, in western New York state, peaked early and its reforms have not proved long-lasting. The current state of affairs at a program called Genesee Justice is not all bad. As I say in the story, victims in this county enjoy a level of state-provided care that’s rare in America. But the founders’ dream, to remake justice in this county permanently and radically, is all but gone. By telling the story of how it grew and shrank, I hope to shed light on the broader restorative-justice movement and its place in American justice.

Thanks for reading.

Good cop, bad cop

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 5.40.46 PMWhen an editor from TakePart asked me to write about policing reform using Minneapolis as the example, I quickly determined that the chosen location made perfect sense as a window into a topic I’ve written about before. The more I learned through my reporting, including a week I spent there, Minneapolis and its small neighbor, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, struck me as ideal showcases of the issues that make policing such a fraught topic these days — even though the region hadn’t joined the list of cities known nationally for their problems.

And then that changed. Just as my editor and I were finishing the story, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, touching off tense protests that drew national attention when white supremacists shot and wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters outside a Minneapolis police station.

The end result, published today, puts the reaction to Clark’s death in the context of years of clashes between police and citizens. Despite a reform-minded administration and some positive changes of late, Minneapolis remains a divided city, a division that often defies logic to outsiders who never experience the kind of policing that inner-city people of color typically do. To them, the controversies over killings by police boil down to bad behavior and anti-cop lawlessness. That’s the kind of perspective you gain when you live in comfort and safety and get only the good kind of policing.

Alongside the story of Minneapolis, I tell the story of Columbia Heights, where a forward-thinking chief has led his department through a radical transformation that has cut crime while improving relations at the same time. They do it by looking for people to help instead of looking for people to arrest — the essence of the community-oriented policing ethos that my story examines. And the essence of what police reformers, inside and outside the policing profession, mean when they talk about the hard work that’s needed to restore and maintain a community’s trust in its police. I hope this story contributes to people’s understanding of what that debate is about.

Policing without oppressing

Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department's revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.
Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department’s revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.

Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.

At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.

The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.

Another victim of church’s abuse speaks

GodsNobodies_cover_squareSoon after the December 2012 publication of my true-crime Kindle Single God’s Nobodies: Misguided Faith and Murder in the Life of One American Family, I came under attack by supporters of the church at the center of the tragedy I wrote about. They claimed that I lied about their beloved minister to further an anti-Christian agenda and to sneer at their moral stand against homosexuality, when in fact the real purpose of my story was to show how the church’s cultish form of social control backfired badly and destroyed a family. The story examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Pam Ginocchetti at the hands of her son, Syracuse University student Tim Ginocchetti.

During my reporting for God’s Nobodies, and after its publication, I spoke to numerous former church members who confirmed various elements of what I had learned about the Ginocchettis’ experience. But one in particular, who just surfaced last week, tells a story so remarkably similar to Tim Ginocchetti’s — about a homophobia extreme enough, paired with obedience to a minister absolute enough, to tear a former church member from his family — that I want to share what he told me, with his permission.

Twenty years ago, on his 21st birthday, Michael Marasco came out to his family. He had feared their reaction as he grew up with the knowledge that he is gay, because of what he knew would be the minister’s response: condemnation, followed by pseudo-medical treatment of his condition. Marasco’s fears began to be realized when his mother  sided with her church against her son. As he described it to me in an email:

I remember the Sunday after coming out to my family my mother stood up in church and announced that I told her I was gay and that she would never support my lifestyle decision. I walked out of the church, drove home packed my things….

That ended Marasco’s contact with his parents, sister, and brother — with everyone in his family and with whom he’d grown up in the church, other than family members who also had left the church — for many years. As I documented in God’s Nobodies, the minister counsels his members to shun defectors from the church, even immediate family members (he’s careful never to articulate his mandates unambiguously and publicly, but somehow it happens again and again that members heed his hints and act accordingly).

Marasco goes on to note the parallels between his life and Tim Ginocchetti’s: Marasco’s grandparents were the live-in caretakers of the church’s lakeside retreat property, Bethany Retreat (later on, Tim’s parents were the minister’s choice as caretakers; it’s where Tim grew up); Marasco’s mother and Pam Ginocchetti were close friends; Marasco was close friends with Timothy Lynch, the firefighter killed along with Tim’s father, John Ginocchetti, in the tragedy that began the Ginocchetti family’s unraveling.

Marasco fondly remembers the family before all of that:

At the end of services, John was always the first to greet me with his firm handshake and warm embrace. As we waited in line he would talk to me about electricity and construction (things he knew I loved doing with my grandfather growing up at Bethany). In my personal opinion John was one of the most real and down to earth people I met at church. I remember the first time John & Pam invited my family to their newly renovated caretakers home at Bethany (formerly my grandparents home) John showing me all of the new gadgets he had installed and Tim, so excited to show me his bedroom that once was mine during my frequent visits to my grandparents on weekends and during the summer when school was out. Pam too was an amazing host, welcoming us warmly into her home and preparing an Italian dinner of lasagna and meatballs (crazy how I remember that) which were enjoyed over casual conversation.

How this sweet, devoted family ended up so devastated, and its love turned to hate and bitterness, was the central question I pursued in God’s Nobodies. The answers always led back to the minister and the church.

In Marasco’s case, the rigid social rules of the church sent him into exile from his family. In Tim’s case, he stayed with his widowed mother. After her years of abuse over his effeminate ways and threats to subject Tim to the minister’s forceful intervention, Pam edged closer than ever to confronting Tim over his deeply hidden homosexuality. Just days after his 21st birthday, Tim exploded in anger and killed her. He is now nine years into a 15-year prison sentence. When his grandmother, Esther Rufo, stepped forward to describe the relationship between Tim and her daughter Pam, and revealed the role of the secretive church, she lost her husband of 50 years and virtually all contact with her remaining two children and grandchildren.

I never doubted the truth of what I wrote about the church’s methods and their destructive effects on some members’ lives. But I am grateful that Marasco had the courage to tell his story publicly.

Part 5: Victims seeking a cure for violence

Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.
Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.

In the fifth installment of my series on crime victims at Slate, published today, I visit the heartland of tough-on-crime policies — California — to look at a thriving subculture of crime victims and others whose work in crime prevention and gang intervention belies myths about who victims are and what they need.

In the simplistic binaries preferred by partisans, crime invites two alternate approaches: the conservative one that treats our cities and their black and brown majorities as amoral killing grounds that can only be cleaned up through iron-fisted policing and extreme prison sentences; and the liberal one that focuses on addressing police brutality and mass incarceration without worrying much about the predominately black and brown victims of everyday violence and disorder.

There is a third way, and it’s what I set out in search of in this latest story. I focused on Los Angeles activists, in part because of the city’s long history of police-community tensions, which have boiled over spectacularly twice, in the riots of 1965 and 1992, and because of California’s leading role in promoting policies advocated by and for crime victims that ratcheted up prison sentences and gave us an historic prison boom. The victims who favor these get-tougher policies are the ones we’re used to hearing from. The people and programs I write about in this story show a different side to victim advocacy, one in which prevention, making peace, and treating trauma take priority. And where there is no great divide between victims and offenders; they are all part of the same community, often the same families.

My subjects include:

  • The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement.
  • Father Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries, offering former prisoners and gang members an escape from crime through meaningful job training and other needed services.
  • Karl Cruz, another activist in a faith-based program whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community.
  • Adela Barajas, whose tribute to her slain sister-in-law is a program called L.A.U.R.A., which provides comfort for the families of murder victims and an alternative for the neighborhood’s children who otherwise would be sucked into gangs and crime.

Among the more clueless reactions to the “Black Lives Matter” movement are claims that protesting police brutality obscures the real problem: violence within black and brown communities. In these critics’ view, there must be something wrong with those communities’ culture or they would do more to prevent violence. The people in my story demonstrate how preposterous those assumptions are. They work hard every day, over the span of decades, to make their communities safer. They have all witnessed or been the victims of violence repeatedly, and know the communities of victims and of the imprisoned are often one in the same. And they show that a true partnership between police and citizens requires strategies that transcend the discredited approaches from the era of zero-tolerance policing.

On this page of my site, I link to all five stories in the series published so far. The sixth and final story, assessing the restorative justice movement’s potential to solve many of the problems pointed out in the series, is coming soon.

Part 4: Victims, policing, and trust

Eric Garner's death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman's job immeasurably harder.
Eric Garner’s death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman’s job immeasurably harder.

Part 4 of my crime victims series, now available at Slate, asks what happens when you put a veteran  victims’ advocate in charge of the cultural makeover of the nation’s largest police department. That’s what has been happening in New York for the past year and a half, with the subject of my story, Susan Herman, working behind the scenes to carry out NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s mission to mend relations with communities of color while simultaneously improving services for crime victims.

Herman is no ordinary victims’ advocate. She articulates a different approach to serving victims, one that emphasizes doing much more for victims who are more often hunted by the police than helped by them; young, black men, in particular. Trying to accomplish that from inside NYPD while addressing the department’s racially tense community relations at such a volatile time, with such a vocal community of police critics in New York, makes Herman’s job seem impossible — until you see what she’s done already.

When I first planned this story in 2013,  Herman was a criminal-justice professor at Pace University pushing a philosophy of policing and victim services she calls parallel justice (which I explain in the story, and wrote about here several years ago). Then came her appointment as deputy commissioner for collaborative policing at NYPD. Then came Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the rest. The story evolved, following events right up to the present. What was to be one window into the victims-services world turned into an examination of a much more complex set of issues at the heart of policing and victim services.

I look forward to hearing readers’ comments on Slate, here on this blog, or on my social media sites.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business