Thursday, November 26, 2009

Investigative Journalism Story

A friend of mine recently sent me the URL of a story in Wired Magazine. I think it's the current issue. The story deals with writer Evan Ratliff, who decided to see how difficult it would be to start a new life with people looking for you. His premise was to have Wired's publisher set up a website giving hints of where Ratliff had been as he moved around the country. It was a great read, but Ratliff didn't really try to disappear. He tried to play hide and seed with electronics and the web and that is difficult, particularly if people are posting your info on the web.
Disappearing is another thing altogether. Years ago it involved going to the place where they have death certificates. You would find one or 10 babies who were your age, and who had social security numbers and who had died shortly after birth. New York is best for this because of the number of people/babies/infant deaths.
You would then take those names and go to the hall of birth records. Find the birth records for all those dead babies. Then you would apply as a grown up for copies of the various birth certificates in those names. You'ld be given originals without question, then use those to acquire 3,5,10,20 driver's licenses in different states and with those, acquire 3,5, 10,20 passports in different, legitimate names.
It used to work because birth and death records were not coordinated, so no one would be the wiser and you would avoid the possible problem of simply picking a name and asking for a birth certificate--only to later find that the person whose birth certificate you have is wanted on murder charges in five countries.
The plan used to work; these days I don't know since I haven't tried it in decades. But that's disappearing. Of course you could never contact anyone you knew when you had your old name; you had to really do it.
So while I loved the Wired story, I didn't think Ratliff was really trying to disappear. No question he's a good and fun writer, but finally, he was only playing cat and mouse and not really trying to disappear.
But it did remind me of the moment when I realized I was, or could be, an investigative reporter. If I've told you this story before, forgive me.
In the 1980's, the US govt was waging a small war with the Earth First! a loosely knit group of monkey wrenchers, as Edward Abbey named them. They were defenders of the great forests of the northwest, people who threw a monkey wrench into the loggers' plans by putting nails in old growth trees that would wreck the loggers' chainsaw blades; put sugar in the gas tanks of great bulldozers, etc. Non-violent but very active in protesting the loss of the great West to logging and mineral interests.
Well, when Earth First! kept getting the upper hand, the US federal government finally put Dave Foreman, the group's co-founder, and some others, on their Most Wanted List. Foreman went underground. Simply disappeared.
At that time, 1987 or so I'd published maybe 10 non-fiction pieces in my life, including two for High Times magazine: Ayahuasca and a Matses Indian story.
Nonetheless, Steve Hager, the editor, and John Howell, the publisher, called me into their offices days after a big story on Earth First! broke in one of the major mags: I think it was Esquire.
They asked me to read it.
I did.
They asked me if I was impressed.
I was: Great story, great writer.
They said my new assignment was to track down Dave Foreman and get an interview.
I said, "Impossible. If the FBI can't find him or anyone connected to him"--which the story made clear--"how am I supposed to be able to do that?"
Editor Hager said: "You're a good writer. But if you want to be a journalist or an investigative reporter you have to be a whole lot smarter than the FBI. You want the gig or not? We'll pay you $400 plus expenses. But clear the expenses first, we're not paying for a wild goose chase."
I was stunned. I said "Okay" of course but had no hope.
I probably spent three weeks avoiding the story till Hager called and asked how I was progressing. I said I was working on it but hopes were dim.
And then, sometime after I got off the phone, I began, for the first time, to actually think about the story. To think about Earth First! and Dave Foreman and where he might be. He might be anywhere. How the heck was I supposed to find him?
I went to the original story and reread it. Maybe three times. Maybe five times. A whole football game worth of time I kept reading it.
Then I got an idea. There were references to Foreman's either having been born or gone to school in both Wyoming and Montana. His Earth First! work was mostly in Cali, Oregon and Washington, but none of those were his home. I hoped.
And the only photos I had of him made him out to be a big guy. He looked like a bear of a man, with a heavy beard, long hair.
What occurred to me was that a guy that size growing up in either Wyoming or Montana must have been a high school football player. And if he was, he was probably a guy who liked watching college or pro-football. Which meant he drank beer and watched football games in bars.
I hoped he was either in Montana or Wyoming, both tiny populated states. I decided to start with Wyoming, on a hunch. I called telephone information and got the number of every bar in the state. Not counting chain restaurants that had bars--I didn't think an Earth First! founder would drink at those--there were only about 143 bars in the whole state, if I remember correctly. Each call would only get me three numbers, so there were nearly 50 calls asking for the next three bar numbers. Being lazy and pretty sure my idea was flat-out dumb, it took me probably a week to get all the numbers.
Once I had those numbers I started calling. At each I said who I was, and that I was trying to reach Dave Foreman of Earth First!, and that if anyone at the bar knew him could they call me at xxx.
Every bartended who answered my call professed ignorance and many were pissed off at the strange request: "Is there a guy named Dave Foreman, who is with the environmental group, Earth First! there? If not, does he ever have a beer there? Don't answer. Just know that this is Peter Gorman from High Times and we salute him for his work and want to talk with him. It might benefit him with the FBI if he gets his story out. If you know him, here's my number. Have him call me."
That sounds crazily professional, but in reality I probably stammered through it.
And then, maybe a week after I began making the calls, maybe longer--it's been a long time--I was watching a Sunday afternoon NFL game and got a call:
"Is this Peter Gorman?"
"Yes. Who's this?"
There was no caller ID in those days, so I had no idea who it was.
Next day, same thing happened.
Next day, same thing.
It went on for a week or so.
I had no idea what it was about, but it was annoying.
And then, maybe on the seventh, eighth, or ninth day, the same call came.
"Is this Peter Gorman?"
"Yes. Who's this?"
"This is Dave Foreman from Earth First! I heard you wanted to talk with me. About what?"
And I nailed that interview.
And as I did, I realized that I had what it took to be an investigative reporter: Heart, guts, patience. I was thrilled.
The FBI had this guy on their most wanted list, were actively looking for him and hadn't come up with the plan I'd come up with.
So yes, I was an investigator.
I have not looked back.

The wonderful story in Wired reminded me of this story. The difference was that Ratliff was playing cat and mouse; Foreman was avoiding life in prison. Foreman didn't use any credit cards, didn't use any atms or cell phones, didn't boast on facebook--there were few of those things then but I don't think he'd do it now, either.
And if you don't do those things, I don't believe it's hard to disappear.

No comments: