Kill the Messenger

The tragic death of one of America's most important investigative journalists

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?"

Gary Webb, photographed in his home in Carmichael, CA, in 1998
Brad Wilson
Gary Webb, photographed in his home in Carmichael, CA, in 1998

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 trashcan 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 Kentucky 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.

That morning, Sue Webb was at home in Folsom, just minutes away from Carmichael, when her cell phone started ringing. She was about to walk out the door to bring her 14-year-old daughter Christine to school. Because Sue was running late for a business meeting in Stockton, she didn't answer. But when she recognized the number of the caller as Kurt, her ex-husband's brother, she began to worry. "I was standing in the bathroom, and when I saw that number, I knew something had happened," she says. "I kept saying, 'No, this is not happening, this is not happening.'I was afraid to pick up the phone."

Thoughts raced through her mind. Two days earlier, Webb had taken Christine to a doctor's appointment. At the doctor's office, there was a copy of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, which Webb had loved reading to her years earlier. He jokingly asked her if she wanted him to read it aloud to her. When he dropped Christine off at Sue's house later that day, Christine said her father made a special point of walking up to the door to kiss her goodbye. "He told her to be good to her mom," Sue says. "And he handed her some little bottles of perfume and said 'I love you.' When she asked him if he wanted to come in, he said no."

Sue put her daughter in the car and drove a few blocks to the entrance of the middle-class neighborhood of tract houses where she lives on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of town. "I couldn't stand it anymore, because the phone kept ringing," she says. "It was Anita, and she was just sobbing. And I said, 'Is he gone?' and she said 'Yes.'And I just pulled off the road and started crying and said 'Christine, your daddy's dead.' We had to get out of the car and we sat on the grass together and just started crying. I don't even know how long we sat there."

A woman driving by pulled over and asked what was wrong. Sue gave her the number of the healthcare company where she worked as a sales agent. She asked the woman to call and let them know she wouldn't be able to keep her appointments that day. Then she called her twenty-year-old son Ian and Eric, her 16-year-old, who was already at school, to tell them to meet her and Christine at Anita's house. "I had to tell them on the phone what had happened because they wouldn't let me hang up," she says.

When she arrived at Anita's house, Ian was sitting on the front lawn, tears streaming down his face. "The police had already left," she says. "I told him not to go inside." A block away from the house was a bench with a view of a duck pond. The tranquil scene seemed surreal, dreamlike, frozen in time. "I remember feeling this sense of loss. It was the weirdest thing in the world. I had moved to California to be with Gary and had left my family behind and suddenly I felt alone. And I knew almost immediately that he had killed himself."

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