Kill the Messenger

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

That afternoon, Sue met Kurt at the coroner's office. "They took us into a room and the coroner came in and told us that Gary had shot himself and what gun he had used," she says. "It was his dad's gun that he had found when he was a security guard at a hospital in Cincinnati. Some patient had left it there and his dad had kept it. He used to keep it under the bed. I'd get mad because we had kids and he'd stick it in the closet."

Kurt asked the coroner if he was certain it was a suicide. "There's no doubt in my mind," he answered. He added that sometimes, people who shoot themselves have bruises on their fingers from squeezing the trigger. Apparently the will to live is so strong that suicide victims often grip the gun so tightly and for so long they lose blood circulation in their hands. "Gary had bruises on his fingers," Sue says.

A few days later, four letters arrived at Sue's house, one each for her and the three kids. Webb had mailed them before he died. He sent a separate letter to his mother, and a last will and testament to his brother Kurt. He told his children that he loved them, that Ian would make a woman happy someday, and that he didn't want his death to dissuade Eric from considering a career in journalism. His will divided his assets, including his just-sold house, between his wife and children. His only additional wish was that his ashes be spread in the ocean so he could "bodysurf for eternity."

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

While it was Gary Webb who pulled the trigger, the bullet that ended his life was a mere afterthought to the tragic unraveling of one of the most controversial and misunderstood journalists in recent American history. "Dark Alliance" was the first major news exposé to be published simultaneously in print and on the Internet. Ignored by the mainstream media at first, the story nonetheless spread like wildfire through cyberspace and talk radio. It sparked angry protests around the country by African-Americans who had long suspected the government had allowed drugs into their communities. Their anger was fueled by the fact that "Dark Alliance" didn't just show that the contras had supplied a major crack dealer with cocaine, or that the cash had been used to fund the CIA's army in Central America—but also strongly implied that this activity had been critical to the nationwide explosion of crack cocaine that had taken place in America during the 1980s.

It was an explosive charge, although a careful reading of the story showed that Webb had never actually stated that the CIA had intentionally started the crack epidemic. In fact, Webb never believed the CIA had conspired to addict anybody to drugs. Rather, he believed that the agency had known that the contras were dealing cocaine, and hadn't lifted a finger to stop them. He was right, and the controversy over "Dark Alliance"—which many consider to be the biggest media scandal of the 1990s—would ultimately force the CIA to admit it had lied for years about what it knew and when it knew it.

In the wake of "Dark Alliance," the series and Webb himself was subjected to unprecedented attacks in the mainstream media, which took advantage of the story's most serious flaw—implying but failing to prove the CIA helped spark the crack epidemic—to assert that the CIA had no ties whatsoever to the drug ring Webb expose.

The attacks continued even after Webb's death. The L.A. Times published an obituary that ran in newspapers across the country which summed up his life by claiming he was author of "discredited" stories about the CIA. The paper would later publish a lengthy feature story revealing that Webb had suffered from clinical depression for more than a decade—even before he wrote "Dark Alliance." Titled "Written in Pain," it painted Webb as a troubled, manic-depressive man who had repeatedly cheated on his wife, and a reckless "cowboy" of a journalist.

Such a portrait offers only a misleading caricature of a much more complicated man. Interviews with dozens of Webb's friends, family members and colleagues reveal that Webb was an idealistic, passionate, and meticulous journalist, not a cowboy. Those who knew him before "Dark Alliance" made him famous and then infamous say he was happy until he lost his career. His colleagues, with the exception of some reporters and editors at the Mercury News who found him arrogant and self-promoting, almost universally loved, respected and even revered him.

The controversy over "Dark Alliance" was the central event in Webb's life, and the critical element in his eventual depression and suicide. His big story, despite major flaws of hyperbole abetted and even encouraged by his editors, remains one of the most important works of investigative journalism in recent American history. The connection Webb uncovered between the CIA, the contras and L.A.'s crack trade was real—and radioactive. Webb was hardly the first American journalist to lose his job after taking on the country's most secretive government agency in print. Every serious reporter or politician that tried to unravel the connection between the CIA, the Nicaraguan contras and cocaine, had lived to regret it.

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