Charlotte Murray Pace had fought for her life as her attacker stabbed her repeatedly. Police later said her killer probably had been covered in blood when he left Pace’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, townhouse.
Such a crime would draw news coverage and public attention under any circumstances, but neither police nor reporters realized Pace’s murder would put them on the trail of a serial killer.
Pace, a 22-year-old who had just earned a master’s degree from Louisiana State University, was alone in the home she had moved into days earlier when her killer arrived on a late-May afternoon.
Eight months earlier, Gina Wilson Green, a 41-year-old nurse, was found strangled in her home on Stanford Avenue. At the time, Pace lived only three houses away from Green. Then there was Christine Moore, 23, another LSU graduate student who had lived in the same neighborhood as Pace. Moore had disappeared, and her skeletal remains were found only a couple of weeks after Pace’s murder. Had the same person killed all three?
Melissa Moore, who had been covering police for the Baton Rouge Advocate for 10 years, doubted that the killings were connected. When some Advocate staffers suggested a story raising the possibility the murders were linked, Moore argued against it.
“We had talked about it,” Moore recalled. “I said no. We have to be really careful about this.”
That changed one month and nine days after Pace’s killing. Police announced that DNA evidence suggested Pace and Green had been killed by the same person. With that announcement, Moore said, the Advocate began planning a piece about the unsolved murders of Pace, Green, Christine Moore and a number of other Baton Rouge-area women.
The story Moore wrotewith contributions from Brett Barrouquere, Marlene Naanes, Ryan Goudelocke and James Mintonsaid the deaths of Pace, Green and Christine Moore were only three of 29 unsolved homicides in the Baton Rouge area over the past 10 years.
The publication of the story about the many unsolved homicides of women coincided with the discovery of the body of another victim: Pam Kinamore, a 44-year-old businesswoman. She had been abducted from her home a few days earlier. Her throat had been slashed, and her body had been dumped near Interstate 10 outside Baton Rouge. A few weeks later, DNA evidence would show that the same person who had killed Green and Pace had also killed Kinamore.
For nearly 11 months, police sought the south Louisiana serial killer, and local and national news organizations followed the investigation. By the time a suspect, Derrick Todd Lee, 34, was arrested, the serial killer had murdered two more women. After his arrest, DNA evidence linked Lee to other homicides. Police eventually concluded he was responsible for seven murders in southern Louisiana over a five-year period. Lee was eventually convicted of two murders, including Pace’s, for which he was sentenced to death. He is imprisoned on death row at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola.
Reporters covering the serial-killer investigation had to cope with the unwillingness of the police to disclose information, a practice that not only frustrated journalists but also angered relatives of the victims. Melissa Moore said police were stingy with information about the homicides. Law enforcement officers said they did not want to release information that might help the killer, but that rationale did not explain all decisions to withhold information.
The police admitted they had DNA evidence linking the murders; they also consistently referred to the suspect as “he.” But they never admitted the obvious: that the victims had been raped. Moore said Baton Rouge police traditionally were reluctant to discuss rapes. “They’re weird about sexual assault cases all the time, not just these (serial killer cases). They hate talking about ithate it, hate it, hate it,” she said.
The reluctance of the police to talk meant reporters had to look elsewhere for information. Moore ran a listserv for Criminal Justice Journalists, an organization for reporters who cover cops and courts. She used that listserv to find outside experts, people who had helped other reporters cover crime. Once she’d found sources, however, she still had to evaluate their expertise. Who else had quoted them? What had they written? What did other people in the field think of these experts? Did what these experts say correspond with what Moore had read and learned in her years of covering police? Asking these questions, Moore said, helped her eliminate one source who seemed to be an expert but who was considered a fraud by others in the field.
Although Moore left the Advocate to become the adviser to the LSU student newspaper before the serial killer suspect was arrested, she said the experience had reinforced some lessons about police reporting.
Know what questions to ask by learning how police operate. “Read about it,” Moore said. “Read ‘Homicide’ by David Simon. Read some Edna Buchanan. I tell people three-quarters of my job is knowing which questions to ask, and until you understand what happens in an investigation, you’ll never know what questions to ask.”
Know how to use and manage a database. “You never know what piece of information is going to be important later,” she said. “So I’ve learned to manage little bits of information that don’t make it into stories.”
Build good relationships with law enforcement agencies. “When I was a new reporter,” Moore said, “if I could get a detective to let me hang out with him, we had breakfast, we had lunch, we had dinner, we had coffee. It helped me understand how they do what they do.” Getting the story right, however, is the most important way to build trust, she said. Officers are more likely to trust reporters who have been getting the facts right for six months or a year than someone who is new or who has a reputation for making mistakes.
Request public records early. Once a story develops into a big controversy, it becomes a madhouse for reporters and public officials, Moore said. Getting records then can be very difficult.
Be willing to listen to people off the record. Although some reporters refuse to talk to someone who wants to go off the record, Moore said she was always willing to listen. “I’d always rather know than not know,” she said, “even if the only reason for knowing is that it helps me know what context to put a story in.”