The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon.
Frank liked to tell the story of the trial and of that crazy last scene. “I think both of them wanted to kill me,” he would laugh. “That’s one thing they both agreed on.”
The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial after all that commotion in the courtroom. A second trial ended in an acquittal, and Hanrahan made some comments about how his life had been turned upside down by the media. “It shouldn’ta happened to me. It wasn’t fair,” Hanrahan said. “But these things have a way of working out.”
It was, of course, Sgt. Greene’s testimony that ended up getting Hanrahan off the hook. During the second trial he made it clear that he thought Hanrahan was justified in firing his gun. The soldier testified that he was there against his will and that he just wanted to be left alone.
I stayed on at the Star for another year after Frank’s death, but I eventually realized that I needed to leave the city, and to leave journalism. I guess what bothered me the most was that the paper, and not just this paper but the whole journalism profession, just let it pass, Frank’s death that is, without insisting on getting a real explanation, or at least a full investigation by the police.
The paper paid more attention to some kid’s lost dog than to what happened to Frank. Hell, we paid more attention when some out-of-town conventioneers temporarily lost track of their toddlers.
When that investigative reporter in Arizona got blasted by a car bomb, volunteers came from all over the country to continue his work. They wrote something like at 23-part series on Mafia corruption. When Frank got killed under, let’s face it, questionable circumstances, it was a three-day story, and then it went away.
Maybe on a personal level it was understandable. Frank could be a difficult person, and he was persistent about the things that mattered to him. If he disagreed with what you were saying, he was not one to back down. And his rhetorical style, if you want to call it that, could come across as a mix of Martin Luther King Jr. and P.T. Barnum. It was almost as if he was daring you to disagree. By the time he was killed, he did not have a lot of friends in the newsroom.
People respected him and remembered what he had done. But most of the editors had tangled with him at one time or another, and they could still feel the scars of his lacerating style. They resented the fact that he had risen to a privileged position and had become largely untouchable. He was too well known, not only among the local black elite but also throughout the journalism profession. No one was willing to risk a public fight with him.
The paper was embarrassed, too, by what came out about Frank’s personal life. For most of the time that I was seeing him, I was quite sure he was still seeing other women, maybe still making trips to that apartment on Esquire Street. But even I was surprised to learn additional details.
He would come back to the apartment late, after I was in bed. And I could smell it on him–the alcohol, the cigarette smoke, the perfume, the sex–as soon as he opened the door. But he would be quick into the shower, and I knew better than to ever ask for details. I also knew that if I tested him later, if I rolled over in bed and nuzzled his side, asking for affection, or more, he would find a way to perform.
Even after living with all that, I was still surprised at the range, the sheer number, of women that Frank had been with. Well, really, who knows how much any of it was true? But there were stories, lots of stories that came out.
If they were true, then there had been some awkward entanglements, from the perspective of the paper’s org chart, especially when you factor in the wives of senior executives, and so while you might have expected the paper to mount an editorial campaign, calling for the police to do more to solve the murder, etc., there was just silence. To editorialize about Frank’s death would have invited more scrutiny, and if there’s one thing a newspaper hates the most, it’s scrutiny of its own self.
The one that surprised me the most was the bimbo from the classified ad phone bank. I ran into them once, getting off the elevator as I was returning to the newsroom. It was the paper’s back entrance, close to the loading dock where the newly bundled papers came down for the delivery drivers. Frank had his hand on her elbow, as if he were guiding her somewhere.
She looked up at me that day with her eyes wide, like a child caught in the act. Frank told me later that he was just helping her to her car after she had complained of some nausea, and I had learned by then to let some things pass.
Frank had been hired to “change the complexion of the newsroom,” as he liked to put it. But he sensed that the institutionalized racism of the city’s established newspaper did not end on the editorial floor. It was throughout the building, and Frank often roamed into areas where most reporters never go to, the janitors’ locker, the garage, the mailroom, wherever there was a black face or two. Frank wanted to let them know, and their bosses know, that someone with some influence on the executive floor was aware of their existence.
About a week after the killing, the classified phone clerk popped up in the newsroom and came over to my desk. “I’m real sorry about what happened,” she said, a tear pausing below her eye and then streaking down the brown skin of her cheek.
Sorry about what, I thought. That Frank was dead, or that you were doing Frank on your breaks from taking orders for those lines and lines of classifieds, that black agate gold that brought in so much money for the Star, the daily assembled listings of apartments to rent and used cars and darling kittens, free to a good home.
There was a news story about the murder, of course, but even that wasn’t on Page One. And then there was an obituary. And then there was the “second day” story, with police providing their theory that the killing had a “romantic dimension” to it.
Wasn’t that a hell of a thing to say? You get stabbed with a blade and left to bleed out in your shower. And the cops see that as romantic somehow. It was convenient, of course, for the police to conclude that Frank’s death was the result of his romantic entanglements. The PD had a score to settle, from the Hanrahan case.
No matter what else you might say about him, Frank had made a difference. He made the police change their policy of carrying “nondepartmental weapons” in their cars. In other words, there would be no more drop knives conveniently appearing when a civilian went down in some inner city neighborhood.
Frank had changed the paper for the better, too. There were people like me, former interns or part-timers whom Frank had kept an eye on, challenging us to do better and letting us know that it was always worth it to make that extra call or to keep questioning an official explanation even when everyone else had give up.
I kept pursuing it, Frank’s death, that is, on my own time and with my own money. I figured I owed that to him. At one point I got the bright idea of hiring an FBI profiler, an ex-FBI profiler, to see if he could put together a best-guess of who the killer might be.
The trail was pretty cold by then, and I didn’t have enough money to pay him to conduct additional interviews on his own. So I just sent him copies of the police report, pictures of the crime scene, and the autopsy report.
As the police had already concluded, there really wasn’t any way to determine whether the killer was male or female or whether the knife was expertly inserted or just a lucky lunge. I guess because he really didn’t have much to report on, the profiler ended up writing up two scenarios, one for a male killer and one for a female.
How he came up with his conclusions, I don’t really understand. Maybe he was just making it all up. A male killer, the profiler said, might have been motivated by revenge for some specific grievance. A male killer would have acted according to a premeditated plan. Those are the things that I focused on, the vengeance and the planning. Unfortunately they could have applied either to Hanrahan or Sgt. Greene, or to someone acting on their behalf. To cover himself, the profiler also said a male killer could have been a random person off the street, although he put the likelihood at that at only about 5 percent.
A female killer wasn’t acting out of revenge so much, the profiler said, but because she wanted to reclaim something, something Frank had and that she wanted back. It could have been something specific, or it could have been something less tangible, like the kind of life the person had before Frank came on the scene.
I tried to picture fat Mrs. Hanrahan with a knife in her hand, but it just didn’t seem believable. What would she want from Frank? It’s not like reporters carry a secret decoder ring or a special pen to take down notes with. She would have been too clumsy and slow to have stabbed him.
Frank had promised me that he would tell me how things wound up with this stalker, but he never did. So I’m not sure if she was still possibly in the picture or not.
That was the one thing about Frank that I found disappointing. He made promises sometimes that he wasn’t always good at keeping. He told me once that I had come to hold a place in his life like no one else ever had and that he would start clearing away some of the other stuff, some of the other people. He didn’t get make very much progress on that particular promise.
Frank had vowed that he would put the other relationships aside so that we could work together on ours. I believed, and still believe, that he meant that, but it was clear that he had not gotten very far. To use one of his favorite puns, he had barely taken a nick out of things for The Nick. One of things that I had asked for him to work on was his collection of “people souvenirs.” He had them in various places around the apartment, and they sometimes made me uncomfortable, particularly the ones from women. I had finally gotten him to agree to at least remove the ones he had in the bedroom, but just getting that much was a struggle.
Before Frank’s family came up to clear his stuff out of the apartment, I got Esslick, the cops reporter, to pull some strings, so that I could get in and take a look around. I still had a key to the place, and the cops said they were done with their evidence gathering, having taken all the pictures, measurements, and fingerprints they needed.
I spent maybe 20 minutes, half an hour inside, going room to room and thinking about Frank. Mostly I remembered the way that he could make me feel when we were alone together, and I couldn’t help but smile at how little he had done on that last promise he had made to me.
The only token that I could tell that he had gotten rid of was the stuffed panda that he had called Ling Ling.
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.