30 July 2018

A Tiny Little Foot


We have a special treat today. Jim Thomsen, a newspaper reporter and editor for more than twenty years, has been an independent editor of book manuscripts since 2010. His short crime fiction has been published in West Coast Crime Wave, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern and Switchblade. He is based in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more about him at jimthomsencreative.com  

I should point out that this piece is about true crime and includes language and deeds you would not find in, say, a cozy novel. - Robert Lopresti

A TINY LITTLE FOOT

by Jim Thomsen

On June 28, 2018, a disgruntled reader walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and shot several people, killing five. That evening, the survivors pushed aside their shock and grief because, as one reporter put it, there was no other choice. As he put it: “We are putting out a damn newspaper.”

That quote brought back to mind an incident that happened almost twenty years before, one with strong echoes of that tragedy. One to which I bore painfully intimate witness. This essay is adapted from a Facebook post.

August 20, 1998, just before nine a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning. I'm a reporter at the Bainbridge Island Review. Our offices are on the ground floor of a two-story building on Winslow Way West, at the edge of the excruciatingly touristy downtown, the sort of place where you can walk off the ferry from Seattle and buy a chunk of lacquered driftwood for $225 in any of a half-dozen shops. It’s my hometown. I love it and despise it in almost equal measure, which is a useful tension for a newspaper reporter to work from.

Most mornings, as I pulled into the parking lot in my battered pickup, I greeted Marge Williams, a retired city councilwoman and the building’s owner. I almost always saw her outside her second-floor apartment, tending to her plants and flowerbeds, or toting a tray of baked treats to the reception desk. But not this morning.

I walk inside to find our publisher, Chris Allen, staring at a damp red stain on the ceiling above the newsroom. Below Marge's bedroom. We think at first it might be spilled paint — after all, the building was a dark red in color and for the last week, Steve Phillips, a longtime islander and local handyman, had been pressure-washing and repainting the exterior. But it doesn’t look like that, quite.

"I don't think that's paint," Chris says.

"Maybe we should check with Marge," I say.

Chris frowns. "Maybe we should check ON Marge."

So we go upstairs. We knock. No answer. The door's unlocked. We go in. Nobody in the living room or kitchen. That left the rooms in back, including the bedroom. Chris tells me to wait as she goes down the hall. A few minutes later she returns, looking hollowed out and sick. She'd found Marge. Not in her bed. But wrapped in her bedding. Everything mummified from view except for —

"A foot," she says to me. "A tiny little foot."

*****

Things happen fast. Cops, everywhere. I didn’t know Bainbridge Island had so many cops. Flashing lights. Bursts of radio chatter and static. Miles of yellow crime-scene tape. I stand on the sidewalk with my colleagues, notebook in hand, all but forgotten. We're in little clusters, murmuring, eyes fixed on some invisible middle distance. Doug Crist pulls up as close as he can get, motions me over. He's in charge that week, as Editor Jack Swanson's on vacation. "What's going on?" he asks.

"Somebody murdered Marge," I say.

"Oh," he says.

And I understand, in that moment, why, when Paul McCartney was told about John Lennon's murder, he said, "It's a drag."

At moments like these, 99.99999 percent of you is somewhere else.

*****

Things happen fast. A couple of hours later, we're in nearby offices belonging to local PR guy/movie theater owner Jeff Brein, who's graciously given us space to work. We've managed a few notebooks, pens, computers, stuff from our own office, before Police Chief John Sutton politely, even apologetically, kicks us out. Jack, who's been vacationing at home, comes in, takes over. We watch from the parking lot as Seattle TV cameras set up at the edge of the perimeter.

We huddle up: Jack, Doug, Chris, education reporter Pat Andrews, photographer Ryan Schierling, I forget who else. Me.

We agree right off on a few things:

One, we’ve got a job to do. No losing our shit till later. Much later.

Two, it’s OUR story. It’s a Bainbridge Island story. It doesn’t belong to The Seattle Times or the Seattle P-I or the Kitsap Sun, the daily in Bremerton, an hour away. It doesn’t belong to KOMO-TV, or KING, or KIRO, or Q-13. Or anybody else. It belongs to the Bainbridge Island Review, a twice-weekly with a circulation of about 10,000. We don’t talk to the interlopers, we don’t make their jobs easier, we don’t act like eager freshman frat pledges for their fucking journalism farm team. Fuck them.

We plot out avenues of attack, and get to it. But first we meet individually with the cops and give our statements. Mine takes more than an hour.

*****
John Sutton is a smart cop, and beyond that, he’s a community cop. He gets it. That night, late, he lets us back into our offices once, I soon learn, he clears me as a suspect. He sits down with us and says, “OK, you guys, and you alone. What do you want to know?”

Why was I a suspect? I ask. Because, he says, I was at the newsroom late the night before, working, and then puttering around so I could listen to the Mariners beat the Blue Jays in extra innings. I later went to a friend’s house, and she verifies when I arrived and when I left.

We move on to questions about the autopsy, and it’s then that I learn that I missed the murder by two hours, three at most. It’s then that I wonder for the first of roughly 48,023 times what I would have done, or not done, had I been there when the killer started up the stairs. Always.

John patiently answers all our questions as best as he can, way past midnight.

Once we learn that Steve Phillips was arrested with a bloody golf club in his trunk, our Bainbridge-ness kicks into fifth gear. Steve’s estranged wife is a childhood classmate of mine. She agrees to talk to me, tells me about Steve, whose half-brother JayDee Phillips, a childhood classmate and occasional pal, was one of the island’s last murder victims, nine years before. She tells me about years of anger and abuse that go back at least that long. Jack gets some great stuff on Marge’s background; Doug, Pat, everyone does heroic work. And, as we learn the next day, paying loose attention to the TV stations and the other papers, mostly exclusive work. Chris gives us everything we need to function, and above her, Sound Publishing President Elio Agostini pledges every possible resource.

Friday afternoon, after stretching press deadline as far as possible, we put the Saturday edition of the Review to bed. Then we keep reporting. There are press conferences. Prosecutorial maneuvers. People who hug me in Town & Country and have something to share, sometimes something worth chasing. We keep chasing. We’re too tired to stop.

*****

Somewhere around 7 p.m., someone in the newsroom says to knock it off. It’s time to give ourselves a break. We did it. We kicked the living shit out of the story sixteen ways from Sunday. We did it. Now it’s time to stop looking at the stain on the ceiling and grieve our friend Marge. And drink. Drink heavily. We take over an outdoor table at the Harbour Public House, or maybe it was Doc’s Marina Grill. There’s fifteen or so of us. We’re grubby, weary, not especially articulate.

But we toast to Marge, and we toast to ourselves. We had a damn newspaper to put out, and by God, we put out a damn newspaper.

A few months later, Steve Phillips was convicted of aggravated, premeditated first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. I testified at his trial. It turned out that he finished the painting job, drank and gambled it away at the tribal casino just across the bridge from the north end of Bainbridge Island, and decided in that state that he hadn’t been paid enough. He drove back to Marge’s apartment, angrily confronted her in the middle of the night, and when she refused to give him more money, he beat her to death with a golf club.

I stayed on at the Review for another year, then moved on to other papers and other places. I finished my newspaper career with a long run as the night news editor at the Kitsap Sun, the paper I helped misdirect during the pursuit of the Marge Williams story. I have no regrets about that. That’s what a good newspaper person does, and I hope I was a good newspaper person. Or at least one who got out the damn newspaper every night. No matter what.

5 comments:

janice law said...

A good reminder about how hard a job journalism can be - and how important it is when done well.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thanks for sharing this story with the utmost honesty. I had a burger at the Harbour Public House when I visited the island. I read quite a few books by journalists. Stroby, Brad Parks, Julia Dahl. You can tell a story by someone who hasn't done it or researched it properly a mile away. This is a hardboiled, cutthroat profession. The last photographer I met reminded me of the dockworkers and knockaround guys at the port more than any office drone.

Eve Fisher said...

Wow. What a story. What a thing to have to go through yourself. And then report on, honestly, accurately, determinedly. Thank you.

Jim Thomsen said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks. And glad you made it to the Harbour House, Thomas! That place was my after-hours office back in the day — the old Review office was a quarter-mile away. (Postscript: today that building is the Marge Williams Center for Bainbridge Island nonprofit organizations. A fitting tribute to a wonderful lady.)

Leigh Lundin said...

You still got it, Jim. The story-behind-the-story is fascinating. Even the title makes a reader shudder. I have a friend who will want to read this.

In the days before SleuthSayers kicked into gear, a handful of former newspapermen used to follow us such as James Ritchie and especially Dick Stodghill. We miss them!