The first dead body I saw not in a hospital or a casket was lying in an alley. There were two of them. They were a couple, and that’s why they were dead because the woman’s ex-husband wasn’t happy about it.

My first homicide as a reporter was the first murder in 10 years in the town where I live. It happened on a weeknight, two blocks from City Hall where I was covering a meeting. The radio station sent someone to get me. These were the days before cell phones and text messages when news tips came from police scanners and the lips of people you trusted. I grabbed my notebook and tape recorder and ran the few blocks to the crime scene, heart pounding not from the exertion but from the adrenalin of a big story and the fear of screwing it up in the telling.

I’d covered crime before in a city bigger than this one. One of my first news stories there was about a carload of people who’d been shot in the parking lot of a strip club. No one died in that incident and I didn’t see the carnage firsthand although the news director I worked for did. I just covered the police briefings and trial. But the hometown murder in the alley that night was mine to report.

The crime scene was easy enough to find. I just followed the flashing lights and the uniforms. Onlookers were kept at bay which was no easy task since a lot of them were drunk. The murder had taken place behind a popular bar and everyone there had witnessed the confrontation that led to the final act. I skirted the crowd and went down the alley. I didn’t ask anybody where I could go; I was with the press so I just went. I came around a police cruiser and saw the dead man’s legs first. I kept moving until I could see the rest of him. And her. They’d been shot.

Dead people look normal in caskets. Not “alive” (no mortician is that good) but they don’t look out of place. Bodies in alleys do. It doesn’t matter if they’re laid out sleeping or flung across the asphalt bleeding, they don’t belong there. I saw the crime scene for about 30 seconds before an officer barked, “Get back! What are you doing?”

“Press,” my 22-year-old voice squeaked. I was hustled back behind the line.

A press briefing was hastily thrown together back at City Hall. It was crowded and crazy. Muffled sobbing. Squawk of police radios. Chatter of the press corps. The police chief’s statement was short and to the point: two victims shot and killed, one suspect in custody, no names released until the families could be notified. Questions were shouted but few were answered. It was too early to know much of anything.

I rushed back to the station, typed up a quick story with a sound bite from the chief, and broke in to regular programming with a “This just in…” news announcement. The story broke fast – confessions, charges, funerals, trial, sentencing. I followed it the whole way and for the first time since becoming a radio news director, I felt like a real reporter with an important story to tell. A few months later, when the next murder came along (this one a stabbing at a local motel), I was ready.

I eventually left the radio station for a state bureau chief job with United Press International and I would have happily worked there until the reporter’s notebook was plucked from my cold dead fingers but a corporate bankruptcy followed by massive lay-offs put an end to that. Other reporting opportunities in other places slipped from my grasp because my home situation didn’t allow for a move. One of the toughest professional decisions I ever made was to stay where I am for the good of my family. Some days I still regret it.

The people we want to be don’t always end up being the people we become. The roads we travel, either professionally or personally, have exit ramps and intersections and sometimes even a good GPS can’t save you from getting lost. My road led me to start writing fiction and not surprisingly, a good chunk of it is more dark alley than sunny meadow. The reporter’s instincts may be rusty but they’re still getting used and I’m grateful for that.

What unexpected place did YOUR road take YOU and how has it shaped the person you are now?

And if you’re interested in hearing the story of one woman’s journey from the dark into the light, HOT OFF THE WIRE is pleased to be hosting author Margaret Norton Mon., Feb. 20, 2012 for her blog tour to promote the re-release of her book “When Ties Break” as an e-book. Swing by for my review and some Q&A with Margaret herself. I might even break out the dessert plates and serve some refreshments. Feel free to bring a friend.

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Comments
  1. My husband was a news photographer (now photo editor) and saw s**t by the age of 20 that I never have and hope I never will…I started out at 3 big dailies, last one the NY Daily News….canned in 2006…

    It’s been interesting. As the recession killed my freelancing, I ended up taking a PT sales job at a store in a suburban mall. That became my 2nd book (optioned by CBS as a sitcom but stalled pre-pilot) and some well–paid speaking gigs as I try to turn senior retail executives into more insightful managers.

    Here’s a link to the book….

    http://malledthebook.com/

    • Congratulations on the book! Can’t wait to read it. Here’s a touch of irony for you: when I was laid off by UPI, it was just before the holidays and the easiest jobs to find were retail. I unloaded trucks in the warehouse at Kmart in the mornings and was a sales associate at a Bostwicks afternoons and evenings. Aside from keeping money coming in to pay the bills, the only good things about the situation is that the Kmart job kept me in good shape and with my employee discount at Bostwicks, everyone in the family got clothes for Christmas that year.

      Funny to think that the fate of former journalists may be to wind up handing hangers through dressing room doors and finding polite ways to say, “Ma’am, are you sure you’re a size 4?” Thanks for reading the blog and taking a moment to comment!

  2. Nisha says:

    I can imagine how scary that must have been for you the first time. My ‘encounters’ with murder victims come from watching CSI! Lol. But I have no idea how I would react if I came across an actual murder scene.
    I think you were very brave for a 22-year-old! 🙂

    • Nisha, good to hear from you! I don’t know about brave – foolhardy, maybe? You never know what emotions are going to surface in those situations. All you can do is hope for the best and ride it out, whatever shows up…

  3. Nancy Franke says:

    Love it. As a small town newspaper reporter, I accompanied the sheriff’s department on a raid of a local marijuana growing operation. The growers were armed and dangerous, said the sheriff. I can remember praying in the back of the cruiser “Please don’t let me wet my pants in front of all these deputies.”

    • And you probably wouldn’t even have been the first person to pee in the backseat of their car. =) I can relate; for me, it was always the fear of throwing up. Thanks for visiting the Wire and sharing your comments!

  4. Margo Dill says:

    Thanks for posting about Margaret’s blog tour. I am looking forward to the post on your awesome blog!

    • Thanks for the opportunity to join the tour. Her book is totally different than the books I usually read so it’s been an interesting experience. Appreciate you checking out the Wire!

  5. I love your dark side and your stories, both fiction and non-fiction! I often wonder how I ended up a homemaker for twelve years, even though it was a decision I made for myself. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have started writing. Great post as usual!!

    • Has it really been 12 years? Wow. I’m glad I never really stopped writing, although the kind of writing I do has changed over the last 20+ years. Wish I could post more of it here on my blog. Thanks as always for the support.

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