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Riveting Whodunnit: "Murder on Swann Street"

By Andy Alexander

For me, the best read in The Post this week isn’t in the newspaper. It’s staff writer Paul Duggan’s terrific “Murder on Swann Street,” a two-part narrative that ran online Monday and Tuesday.

The package is a murder mystery about the 2006 fatal stabbing of Robert Wone, a young Ivy League lawyer who died while spending a night away from his wife with three male friends in their stylish 19th-century townhouse in Dupont Circle. Once you start reading, you’re hooked.

Duggan does a masterful job of reconstructing what police investigators believe occurred within a span of 79 minutes from the time Wone arrived at 10:30 p.m. to the moment the stabbing was reported in a 911 call. The initial explanation -- a stabbing by an intruder -- is eventually discounted by investigators who conclude that the friends knifed Wone and then tried to cover their tracks. They have been charged with tampering with a crime scene, disposing of evidence and lying to investigators, although so far there have been no indictments in the killing.

As Duggan writes, the authorities eventually settle on a theory that “inside of about 79 minutes, with no apparent planning: the victim was subdued, drugged by injection and sexually assaulted electrically before being stabbed to death, then washed; the room was cleaned, a phony murder knife was doctored and planted, and the real weapon and other bloody leftovers were made to vanish – with time remaining for the housemates to shower off and get their story straight.”

Some readers have contacted me to complain that that two-part package, prominently promoted on the front of the Metro section, is available only online. I’ll write more about that in my Sunday column.

But the presentation online shows the true storytelling power of the Internet. In addition to the narrative, readers can listen to the frantic 911 call, read the detailed arrest affidavit, view a photo gallery and see a timeline of how police say the crime unfolded. The story remains among the "Most Viewed Articles" on The Post's Web site.

I asked Duggan to explain how he reported the story. Here’s what he said:

We wrote a flurry of stories about Wone's killing in the days after it happened in August '06. But absent new developments, the coverage inevitably slowed and then stopped. For two years-plus, it was a mystery about which we knew (and could learn) very little. Not until last fall, when the three men were charged with obstructing the investigation, did it become clear just how truly strange the whole affair was.

There was still a lot we didn't know, especially about the men involved, about their backgrounds, how they met one another, the nature of their relationships, how they came to be together in that place on that night, and so forth. The goal was to fill in as many of the blanks as possible, about the men and the evidence, and write a coherent account of the case. We had time, since the case wasn't going anywhere. The men were charged and awaiting trial. I started in on this after the holidays, around of the first of the year.
The first problem: As usual, people with information didn't want to share it, and it took a long, long time to pry stuff loose -- weeks, in fact (although I had to put the story aside now and then to work on other stuff, so it wasn't always a full-time endeavor). The next problem: As I plowed through the reporting, it became clear that telling the story in a coherent way was going to require a lot of space. (Metropolitan editor Lynn Medford’s) advice to me was to just write it the way that I thought it should be written, and we'd worry about space later. Before I started writing, I spent a long time outlining it, deciding where all the pieces should go, so that the story would keep moving and keep readers wondering without leaving them confused at any point. Eventually we decided to do it in two parts, each running about 100 inches, since there was a natural break in the middle of the narrative. All told, it took about four months of work, off and on, to get it done.

By Andy Alexander  | June 2, 2009; 5:52 PM ET
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Excellent column, thanks for letting us see reader reaction.

As a former [Post] printist gone digital, my response was very different. I have no problem with online-only publication. It's inevitable, so it's pointless to have that conversation.

My complaint: As online-only journalism, it is a terrible failure--8,000 words of text, no interactivity, the best content [graphic with timeline] buried. No awareness that stories must be told differently on the web.

Any news operation that does online-only journalism has to realize: It's a different medium. Don't pretend the web is an endless newshole.

More on this on my blog [forgive if links are not permitted]:

Posted by: stoltzc1 | June 8, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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