Inside the Southeast shootings story
Paul Duggan’s gripping two-part narrative, Nine Days: The Story Behind the Southeast Shootings, and Deadly Retaliation, spins the tale of the nine fateful days that led to a 30-second spasm of violence in a drive-by shooting that killed 3 and injured six others. In an era of short blasts of twitter feeds, two-line social media status updates and a drive for shorter newspaper stories, Duggan has written about 170 riveting inches. I asked him how he did it.
Brigid: How’d you decide to write the story?
Paul: I covered the story of the drive-by shootings after they first happened in March. Then in April, when more arrests were made, I started seeing all these weird affidavits with all this weird stuff in it. These cops, these homicide people, they’re hard to impress. They see a lot of weird stuff all the time. So when they’re saying to me – ‘This is an amazing story’ ‘This is an incredible story’ - you got to think, it must be.
You know, we get these stories all the time. So and so was shot on such and such corner. No motive. No suspect. It’s the same old stuff everyday. We write all these briefs, and you just know there’s all these dramas behind these homicides. So this story is just one little nine-day window in a continuum of [expletive] that goes on out there all the time.
The affidavit, the charges, that was the framework. The story was all there. I just had to color in the lines.
Brigid: How did you begin reporting the story?
Paul: You read all the paperwork, you figure out what’s on the record, then you can intuit a lot of things – I guess that comes from doing this stuff a lot of the time. You get a general sense of what you think is going on, then the guys you see in homicide all the time, they start to help you fill in the blanks, all the characters, who’s who and who’s doing what.
I spent days out in the neighborhood where all this happened with about 20 different addresses connected to the shootings. So I spent a lot of days soaking up the scenery. You just go out and do it.
Brigid: You knock on the doors of those 20 addresses?
Paul: Yeah. I knocked on those doors and on neighbor’s doors. I always identify myself as a Washington Post reporter, so they won’t think I’m a cop. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to you. They’re suspicious. They pretend that they’re there just for the day. They blow you off. All you get are little scraps of information here and there.
And even when you know you’re not going to get anything, you have to go through the motions. I knocked on the Godmother’s door. Another woman lives there. She came out yelling at me, ‘Get outta here, the cops already came and didn’t find [expletive].' I didn’t expect anyone to welcome me in and invite me for tea.
Brigid: When did you know it was time to start writing?
Paul: I always gather way, way too much stuff. Probably 100 times more detail than I can actually use. I probably spent about three weeks reporting and about three trying to figure out how to write the thing. But I knew I had to do it right. You can’t have any fuzziness. Every detail had to be precise. Had to move the story along. This happened. And that happened as a result. You have to have it all. Every minute, and all these wonderful details. If there’s a sudden lapse into this fog, then people lose interest. It’s got to be like a punch in the nose every step of the way.
Brigid: Did you know all along that the story would be about the nine days before the drive-by?
Paul: There’s a whole thing that happens after they’re arrested – a wild chase, a 14 year-old kid locked up, falsely charged. There’s just so much to this particular story. But it’s only after you do all the reporting, then it occurs to you what the story’s about. I didn’t go into it, thinking, - this is all the mayhem leading up to the drive-by. But once I got it all, I realized, I had this incredible account of those nine days from when the bracelet went missing leading right up to the drive by.
At the end of the first part, Orlando is shot. That’s when the whole sequence of events started to unfold, all the weird intrigue and bizarre stupidity. Like – they were going to blow up one of the funerals but couldn’t get the rental van in time because their debit card was rejected. The cops were chasing them around, one day late everywhere they went. They were honest with me about that – the cops and the prosecutors – they had an opportunity to stop this. They could have short-circuited it.
They know if Orlando gets shot what’s going to happen next – he’s going to strike back. They didn’t know he was going to strike back in such a spectacular fashion. Their mission was – arrest this guy before this thing escalates. But they can’t make an arrest until they have evidence. There was a huge disagreement between the cops and the US Attorney’s office about that. The cops wanted to spin an affidavit and just get the guy off the streets. And the U.S. Attorney said they couldn’t do that legally. They did get a search warrant to search for guns, but they can’t search at night in D.C., and in the intervening hours, the bad guys spirit the guns away so when the cops finally do show up, there’s nothing there.
That’s why I love this story – it’s a window into this world. What the cops are up against, the rules the system has for them, what they can and can’t do. And the guys who obviously have no rules. It’s a little cat and mouse game. And it’s nothing special. It happens everyday in the city, week after week.
Brigid: How did the editors react when you dropped two 80-inch stories?
Paul: I’m writing this thinking, ‘They’re never going to run this thing.’ I have all that doubt. I give it to [Washington Post crime and courts editor] Mike [Semel] and it’s just, hold your breath.
I first said to Mike, “I want to do an 80-inch story.” But it just wasn’t working. You could have written it that way, but you couldn’t have done the whole thing. It wouldn’t have been as intriguing. I was agonizing, thinking, ‘I’m not even near the end and I’m at 65 inches.’ I’d write about four or five graphs, then tighten and tighten and tighten, because it has to move. It can’t stumble anywhere because it’s going to be long, but it can’t read long. Finally I said, ‘I can’t do it. Might as well surprise them with two.’ That was the day the editors came out with the memo on shorter story lengths.
I figured, if it doesn’t read like 170 inches, then they won’t complain. When they [editors] talk about length, length to me is like width – fat. If it’s lean and thin, then it can be longer.
Mike and I work well together. If he didn’t think it worked, he’d let me know. And he knows I’m not going to dump two 80-inch messes into his lap. You get so buried into these things, you need someone to give you some clarity, and he’s good at that. We talked a lot. And the section about the mentality of these people – that was key to the story. He wanted that in there.
The top was very hard to write. I basically started at the end, recreating the drive-by in detail. [Post Executive Editor] Marcus [Brauchli] didn’t like the top we had. He said, this is the 30-second finale, but it was a long time coming. Don’t use all the details at the top. I think I had eight graphs where I described the whole scene. He had me boil it into one, and then put all the details at the end. So I did that on deadline.
That’s the only thing he got involved in. I didn’t hear a word about – ‘It’s too long.” Or ‘It would be better if it were 60 inches rather than 80.’
Brigid: One thing that really struck me in reading your story was the voice. You sound almost like a world weary cop yourself who’s seen it all. Maybe not world weary in that you're tired of it, but at least who knows the streets and the people on them well.
Paul: It’s not like I’m world weary by any stretch. I’m fascinated by all this stuff. Not just me, but anybody who’s done this for a long time, you pick up on the attitude. These are very sardonic kind of people. I think sometimes if you strategically use words in the story like they use, without trying to mimic their voices, just sprinkle in a judicious amount of words in the right place, it has an amazing affect. My favorite word you hear cops use on the street around here is ‘knucklehead.’ Every city seems to have its own slang. In New York City, it might be ‘perps.’ But here, it’s ‘knucklehead.’ So I found a place to use it.
That’s what you want to convey without going overboard. Like the place where Bootsy Carter was placed. Peace Abode. Is that a perfect irony? Like Happy Ranch. It’s too delicious to be real.
An old editor of mine in Providence used to call these kinds of stories the huggermugger. He used to tell me, “You’re good at the huggermugger.”
Paul: It refers to stories like this one. Are you on the computer? Look it up on Google.
Brigid: hug·ger-mug·ger (hgr-mgr)
n. 1. Disorderly confusion; muddle.
2. Secrecy; concealment.
Adj. 1. Disorderly; jumbled.
2. Secret; clandestine.
v. hug·ger-mug·gered, hug·ger-mug·ger·ing, hug·ger-mug·gers
v.tr.To keep secret; conceal.
v.intr. To act in a secretive manner.
It’s also, apparently, the name of a yoga mat.
So what’s next?
Paul: 18 to 25-inch stories. I can physically only do this every so often.
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