Anatomy of a story

Feb 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Using spare, elegant prose, Charlie LeDuff delivered a lead that landed with all the force of a mule kick to the gut, at once breathtaking and devastating.

"This city has not always been a gentle place," wrote the star reporter for The Detroit News, "but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown."

The story, first published Jan. 28 on the paper's website, appeared under the headline: "Frozen in indifference: Life goes on around body found in vacant warehouse."

"It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building," writes LeDuff, explaining how the story came to his attention.

He goes on to note that the body — eventually identified as Johnnie Redding, a homeless man who died of a cocaine overdose — was found by someone playing hockey with friends on ice in the flooded basement of a cavernous warehouse once owned by Detroit Public Schools.

As a sign of the city's indifference to the plight of its homeless, and how cold our collective heart has grown, LeDuff points out that, after the body was discovered, these young men continued playing their game of hockey.

LeDuff wasted no time taking action once he received that call. He grabbed a photographer — even though he says now that he initially had no intention of writing about the incident — and headed over to the warehouse.

He was doing what good journalists do, making sure that the guy on the other end of the phone was telling the truth.

"Before calling the police," wrote LeDuff, "this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax."

It wasn't. LeDuff called 911, but the cops had trouble finding the building. The next day LeDuff returned, and the body was still there. He called 911 again, and eventually the Fire Department arrived and, with LeDuff's guidance, firefighters were able to find the body entombed in three feet of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

Add to the Police Department's apparent lack of urgency and the image of hockey players cavalierly continuing their game as the legs of a nearby dead man stuck out from the ice like "Popsicle sticks" this fact: Some of Johnnie Redding's fellow homeless knew for a month or more that there was a body in the basement of the building where they sought shelter. All that time, they did nothing.

No wonder the story — made all the more dramatic and poignant by LeDuff's dramatic flair and a novelist's eye for detail — was quickly picked up by international news agencies and flashed around the world, adding a macabre exclamation point to the already grim reputation of this downtrodden city.

There were, however, some facts LeDuff didn't bother to include in either his initial report or several follow-up stories, omissions that, when added up, make one wonder whether he brushed aside important details to make a tragic story even more sensational.

Getting called

As with LeDuff, my involvement with this story began with a phone call. It wasn't from some unnamed person, though. It came from Rebecca Mazzei, a friend and former MT editor, now an assistant dean at the College for Creative Studies.

She asked me what I thought of Charlie LeDuff. I told her I didn't know him personally, but in terms of sheer writing ability that he's pretty damn good, a fawning profile of billionaire Matty Moroun notwithstanding.

She then asked: "Did you read the story he wrote about the frozen body found in the basement of that warehouse?"

"Sure. What about it?"

She told me about being out to dinner with a group of friends. The discussion turned to LeDuff's story. Like her, they were troubled by his depiction of Detroit.

That's when one of her dinner companions confessed a secret.

"I know the person who found the body," Mazzei said. "After the story came out, he wrote LeDuff a long e-mail, saying how he disagreed with how some things were portrayed. LeDuff wrote him back and said that he'd like for the two of them to get together. But, since then, he's learned some more things about the story, and he's not sure that he can trust LeDuff."

"He thinks the whole thing was more complicated than Charlie made it seem."

The guy turned out to be Scott Hocking, a local artist and photographer who, among other things, sculpted a pyramid built of scrap inside an abandoned auto plant.

Rebecca said that Scott was in the building photographing the hockey game being played in the bowels of the abandoned building on the city's west side near the vacant Michigan Central train station. After he found the body, he pointed it out to one of the hockey players. The rumor is that the hockey player had some connection to LeDuff, and that he, too, was bothered by the story.

I got Hocking's e-mail address and sent a message saying I was interested in looking into the story. Then we talked. He gave me his version of events. He said he didn't know the name of the hockey player, but might have had a way of contacting him.

"It's important," I said. "If he really does know LeDuff, then it calls into question LeDuff's claim that he didn't call 911 right away because he was skeptical the whole thing might be a hoax."

I also asked him to send me a copy of the e-mail he sent to LeDuff.

In the meantime, I started trying to see if there was some other way to track down the hockey player.

Reaching out

The first call I make is to a friend, Bruce Giffin. A longtime photographer for this paper, we've known each other for nearly 15 years. In his story about finding Johnnie Redding's corpse, LeDuff describes the hockey player who discovered the body as an "urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit." Giffin has been going into abandoned buildings to take pictures for 20 years. In fact, we were both in the building where the body was found — the Roosevelt Warehouse, a former depository for Detroit Public Schools textbooks and supplies, now owned by Matty Moroun — several years ago.

Our story began with the lines: "The old Roosevelt Warehouse on the edge of Corktown has the aura of a graveyard. It's as if this is the place where knowledge went to die."

We also made note of the fact that people were living there: "Although abandoned, the Roosevelt is not unoccupied. One of the residents, a homeless vet, took us on a tour. Visitors are fairly frequent, he says. Kids coming in from the suburbs looking for adventure crawl through a hole in the fence that is supposed to block access."

Until recently an instructor teaching an advanced photography class at a local community college, Giffin leads aspiring photographers on tours of Detroit's abandoned buildings.

I ask him about LeDuff's description of urban explorers who get their kicks sightseeing the ruins of Detroit.

There is something of an adventure to it, he admits. But there's more to it than that.

"I think I must be an optimist if I can find beauty in broken-down buildings," he explains. "I take these kids from the suburbs into them, and they see this beautiful architecture, and they love it. And they are sad to see it going away."

He says he's heard about the hockey players at the warehouse but doesn't know any. He might know someone who knows them, though, and he'll try to put me in touch.

"But I do know someone who took a picture of the body," he says.

He can't see my jaw dropping.

On the day before the hockey player supposedly found the body, Giffin was taking a Dutch photojournalist, Pieter Franken, on a tour to the city's ruins. One of the places they went to was the Roosevelt Warehouse

It turns out that, a day later, Franken, having found Hocking through stories on the Internet, was back in the same warehouse with him. Hocking had found out about the hockey game that was taking place, and both men went to photograph it. Franken, after returning home to the Netherlands, had e-mailed Giffin a picture much like the one that appeared in The Detroit News.

After hanging up, Giffin forwards the e-mail with attached photos from the Dutch photographer.

Dutch connection

Pieter Franken calls me from the Netherlands soon after receiving my e-mail. He tells me that he and Hocking were inside the warehouse for hours on Sunday, Jan. 25, shooting the hockey game. The guys were partying as well as playing, with a good time being had by all. Beers were being downed. The smell of reefer wafted in the air.

At one point late in the afternoon, Hocking wandered off.

"Then he came back over and says to me, "I just found something you need to see,'" recalls Franken.

The body was at least 200 feet, maybe 300 feet, from where the game was being played. The elevator door, which came down from the top, was lowered about three feet. Franken began taking photographs. Hocking retrieved one of the hockey players who had separated from the group, looking for a puck.

"The kid was clearly shaken by the sight," says Franken. "From what I could see, he didn't tell the others about it."

Asked why he didn't call the police, Franken says that he was in the country on a tourist visa, and didn't want to have to explain to the cops why he was trespassing in an abandoned warehouse.

Three days later, Franken was back in the Netherlands, reading LeDuff's article on the Internet.

"He made it come out like these guys were almost playing around the body," Franken says. "That absolutely was not the case. The one we showed the body to was clearly shaken up. He wasn't joking around. I certainly would not have stated that those kids were being cold-hearted."

At the conclusion of the interview, I ask him if he'll sell us any of the photos. He agrees to our standard rate: $70.

Scott's message

Saying the delay was due to the fact he was still considering meeting with the reporter — Hocking finally forwards his e-mail me.

"It's clear from your article that you see this situation from a strong unwavering viewpoint," wrote Hocking, who attached his name to the message, revealing himself to be involved in the incident, taking the chance that he would be exposed and condemned for not notifying authorities.

Hocking wanted LeDuff to understand that he's a compassionate guy dealing with a moral dilemma.

"Yes, this was a dead human being," he wrote. "However, he had been there for months, knowing that the basement had frozen by November. And, as you stated, this building houses many homeless men through the winter. … I wondered if the police would essentially kick all of them out."

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happened after LeDuff wrote his story.

"Maybe one of them would freeze to death?" Hocking wrote.

"Perhaps I did not make the right choice in leaving it up to the hockey players," he admits. (Although he uses the plural when referring to the hockey players in his e-mail to LeDuff, Hocking says he believes only one knew about the body.)

But he explains further that fear of being forced out was "clearly the reason none of the homeless men told the police, or told anyone for that matter. They didn't want to lose their shelter from this brutal winter. I can imagine that most people would first think of the deceased man — who was he, does he have a family, have they been searching for him, etc. Well, I did think those same things, but I also thought of the guys still alive back there — I have a feeling that they to have names and families too. …

"I think the main problem I have with your article is that you seem to make everybody out as bad guys," Hocking continues. "You write that the hockey players continued playing, as if they were completely unaffected by the corpse. I am sure it was more complicated than that. You indicate they were playing hockey ‘last week,' when, in reality, it was Sunday afternoon, and less than 48 hrs passed when one of them called the News. This is was not the behavior of unfeeling monsters. …

"You also make the cops seem incompetent, not responding quick enough and unable to find the body. Yet, you yourself ‘explored' the building before calling it in. Therefore you must be aware that it is not easy to find a way into the basement, let alone the body. …"

"I agree with you more than you know," LeDuff wrote back in an e-mail Hocking shared with me. "I would like to talk — as men — if you would."

But Hocking never took LeDuff up on his offer. As time went on, he told me, he became angrier over LeDuff's portrayal of events, and the way "he made it look like he was the only one willing to do the right thing, riding in on his white horse to save the day."

Adding to Hocking's concerns were 911 recordings the Free Press had obtained, and stories in the paper calling into question LeDuff's implication the police had been either flat-out incompetent or indifferent.

Giving a minute-by-minute account of events based on Police Department records, Free Press reporters Ben Schmitt and Zachary Gorchow, on Friday, Jan. 30, reported something LeDuff failed to: That, contrary to what LeDuff had signaled, police indeed found their way to the warehouse within about a half hour of taking LeDuff's initial call.

"It doesn't appear there was any lack of police response or delay in their response in arriving at the location," department spokesman James Tate told the paper. "It's a large warehouse that was full of debris, which makes it very difficult — especially when it's dark — to locate a body in ice," Tate added.

It also didn't help that LeDuff wasn't there to show them exactly where the body was. According to a follow-up story by Oneita Jackson of the Free Press, LeDuff went back to his office before notifying authorities.

The body was discovered the next day, Wednesday, Jan. 28, when LeDuff showed up to guide firefighters to the exact location.

LeDuff refused to comment on his account of events when contacted by Free Press reporters, according to the paper's story.

In addition talking with police, the Free Press also filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the 911 tapes. Copies of the recordings were posted on the paper's website.

Although LeDuff waited to return to his office to make his call to police on that Tuesday, he apparently stuck around the warehouse long enough to talk with some of the other homeless men living in the building. He tells the dispatcher, "Know what's funny about it — there's a bunch of homeless guys there who knew about it but didn't report it."

In his initial article he reports that one of the men says he didn't have the quarter needed to make a pay phone call to the police, who the man said "probably wouldn't show up anyway."

The 911 tape records LeDuff saying the body looks like a Popsicle.

Following leads

One contact leads to another, as I keep trying to get in touch with the hockey player. Along the way, I pick up pieces of information from people who don't want their names used. Several times I hear that the hockey player knows LeDuff. Someone else tells me a local photographer named Frank Parker might be the person who served as the intermediary who called to tell LeDuff about the body.

I do an Internet search and find Parker's bio on a Web page he created. He notes that he'd once served in the military, and that he'd worked as a database programmer for Ford Motor before graduating from art school. Then I find a long interview with LeDuff, also posted on the Web, in which LeDuff describes having three younger brothers, one of whom lives in the Detroit area, was in the military, worked at Ford, attended art school and is trying to make it as a photographer.

I'm sure Parker and LeDuff consider themselves brothers, and that, considering the confidence I have in my sources, it was Parker who made that initial call to LeDuff.

Is that significant?

Consider for moment that, instead of reading the line "It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a body…" and then change just a few words.

"It starts with a phone call from my brother …"

Now ask yourself this: If your sibling called to tell you that a distraught close friend had come to him with a story about finding a body in an abandoned warehouse and wasn't sure what to do, would you be worried about a hoax?

Contact made

Bruce Giffin's connection pays off. He doesn't want to be named, but he can get me in touch with the hockey player.

The player is a 25-year-old aspiring photographer who also doesn't want his name used. He talks about being shown the body by Hocking, and being unnerved. He tells me that he didn't tell his fellow players about the experience because it was so traumatic, and he didn't want to lay the burden on them.

He did return to the game, though, but says it was only because he didn't want to let on something was wrong. But it wasn't like he went on blithely playing.

"I was kind of in shock," he says.

Asked why he didn't call the police immediately, he says that he's already on probation for trespassing, and doesn't want to get into more trouble. He also says that several years ago friends of his notified police about a body in an abandoned building, and were detained and initially treated as suspects.

Haunting images kept him from sleeping much that night. The next day he turned to a trusted friend for advice. "You have to do the right thing," he says that friend advised. "You have to do the human thing."

I press him several times to reveal the friend's name, but he won't. Asked if it's Frank Parker, he will only say he won't talk about that.

Finally, the player says his friend suggested that a call be placed to LeDuff.

The next day he agreed to meet LeDuff at the warehouse to show him exactly where the body was. And he told LeDuff the story about being shown the body, and going back to finish the game without telling his friends.

He doesn't really criticize LeDuff or the story, but he regrets that it came across that his pals kept on playing, as if they knew the body was there but didn't care: "I guess something got lost in the translation," he says.

I send an e-mail, saying my guess is that he won't give me more details about whom he approached because the friendship is old, and very close, and he doesn't want to jeopardize it. "Thanks for understanding' is his reply.

The only reason he's talking to me, he says, is that he doesn't want people to think his friends are really so cold-hearted that they would go only cavalierly playing hockey while the legs of a frozen man stuck out from the ice a few feet away.

"I just keep coming back to that one line in the story, over and over again," he says. "It's that one line."

"‘They, in fact, continued their hockey game.'"

On the other hand, he's truly relieved that the body is no longer entombed at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

"When I close my eyes at night and try to go to sleep, I don't see those legs sticking out of the ice anymore," he says.

Last call

There's a short list of questions I have for LeDuff when I give him a call Monday.

Before punching in his number, I re-read the stories he's written about the discovery of Johnnie Redding's body, the autopsy that determined the cause of death, his family's reaction to the news, and the funeral that took place.

As hard as it was, news of the death had to be better than not knowing what had come of him. And LeDuff used discovery of the body as a springboard to bring much-needed attention to the miserable plight of Detroit's 19,000 or more homeless people. LeDuff included this paragraph as part of his initial story:

"The human problem is so bad, and the beds so few, that some shelters in the city provide only a chair. The chair is yours as long as you sit in it. Once you leave, the chair is reassigned.

"Thousands of down-on-their-luck adults do nothing more with their day than clutch onto a chair. This passes for normal in some quarters of this city."

LeDuff says he's expecting my call. The questions begin.

Why didn't you stick around to lead police where the body was on that first day you were shown it?

He talks about the delay in their arrival, and the fact that the Detroit News offices are only a few minutes away. The cops know how to get a hold of him.

"I'm not going to hang around all night waiting for them to take the body out. … What do you want me to do, wait around for somebody to show up?"

He tells me, too, that when he initially went out there, he wasn't intending to do a story — even though he brought a photographer along. He says that it wasn't until the next day, after seeing the delay in finding the body, that he determined to write about the incident.

He says, too, that the body "wasn't that difficult to find."

The next question involves a point raised by Hocking in his e-mail. He takes issue with LeDuff saying the body was found "last week," when really it was less than 48 hours between the time the body was shown to the hockey player and LeDuff being shown where the body is. Hocking contends it was part of an attempt by LeDuff to portray things in the worst possible light.

"I don't know what Hocking's problem is. He says in this e-mail that he was taking a Dutch photographer on a fucking tour. Hocking did nothing. He doesn't make a call, and he wasn't going to make a call, and I'm a beast? You step over a guy and do nothing about it, and then you have a problem with me? I don't understand why. But I don't want to get in a pissing match."

Besides, the way LeDuff describes it, he's the one in all this who has a totally clear conscience.

"In the end, the person who called the police was me. And the guy's extracted."

He then says that he understands why some guys might be scared to go to the cops, and why the other homeless guys would choose to remain silent about a body in the ice. And he talks about how desperate the homeless problem is in this city.

And what about the impression left that the hockey players seemingly knew about the body being there and kept on playing?

"All I know is three guys involved in the hockey game knew."

I point out that two of those three were photographers Scott Hocking and Pieter Franken, and that, as best I can tell, only one hockey player knew.

"Do what the fuck you want to do," says LeDuff in response.

Then he points out that he wasn't even called by the hockey player.

No, I say. The hockey player contacted Frank Parker, and Frank Parker called you.

"Look here, man, what the fuck to you want?" asks LeDuff.

I say, this is what I want to know: Why do you think it might be a hoax if the call is coming from your brother, who is relaying information provided by one of his good friends?

"Look here man, my brother's the one who said you have to do the right thing. You have to take care of it."

"Write what you want to," he says, "but those are the facts."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Send comments to [email protected]