Kill the Messenger

Gary Webb, 1955-2004

Photo by Brad WilsonThere's no evidence of foul play in thedeath last week of Gary Webb, but that hasn't stopped the conspiracy mill from working 24-hour shifts. As a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb uncovered the CIA's role in the 1980s Los Angeles crack-cocaine epidemic. Internet postings figure Webb died at the hands of a CIA spook. In fact, it was the media that killed him.

Early reports say Webb perished of self-inflicted gunshot wounds at his Sacramento-area home on Friday. According to a Dec. 12 Los Angeles Times obituary, Webb had by that time lost his job and family thanks in part to controversy over his August 1996 Dark Alliance series. Webb's meticulous reports ignited a firestorm of outrage in South-Central LA and a public-relations nightmare for the CIA. They turned Webb into a minor celebrity. Controversy followed. "Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb's reporting," the Times reported.

I first met Webb as debate over his work was cresting, in late 1996. He was in Santa Monica to speak at the now-closed Midnight Special Bookstore. Many in the audience seemed eager to hear Webb accuse the CIA of deliberately dealing dope in the inner city. But Webb began his speech by drawing the sorts of subtle distinctions he drew in his work. He insisted he didn't believe the CIA would—let alone could—intentionally spark the crack-cocaine epidemic.

Some in the crowd booed him.

By then, Webb's story had become a magnet—and potential source of credibility—for every conspiracy theorist claiming the CIA was involved in drugs, murder or mind control. Yet despite its ominous title, Dark Alliance wasn't about a massive CIA plot. It was about the agency's tie to exactly one major drug ring—which happened to include the most successful crack dealer in South-Central during the 1980s: Freeway Ricky Ross.

Well before Webb even knew of Ross, the Los Angeles Times had dubbed Ross—a flamboyant drug dealer now serving life in prison—the "king of crack." But then the Times fecklessly dropped Ross' story. Webb simply revealed one feature of Ross' peculiar luck: the CIA had helped protect his Nicaraguan cocaine smugglers from federal prosecution. The CIA's interest was mercenary: the drug ring's profits purchased weapons for the U.S.-backed war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

Working with Ross' Nicaraguansuppliers was a mysterious ex-Laguna Beach cop named Ronald Lister. When cops raided his Mission Viejo home for drugs in 1986, Lister darkly warned his interrogators he worked for the CIA, which wasn't going to be happy about the raid. After Webb's story, the CIA took a rare step. In a press release designed to aid Webb's critics in the media, the agency categorically denied ever having employed Lister.

Because Lister was an ex-Orange County cop, I spent months looking into his possible connection to the CIA. That effort alone made it almost impossible to work on any other story—and made me understand what Webb was up against: haggling with slow-moving local, state and federal bureaucracies over records; interviewing reluctant co-conspirators; sizing up potential charlatans; deciding whether to meet with sources who promise big information in out-of-the-way places. There seemed no escape from the story—not at work, certainly, but even in my personal life, where friends and family expressed skepticism about "conspiracy theories" and fear that I had entered my own terminal dark alliance.

Webb's story had already revealed that Lister's Newport Beach security company worked in El Salvador during the civil war there, even meeting with leaders of that country's notorious right-wing death squads. After my first article ran, Webb called and thanked me. He said it was refreshing to see another journalist take his story seriously and actually try to add to the reporting. The LA Times, for example, scooped by Webb on the source of Ross' cocaine, now backpedaled desperately: having once crowned Ross a member of crack's royal family, it suddenly demoted him to a mere street thug "dwarfed" by other crack dealers.

For the next several months, Webb and I spoke about once a week, up to an hour each time, sharing the thrill of chasing an important story the mainstream media seemed eager to dismiss.

In late 1996, I tracked down Tim La-france, who flew to El Salvador with Lister's security firm. Lafrance claimed Lister was a CIA operative who helped funnel weapons to the U.S.-backed contras. I also discovered that the late Bill Nelson, a former second-in-command at the CIA, more recently an executive at Irvine-based multinational Fluor Corp., had helped Lister with his Central American "business" deals. I interviewed a pair of ex-spooks who admitted they knew Lister—and then nervously denied Lister had any relationship to the CIA. One of them, a Fairfax, Virginia-based security consultant and former CIA agent, advised me to ponder the fact that "some people" weren't going to be happy about my reporting.

That was creepy. Creepier still was discovering from Webb the story of reporter Danny Casolero. In 1991, Casolero was investigating Iran-contra-era covert operations in California. Among his potential contacts were Lafrance and one of the ex-spooks with whom I'd spoken. Casolero never got to put his story to bed: he was discovered dead in the bathtub of a West Virginia hotel room in 1991. Noting several deep wounds in Casolero's forearms, the coroner ruled it suicide. But then as now, widespread speculation of CIA hitmen followed. It was easier for some to believe a tale of assassination than to accept the more mundane possibility of a struggling freelance writer, doggedly pursuing the story of his life, now reaching the end of his dwindling financial and psychological resources.

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