Kill the Messenger

Gary Webb, 1955-2004

As far as I know, Webb didn't have an opinion on Casolero's death. But he thought it noteworthy the covert operations Casolero had chased led to some of the same characters I had interviewed about Lister—a weird coincidence Webb would mention in his 1998 book, Dark Alliance. But Casolero's wasn't the only odd suicide involving Webb's story. Back in the late 1980s, a federal prosecutor probing the Dark Alliance drug ring in Los Angeles had been found in his car, apparently after shooting himself. Shortly after leaving the San Jose Mercury News, Webb asked me to run up to LA to find and mail him the death certificate, just to make sure it described the agent's gunshot wound as self-inflicted. It did.

During our many telephone conversations, I remember asking Webb whether he ever felt threatened. He just laughed. Webb's partner, Georg Hodel, a Swiss reporter based in Nicaragua who helped report the original Dark Alliance series, had received death threats in Central America and had once been violently run off the road by an unmarked car.

But as Webb was all too aware by then, his real danger was losing his career and paycheck, if not his credibility.

In May 1997, Webb's editors at the Mercury Newsstepped back from his stories, apologized for "errors" in them and reassigned him to a tiny bureau in Cupertino, California. Webb soon quit; went through a divorce; and wrote Dark Alliance, the 540-page book defending his original articles. A year later, there was exoneration: the CIA's Inspector General reported the agency knew the Nicaraguan contras were trafficking cocaine and not only did nothing to stop the business, but also specifically directed agency employees not to report it.

I kept in touch with Webb and sharedoccasional updates on Lister from heavily censored, sporadically released FBI reports. He seemed excited to hear about my discoveries, but as they dwindled over time, so did the frequency of our contact. Although he had been pushed out of journalism by the mainstream media, the alternative media treated him like a king. Esquire magazine published a detailed story about his career. Hollywood seemed interested in a Dark Alliance film.

Webb worked for a few years as a researcher for the California Legislature. But this summer, he told me he had been laid off and he was once again looking for work as a reporter. He promised to pay a visit during a weekend motorcycle trip to LA for a series of job interviews. It rained that weekend; in any case, Webb never called.

When I found out a month later he had joined the Sacramento News & Review as a staff writer, I left him a congratulatory message. He didn't return my call. I forgave him, imagining he was busy working on big stories. He was. Go to the News & Review website ( and read "The Killing Game," an October piece in which Webb examines the military's new interest in computer killing games; it displays everything that made Webb one of the nation's great investigative reporters—his toughness, accuracy, wit and grace. But he was also just trying to move on with his life, which had been ruined by a story that wouldn't forget him.

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