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.

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 (newsreview.com) 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.

To read additional stories about Gary Webb's Dark Alliance, go to www.ocweekly.com.

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