My book shares its title with a December 2004 obituary I wrote for this paper about Webb's suicide and how what should have been the greatest story of his career backfired, ruined his reputation, and ultimately drove him out of daily journalism.
The film is directed by Michael Cuesta of Homeland and Dexter fame (he also helmed the fantastic 2001 film L.I.E.). It stars the Academy Award-nominated Jeremy Renner as Webb and Michael K. Williams (The Wire's wonderful Omar) as “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the South Central L.A. drug dealer who for years was supplied by a CIA-tied Nicaraguan drug cartel, thus enabling him to flood America's inner cities with crack cocaine. It was written by Peter Landesman, whose screen credits include Trade as well as the forthcoming Kennedy assassination film Parkland, which marks Landesman's directorial debut.
Webb, then a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, uncovered the source of Ross' cheap supply of coke in 1996, finding that at least some of the profits had been used to aid the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras. By then, the L.A. Times had already identified Ross as the “kingpin” of crack cocaine. Then, after Webb reported his findings in a three-part series that ran in the Mercury News, the Times recast Ross as just a bit player in the crack plague. (I recently wrote about this charade, as well as a puzzling half-apology for his role in the episode by former Times reporter Jesse Katz in a story that ran in L.A. Weekly).
When Webb committed suicide, the Times ran an obituary insulting his memory. Given the role that the newspaper–along with the nation's two other largest print journalism outlets, the New York Times and Washington Post–played in “discrediting” his work, it will be interesting to see how the Times responds to the movie, which is currently scheduled to hit screens worldwide sometime next year.
As I wrote in my obituary for Webb, I first came to know him in late 1996, after following up on some local hooks to his original Dark Alliance story. In particular, I published a series of articles concerning a member of the drug ring he exposed: Ronald Lister, a former Laguna Beach cop turned security consultant and international arms dealer who claimed to be working for the CIA when police raided his Mission Viejo house in 1986.
After filing numerous U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, I uncovered evidence that at the same time he was providing weapons to the Ross drug cartel and the contras, Lister was meeting with a Fluor Corp. security director whose previous job was deputy director of the CIA. Although the FBI investigated Lister's ties to the retired CIA official in 1985, the exact nature of their business relationship remains classified to protect U.S. national security.
As my discoveries thinned and the years passed, I kept in only sporadic contact with Webb, and was unaware of the extent of the depression he was suffering in the wake of losing his job at the Mercury News in May 1997, after the mainstream press attacked his work. The only time I actually met him in person was the following year, when Webb spoke about his book at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica. I had the pleasure of introducing him to the crowd.
Webb signed my copy of his book, “From one newsman to another, keep the faith.”