Living with it

By Andrea Klassen
A 13-year-old girl’s murder trial captured the nation’s attention, and consumed James Neeley’s life. How a rookie reporter got the story of his career, and a lesson in courtroom trauma.

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To listen to an audio file about James Neely’s first day at court:
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By Andrea Klassen

It was a Sunday afternoon in April 2006, and James Neeley was fighting a losing battle with his hangover. His shift at the Medicine Hat News had just started and Neeley, fresh from two days of drinking in Banff, was struggling to stay focused.

At least the newsroom was quiet. Most of the paper’s staff was off for the weekend. Only the sports reporters and photographers were coming in.

Then Alan Poirier showed up.

The managing editor broke the news: Police had found three dead bodies. It might be a murder-suicide.

The next morning, the city would wake up to the biggest news story it had ever seen. Medicine Hat was about to be shocked, saddened and thrust into the national spotlight.

So was Neeley.

Over the next year and a half, the story would change the course of Neeley’s career. It would also keep him up at night, send him to a counsellor, and introduce him to the realities of covering a traumatic story.

But all that came later. That Sunday, the details were starting to come in.

A local couple and their eight year-old son were dead. The case was being treated as a homicide, not a murder-suicide. And the couple’s 12 year-old daughter was missing. “Once we heard she was missing, it was kind of funny,” Neeley remembers, with a soft chuckle. “We were throwing out theories and sure enough, one of the theories that comes is, maybe the daughter did it.”

Two days later, Medicine Hat Police arrested two suspects in connection with the case — the girl and her 23-year-old boyfriend. Both were charged with three counts of first degree murder.

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klassen3_01.jpgNeeley didn’t plan on a career in journalism. After getting a BA in sociology from Olivet College in Michigan, he applied to study criminology at the University of Windsor. He didn’t get in.

He became a reporter because of a dream in which a voice told him he should write for a living. That led him to the journalism program at St. Clair College in Windsor. After graduation, the Sudbury native packed his bags and headed west to the Lacombe Globe, a weekly newspaper in central Alberta. After six months, he moved to Medicine Hat.

I first met Neeley about a year later, at the start of an internship at the Medicine Hat News.

In the year since the murders he’d gone from a general assignment reporter — he’d been on the job eight weeks when the story broke — to the paper’s crime and court beat. The first thing I noticed was his suit, a three piece number straight out of a black and white movie. Neeley looks like a traditional 1940s crime reporter, so long as one ignores the black plugs in his earlobes and the tattoos on his biceps.

Though the girl’s trial was still a month away, Neeley was already preparing for the story. In fact, he’d been preparing since the arrest.

He’d planned to steal the story from the paper’s crime reporter, Norm LeBus. When LeBus transferred to Lethbridge in December, Neeley knew the story was his.

“It’s like Christmas can’t come fast enough,” he remembers.

When I ask Neeley why he wanted the story so badly, he repeats the question, confused.

“Why? Because it’s a monster. It’s a huge story. And it’s fascinating,” he says. “And it’s the biggest story. I wanted it. I like the big stories. I want to write murder, death, mayhem, and that’s what I want.”

But by June 2007, Neeley was starting to worry.

The girl’s trial had attracted national attention. News outlets across the country were sending journalists. He was going to be working next to court reporters who’d been on the beat longer than the 27 year-old reporter had been alive. And while he’d always been fascinated by crime and punishment, Neeley had never covered a murder trial. “My biggest fear was getting beat,” he says. “I mean, CP was there, the Globe was there, the (Calgary) Herald… and I didn’t want to lose.”

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“I can tell you the whole story off the top of my head,” Neeley says, halfway through a phone interview, in the middle of an unrelated question. “The one girl who plead guilty to obstruction of justice, she was sentenced on Tuesday. And I wrote 800 words off the top of my head, because I already knew what she had done.” Three months after a jury found the girl guilty of first degree murder, Neeley is still living with the story. He saved every edition of the Medicine Hat News published during the trial, he says. They’re sitting in a pile on his night stand, next to his bed.

Headlines in the pile include: ‘Stabbed in Hall, Boy Died in Bed’ and ‘Victims Bled to Death.’ Nicole Riva, Neeley’s roommate and fellow journalist, remembers watchingklassen12_01.jpg police officers break down on the stand while describing the murder scene.

But when I ask him how he handled weeks of graphic testimony, especially as a young reporter, Neeley isn’t sure what to say.

At the end of the trial he went to a counsellor, to see if he needed therapy, “because everybody kept saying to me, ‘oh man, I don’t know how you can do that’ and, ‘you must be affected by it.’ People who were like, ‘it had to have hit you in some way.’ And it didn’t.”

Neeley’s voice rises, he speaks faster. “I’m cool, I’m alright.”

Yeah, the crime scene photos messed him up (his words). He can picture the bodies of the murdered family right now, he says, and doesn’t think he’ll ever forget them. But working on the trial wasn’t as difficult as people think. Having other court reporters around helped. And since the case was on everyone’s mind, he always had someone to talk to.

“It’s not like you’re bottling anything up,” he says. “If you weren’t sure about something, you were worried about something, you talked about it and someone would make a joke about it. It takes the edge off.”

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For veteran journalists Kelly Ryan and Christie Blatchford, dealing with memories from graphic, tragic stories is part of the job.

Blatchford, whose popular Globe and Mail column often focuses on grizzly court cases, still remembers the first murder trials she covered. In detail.

After a moment of thought, Blatchford can recall the victims’ ages, the neighbourhoods they were killed in, the alleged murderers’ backgrounds, and the gory details that go with their stories.

It’s not just the early trials she remembers. There are memories to go with all the cases she’s covered. She says that’s how it should be.

“The memories are important,” she says. “I think they should stay with me. I think they should be fucking haunting everybody, frankly.”

Blatchford is an easy crier. She’s cried in court so often it’s become a joke with some of her colleagues. She says she doesn’t cry to make herself feel better, but it does help.

“You have to do something with the pain you absorb, just by osmosis,” she explains. “You have to be able to write it out, or cry it out, or I guess some people drink it out.” Ryan, currently covering the Pickton trial for CBC, has her own strategy. When her stories start to affect her, she’ll see a therapist.

Ryan was one of the first reporters on the trial to seek counseling. She remembers hearing testimony beyond her imagination, and having nightmares where Pickton chased her through houses.

The preliminary hearing was the most difficult, partially because a publication ban prevented reporters from writing about what they heard, something both Ryan and Blatchford consider cathartic. Seeing a therapist gave Ryan a chance to get the story out of her head.

klassen22_01.jpg“I’m a firm believer in shrinks,” she says. “Reporters who say ‘we are tough, we don’t need anybody to help us through’ are fooling themselves. These things should affect us, and if they don’t something’s wrong.”

But she says most reporters won’t think about the emotional effects of their job until they’ve worked on disturbing stories. She didn’t.

That’s something Dr. Stephen Ward, director of journalism ethics at the University of British Columbia, is trying to change. For the past four years, Ward’s ethics classes have included seminars on trauma. He says the classes have surprised many of his students, who never thought their stories could affect them personally.

Journalists have traditionally adopted tough, unflappable attitudes. But Ward says it’s becoming easier for reporters to admit they are traumatized and deal with it, something he encourages his students to do.

“We tell students even a mild trauma will not go away,” he says. “You have to talk about it. You have to have someone to talk about it. You have to get rid of that stress within you. And don’t think you can just sit and drink your way through it.”

It’s all about minimizing harm, he explains. Ethical reporters shouldn’t hurt their interview subjects, or themselves.

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“I miss it now,” says Neeley, near the end of our interview. If he looks out of his fourth floor apartment, he can see the red brick front of the courthouse that captured his attention for almost six weeks.Neeley says the trial made him a sharper writer. It also made it easier to ask difficult questions. And, if he’s lucky, the trial he describes as the story of his career moved him a step closer to his dream job: writing a column for the Globe and Mail.

But, after the trial ended, there was one strange moment.

In August 2007, Neeley headed home for a vacation, and saw his seven year-old nephew.

“I looked at him,” he remembers, “and it was weird, that was a creepy experience, I don’t even know why it popped into my head, because I hadn’t thought about the trial in a while — I looked at my seven year old nephew, and [the girl’s eight year-old brother] popped into my head. And I’m like, that’s what’s been making everybody cry.”