With the rise of blogging, you sort of get used to the fact that nobody's actually reporting on anything. They're "curating", which can in some cases devolve into "cut-and-paste journalism," "recycling," or in some cases just plain "stealing."
But in the recent release "Shell Games," there's an extended dose of full-on reporting that'll make your inner investigative journalist start high fiving itself. Written by the Seattle Times' Craig Welch, a Kansas J-School grad that has spent his career in the land of newsprint and nine-fingered pressmen, "Shell Games" has the meticulous reporting of the best newspaper writing ... and the rich character of an Oliver Stone screenplay. It's a story of wildlife smugglers, and of the cops who love them. And while it touches on the illegal harvesting of everything from aquarium sharks to Dungeness crabs, it's main thread is uncovering the lucrative black market for the giant (and phallic) geoduck clam.
WO: I'm sort of fascinated by when you entered the story and who was your first contact? Like, did you do a piece on one of these guys when you were at the Olympia paper, then just kept tabs on them when you moved to Seattle? Or was it at the very end, when you realized what a ball of twine you'd happened upon?
CW: Actually, it was a little of both.
I met Ed Volz on a geoduck story in 2002 and started pestering him. Over time, he got used to having me around and just started talking. I asked him to make introductions for me. Eventually I would get him (and some others, like Bill Jarmon, Kevin Harrington and a bunch of Feds) to take me out to all the spots they did their work. They'd retrace their steps and show me where they'd been and what they'd been doing and thinking at the time. But all that took a lot of time.
First all I did was go in and tell Ed that I want to know more and more. I visited with him once a month or so for probably two or three years. Eventually I started collecting documents. I got thousands of them -- state arrest reports, federal agent memos, FBI memos. I got so many that I didn't read them at first. I just started putting them in binders.
Only when I sat down and read them did I realize what I had. Cops write reports after EVERY single contact and some of them aren't half bad writers. And they frequently included all this extraneous detail that I desperately needed in order to make a scene work. (Don't know where you are in the book, but during one interrogation scene there were four or five cops in the room and they all wrote about seeing the suspect puff harder on his cigar when the questions got tough. They even wrote about the cloud of smoke hanging above his head. It was awesome.)
Once I had most of the documents, it was pretty easy to know who else to go bug. And one of those guys, a retired federal agent, had kept audio tapes of a bunch of the undercover calls. He was planning on writing a book about it. But he was so excited, he sat in his living room and played them for me. (At the time I was just thinking of pitching a story to Outside, which he was all for. But then he passed away without ever writing his book ... so I decided I would.)
Once I was able to tell other federal agents how much I already knew, they were kind of into it, and pretty happy to share. It's kind of a small community, nationwide, and they all know each other. (The federal agent I met in LA who did the butterfly sting used to be an assistant attorney general in Olympia, for example.)
Sometimes, the material seemed too good to be true, but more often than not, they found a way to prove it. When one of the agents told me that the would-be hit man carried a teddy bear I told him I flat didn't believe him. So he opened up his files and showed me a photograph; someone had actually taken a picture of the guy before he testified in front of the grand jury HOLDING the bear.
Anyway ... the stuff I witnessed personally was almost all just at the very end. But -- with one exception -- I was able to get hours and hours and hours of interviews with every single state and federal agent mentioned in the book. (`course, I had to fly to Boston, South Carolina and Oakland and LA to meet them, but hey ... it's just money, right? Gulp.)
If I had it to do over again, though, there's one major thing I would do differently: I'd leave more time for the writing. I was racing the clock so big at the end that some of the chapters in the deep middle and near the end only got rewritten once. (The prologue, on the other hand, probably got rewritten 12 times.)
But someone once told me that no book is ever done. Authors just run out of time. So true.