Return of the Messenger

How Jeremy Renner's new film will vindicate investigative journalist Gary Webb

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It was an otherwise routine Friday morning in December 2004 when Eric Webb was called out of class at Rio Americano High School. The then 16-year-old was put on the phone with his mother, who told him he needed to leave campus immediately and go straight to his grandmother's house.

"I told her, 'I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what happened,'" said Eric. So she told him about his dad.

"He killed himself," she said.

Eric had the family BMW that day, so he floored it over to his father's Carmichael home—the one his dad had been scheduled to clear out of that very day. Webb had just sold it with the alleged plan of saving money by moving into his mother's home nearby.

"I needed a visual confirmation for myself," said Eric. He pulled up to the house and saw a note in his dad's handwriting on the door. It read, "Do not enter, please call the police." Eric went inside and saw the blood, "but his body had already been taken," he said.

For his children and Stokes, nothing was ever the same. And almost 10 years later, questions still reverberate around Gary Webb's death.

It's clear from all who knew him well that he suffered from severe depression. Some—like Stokes—believe in retrospect that Webb was also likely ill with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Still, why did he do it? What makes a man feel despair enough to take his own life?

After leaving the Mercury News in '97, Webb couldn't get hired at a daily. After writing his book, he eventually found a position working for the California Legislature's task force on government oversight. When he lost that job in February 2004, a depression he'd fought off for a long while settled in, said Stokes.

Though divorced in 2000, the couple remained friendly. On the day that would have been their 25th anniversary, he turned to her, utterly distraught, after hearing he'd lost the job.

"He was crying, 'I lost my job, what am I gonna do?'" she said. He knew the development would make it tough to stay in Sacramento near his children. She urged him to regroup and apply again at daily newspapers. Surely, she thought, the controversy over his series would have waned by now.

But when Webb applied, not even interviews were offered.

"Nobody would hire him," she said. "He got more and more depressed. He was on antidepressants, but he stopped taking them in the spring," said Stokes. "They weren't making him feel any better."

It was August when Webb finally got work as a reporter at SN&R. Though he hadn't set out to work in the world of weekly journalism, with its lesser pay and more hit-and-miss prestige, he was a productive member of the staff until near the end. During his short time with SN&R, he wrote a few searing cover stories, including "The Killing Game," about the U.S. Army using first-person shooter video games as a recruitment tool.

In fact, Eric edited a book in 2011 for Seven Stories Press, "The Killing Game," that included 11 stories his father had written for various publications, including SN&R. "I was always happy to see his covers," said Eric, attending high school at the time. "We got SN&R on our campus, and I would be like, "Hey, my dad's on the front page. That's awesome.'"

It was the morning of December 10 when SN&R's editorial assistant Kel Munger entered Editor Tom Walsh's office with word that Gary's son had just called saying, "Somebody needs to tell the boss that my dad killed himself."

Within a few hours, SN&R was fielding press calls from all around the country, said Munger. A week later, it was she who had the thankless job of cleaning out Webb's work cubicle so as to pass his belongings on to his ex-wife and kids. "There was bundled-up research material, a bunch of Detroit hockey paraphernalia, photos of his kids. ... I remember he had a 2004 Investigative Reporter's Handbook with Post-it notes throughout."

"I was having a hard time keeping it together," said Munger. "Like everyone else, I'd been looking forward to getting to know him."

In the days following his death, the Sacramento County Coroner's Office came out with a preliminary finding that was meant to cease the flood of calls to his office. The report "found no sign of forced entry or struggle" and stated the cause of death as "self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head."

But it was too late to stop the conspiracy theorists. The CIA wanted Webb dead, they hypothesized, so the agency must have put a "hit" out on him. To this day, the Internet is full of claims that Webb was murdered. The fact that Webb had fired two shots into his own head didn't dampen the conjectures.

Said Eric, "The funny part is, never once has anybody from the conspiracy side ever contacted us and said, 'Do you think your dad was murdered?'"

The family knew what Webb had been through; they knew he had been fighting acute depression. They learned he'd purchased cremation services and put his bank account in his ex-wife's name. They knew that the day before his suicide he had mailed letters, sent to his brother Kurt in San Jose, that contained personal messages to each family member.

Receiving the letters "was actually a big relief for us," said Eric. "We knew it was him. They were typed by him and in his voice. It was so apparent. The things he knew, nobody else would know. ... He even recommended books for me to read."

According to Eric, the "two gunshots" issue is "very explainable," because the revolver Webb had fired into his head, a .38 Special police addition his Marine father had owned, has double action that doesn't require a shooter to re-cock to take a second shot. "I've shot that gun so I know," said Eric, who said his father taught him to shoot on a camping trip. "Once you cock the trigger, it goes 'bang' real easily. ... You could just keep on squeezing and it would keep on shooting."

In "Kill the Messenger," Webb's death goes unmentioned until after the final scene, when closing words roll onto the screen. Renner said he felt it would have been a disservice to the viewer to "weigh in too heavy" with details of the death. Including Webb's demise would have "raised a lot of questions and taken away from his legacy," he said.

It was eight days after Webb's death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel's downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was on his prized red, white and blue motorcycle. There he was camping with his children. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues and SN&R staffers packed into the room.

My own distress at Webb's passing wasn't fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I'd ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.

"He wanted to write for one of the big three," said Webb's brother Kurt. "Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him]."

Praise for the absent journalist—his smarts, guts and tenacity—flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: "Because of [Webb]'s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General's investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn't have happened if Gary Webb hadn't been willing to stand up and risk it all."

And Rep. Waters, who spent two years following up on Webb's findings, wrote a statement calling him "one of the finest investigative journalists our country has ever seen."

When Hollywood weighs in soon on the Webb saga, the storm that surrounded him in life will probably be recycled in the media and rebooted on the Internet, with old and new media journalists, scholars and conspiracy theorists weighing in from all sides.

But the film itself is an utter vindication of Webb's work.

Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch "Kill the Messenger" will leave with any particular take-home lesson. "I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all," he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, "I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers."

And what would the real live protagonist of "Kill the Messenger" have thought of it all? It's at least certain he'd have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her:

"Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote."

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