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PRETTY TOUGH STORY: In Texas, the Death of a Reporter
Mon Jun 6, 8:50 PM ET
NEW YORK When Kevin Carmody failed to show up for dinner on the night of March 8, 2005, his wife, Pat Dockery, refused to believe the worst. As a dogged investigative reporter for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, Carmody, 46, often worked odd hours. In recent years, Carmody -- winner of a George K. Polk Award -- had built a reputation as one of the country's most highly regarded environmental writers, in many cases by putting in the late nights it took to crack a tough story.
So when she had not heard from her husband as the evening turned to night along Ben Crenshaw Way, where the couple lived in one of West Austin's affluent suburban neighborhoods, Dockery pushed away thoughts of Kevin doing something drastic. Yes, she knew he had suffered from depression for the past few years and had been on and off the antidepressant Paxil for months. She also knew that his court hearing on a DUI arrest was coming up in two days and might trigger panic. Still, she went to bed that night fully expecting her husband of 14 years to make it home soon.
But when Dockery awoke at 1 a.m., she was still alone. Her first thought: another drunk driving incident with Kevin ending up in jail. But calls to police proved fruitless. In the morning she tried local hospitals, with no luck. "Then I called his cell phone and heard it ring behind me," Dockery, 45, recalls, still shaken from the experience more than a month later. "I found it on his dresser -- and that's when I got really worried."
The next day, Dockery -- herself a veteran television journalist -- tried to track down Carmody. After sending their 7-year-old daughter, Siobhan, to school, she went to the American-Statesman to look for his truck but saw it was not there. Calls to editors revealed he had not shown up for work, while another round of telephoning local police and hospitals drew blanks.
An alarmed Dockery phoned Anthony Scoma, pastor of the nearby Southwest Family Fellowship and a friend who'd been counseling the couple through Carmody's emotional troubles. He suggested visiting Carmody's favorite fishing hole, Barton Creek, about a mile from their home.
As Dockery reached the location, near sunset, she hoped to find him in good condition. But when she discovered his tan 2000 Nissan Frontier pickup with empty packs of Camels strewn across the front seat and no sign of her husband, she sensed the worst. Just a few yards farther, she discovered the truth she had feared.
Nothing to chance
Kevin Carmody, who helped found the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) in 1990, had always been a precise reporter who planned every detail and demanded accuracy, friends and colleagues say. His suicide was just as well structured and organized. When Dockery found him, his limp body was hanging by a rope from a tree just 35 yards from one of his prime fishing spots. As the cool Texas evening approached, the surrounding tree branches that hid his body formed an eerie site, with the rush of water just a stone's throw away.
His truck's interior could have resembled that of any reporter's, with a newspaper, legal pad, and tape recorder on the seats. A sticky note with names and phone numbers of friends and sources remained on the dashboard.
According to police, Carmody had tied a white nylon rope twice around the tree limb into perfect slipknots, the noose around his neck precisely formed. His metal-frame glasses sat perched on his nose. He wore a blue shirt and light brown jacket, which had been zipped up as though he were heading out to a night ballgame or, more likely, a little quiet fishing. He'd even tucked his white sweatpants neatly into his socks.
A few feet away, the family's metal yellow ladder lay on the ground, its bottom steps still covered with mud from Carmody's climb. It had obviously been kicked away, the last thing he'd touched before succumbing to years of emotional anguish and thoughts of no other way out.
"I had talked to Kevin about suicide in the past, when I read reports that Paxil caused suicidal thoughts," Dockery remembers. "He had said he never thought about it. He said if he ever thought about it, he would talk to me, but he never did."
When the American-Statesman reported on Carmody's death, the story offered few details about how he died, stating only that his death was "being investigated as a suicide," and it has written nothing more. Although his body was found in a public location, Editor Rich Oppel contends it was not "public" enough to merit more information for readers.
Out of the pool, into the black
Some who knew him say Carmody's tragic end can be traced back in part to what might have been his most ambitious investigative work in years, an in-depth report on one of Austin's prime jewels: Barton Springs, the collection of streams, waterways, and pools in which locals have been swimming and fishing for years. In a major package of stories first published in January 2003, Carmody claimed that toxins in the waterways had reached dangerous levels, blaming much of it on the area's increased development in recent decades. "Two toxicologists said the elevated levels of the neurotoxic metal arsenic and seven benzene-based compounds found in sediments at Barton Springs warrant temporarily closing Austin's environmental treasure, the spring-fed pool whose iconic value has driven more than a decade of anti-development campaigning and reshaped city politics," his lead story on Jan. 19, 2003, revealed. "They recommend closing the pool until questions about public safety are resolved. Scientists also recommend that warning signs be posted to alert swimmers and fishermen to risks and that site assessments be done at the worst areas to document the extent and source of the contamination."
The stories, some co- authored by reporter Mike Ward, drew harsh criticism. City officials and developers saw them as an unfair swipe at the balancing act of keeping the environment protected in the face of expansion. "It caused a tremendous backlash," recalls American-Statesman Managing Editor Fred Zipp, who had known Carmody for 20 years. "Barton Springs pool and Barton Creek are part of this mythology of Austin, this wonderful pure springs in downtown Austin."
One critic was the Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly, which said the coverage was "not nearly as conclusive as the daily pretends it is." Chronicle News Editor Michael King now calls it "an attempt to prop up a hysterical crisis" -- rare criticism from an alt-weekly that a local daily was being too tough-minded.
But the stories also prompted city officials to launch a lengthy review of the waterways' safety, institute further testing of the waters, and build a structure to block off one contaminated hillside.
Four months after the initial package ran and other follow-up stories had been published, Zipp wrote a lengthy editor's note that supported Carmody's work in the face of criticism but admitted three minor errors. Those included: a misleading headline on the opening story, an inconclusive theory about the source of contamination, and exaggerated soil- testing results. "We wish the work had been perfect, but the misjudgments and mistakes did not materially affect our conclusions," Zipp's note concluded. "It's important to remember, too, that a state review of the hillside contamination has led to a suggestion that the area be cleaned up to protect the creek and pool from future contamination."
Although the note was primarily positive and supportive of Carmody's reporting, close associates say that it, along with the other shots, hit him hard. "It was very tough because the package was largely first-rate, but there was tremendous turmoil in getting it in the newspaper," says Mark Lisheron, a five-year American-Statesman reporter and former roommate of Carmody. "He made it difficult for people to understand what he was trying to prove in the story."
Co-writer Mike Ward did not return calls from E&P for this story.
Dockery believes the paper didn't stand behind her husband's work. "I think some of the skepticism and questioning of his journalism skills hurt him deeply," she says, her voice choked with emotion. "He took much pride in his work. I think that that probably triggered the final depression, and it continued." When Dockery was interviewed by police after Carmody's death, she mentioned he had been getting "badgered" at work by colleagues. But she declines to elaborate to E&P: "He disagreed with some of the [newspaper's] decisions that were made. I will leave it at that."
Co-workers, however, say they know of no badgering. Some close friends suggest he might have been talking about fellow staffers' attempts to get him to deal with his depression after the drunken driving arrest in September 2004.
A legend, to some
Carmody hardly needed the reassurances of Austin readers to cement his standing as a leading environmental and investigative reporter. Before he joined the American-Statesman in 2000, he had built up an impressive resume of more than two decades of work, as well as a reputation for checking the facts and airtight sourcing for his stories. From his days as editor of the campus newspaper at Marquette University in Milwaukee, through his first full-time reporting job at The Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, to jobs in Chicago and Virginia, Carmody became something of a legend to other environmental writers.
When he passed away, more than 100 reporters, editors, and others who knew him filled an online legacy page with tributes. One referred to him as a CSI-type reporter. The SEJ announced it had named its annual award for investigative reporting after him.
"He is truly, in our world of journalists, a giant," says Jim Bruggers, environmental reporter at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and a board member of the SEJ. "He was considered one of the best. When it came to dealing with stories about chemicals, there are not many journalists at newspapers in the United States who could tackle it like he could." American-Statesman Editor Oppel agrees, saying in his paper's obituary of Carmody, "his intellect caused him to pursue the complex story, the controversial story, and the story that illuminated life for the average citizen."
When it came to making sense out of the scientific jargon and complicated chemicalese of many environmental issues, Carmody excelled, colleagues say. One of his most honored investigations occurred during his time at The Daily Southtown in Chicago in the late 1990s. His series "Deadly Silence" exposed a cover-up of employees who died from exposure to beryllium while working on the atomic bomb in the 1940s. That reporting led to Congressional legislation and compensation for victims and their families. It also earned Carmody the Polk Award and a National Headliner Award.
Another top investigative project was Carmody's 2001 "Death in the Air" series for the American-Statesman, which reported on local builders who ignored asbestos laws and put local workers at risk. That coverage was considered so significant that the Texas Department of Health offered copies of it as part of its asbestos-awareness program.
"His efforts helped boost the environment beat into the public eye and helped create a public demand for this kind of reporting," SEJ associate director Chris Rigel wrote in a tribute to Carmody, who remains the only person to hold all four of the organization's top board posts. "His warmth, personable style, and enthusiasm helped build the ranks of journalists who cover the environment." Bruggers adds that Carmody would have co-chaired SEJ's upcoming conference in Austin in September, noting, "he seemed energetic and excited about having it come to town."
Pat Dockery still remembers the first time she saw her husband -- at city hall in Beaumont, Texas, in 1987. She was a reporter for KBMT-TV, the local ABC affiliate, while he wrote for the Beaumont Enterprise. City government was her beat, but he was filling in for the regular city hall reporter. "I was attracted to him and I tried the usual methods to get him to ask me out, but they didn't work," recalls Dockery, a native of Japan who had moved to Texas at age 7. "So I just called him and said, 'When are you going to ask me out?'"
After a first date that included a visit to a rice festival in Southern Texas, the couple were inseparable. Even as their various career advancements forced them to jump around the country -- from newsrooms to newsrooms -- they remained close. When Carmody left Beaumont in 1989 for a job at The Potomac News in Woodbridge, Va., Dockery ended up working at a cable television station in Maryland, and later at WRC-TV, the Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate, as a producer. After Carmody moved up to The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., the couple saw each other only on weekends. "It was difficult," Dockery says. "He was definitely married to his work."
Rex Bowman, a reporter at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch who worked for Carmody in Charlottesville, recalls him as shy but "enthusiastic about the job, scrupulous and meticulous about getting things right."
When Dockery landed a post at WGN-TV in Chicago, it took Carmody about six months to land a nearby gig, ending up at the Daily Southtown. The couple both found work in Austin in 2000, with Carmody at the American-Statesman and Dockery producing at the Austin CBS affiliate, KEYE-TV. "He had a love of science," Dockery says. "He said that if he hadn't had such a bad chemistry teacher in high school, he would have gone down the science path."
His passions for science and news were matched only by his generosity, friends say. Dockery recalls the time in Chicago when the couple sponsored a Vietnamese family for three months, opening their home to six strangers after Carmody met the father during an assignment in Asia. "We had a little cottage and they stayed in the house on beds and couches," she remembers. "It was his way of trying to reach out to other people."
Raised Catholic, Carmody had only one sibling, a younger brother who died at age 5 from Down's syndrome. The Wisconsin native also lost both his parents years ago. But any emptiness in his family life changed in 1998, when the couple adopted Siobhan. "She just fell in love with Kevin," Dockery says of the child. "Here I had done all of the paperwork to get it done, and she just wanted daddy."
Fatherhood suited Carmody, who would take the little girl on many of his fishing adventures, as well as other regular outings. "I would have to remind him now and then that she was just a kid," Dockery says about her husband's efforts to answer the youngster's curious questions about the world. "He would give her these scientific answers to things." Pastor Scoma says Carmody made a routine of bringing both his daughter and wife to the church's events. "He was excited about the family programs," the pastor says. "He was very gregarious and warm."
Friends and colleagues also recall Carmody's ongoing willingness to help others. "He was one of the kindest, most generous friends I had," says Lisheron, who roomed with Carmody when both worked in Beaumont years ago. An Austin co-worker, reporter Mary Ann Roser, remembers the time Carmody brought in a cooler of freshly caught fish and offered them to the newsroom. Then there were his parties and barbecues, including a traditional St. Patrick's Day gathering at what became widely known as "O'Carmody's Pub."
Pistol under the pillow
But about two years ago, Carmody's behavior changed, according to those who knew him best. Most colleagues and friends point to the months after the Barton Springs controversy as the beginning of the end. Although his newspaper appeared to support most of his work, some say he took the criticism of the project hard -- a common reaction for those suffering from depression.
"Kevin was a troubled guy," says managing editor Zipp, who had known him since 1981 when the two worked in Beaumont. "Over the course of working with him, there were things about Kevin's behavior that worried me," Zipp observes, noting his weight loss and lack of focus. He adds that Carmody "struggled a lot" with different emotions, and that his stress worsened in the past few years. Zipp's initial concern arose in the mid-1980s after Carmody suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Although he told Zipp it was an accident, the incident remained a concern for the editor.
"He told me at the time he was keeping a pistol under his pillow," Zipp recalls.
Patrick Beach, a reporter and friend who had known Carmody since 2000, also noticed some strange behavior. "He kind of stopped making sense maybe two years ago," Beach recalls. "He would talk and talk and talk about things he was working on and [say] that people were deliberately misleading him." Beach says he and Lisheron would get together for drinks with Carmody once or twice a week, and noticed the conversations had gotten more tense following the Barton Springs stories. "He clearly thought everyone was lying to him and misleading him," Beach says.
Lisheron agrees, adding he had lots of mood swings while at work: "He was having trouble keeping himself together."
Then, last September, police arrested Carmody for driving drunk after pulling him over for ignoring a one-way sign. His case was due for a hearing the day after his body was found. "He had a lot of stress at work," says Dockery. "He wanted to try and not think about [the case] when he was home, so I didn't press him."
But Dockery and others say they had suspicions that he was not doing well. His wife says he claimed to be taking his Paxil for at least the past year, but she had her doubts that he was actually doing it regularly. Lisheron and Beach confronted Carmody about his drinking after the arrest, and he agreed to back off and said he had been taking medication and seeking therapy. "Our friendship with him definitely cooled after that," Beach recalls. "We didn't really hang out socially, we just chatted at work."
Others, such as Pastor Scoma, also saw Carmody's changed attitude. "I noticed toward the end of 2004 he was kind of down," Scoma says. "I asked him about it, and we wound up getting together in February to talk about depression. He had a hard time writing and hadn't been productive." As 2005 continued, Carmody seemed more in a down cycle, friends say. "During the last few months, he was very quiet, hardly said anything," Roser, whose desk was next to Carmody's, recalls. "He was very withdrawn."
A week before his death, the reporter brought a will to work and asked two co-workers to sign it as witnesses, and another colleague to notarize it. Three days before he died, Carmody attended a church event focused on children where Scoma said he "was out of it. He seemed to be down, but at peace." The pastor adds, chillingly, "He had probably made up his mind by then."
An unanswered riddle
Since Carmody's death, Dockery, Zipp, and others say they have gone over in their minds, again and again, whether they could have stopped him had they seen the signs more clearly. "I don't think most people knew how sick he was because he was so high-functioning," his friend Patrick Beach says. "He was all over the paper until the end, working on a lot of things." Adds Zipp, "I do wish I had overcome my squeamishness about intruding into his private life and communicating directly with Pat about what I was seeing. It never occurred to me that it might be effective for me to talk to her about it."
So what was the final cause of Carmody's suicide? Was it the criticism of the Barton Springs report, or his disappointment that his major project did not lead to rapid reform or major prizes? Was it his failure to keep taking his medication, or, conversely, the side effects of Paxil, which some have cited as adding to mental instability in some cases? Or was it some combination of all of these, and more?
"I don't really know," Dockery admits, still frustrated. "From what I've read about depression, it's not rational. Once the illness takes hold, the mind does not work as logically as it normally does." The uncertainty deepens further because Carmody did not leave a suicide note.
From all appearances, Carmody had much to live for, with what appeared to be a strong marriage, a child he loved, and -- despite the guaranteed knocks associated with investigative work -- a job that provided challenging work, supportive colleagues, and friends. "He had been remarking in the months before this about how his family life was good and he had this daughter he doted on," says Jim Cullen, a longtime Austin friend.
Zipp notes that Carmody had been receiving praise in recent months for a long-running investigation of a 1997 truck accident in which thousands of cathode-ray television tubes had been smashed and later sent to a landfill not approved for hazardous waste. Although the trucking company, Penske Truck Leasing, initially objected to some coverage, Zipp says company executives later visited the newspaper to apologize in person for their objections. Carmody was "still working on it" when he died, the managing editor observes.
Experts such as Dr. Robert Reiner, director of Behavioral Associates in New York and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, say a positive environment can have little effect on a patient if their depression is severe. "There are people who seem to have the world on a string, but they don't know it," he says. "Some people don't get better, they just want to shut off the suffering."
As for Paxil, Reiner disputes reports that say it can add to suicidal tendencies. But he agrees that some patients who take antidepressants may gain more energy -- which enables more self-destructive acts. When asked about reports that those who only take Paxil sporadically are more prone to suicide, he says, "there are conflicting views about that. People respond in different ways."
A larger issue at hand?
Does Carmody's suicide say something about the effect investigative reporting can have on those who may already have emotional problems? In the past year or so, several reporters have taken their lives following stressful assignments.
Just last December, former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb shot himself in the head following months of growing depression, much of it caused by his inability to return to daily newspaper reporting (he left the newspaper in the wake of criticism over a 1997 series he wrote on CIA drug connections). Others include former Iraq embed Dennis O'Brien of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, who hanged himself in February 2004, and author/journalist Iris Chang, who shot herself last fall.
"I have no idea if [investigative-type work] played a role in these unfortunate deaths," says Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. and a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. "There is no question that it can be like a high-wire act. If you screw up, you can take a very long fall. You don't want to do that, you want stories to be airtight."
Other investigative veterans, such as Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, who has been on the beat for 12 years and gained notice this past fall for breaking news in the BALCO steroid scandal, agree that the stress of investigative reporting can be difficult. "You can get the idea that you are hated," says Williams, whose revelations that baseball stars admitted in secret court testimony to using steroids drew federal inquiries. "I can see that if you are prone to depression, it can bring you down. You cannot look for the positive reaction from people you cover."
Others, like Mike McGraw -- a 30-year investigative scribe who reports for The Kansas City Star -- say the work doesn't drive anyone to dangerous behavior who isn't already troubled. He contends that there are more reporters who dig up dirt regularly and face the same stresses who do not fall into the pit of depression. Questioned about theories that the job creates emotional problems, he says, "I don't know if that is the case. Could it be that the kind of people who are drawn to investigative reporting feel so strongly about their work and the issues they deal with that they are driven to this? I don't know if we know that."
Bruce Shapiro, field director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington, says he knows of no conclusive studies done on investigative reporters and their tendencies toward depression or suicide. He says most of the work he sees deals with post-traumatic stress and the like, but acknowledges the workload of an investigative writer can be more of a burden than most reporters are able to handle. "You are often looking for weeks and months at details about the worst things human beings can do to each other," Shapiro notes. "It is really easy to fall off balance."
Writing about Carmody's death in his old paper, the Daily Southtown, columnist Phil Kadner observed: "Folks in this business don't talk about it much, but those who care often torture themselves over the smallest details of their stories."
Carmody wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995 about the hardships in writing tough environmental journalism "in an age of backlash," especially for local reporters trying "to find the truth amid the political hyperbole."
Family, friends learn to cope
The real cause may never be known. For Carmody's friends and family, as well as his co-workers from more than 20 years of reporting, more information about his depression and attempts to combat it help ease their sadness somewhat, they say.
"I don't think it is understandable," says Cullen, with whom Carmody was close. "That he would do this to his family and friends. That shows how clouded his thinking was, that he couldn't see anything else."
Is it possible that Carmody did not know how widely he was respected and loved? Writing in Carmody's legacy book, an Austin friend observed, "If only Kevin had known these wonderful words that so many have to share." Or perhaps he did know, and so felt especially sensitive about his drunken driving arrest and other difficulties.
For Dockery, understanding may be the toughest. "He was my best friend, my love, and I would think about how we would grow old together," she explains. "As much as I want him back, I think we can all agree that he lived his life more than some people do in double the time.
"I don't want my husband's legacy to be tainted in any way," she adds. "He gave up a lot for his craft. He doesn't deserve, at this point, to be slighted."
--Joe Strupp (email@example.com) is a senior editor at E&P
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