Homicide in Detroit

On July 30, 2004, Detroit Free Press photographer Eric Seals was underneath a porch with a group of men who were digging with picks and shovels. Free Press reporter Jeff Seidel stood in the yard, careful to stay near a large oak tree. The men under the porch were hoping to find the corpse of Dwan Stowers, a 24-year-old Detroit man missing since May. The group, relatives and friends of Stowers, had come to the house with Vernita Robbs, Stowers' aunt, who had received a tip that her nephew might be buried there.

The night before, Seals and Seidel had worried that the tip was a setup to get Robbs and her family out in the open so they all could be shot, Seidel said. Robbs had been conducting her own investigation of her nephew's murder because Detroit's homicide detectives were too busy to pursue the case, and she had been posting flyers with the details about her nephew's case, including names and pictures of the suspects.

They didn't find the body under the porch, so the group tried digging behind the house. Then, Seidel says, “somebody gets the idea: Let's break into this house. And so all these people we were with—we didn't even realize they had guns—they all whip out guns, including the aunt, and they break into this house.”

Seals and Seidel had followed Robbs in the search for her dead nephew for some time. The previous month, they accompanied Robbs and Ann Major—Stowers' godmother—as they searched with a shovel and a metal detector (Stowers had a metal rod in his leg from a car accident) through a wooded area near the Rouge River. All through the woods were the rotting corpses of pitbulls. “Down South they have cock fighting,” Seidel said. “Up here they have pitbull fighting and this is where they throw the dead pitbulls, out in these woods. So it smells like death and decay. There's dead dogs everywhere, there's maggots on them.”

While Stowers' armed cousins entered the abandoned house, Seals and Seidel waited outside with Vernita Robbs. “At that moment we understood what it's like inside that cycle of violence,” Seidel said. “Because there could be somebody in that house with a gun. Now they've got guns. In that split two seconds, somebody's going to die. And then, what do we do? And if they shoot and kill somebody, are they going to shoot and kill us to try to cover it up?”

Nobody was in the house, and there was no sign of Stowers. “Our bosses told us they did not want us going back out with [Robbs and her family],” Seidel said. “They thought it was starting to cross the line of being too dangerous.”

The Dart Award-winning series, "Homicide in Detroit," had its beginnings early last year, when the murder rate surged dramatically in the city of Detroit. Wondering what effect the surge was having on the city's homicide detectives, Seidel went to the head of the Homicide Department and asked if he could trail the detectives for an extended period.

Seidel, 37, joined the Free Press as a features reporter five years ago, after 10 years as a sports reporter at the Grand Rapids Press and then the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In his time at the Free Press, he has come to specialize in long, narrative features. When he approached the head of the Homicide department, Seidel was expecting to have to wait for a response. “With other series I've written, it's taken me a month or two to get permission,” he said. But this time was different. “He happened to be a Free Press reader and he happened to have read all of the other series I've done including the 'Portraits of War'”—a series Seidel wrote in 2003 while embedded with Marines in Iraq—“and in five minutes he gave me permission to have unlimited access to the police department,” Seidel said. “He makes one phone call. Boom, I'm in.”

Starting in the spring, Seidel and Seals (the pair had worked together before on other stories, including a series about a 2-year-old boy who had a heart transplant) began hanging out in the Homicide Department, keeping the same odd hours as the Homicide detectives. “Sometimes we would be at the police station for 24 straight hours when they were working on a hot case,” Seidel said. Once, they worked three shifts—36 hours—in a row.

A lot of that time was spent waiting. “In Detroit, on average, there's a murder every single day,” Seidel said. “But sitting up in this little room in Homicide, what's even more astounding are the number of shootings in Detroit. It's not unusual to have 10, 15 shootings on a single night. And the cops just literally wait to find out if it's going to be a murder or not.”

They followed detectives to crime scenes and watched them interview suspects and survivors on the streets and back at the station. “The access we got was incredible, and that's the key to any series, I think,” Seidel said. “Literally, we were able to cross the yellow tape.” Seals said, “We could walk in and out of that police department like we had badges ourselves.” That access meant that Seidel and Seals were often among the first to visit a crime scene. “We saw some horrendous things,” Seidel said. “These murders were just astounding.”

Seals, 35, joined the Free Press in 1999 after five years at the Columbia (S.C.) State. He has covered conflict during several stints in Israel, and in Iraq as a unilateral (non-embedded) photographer. He said that experience made the gruesome parts of this assignment easier to handle. “It wasn’t a shock to me when we walked up to someone who was shot in the head or someone who was burned alive,” he said, “because I had seen it before.”

During one ride-along, Seals and Seidel arrived with detectives at the scene of a shooting at a bar. While Seidel was inside watching detectives question a witness, Seals stayed outside. “I hung out there and, at some point, I realized that this guy that the detective was talking to was the shooter,” Seals said. “I just hung back and got on my knees and just started waiting for something to happen. And the next thing you know, he says 'Well, what happened?' and the guy says 'I pulled the gun out and raised it up and shot him like this.'”

Seals said he always tried to follow the advice of a photographer friend who once told him, “If you learn to shoot with your heart, you'll move people's souls.” For Seals, that meant trying to put himself in the place of the people he was shooting. “You have to be sensitive to what's going on and you have to be emotional-you can't be a robot and just photograph things for the sake of it,” he explained. “You have really put your feeling and your heart into it and think God, if this was my family . Sometimes you have to think that. I did that a lot, and I think that it helped out on some of my images."

By spending so much time with the detectives, Seidel and Seals were able to meet survivors and victims' family members, and they began to explore the victims' stories. “When we were in the squad room and we would see victims coming in to talk to the detectives, we would just sit there and listen,” Seals said. “I wouldn't sit there with my camera and start taking pictures right away. My cameras would be in view so they would see them and they would know that I'm a photographer, and I had my Detroit Free Press press badge on, so that identified me.” Seals went on, “So I would sit there and listen. And during a break, myself or Jeff would introduce ourselves and tell them what we were doing. Sometimes people said 'No, I'm not interested.' If we thought it was a real compelling story, we would press them and say, 'The reason why we're doing this project is that we want the readers of the Free Press to know that homicide affects everybody, and we would like to tell your story in words and pictures.'”

“We thought, going in, that it was going to be focusing on the detectives,” Seidel says. “But the more time we spent with the victims, those became much stronger stories. Those were the stories that told a lot more about the city of Detroit. So then the focus almost changed from the cops to the victims. And it wasn't just the victim, the dead person, but also the families, the neighbors, the innocent bystanders.”

"I think it's important to give the writers time to do the reporting before you pin them down on 'what is it?'” said Tina Croley, Seidel's editor. “With 'Homicide,' we didn't know what it was until he was done reporting ... At first we thought, well, maybe there's something in here to be done with the detectives. We changed our minds a hundred times." Croley, the paper's features editor, has been with the Free Press, her second newspaper, for 10 years. She started at the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1978.

Seidel says the success of the "Homicide" series is largely the result of the trusting reporter-editor relationship he and Croley have built together. “It's like having a huge safety net,” he said. “You take more chances if you trust the people who are behind you.” Croley agrees. "It's a pretty total trust,” she said. “It's something that editors need to do. They need to go out of their way to develop that, and the writers need to know that you're on their side. Even if you don't agree.” She laughed: “And Jeff and I fight all the time."

Croley and Seidel stayed in close contact during the six months or so that he spent reporting for the series. "He would call and leave me phone messages, because it would be midnight on a Saturday night,” Croley said. “I'd walk in on a Monday morning and go, 'Oh, my God! You were doing what?'"

Once the bulk of the reporting was done, in August, Seidel spent until November writing the stories. The decision was made to have the entire series finished before the first story was published. After Seidel was done writing, the stories passed through multiple levels and stages of editing. A series of discussions, and “all kinds of meetings” were held to decide which stories should be included. Editors were concerned that some of the stories might be too graphic and could scare away readers.

In the end, several of the stories were spiked. Croley said: “He wrote 11 stories. He could have written 20, and only six got published."

“I was frustrated that some of the stories didn't run,” Seidel said. “But the managing editor, Thom Fladung, gave us a bar that I've never faced before as a reporter. He literally said, 'These stories have to be extraordinary to be included in this series.'” However, Seidel noted that the care and scrutiny editors gave to the series, and their willingness to have him devote essentially an entire year to one project, was proof of their commitment to the stories—and to good journalism. Of the pieces that weren't published, Seidel said: “They were long, 10,000-word stories. They were months of work that got thrown away. And that in itself is a huge commitment by a paper to say 'no'-I think it's pretty extraordinary.”

One of the stories that didn't run was particularly graphic. “This guy-he was a drug dealer-was beaten over the head with some type of crowbar or something and was stripped naked, rolled up in carpet and electrical wire and set on fire,” Seals said. “We got there maybe 15, 20 minutes after it happened. And I made pictures of it, and tried to photograph it in a way so that it didn't look too gruesome, but yet show a body." Seals and Seidel both found the story compelling, but editors decided that it was too gruesome to publish.

“They just didn't want to put in the paper,” Seals said, “which was a shame, but with what we put out, I'm very happy with the six stories. I thought it was real complete, and we didn't disgust people. Because you can really turn people off to a project if they saw a certain picture. If on day three of the 'Homicide' series, they saw a disgusting picture, they wouldn't look at the paper anymore and it would ruin our whole point of letting people know about homicide in Detroit and what they can do about it.” He added, “In some ways I think it was a good call not to run some of them, but in other ways, I wish we could've gotten them in somehow. But we're both very happy how everything turned out."

The first story ran December 4, 2004, along with a sidebar Q & A titled, “Echoes Of Violence: Why this series? Why now?”

Seals and Seidel both recalled being worn out after finishing the series from the stress of the subject matter, as well as from the pressure of working on such a large project.

Both have wives and small children at home. Seals' wife was pregnant during most of the reporting for the series. "There were times when I would go into work at midnight, and I wouldn't get home until seven in the morning; or I would go in at 8 p.m. and wouldn't get home until 4 in the morning—you know, just really weird hours,” Seals said. “My wife was really understanding about my work schedule. I'd come home on Saturday at eight in the morning and my son's ready to play or watch cartoons or do something with me, and I'm just mentally and physically fried from either the things that I witnessed or just the emotional drain of this project."

This past January, Seals traveled to Portugal to shoot photos for a story about experimental spinal cord surgery. Recently, he took a family vacation.

Since the series ran, Seidel has tried to focus on smaller-scale stories. “For the last three months, I’ve done real quick-hit type things,” he said. “And I had to. Because you can’t go right back into that kind of thing ... After I came off this, one of the first stories I did was about kids sledding down a hill.”