The Short Life of Viktor Matthey

I never met Viktor Matthey.

I heard him cry himself to sleep in a log house in Busse in eastern Siberia. I watched him climb into his bunk at the orphanage in Svobodniy. I saw him looking around nervously at the little airport in Blagoveshchensk, about to board a plane with two strangers from America on his way to a new home in a new land.

I saw him curled up on the cold concrete floor of a basement in that new home, shivering and crying. I watched him in his hospital bed, no longer able to cry or laugh or share a silly joke with his brothers or friends.

But I never met Viktor Matthey.

A year that changed my life

And though I never met him, he and I spent a remarkable year together.

It was a year that changed my life and I hope brought something of value to his; maybe a little peace, maybe something approaching dignity.

For a year Viktor floated above my bed as I tried to fall asleep at night. When I awoke each morning, he was sitting down at the foot of the bed. He would not leave me alone until his story was told.

That story - Viktor's story - which was published at the end of October, is the work for which you have graciously honored all of us at The Star-Ledger here this evening.

On behalf of everyone at The Ledger who worked so hard to bring this story to fruition, and on behalf of Viktor, please accept our thanks to everyone at the Dart Center and to the judges of the Dart Award. We are humbled and deeply honored by this recognition.

Many people contributed to this effort and I'd like to take just a moment to mention a few of them.

Mark DiIonno, who assigned me the job of writing the story, and Pim Van Hemmen, who assigned Saed Hindash to photograph it.

Editors Jim Willse and Fran Dauth, who dragged me across the finish line.

Linda Grinbergs, who designed the special section.

Seeking the answer to a tragic question

I also need to thank Nick Pokrovsky, an American businessman who helped us negotiate with Russian officials and who introduced Saed and me to Boris Ivanovich Morzhitsky, the best fixer any journalist could ask for.

Also Vera Ovchar, who helped me make contact with Elena Korotkova, the editor of the newspaper Zeya Lights, and her wonderful staff of journalists and photojournalists.

I must thank my wife, Becky, and our son, Andy, who put up with my frequent physical and mental absences while I worked on this story.

And I especially want to thank Saed for his beautiful photographs, which inspired me as I began writing Viktor's story, for his passion and professionalism, and most importantly, his friendship.

My investigation into the death of Viktor Alexander Matthey was a search for an answer to this question:

How did a boy near death from starvation and exposure in eastern Siberia wind up emaciated, battered and dead of hypothermia in the wealthiest county of the wealthiest state of the wealthiest nation in the world?

No one wanted me to find out

Viktor was like a character out of a Russian novel, but unfortunately, his brief life was real, not conjured.

His escape from neglectful, alcoholic parents and from an orphanage in Russia, whose staff was caring but overworked and underfunded, was nothing short of a miracle.

His life here in America ended in a way that is nothing less than a nightmare.

Those of you who have read the story know his adoptive parents, devout Christians who believed they were called by God to adopt Viktor and his two brothers, are charged with manslaughter in Viktor's death. They are still awaiting trial. What I had envisioned as an assignment of no more than a few months turned into the most difficult story of my career. It would take me halfway around the world and back. When I started, every door I tried to open was shut in my face.

It seemed as if no one wanted me to find out how Viktor had lived and died; not the local law enforcement officials who were alleging Viktor's adoptive parents were responsible for his death, not the Russian government officials who ran the orphanage system where he had lived for a time, not the American adoption agencies that arranged for his new life with a family in New Jersey, and certainly not the adoptive parents or the lawyers who represented them.

But I think my own outrage over this boy's death helped me tap into similar feelings among people who were connected to his case, and eventually they started talking to me.

Freedom of Information Act requests that were initially turned down were refiled, ultimately producing hundreds of pages of useful documents.

For several weeks in a row I showed up at Sunday services at the Matthey's church, finally convincing their pastor to speak with me.

If a parent can kill a child

Most stories reach a point where the reporting is essentially over and the writing begins. But that never happened with Viktor's story. Even as we went through some of the final drafts, I was still calling all my contacts, still pursuing sources for new information. Some of the most powerful material in the story didn't emerge until just weeks before publication.

Then, just as we were preparing the final version, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., occurred. Viktor's story was suddenly pushed to the back burner while the entire paper mobilized to cover the story of a lifetime.

There was a time when we wondered if we could still publish Viktor's story, given the way the world had changed following Sept. 11. Some of the same questions we wrestled with then occurred to me again when I learned The Ledger had won the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence.

How was it, in a year in which we all lived through unimaginable violence that touched so many people, that a story about the death of one little boy even mattered?

I think it might be that to come to grips with violence on the scale of Sept. 11 is just too much for most of us. It numbs us, overwhelms us.

Maybe to understand violence we have to reduce it to a level we can more easily grasp.

Maybe we need to think about how the misguided application of strongly held religious beliefs can cause one person to kill another, before we can begin to understand widespread acts of violence and terror that are rooted in differences in faith.

And if a parent can kill a child, is it really so hard to imagine someone flying a plane into a building and killing thousands of strangers?

I said earlier that Viktor¹s story began as a search for an answer to the question of how he died. A year and a half later, I can't decide whether I was unable to answer that question completely or I just find the answers unsatisfying and disheartening.

I only know that as journalists, it's our job to keep seeking answers. We do anything less at our own peril.