Who Killed John McCloskey?

The Roanoke Times embarked on this story with few facts and an unknown ending.

What we knew was this: that one morning in December 1994, an 18-year-old young man with manic depression named John McCloskey was arrested for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. Sheriff's deputies took him to their jail, and then a few hours later to a state mental hospital. Less than 72 hours later, he was rushed to a medical hospital suffering massive abdominal injuries. There he lingered for the next 14 months before dying in February 1996.

We learned of the story form a federal lawsuit that John McCloskey's family filed against the mental hospital, and decided to conduct our own investigation. Unfortunately, after our work, we could never answer the question our series asked: Who Killed John McCloskey?

We did learn some interesting things along the way. That his fatal injuries were caused by an intentional assault-either by someone badly beating him in the abdomen or shoving a baton up his rectum. That state officials at the mental hospital had tried to cover up the attack by shifting blame to the deputies who arrested John. That the state police investigator-either knowingly or not-toot the bait and focused his investigation solely on the deputies, interrogating them repeatedly and asking for polygraph tests, while questioning hospital officials only once and never any of John's fellow psychiatric patients, each of whom faced some sort of criminal charge. In the end, no one was arrested for this murder.

So what do we do with a story that has no ending-no closure in the story-telling sense? We decided to tell it anyway, because we still had this family, the survivors of this tragedy, and our stories may be the only justice they'd ever get.

I, like most of you, have a lot of experience dealing with victims of tragedies. We call the relatives-the mother whose son perished in the house fire, the man whose friend was gunned down in a nightclub. We itch our voices in sympathetic key, try to sound awkward to hint that we know how terrible a time it is to be calling. And despite our act, at least in my experience, the family invariably begins to tell their story.

There was a time when the awkwardness in my voice was real. The first call I had to make came two months into my first newspaper job. A local high school boy had been killed in a car wreck-big news for the small town I covered.

I had no script then, and my words stumbled upon one another like a toddler's feet. But for some reason the boy's mother, just 12 hours after hearing her heart-breaking news, talked to me. I still recall her saying how her son loved to write poetry, how he dreamed of becoming a doctor-and how the tears flowed down my cheeks when I hung up the phone.

The McCloskeys brought me back to those early days in my career. When I first interviewed them in their apartment, all I had to do was turn on my tape recorder. For the next two hours, Pete McCloskey, and ex-Marine turned truck driver, told me about his son, the second of four children. When it got too much for him and the tears came, his wife Rebecca, a homemaker born in the Philippines, would pick up the tale in her broken English. Then she'd start to cry and Pet would bounce back.

And as I sat and listened, and cried some myself, I realized, maybe for the first time, what a wonderful, sad, humbling profession I had stumbled into. Here I was, a complete stranger to this couple, yet because of my title-reporter-they were sharing with me their innermost feelings and frustrations.

In the weeks and months that followed, I got to meet their three children-Joanne, Julie and Joey-and each of them received me as trustingly as their parents. Later, they wrote letters and made phone calls for me so I could interview their lawyer and John's doctors, and look at hospital records and other documents.

And through it all, I really don't think they expected much of me. They never called me or wrote me, never asked when the story would appear. They just politely answered my countless questions, posed for the photographs, wrote the letters I asked them to write, and waited.

I wish I could have given them the answers they need. Hopefully, their lawsuit against the state mental hospital will do that, though that's far from certain. It is still pending in federal court.

This is why I'm so grateful to the Dart Foundation for this award. For it recognizes what we set out to do after we realized we couldn't report how John McCloskey died-and that was to tell how he lived, and how his family lives today.

I share with you this epilogue not to tout myself, but rather the McCloskeys.

When I heard we won the award, I resolved to give my share of the money to the McCloskeys, thinking that they really needed it and that it may be the only compensation they ever get out of their son's death. I called their attorney to see if he saw any legal problems with me doing this, and unbeknownst to me, he proceed to call the McCloskeys and tell them. Their immediate response was "No."

When the lawyer told me of this a week or so later, I decided to call up Pete McCloskey and explain to him my thinking-that this was their story, and without them, none of it would have been possible.

When I called, though, his first words to me, in the sincerest of voices, were "Congratulations on your award."

Strangely, I hadn't expected this, and didn't know what to say. Surely he realized that there would have been no award, no story for that matter, had his son not been killed.

I stammered out my thanks, then proceeded to explain that I wanted them to have the money. I suggested he could use it to take Rebecca on a trip to the Philippines, where her family still lives and where she hadn't been in over 20 years.

He waited till I was done, and then said, "We just think you deserve it after all the work you did."

"But it's your story," I urged, to which he replied, "But now it's your story, too."

When we hung up on the phone a few minutes later, I realized he was right. it is my story, too. I only hope I am worthy of it.

Thank you.